Common handwriting problems and solutions

Common handwriting problems
Illegible handwriting? Huge letters? Strange pencil grip? Struggles with left-handed writing? If your child is finding handwriting hard, perhaps it’s one of these four issues. Find out more about how to tackle these common problems with advice from the National Handwriting Association's Angela Webb.

Learning to write, and then how to write fluently, is a key skill that your child needs to master at primary school. But writing is a complex process that’s not always straightforward. Learn about four of the most common handwriting problems, and what you can do to help if your child is showing signs of it.

Handwriting problem: ‘My child is left-handed’

By the time they’re about four-and-a-half, most children will have settled on writing with their right or left hand. ‘Being left-handed in itself isn’t a disability, and most left-handers learn to write perfectly well’, says Dr Angela Webb, an independent psychologist and chair of the National Handwriting Association. ‘But research tells us they tend to achieve writing fluency slightly later than right-handers.’
One possible theory for this? Instead of having to drag their hand across the page with English script (from left to right) as right-handers do, left-handers have to push it. ‘There are also minor issues with finding the correct position’, continues Angela. ‘It’s easy to for a left-handed child to either conceal their work with their hand when they’re writing or to smudge the ink if their hand obscures the writing.’

Angela’s expert handwriting tip:

‘If your child is left-handed, encourage them to tilt the paper slightly clockwise and bring their elbow in towards the waist so their hand moves below the line of writing and they can better monitor what they’re doing.’

Handwriting problem: ‘My child’s writing is illegible’

Poor handwriting can sometimes be associated with developmental disorders like dyslexia, dyspraxia, Autistic Spectrum Disorders or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Reasons your child’s handwriting is hard to read could include:

  • Poor motor ability – they can’t control the pencil and may form letters inaccurately.
  • Visual-perceptual problems – they may not yet understand the concept of letter forms; for example they may form an ‘a’ as a ‘u’ and a ‘g’ as a ‘y’ or reverse letters.
  • Attention deficit disorder – they write too fast, losing accuracy.

‘But writing illegibly doesn’t necessarily point to a disorder,’ cautions Angela. ‘If your child hasn’t any other disability then it could be an isolated writing problem. This is sometimes known as dysgraphia.’

Angela’s expert handwriting tip:

Speak to your child’s teacher and ask to have someone with handwriting expertise to assess them so you can find out the underlying reasons for illegibility. The National Handwriting Association can often refer schools to specialists.’

Handwriting problem: ‘How can I get my child to hold a pencil correctly?’

The way most of us hold a pen or pencil is known as the ‘dynamic tripod grip’. ‘We pinch it between the ball of the thumb and index finger, with the middle finger underneath to support it, and the ring and the little finger closed,’ explains Angela. This is the best way to get maximum stability and writing speed, and most children will learn to do it by the age of six.

Being able to grip a pencil correctly is important at school. ‘There’s no link between intelligence and writing well, but there’s a high correlation between academic achievement and writing well’, says Angela. ‘Basically, if your child can’t write fast by the end of primary school they won’t be able to produce the content needed in lessons and tests.’ Another reason it’s worth encouraging the right way to hold a pencil is that certain grips can cause wrist strain. ‘Any grip which means the hand is closed, for example, can cause problems later on’, says Angela.

Angela’s expert handwriting tip:

‘Pinching clothes pegs and picking up small beads are both things to do to encourage good grip. You can also enjoy non-writing tasks with a pen or pencil with your child, like colouring or dot-to-dot puzzles.’

Handwriting problem: ‘My child’s writing is huge!’

Children’s early writing tends to be large as they learn to control a pencil. But most will naturally learn to write smaller once they’ve mastered what they’re writing with. Another motivation is wanting to copy adults. When they see that adult writing is smaller they tend to want to do the same. ‘If your child’s writing continues to be large by the end of KS1 it needs to be checked out,’ says Angela. ‘It may be that they don’t have enough motor control to reduce the size.’

Angela’s expert handwriting tip:

‘Talking to their teacher would be the first step. Ask them to get a handwriting specialist to check the issue out. If there’s not already one in the school, they can contact the National Handwriting Association. Our experts can go into schools, plus we have an in-school training programme. We also run a tutor register for parents to access.’

Find more handwriting information and handwriting worksheets on the site, as well as a practical, step-by-step handwriting improvement programme, the Handwriting Learning Journey.