When it comes to legible handwriting, there are a few tips that occupational therapy practitioners suggest. Handwriting is a complex task that incorporates motor skills, sensory processing, executive functioning skills as well as the creative writing aspect when it comes to thinking about what is being written.
We’ve explored handwriting analysis in the past, including specific areas too look at when observing handwriting. In this blog post, we’ll cover skills needed for legible handwriting.
What is Legible Handwriting?
Legible handwriting means written work that is overall able to be read and understood by the writer as well as others. Legible written work can be achieved in both print and cursive writing formats, as well as at each stage of writing:
- Learning letter formation of upper case letters
- Learning formation of lower case letters
- Writing on lines (primary paper)
- Writing on smaller lined paper (small ruled paper)
- Learning formation of cursive lower case letters
- Learning formation of cursive upper case letters
Bad habits can start at each one of these stages.
Legible handwriting is something most teachers hope for when it comes to a classroom of students!
Putting it all down on paper can be where you see one or more of these contributing factors fail.
Handwriting legibility occurs when one is able to read their own handwriting. Think about the student that writes down a list of homework assignments in the classroom. They may be writing quickly as the bell is about to ring. When they get home at the end of the day, are they able to read the page numbers and words describing the assignment? This is where legible writing is important.
- Things to consider in this situation may include: increased writing speed, an unknown amount of time remaining to complete the written work, and a small writing space in the homework tracker, given for the written material
Legible handwriting also refers to others being able to read the written material. Think about the student that writes letters, sentences, and paragraphs on a homework assignment. When the student offers the assignment to their teacher, they may not be able to read the written work. Then the student misses points or gets answers marked wrong because of the illegible materials. This can especially be the case on math assignments or spelling tests where letter formation and number formation is essential for legibility.
- Considerations in this situation may include: The student rushing to complete materials, Poor letter formation, words or letters written in a small given area on worksheets or homework papers.
Handwriting readability can also be related to habits. We all get into a habit when it comes to forming letters, and we all have quirks when it comes to how we hold the pencil, letter formation, and writing styles. The important thing to consider here is: is the written work functional.
As a side note, you’ve probably seen a physician referral that has very bad handwriting and even illegible handwriting. In these cases, the script is almost a scribble. Why is this a stereotype? One reason may be the continued practice of writing very quickly during medical school and residency studies. You can see how practice results in an established writing form! Similarly, the medical professionals that need to read that chicken scratch handwriting have a lot of practice in reading those sloppy scripts in order to process the medical advice!
Functional and Legible Handwriting
Functional handwriting refers to handwriting that is efficient. Can the student write in the given amount of time? And in that given amount of time, is the written material able to be read by the writer and by others?
We’ve covered a great deal on the aspect of a functional pencil grasp. A functional handwriting style is similar!
Kids often write so quickly that the handwriting impairs legibility. They may get into a bad habit of forming letters incorrectly, using poor use of the lines, letter size, or spatial awareness.
Fluency also has a huge impact on functional written work. When we say fluency, we refer to the typical speed of written work. For younger kids, fluent handwriting is longer because the child needs to think about the motor plan for each letter. They are still working on the fine motor skills needed for pencil grasp as well as other areas of development that impact written work.
In older children, handwriting fluency increases as students gain motor skills, motor planning, and letter formation becomes more natural.
Then you’ll see similar examples of handwriting fluency as the student learns cursive. At first, the child needs to think about the motor plan for a letter and letter connectors, especially after they’ve learned the printed version of the letter’s formation. Then, with practice, cursive fluency increases.
By second grade, printed formation is established in most handwriting curriculum, but there is still room for increased legibility, especially with practice and effort.
By third grade, most students are learning cursive letters and you’ll see fluency for handwriting decline if cursive is being used.
Fine Motor Skills and Legible Writing
Fine motor skills play a HUGE role in a child’s ability to participate in writing activities. From grasp patterns, to which hand they use, to endurance and in-hand manipulation skills—there’s a lot to make sure you are checking off during your observations and evaluations.
To make sure you don’t miss anything, check out the tips below! They can make a huge difference when it comes to handwriting help.
Skill #1: Hand dominance—When looking at hand dominance, you want to look and see if they are consistent with the use of one hand, or if they are trying to switch hands.
If you observe challenges with consistency, this may indicate poor muscle strength and endurance.
In a previous blog post, we discussed how switching hands impacts neatness in written work.
Skill #2: Grasp pattern—what does this look like while the child is writing? Is it a dynamic tripod? Static tripod? Or some form of primitive grasp pattern like a fingertip pattern or a gross grasp?
Take a look a the placement of the fingers on the pencil:
- Where is the middle finger on the pencil?
- Where is the index finger on the pencil?
- Where is the thumb on the pencil?
Each of these considerations can make an impact, but are not essential when it comes to a functional grasp on the pencil or neat handwriting. And, importantly, pencil grasp development plays a huge role.
Make sure that you watch throughout the evaluation to see if they have any regression to a primitive pattern or switch how they hold the writing utensil frequently.
If you notice grasp pattern regressions, fidgeting or switching of grasp positions frequently, it’s a sign of fatigue related to poor muscle endurance and strength.
It may also be an indicator that there is poor separation of the two sides of the hand, under development of the arches of the hand, and finger to thumb opposition, and even potentially poor web space development.
If pencil grasp impacts handwriting, work on pencil grasp through play.
Bonus Tip! Watch for consistency of skills. If you notice that a skill is consistent, even if it’s an immature pattern, you can determine what is due to poor muscle strength and fatigue (inconsistent patterns) versus an established pattern or compensatory pattern (consistent patterns) that’s going to be difficult to change. This is called carryover of skills in handwriting.
Consistency in motor skills can impact legible and neat written work because when the hand becomes fatigued, you may see legibility decline.
- Also take a look at how diagonal lines, vertical lines, horizontal lines, and shapes are formed
- Assess written work in a variety of environments and when required to write at different paces or speeds.
Skill #3: Joint Integrity—This is super important because a child that has a grasp pattern that is too tight or too loose can have compromised joints.
A grasp pattern that is too tight puts undue stress on the joints, ligaments and muscles which will lead to poor endurance, and hand cramps. And even potentially repetitive stress injuries.
On the opposite end, a grasp pattern that is too loose or where the child has hyper extended joints, they will experience similar pain and concerns. They are more likely to have joint pain due to the bone on bone of hyper extension patterns.
Both patterns are inefficient and will need to be addressed to help the child be successful with handwriting
Skill #4: Wrist and Hand Mobility—in this category, we want to look at how the wrist and hand move both as a unit, but also separately.
Ideally, the hand and wrist should move independently of one another when writing with the wrist being stable and the hand moving. Read here about wrist extension and stability.
If you see that the child is moving their hand and wrist as a unit with stabilization coming through the forearm, that is an inefficient movement pattern that you will want to work on addressing.
This pattern is inefficient because it requires more energy from large muscle groups instead of utilizing them for stability.
Skill #5: Finger Mobility—similar to wrist and hand mobility, you will also want to assess finger movements and joint isolation.
Mature patterns will allow for the thumb, index and ring fingers to move in synchronized flexion/extension patterns to great dynamic movements. If you don’t see this, or notice that the child uses their whole hand to form letters, this is another inefficient pattern that you’ll want to address in your treatment. One way to support this skill is through finger isolation activities.
If you’re not sure that this is an issue, have the child walk their fingers up and down a pencil to evaluate their in-hand manipulation skill focusing on shift.
Whether you are assessing an 8th grader or a preschooler these skills apply across the continuum to promoting independent and successful handwriting experiences. Working from this list of skills you can develop these skills further and take the stress out of handwriting!
Letter Size and Spacing for Legible Written Work
What Inconsistent Letter Size and Poor Spacing Means for Writing…
A key component to legible writing are three important components:
Letter formation can vary, much like the functional aspect of a pencil grasp, letter formation can take a functional form as well.
However, without proper letter size and space, valuable thoughts and ideas are lost, along with the student experiencing frustration and potential feelings of failure.
When a student demonstrates consistent challenges with scattered letter sizing, and overlapping letters or words it may cause a teacher to refer the student to OT for a writing evaluation to take a closer look at where the child is struggling.
As OTs, we are the experts in writing and decoding what these challenges mean for a child’s overall foundational writing skills.
Observing the letter size and spacing during a writing evaluation provides valuable information regarding how the child’s fine motor, visual motor and coordination are functioning.
Inconsistent Letter Size
Inconsistent letter size can come in a variety of patterns. Letters may be all over the place on the line with short letters being the same size as tall letters, letters varying in size within a given word or with collections of letters with similar strokes being the same size. An example of this would be all letters that start with a “C” are all the same size.
Taking the size awareness piece into consideration is an overall understanding of size both on paper and outside the body in the world around us. This tall and short worksheet has a fine motor and visual motor component that can be incorporated into whole-body movement activities to teach these concepts that carryover into handwriting.
You may also see letters getting progressively smaller throughout the writing sample, which is known as micrographia. Or you may see the size get larger as the sentence goes on.
Regardless of the pattern you see, inconsistent letter size is an indication of:
- Poor fine motor control
- An immature tripod grasp
- Fatigue or pain
- Limited joint movement for dynamic patterns
- Potential visual spatial deficits
- Poor fine motor coordination
Along with inconsistent letter sizing, poor spacing or overlapping letters/words is also common.
If a student is struggling with letter size, it is likely that they will have challenges with overlapping letters or words. This is because many of the same skills are needed for spacing letters and words that are used when producing consistent letter sizes.
Overlapping letters and words may also be an indication of:
- Poor fine motor control
- Poor visual motor control
- Visual spatial deficits
- Tracking deficits
If you observe consistent letter size, and only challenges with spacing, this is an indication of poor visual spatial skills being the primary deficit affecting the students writing performance. It is also likely that they have more difficulty when completing copying tasks.
Use Writing Samples to assess handwriting legibility
When collecting your writing sample, make sure that you ask the student to complete words and sentences. This will help you to further determine what skills will need to be addressed during therapy.
A writing sample can be used along with a handwriting rubric to collect the data needed to monitor progress on handwriting goals.
Make sure that you are actively watching how the child writes. This will also provide more clues to the pre-writing and foundational skill challenges that they may be experiencing.
Letter sizing and spacing is just one of the many components needed for legibility.
Development of these skills will significantly increase a child’s overall confidence and ability to participate in written activities, and you may even see development in other areas such as reading and hand eye coordination with your treatment!
Looking for more writing skill break down and a handy way to collect your observations? Check out the Handwriting Observation Kit!
Tips for legible handwriting
Working on the instruction for establishing a functional and efficient motor plan for letters, letter connections, and line use is important.
So how do we support legible writing skills?
Beyond addressing the physical motor skills as covered above, there are a few strategies that can support the development of legible handwriting. Use these resources to help.
Practice formation in sensory activities:
- Use sensory writing trays
- Practice good writing habits by forming letters in sand
- Write letters in shaving cream
- Take a look at pencil grip
- Try a slant board
- Use modified or adapted paper styles
- Focus on letter size (size awareness)
- Highlight writing lines (line awareness)
- Focus on spacing between letters and words (spatial awareness)
- Use the digital download tools in our Member’s Club to practice proper letter formation
- Look at upright posture when writing: how the hips are seated in the chair, chair height, desk height, posture, positioning of the knees, and placement of the feet and ankles
- Use play dough for fine motor skill work, to improve hand strength, and dexterity
- Practice letter groups- Group similar letters together and practice the letters that are in the same group based on the lines used to form that letter. Use cursive letter groups and printed letter groups based on writing lines.
- Teach letters in specific orders: There is a printed letter order and a cursive letter order.
- Use our Fine Motor Kits as tools to develop all of the underlying skills needed for written work; Each kit includes modified writing lines, handwriting opportunities, fine motor activities, visual motor opportunities, and fun and meaningful ways to support practice in each of these areas.
When a student’s learning and educational participation is impacted as a result of handwriting legibility issues, be sure to consult a pediatric occupational therapist to assess the potential for other underlying considerations. These may include:
- Visual motor issues
- Visual perception considerations
- Sensory processing considerations
- Fine motor delay
- Developmental delay
- Other considerations
Legible handwriting can impact learning, lead to better grades, and result in overall improved confidence at school. Use the suggestions to establish good habits that carryover. Hopefully this resource had a few suggestions that impact your writer’s legibility!
Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to email@example.com.
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