Can't Read Your Kid's Handwriting? Here Is How to Help

4 Pitfalls That Lead To Illegible Handwriting - and How To Combat Them

Can't read your kid's handwriting? You are not the only parent who feels this way. It seems a common echo from parents, occupational therapists, and teachers that children and teens today do not have the quality of handwriting that the same age children had in the past.

With the increase in electronic media use, you might be wondering if your child's penmanship is important anyway. You might reason that your child will live in a world where their keyboarding skills are important.

While increased electronic use has changed the ratio of keyboarding time to handwriting time in the workplace, handwriting is still a necessary skill. Your child will need to sign with a signature and create handwritten lists or notes.

Learning to write legibly is one way to improve fine motor skills. Improved handwriting may help your child avoid misunderstandings—such as a teacher who can't read an assignment your child has written and turned in.

While it is true that your child does not need to win any perfect penmanship contests to be successful in life, they still need to have handwriting that is legible. If you have a chid in the third grade or beyond, you can't rely on practice at school to improve their handwriting. As your child grows older, less time is spent in school developing good handwriting. Some schools have even dropped teaching cursive beyond a signature.

In addition, many schools are spending less time on handwriting instruction in the early grades, and higher grades do not specifically cover handwriting at all. It is also common for middle schoolers to slip away from any good habits they were developing.

Fortunately, there are some suggestions and strategies you can teach your child or teen to help them improve their handwriting skills. You may even find these tips valuable for your own handwriting review.


Set The Stage to Improve With a Positive Attitude

Girl writing while dad watches.
Encourage your child to take pride in their penmanship. Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

While you might understand the importance of legible handwriting, your child may not. Your child or teen may see their adult lives as being so distant that they do not need to worry about things like handwriting - at least not for now.

Older children and teens may believe that there is nothing they can do to improve their handwriting. Some people reason that because signatures and handwriting are unique to each person, they must be a fixed trait by the time elementary school is completed.

With a little practice and observation, anyone can develop neat handwriting. Rather than nag or argue with your child about their penmanship, let them know that they can make their unique handwriting better. Remind them that it is a waste of time to write something down if no one can read it.

If you feel you could improve your own handwriting, you can also follow the tips listed below. Setting a good example will model to your child that it is possible to improve their handwriting—and how to do it.


Check Their Grip

Man picking up pencil from a bunch of pencils
Picking up a pencil between thumb and index finger begins a proper grasp. Hans Neleman via Getty Images

Look at how they hold their pen or pencil. Sometimes children slip through school without developing a good writing grip. If your child is still in the earlier grades (k-2), they may still be working on their grip.

No matter your child's age, you will want to watch for what educators call a "tripod grasp." The thumb should be bent, with the index finger pinching on the opposite part of the pen or pencil. The middle finger should be on the side of the pencil. The last two fingers will be tucked into the hand.

A quick way to teach proper grasp is to have your child pick up the pen or pencil near the writing end with a thumb and index finger pinch, then flip the pen or pencil over so it is resting on the edge of the hand (see picture.)

If your child struggles with grip, you can try different pencil or pen grips that are sold in school supply departments and in educational stores. Some are round cushions that make the pencil or pen thicker and easier to grasp. Some are triangular shaped tubes that make it easier to maintain a tripod grasp. Experiment with different pen and pencil shapes, and different grips to see if they help improve handwriting.


Check to See How Letters Line Up

An example of poor handwriting with letter height problems.
You can use a highlighter to draw attention to variation in heights of letters. Lisa Linnell-Olsen

 Take a piece of your child's handwriting, and look to see how the heights of the various letters line up, either with the lines on the paper or with other letters. Sloppy handwriting will often have letters that are inconsistent in their size. Some letters may go over the top or bottom of the lines of lined paper, while others do not reach the lines.

Point these areas out to your child so they will notice how their letters are sized. Also be sure to point out letters that are well proportioned to boost their confidence and prevent them from feeling defensive.


Make Sure All Loops Are Closed

Example of unclosed loope in handwriting
Loops may be left open on any letter with a loop, ensuring the loop is closed will tidy up handwriting. Lisa Linnell-Olsen

Another sloppy handwriting pitfall—not closing circles and loops. This leads to handwriting where the reader can't tell a c from an o. Whether cursive or manuscript, leaving circles open creates illegible writing.

Show your child the open loops in their writing. Hopefully awareness alone will encourage them to start closing these circles. Offer positive feedback when you notice closed loops.


Look at Dotted I's and Crossed T's

letters I and T need to be handled correctly.
Proper placement of dots and crosses increases legibility. Lisa Linnell-Olsen

The last feature to watch out for are how they are dotting i's and crossing t's. Despite the cliche, doing this properly won't make your child overly fussy about all details in life.

Point out to your child any i's that are dotted more than half of a nearby letters distance away. T's should be crossed across the top from the left side to the right side. Capital T's should be crossed at the very top. Lower case t's should be crossed about 1/4 of the distance from the top of the letter.


Consider At-Home Practice

Girl writes in a notebook
Extra practice at home can be completed in a journal or notebook. Baerbel Buechner via Getty Images

Some older children and teens will begin to improve their handwriting once the 4 pitfalls listed above or pointed out to them. Other children need additional practice to develop the skills and habit of paying attention while writing.

Try to find ways to make practice fun. 

  • try copying favorite quotes, jokes or sayings. 
  • use fun colored, scented or textured pens and markers
  • older kids may want to learn calligraphy
  • make pretend historical documents, look to illuminated manuscripts and older copied scrolls for insipration.

If you are concerned that your child is having an unusually difficult time with handwriting, check to see if dysgraphia may be a cause.

If your child is past the grade levels where handwriting instruction is given, you can gently point out handwriting slips when you review their homework.

Be sure that their homework corner is arranged to allow for comfortable writing. Your child should be able to sit in their chair with both feet on the floor. Their work surface area should be large enough to allow them to comfortably position their paper and move their dominant side arm while writing.

If your child is still learning handwriting in their school grade or they are working with an occupational therapist, use the above tips combines with the occupational therapist's recommendations for your child.

A Positive Attitude for a Positive Change

The tips given in this article should help you to guide your child to legible handwriting without changing your child's entire font or style. Be sure to stay focused on the positive aspects of having legible handwriting and any good efforts your child shows to improve.

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