Kids and handwriting

In my post about writing skills, someone asked me what I do for a child who has terrible handwriting and doesn’t like to write anything.  I thought I’d give my answer here in case others have the same dilemma.

I have dealt with some messy handwriting in my life, and I know it can be frustrating, especially with a very resistant child.  I’ve heard arguments from folks tired of doing battle who’ve just given up, saying kids will do all their writing later on computers anyway. But I feel like handwriting is a useful skill, both for fine motor control and for simple self-discipline.  I start teaching cursive in 3rd grade but don’t require it with all assignments until at least 4th-5th grade.  Boys especially benefit from extra time to gain fine motor control.

As a teacher I find it helpful to remember is that writing and penmanship are two different skills.  With struggling kids you usually need to separate the two tasks at first. When I assign an essay, I do ask that the final draft be written neatly.  But I don’t fuss over handwriting until kids have the actual content out there on the page and we’ve talked through any needed changes.  It is hard work coming up with words and sentences– expecting good penmanship at that point is too much for many kids.

For penmanship practice,  I have my kids do copy work for about 15 minutes a day, usually copying down verses from Proverbs.  (I figure most folks benefit from a more frequent reading of Proverbs.)  The children who most need the penmanship practice are also the ones who are least happy about doing it.  Tough– I expect them to do it anyway.

When thinking about neat penmanship, it often helps to describe to kids exactly what makes handwriting look good.  This gives kids specific things they can work on to improve, which makes it feel more doable for some kids. For example:

  • All the letters have a uniform slant, whether that be leaning slightly forward, slightly backward, or straight up and down.  You can help your child figure out his/her most frequent tendency and go with that.
  • Short letters end at the same height on the line.  That doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly halfway up the line like the penmanship guides show.  The most important thing is that the height is uniform.
  • Tall letters should be roughly double the height of short letters, for easy reading.

In many cases the only thing missing is the ‘try’. I usually  give kids incentives. For example, if a handwriting assignment comes back to me looking like it was scrawled out by a drunken lunatic, a child might get extra handwriting practice in the form of a few lines of cursive alphabet.

On a piece of notebook paper I’ll write them an example row like you see in the picture, number lines below it 1-10, and ask kids to show me their work after 5 lines. If the writing is great, they can quit right then. If the writing is messy, they can do the full 10 lines.  Usually knowing that sub-par work results in EXTRA work encourages unmotivated kids to try harder.  And believe me, with handwriting, getting them to try is much of the battle.

It is worth noting that my definition of ‘neat’ depends greatly on the kid and his or her ability and age.  I want handwriting to be legible but I don’t get crazy-picky about it. Some of my kids are naturally neat.  Some struggle  to be even moderately so.   Look at your child, and don’t go overboard with expectations.  Some kids just need an extra year or two to get decent penmanship.  Others may struggle long-term.  But I don’t think you’ll go wrong encouraging kids to always work hard and do their personal best.


  1. One more things about handwriting, Mary, as I’m preparing to start homeschooling kindergarten (and my first go around at this!) next year. Is there a handwriting program that has worked well for all your kids or one that you would recommend? The cursive style shown is quite neat and looks much better than the cursive I learned years ago. I am planning on Handwriting Without Tears for now.

    • Jenny,
      I’ve used different curriculum over the years. ‘A Reason for Writing’ is my favorite. But I’d say just pick a cursive style that looks good to you and go for it.


  2. Thank you for this answer – my son is not homeschooled, but I really struggle with how to improve his handwriting and his writing, and I really love the suggestion to separate the tasks. I am thinking I can continue to allow the use of the computer for his draft and then he can print that out and handwrite his sentences. I also like the idea of some daily practice.

    I will often erase his homework because it is so messy – this usually ends up with tears (and depending on how bad, BOTH of us in tears). The extra effort to redo his work doesn’t deter him from his first sloppy attempts, so I also like the idea of checking in with him after a few sentences verses a whole page of work to redo. Thanks so much for the input – its very much appreciated.

    I’d love more advice on dealing with children who are reluctant learners, reluctant readers.

  3. I love how you don’t place too much focus on the precise formation of the letters. I used to work with teachers who insisted on every letter being formed perfectly. I taught special education–if I could read their writing, I figured we were in good shape.

    Jenny– My favorite style to teach was D’nealian, both for printing and cursive. It was easy to teach, easier to write and easy to read.

  4. Wish I’d learned better handwriting – mine is atrocious and getting worse as I age!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing these ideas. I have a child who is quite advanced in some areas, but he still struggles with handwriting. It frustrates him because his hand can’t keep up with his brain. I have been working with him consistently even when I am tempted to skip it.

    We’ve used some of the same ideas you mentioned, but I really like the one about checking after 5 lines because I do think that would be a great source of motivation for him. Although, we have been working on cursive this year (3rd grade), and he would much rather write in cursive because it’s still new and fun for him.

    If only we can get him to the point where he can write well casually rather than just when he’s focusing on handwriting. We’ve done a lot of practicing strokes, and we’ve been doing numbers lately. I love our StartWrite software because I can make all sorts of handwriting sheets for him, and we can go back and review the strokes when necessary.

  6. Thanks for these recent posts on homeschool. This one is right on time. My son needs the practice, and the motivation – such good ideas. Also it’s good to know that I’m not the only Mom out there that is saying, “Tough – do it anyway.” As always, thanks for sharing.

  7. This was so valuable and encouraging to me. I’m not home schooling anymore, but I had a parent-teacher conference for my fifth grader today and we discussed his TERRIBLE handwriting. He has a genetic disposition for messy handwriting (um, my husband) and I’m working so hard to re-train him. I’m going to try your method as an add-on to his daily homework. And to your point, not all of my boys have such messy handwriting.

    Thank you!

  8. I started using Getty and Dubay’s italic handwriting series this year. Their teaching methods have been great and I’m seeing some improvements with it. It does include cursive, though it isn’t traditional cursive. I think I will work with my kids outside of the books because they will need more work than they provide and I will teach them some traditional cursive mostly so they can read it. I thought I would mention it here because I never would have considered this when I started but now I love it.

  9. Great tip with the incentive extra work! : )
    I have a math question for you, since this seems to be ‘pick Mary’s homeschool brain week’ : )
    We are needing some alternate memorization approaches with addition and subtraction facts. Flash cards are great, but my daughter is still struggling with some. Repetition is the best, but what else have you used? Thanks in advance!

  10. Thank you for posting this. We have been struggling with handwriting with my 2nd grade son. We started implementing this tonight – having him and my daughter write out a proverb from the bible. Like you said, I figure even if his handwriting doesn’t improve, maybe he will get something out of the scripture.

  11. My oldest son had a hard time with penmanship. Even though he had really good fine motor skills, his hand grasp of the pencil was poor. He really didn’t improve his penmanship until we had him write smaller. Much, much improved. He won’t win any penmanship awards but it’s readable. He also doesn’t care much for cursive writing even years later.

  12. If your children are having a hard time making neat circles or uniform lines, you might be able to help them develop those specific ‘shape’ skills with some art. They won’t know they’re working on handwriting skills, which could help with the “writing resistant” kiddos. 🙂 I had a really fun drawing book I got in a book order from Scholastic years ago (um, 1970s, lol). It used dots, dashes, squiggles, etc and had a picture step-by-step guide to turning those pieces into animals and things. I’m sure there are similar art guides on the market today. If you have them do the art in pencil first to get the hang of it, and then trace over their Masterpieces with markers, paints, crayons, whatever, it will help them with the necessary pencil-gripping skills too.

    We don’t homeschool, but I see a strong correlation in my own kids between their art and their handwriting. So I thought I’d toss that out there in case it helps any of you. 🙂

  13. I know that I already responded to this post, but I wanted to say thank you again. I merely told my son the three things that make hand writing more legible and suddenly he can write and I can read it. I am amazed. He is so proud to be able to produce something so well written and we are both astounded that it was that simple. Thank you, thank you, thank you.