Therapist Thursday: Handwriting Struggles In Older Children

As part of our Therapist Thursday we will feature posts from a selected group of therapists which we either work with or admire. Today’s post is the first of a series on handwriting struggles in older children by Katherine Collmer from Handwriting With Katherine. While Fundanoodle products are designed for preschool and early elementary students we are passionate about playing the “write” way at all ages.

Handwriting Helpers: But what about older students? (Part 1)

tugofwarTo describe the challenge of teaching (or re-teaching) handwriting to older children as a tug-of-war is an understatement!  Unfortunately, they have learned so many ineffective habits that their motor memory for handwriting resists any changes.  When a young guy or gal resists a try at slanting the paper and says, “But, I write better with my paper straight up and down” when, in fact, his or her handwriting is illegible…well, that’s just a natural response to the pull on an ingrained motor memory.  And messy, unreadable handwriting may appear to be simply the result of a student’s rushing through his work; but, in fact, it can be due to handwriting skills that have not been fully developed and the inability of the writer to produce fluent and automatic letter formations.

Steve Graham, during his tenure as a Curry Ingram Professor of Special Education and Literacy at Vanderbuilt University, authored an enlightening article,  “Want to Improve Children’s Writing?  Don’t Neglect Their Handwriting.”  In this report, he shares research that indicates that while most people’s handwriting becomes fluid and automatic, “researchers do not yet know when most youngsters reach this point, but it does not appear to be during the early elementary years.  In grades 4 to 6, handwriting fluency still accounts for 42 percent of the variability in the quality of children’s writing and students’ handwriting speed continues to increase at least until grade 9.”  With that said, it is definitely not too late to tug on the motor memories of older students!

So, how do we do that, you say?  I’ve put together some starting points to help to lay the groundwork for improving handwriting skills of older children.  It’s important to remember one very significant point here:  If a child is struggling with handwriting in 2nd, 3rd, or 4th grade, then chances are that there is an underlying cause that has more to do with vision or cognitive skills than with sitting down at a desk and reproducing the letter “c” 4-5 times per line!  Hence, it is important to seek some advice from your child’s doctor, as well as an occupational therapist who is trained in handwriting skill assessment and remediation.  OK, now that we have that out of the way…

First and foremost, I cannot stress enough the importance of appropriate body and paper positioning!  I found a wonderful resource that provides information on “Coaching Ergonomics – The Position Skills.”


Remember the 90-degree angle rule: Elbows, hips, knees, and ankles!

Although the information is targeted toward left-handed writers, it can certainly be related to right-handed skills as well.  In conjunction with that information, I just recently read a blog that goes “hand-in-hand” with it.   “Hands On Pencils,” written by Nan jay Barchowsky, compares the importance of posture for efficient handwriting skills to the mastery of skills such as playing the violin, using carving knives, and playing golf.  I have found that such comparisons encourage an older student to recognize that body positioning will be important in many future aspects of his life.  And please remember that appropriate chair and desk heights are essentials for mastering handwriting skills!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this beginning segment in our discussion of handwriting struggles for older students. Please stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3, as we take a look at Pencil Grasp and Some Solutions!

Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in children’s handwriting and offers profession development training in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills.  She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.


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