What Happened to Handwriting?

The importance of handwriting and building skills early

By Kelly Besecker

Does good handwriting lead to success in life? Maybe. Studies have shown a relationship between the physical act of writing and the mental act of composition. Despite today’s technology, good handwriting is still an important and necessary skill in the classroom and adult life after graduation. Yet educators today are seeing a growing handwriting problem in classrooms across the country.

Why has handwriting become such a problem for students today? It can be traced back to kindergarten and pre-school, the typical time when students develop foundational skills for learning. In the past, kindergarten was a time for children to develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, visual concentration and other key abilities. Common kindergarten activities included coloring, tracing, cutting, using zippers and drawing with connect-the-dots pictures. These activities built fine motor skills and other foundational abilities necessary for a child to learn to write.

However, in today’s kindergarten classroom, there is a greater focus on getting students to read earlier and moving on to other academic content. Kindergarten has become the new first grade in many ways, with lessons in phonics, punctuation and arithmetic replacing show-and-tell and naptime.

When a child fails to develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, visual concentration and proper handwriting grip, handwriting problems can compound with time. Problems may not immediately arise in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, but they can surface in first and second grades once children begin to write in complete sentences.

As a student gets older, more is demanded of them in terms of composition. If handwriting is difficult and demanding for a student, parts of the writing process, such as planning and revision, may be sacrificed to keep up with classroom demands. Students who start out with poor handwriting skills may decide that they do not like writing and fail to flourish in that area.

There are ways for parents to ensure that handwriting skills do not negatively impact a child’s development of writing skills. The best defense is a good offense, as they say, so starting early to develop pre-writing skills can head off future problems. Following are several tips for building handwriting skills in preschool-aged children. These activities may be done at home or with a trained educator in an early learning program designed to build foundational skills for this age group:

Use play to develop fine motor skills. String beads on a thread. Draw letters in sand, salt or shaving cream. Play with clay. Use tongs or pinchers to pick up small items. There are many fun activities that will build a child’s skills without feeling like “work.”

Use small broken crayons to teach children proper handwriting grip. Large crayons, markers or pencils are too large for the size of a child’s hand and can encourage the development of an incorrect grip. If necessary, handwriting grips can be purchased to help correct an incorrect grip.

Teach writing of capital letters first, instead of teaching capital and lower case letters at the same time. Capital letters are easier to learn because they all take up the same vertical space and are put on the line in the same position. Lower case letters are more complicated because they are two different sizes (think of a, k and p for example); they are positioned in three different places on the line; and they start in four to five different spots.

Good handwriting is necessary for older students as well, despite the increased use of computers for writing and assignments. Students in upper grade levels still must write notes in class by hand and copy from the board. The most recent example of the need for handwriting skills among older students is the new essay portion of the SAT®, whose directions are excerpted below:

“Your essay must be written on the lines provided on your answer sheet – you will receive no other paper on which to write. … Remember that people who are not familiar with your handwriting will read what you write. Try to write or print so that what you are writing is legible to those readers.”

Even beyond the school years, there is a need for good handwriting, as demonstrated by the frequency of hard-copy job applications and forms that must be filled out.

Bad habits can be hard to break, but despite the challenge of improving handwriting skills among students of any age, it can be done. Many times these skills can be developed simultaneously with other abilities required for accomplished writing, including grammar, spelling, punctuation and organization.

Handwriting problems that persist despite the development of motor skills and correct grip could be an indicator of other learning barriers. Students who continue to write poorly might have perceptual problems or visual processing difficulties. In these cases, parents might need to consider consulting a specialist to evaluate cognitive, sensory and perceptual skills to determine any underlying barriers to good handwriting – and perhaps more importantly – learning as a whole.

Handwriting is an important skill. Take the time to make sure your child develops good handwriting early on; it will pay off in the long run.


To ensure your child is using the proper pencil grip, refer to the Handwriting Without Tears website (http://www.hwtears.com/parents/pointers.html  ) for more information. Here they show the optimal pencil grasp, known as the “tripod grasp”. This is when the pencil is supported by the thumb, index and middle finger. The ring and little finger are bent and rest comfortably on the table. Some children develop poor habits and you may need to try adaptive grip to help position their fingers. This site suggests The Pencil Grip or Stetro Grip. These can be ordered from Therapy Shoppe at 1-800-261-5590 orwww.therapyshoppe.com . When modifying the pencil grasp, have the child only use the adaptive grip for a short time each day.

About the Author

Kelly Besecker is vice president of SuccessLab Learning Centers, the only retail tutoring chain in the Washington metropolitan area that identifies, evaluates and remediates 43 separate cognitive, sensory and perceptual skills to eliminate learning barriers for students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. For more information please visit www.successlab.com.


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