Handwriting is an important part of literacy and an essential skill for life. You can help your child develop handwriting skills from early childhood, so that he’s ready to learn formal handwriting at school.
Why handwriting is important
Even though many children and adults use computers and tablets at home, school and work, handwriting is still an essential life skill.
For example, children who can write smoothly and clearly are better able to use writing to record their thoughts and ideas. When handwriting is automatic, their ideas can flow. Children also need to write to do homework, tests and assignments.
We also need handwriting skills to do many tasks later in life like writing birthday cards, filling in forms and signing important documents.
How children learn handwriting
Handwriting is a complex skill that develops over time. To learn handwriting children need to combine fine motor skills, language, memory and concentration. They need to practise and follow instructions.
Handwriting starts with scribbling and drawing then moves on to forming letters and words.
You can encourage your child to develop an interest in handwriting by giving her opportunities to draw, scribble and write. This prepares young children for the formal handwriting they’ll learn at school.
Left-handed writing in children
Most children choose to write and draw with their right hands. But some children choose their left hands. This is OK. If your child chooses his left hand to write with, there’s no need to make him swap hands.
Children who write with their left hands might find it hard to see their writing because their left hands cover their writing as it moves across the page. By tilting your child’s page so that the left-hand corner is highest, you can help her more easily see what she’s writing or drawing.
Toddlers: drawing and early handwriting skills
Drawing is the start of handwriting for toddlers. Toddlers generally begin to show an interest in drawing with a crayon or chalk from about two years.
Here are a few ideas to get your toddler drawing, scribbling and ‘writing’:
- Have crayons and paper, or chalk and blackboard, handy. Small chunks of chalk or crayons encourage your child to use a fingertip grip. This helps him learn to hold a pencil.
- Encourage your child to draw things that interest her. For example, if your child likes insects, you could draw a centipede and your child could add lots of legs. Or on a rainy day you could draw a big cloud and she could draw rain falling down.
- Give your child lots of activities that involve squeezing and pinching things. This could be threading big beads, squeezing and pinching playdough into shapes, and building with blocks and LEGO®. This helps your child develop the hand muscles he needs for using pencils.
- Prop up your child’s drawing surface so that it’s on an angle, like an easel or blackboard. This helps your child make a downward stroke, which she needs to be able to do for writing later on.
- Avoid felt-tip markers and pencils. It can be hard for your toddler to hold these until he has developed the small hand muscles he needs for a better grip.
Preschoolers: getting started with handwriting
Children usually start to draw straight and circular lines in the preschool years. Your preschooler might even be putting these lines and shapes together to draw people and objects. She might also be starting to form letters.
Lots of opportunities to draw will help your child keep developing the skills he needs for handwriting. Here’s how to help:
- Keep giving your child chunky crayons and chalk until she has developed the finger and thumb grip she needs to hold a pencil.
- Encourage your child to trace simple top-to-bottom and left-to-right lines on a page, trying to stay on the lines all the way to the end. Make up a story to add interest to the activity – for example, ‘Help this puppy find the way home’.
- Practise drawing anticlockwise circles that start at the top of the page. This is the pattern we use to form letters.
- As your child gets more control over the crayon or pencil, encourage him to draw simple stick figure people. If you put your child’s pictures on the fridge or wall, he’ll feel proud of his work.
- Help your child to recognise and write her name by starting with the first upper-case letter. Encourage her to trace over the letters of her name and eventually to write them. At first you might need to put your hand over your child’s hand to help her.
- Help your child learn the alphabet sequence. A fun way to learn is by clapping your hands in a steady rhythm while you say the letters together.
- Give your child opportunities to write and draw with other materials – for example, drawing lines in sand or mud, tracing over letters on signs with his finger, forming 3D letters from playdough, and so on. Take photos of these drawings if you want to print them out and display them.
Creative and pretend play can improve your child’s literacy. It also puts some of your child’s drawing skills into practice.
Handwriting education at school
During the first two years of school, your child will learn to:
- form letters
- recognise and spell frequently used words
- put spaces between words
- write letters and words of a similar size and in a line
- write about familiar events
Children develop their handwriting ability at different rates, but most children have mastered these basic skills within the first two years of school. From Primary 2 onwards, children start to write more complex sentences and write about their experiences.
Handwriting: encouraging your school-age child
Here are a few tips to encourage your school-age child’s handwriting:
- Make a place for writing at home. Have a stable chair and a surface at the level of your child’s belly button. If your kitchen table is too high, you could use a cushion or tall chair to raise your child higher, with a footstool to support her feet.
- Ask your child’s teacher for a sample sheet with the starting points for each letter clearly marked. This can help your child practise at home what he’s learning at school.
- To help your child learn to form a letter, write it lightly and correctly yourself and get her to trace over your letter. Show your child where to start drawing the letter by putting a green dot at the starting point and a red one at the finishing point.
- Say the letter’s name and practise saying the letter sound with your child as he’s drawing or tracing the letter.
- Use everyday opportunities to practise writing – for example, get your child to add items to the family shopping list, write notes to grandparents, help with birthday and other cards, or make labels with post-it notes.
- Make it fun. Use a stick to draw large letters in the ground or at the beach and fill the letters with pebbles or shells. You could also use non-permanent markers on a window to trace a letter over many times. Bath crayons are also good for this activity.
- Learning to write is hard work! Praise your child’s efforts. Help her spot her best letters and encourage her to write more like them. Focus on the letters she writes well rather than the mistakes.
Signs of handwriting problems in early school-age children
Learning to write involves a combination of skills and abilities and an understanding of language. If your child is having difficulty with one or more of these skills, he might have some trouble with learning handwriting.
Here are some early signs that your child is having difficulty developing the skills she needs for handwriting at school. Your child:
- still swaps hands while drawing or handwriting during the first year of school. Most children prefer using one hand for drawing before they reach school, but some children have started school when this happens.
- writes slowly or has difficulty drawing letters correctly. Your child might need some help developing motor skills so that she can make smooth, careful movements.
- grips a pencil differently from the way she was taught or doesn’t have a strong pencil grip. Poor pencil grip can slow down your child’s handwriting progress and make it hard for her to complete work in a reasonable time frame.
- lacks interest in or avoids drawing and handwriting. Your child might lose interest in writing if she isn’t confident about drawing or her writing isn’t as advanced as her classmates’ writing.
- has untidy handwriting. This might look like reversed letters, letters not correctly closed, inconsistent letter size, letters that don’t sit on the line and inconsistent spacing between letters and words.
- doesn’t seem to follow the teacher’s instructions while learning to write. Your child might have trouble concentrating, paying attention or understanding the teacher’s instructions.
If you notice these signs, it’s possible that your child can’t clearly see the board, his own writing or print in books. Or he might have additional learning needs that affect his handwriting development.
Getting help with handwriting
Talk with your child’s teacher or your General Practitioner (GP) if you’ve noticed your child having difficulty with handwriting skills. Your GP might recommend you make an appointment with an occupational therapist, audiologist or an optometrist.
Children with handwriting difficulties might need extra help and aids. These might include:
- angled writing boards
- chunky pencils
- pencil grips
- paper with coloured dotted lines, bold lines or raised tactile lines
An occupational therapist can let you know what aids will help your child.
You can get handwriting apps for tablets and smartphones. Handwriting apps can be useful, so long as your child uses them only as an extra option for handwriting practice, rather than as a replacement.
It’s also important to make sure that any apps you’re interested in use the handwriting script that’s taught in your child’s school. It might be a good idea to talk with your child’s teacher before you decide on a handwriting app for your child.