Does your kiddo struggle with having neat handwriting? Use this easy 8 step guide to start improving their writing today!
As a school-based Occupational Therapist for 15+ years, I sometimes get called the “handwriting teacher”. Although I work on so many more skills than handwriting, a lot of kiddos need help with their handwriting, so I get it!
Handwriting is one of those skills that can really impact a kiddo’s self-esteem.
There is nothing more frustrating for a kiddo to work really hard on an assignment and then have their teacher not be able to read it. Or worse, they are not able to read what they wrote. These kids feel defeated and will often say they hate to write.
And yet there are other kids who write and are used as the class example for excellence. These kids feel pride in their work.
Although handwriting is a complex skill, there are some steps you can take to help promote your kiddo to have neat handwriting.
How to Have Neat Handwriting
Each step builds on the previous one.
The key is to move through the steps AS YOUR KIDDO IS READY.
A step does not have to be completely mastered, but your kiddo needs to start showing that they understand the skill in that step before moving on.
# 1. Sit at a Table and In a Chair that are the Correct Height – A Must for Neat Handwriting!
This step is so easy to skip over yet it is one of the most important ones!
Sitting on a chair and at a table that is the correct height will give your kiddo the right stability in order to begin writing neatly!
When sitting, their feet should be flat on the floor, knees bent at a 90 degree angle and hips at a 90 degree angle. This position is also called the 90-90-90 seating position.
The table should also hit just below the crease of their elbow. If the table is too high or too low, kids will lean or slump on the table while moving their elbows away from their body. Fine motor control is easier to maintain when your arms are closer to your body.
But let’s be real here! My kids need to be able to do their schoolwork at the kitchen table. If I had a table and chair that was the perfect size for each of my kids, I would have 3 different tables and chairs. And we don’t have that kind of space!
My advice to you is to work off the table height to start. If the table is too high, raise the height of the seat. Folded blankets work great for this! Once you figure out the height of the seat, then place a step stool or a box under their feet so that their feet are flat.
You could also consider using an adjustable height table to lower the height of the table.
If you want to skip all the finagling of this, I highly recommend the Tripp Trapp Chair. It is costly, but I have used this chair with several students and love the ability to adjust it as well as its longevity!
# 2. Use a “functional” Pencil Grasp
Although using a tripod grasp is what young kids should be working on, I know that kids use a lot of different pencil grasps.
A functional pencil grasp is when a kiddo uses a different grasp and:
- can keep up with writing demands
- does not experience pain when writing
- has legible writing.
If your kiddo is younger than 1st grade remember that their writing demands WILL increase! This is typically when you begin hearing kids complain about their hands or how hard it is to write.
The BEST time to work on good pencil grasp habits, strengthening, and mobility is with Preschoolers and Kindergartners!
# 3. Letter Placement on the line
There are 3 different types of letters: tall, short, and sinking. Each type of letter is placed differently on the line. Placing them where they belong helps make writing visually neater because there is an order to it.
Tall letters are b, d, f, h, k, l, and t. These letters start at the top line and “sit” on the bottom line.
Short letters are a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, and z. These letters start at the middle line and “sit” on the bottom line. If your kiddo has a hard time knowing where these letters should start, make sure to use paper with a middle line or draw it in!
Sinking letters are g, j, p, q, and y. These letters start at the middle line but then sink below the bottom line.
# 4. Spacing
There are two types of spacing that you need to consider: spacing between a word and spacing between a letter within a word! Both make a huge difference in readability and neatness!
- Spacing between a word – The most common way to help your kiddo put spacing between their words is using a finger space.
There are actually finger spacers that you can buy, but I honestly just teach the kiddo how to use their own finger. This way it’s ALWAYS there and they have one less thing to manage!
Kid’s will usually use too much space between a word to start. And this is ok! Once they get the concept, then start showing them what a “just right” space between words looks like.
- Spacing between letters within a word – This type of spacing gets overlooked so many times yet is really important for writing legibility! If your kiddo is writing and puts varying space sizes between letters, a word can easily be misread into 2 words and change the meaning of the sentence.
I like to prompt kiddos to write their letters “almost” touching each other.
# 5. Capitalization –
This may seem obvious, but can become confusing when your kiddo is only writing in capital letters!
When a kiddo is just learning that capital letters start every sentence, have them underline the first letter of the word. This will show that they understand it’s the beginning of the sentence.
# 6. Punctuation –
When teaching punctuation, begin with teaching a period. Kiddo’s like to make “snowballs” for periods, but encourage them to just make a dot!
After your kiddo starts understanding that a period is a statement, then begin adding exclamation and question marks.
Punctuation marks should be almost touching the last letter in a word! Then add a finger space after it before the beginning of the next sentence.
# 7. Use the Margins on the Paper
A lot of papers have a red faint line on the left side of the paper for the margin. But then there are lots of paper types that don’t have a margin. Does it really matter?
Margins give kids a visual cue to where on the paper each line should start and stop. Does your kiddo write like this?
If your kiddo is using paper that doesn’t have margin lines, draw them in! Also, if your kiddo does not pay attention to the margin line try one of these Occupational Therapy tricks:
- Place a green dot on the left margin and a red dot on the right margin to show kids where to start and stop on each line.
- Color in margin space with a highlighter to emphasis the space and teach that writing letters start right next to it
- Draw a square or underline the space that will hold the first letter of a word. This is especially helpful when writing lists.
# 8. Proofread by using “Reading Writing Method”
This is a great proofreading method that I have used over and over again for kids who are writing 1-2 sentences, typically the end of Kindergarten and beginning of 1st grade.
Have them read a sentence and include the capital letter, spacing, and punctuation.
For example, let’s say the sentence is, “The cat chased the mouse out of the barn.”
Teach your kiddo to read it as, “Capital T, The, space, cat, space, chased, space, the, space, mouse, space, out, space, of, space, the, space, barn, period.” Have your kiddo use their finger to keep track of where they are or you can point.
Teaching your kiddo to read a sentence this way increases their awareness to writing rules. It also gives them the opportunity to self-correct. This way of reading takes time to learn. BUT once it’s learned I have seen fewer writing mistakes.
My kiddo’s handwriting is still not neat, what do I do?
After working on these 8 steps over a stretch of time, you may find that your kiddo’s handwriting is still not neat.
If your kiddo is still struggling with neat handwriting, I recommend having their vision checked. You can also speak to their teacher and/or doctor expressing your concerns. An Occupational Therapy evaluation may be warranted.
Things to Remember:
- Handwriting neatness is not inherited! If you have neat handwriting, it does not mean your kiddo will have neat handwriting! This is also true for messy handwriting.
- Neat handwriting does not happen overnight. It takes time to build this skill.
- Kids know when they have bad writing. Celebrate any and all improvements that they make
- Don’t over criticize their handwriting and try to make it perfect. This can lead to other, bigger and harder, challenges! No one writes perfectly, and they should not be expected to either.
Now that you have the 8 step guide to Neat Handwriting, share it with a friend who could also use this help for your kiddo!
If you have any questions, please leave a comment below. I am sure that you are not the only one with the same question! I read all comments and would love to hear from you!
Kelly is a licensed Occupational Therapist with 15 years of experience servicing school-aged children and Early Intervention. She is the founder of OT Perspective and a mom to 4 children. To learn more about her, check out her About Me page, here.