School-based occupational therapy practitioners often hear about students with bad handwriting. Similarly, pediatric OTs and OTAs in outpatient may hear that a new client has terrible handwriting as well as other functional tasks that impact their daily life. Fixing handwriting is more than just writing drills, however. Through occupational therapy interventions, these professionals uncover what’s really happening behind the sloppy, bad handwriting that we see from the surface. So what’s really going on behind handwriting challenges? Let’s take a deeper look…
Why do some kids have Bad Handwriting?
“OT’s are just handwriting teachers!” As an OT, this sentence totally irks me. Handwriting is an important occupation in childhood, so it is definitely something we focus on in OT. But as therapists, we know there is so much more to it than just “teaching handwriting!” Uncovering the culprits behind poor handwriting is part of the job of an OT practitioner. We start by targeting a diagnosis (or lack of diagnoses) and address the underlying considerations that lead to what we see: messy handwriting.
Some diagnoses that go hand-in-hand with sloppy penmanship may include:
- Learning Disability
- Developmental Coordination Disorder
- Sensory Processing Disorder or sensory challenges
- Other physical disabilities or motor challenges
- Other diagnoses
- Non-diagnosis (meaning there does not need to be a diagnosis in place for handwriting challenges to exist!)
There is more to it than just a diagnosis, however. There are many children (and adults…) that struggle with the fine motor movements required for dexterity in written work.
And the poor motor skills required for a functional grip is a whole other story!
There are many others that are limited in the visual motor skills required to form letters or place letters on the lines when writing. Any number of considerations can lead to what we see on the surface: bad handwriting.
That’s not to say that sloppy handwriting is the end of the world! Those in the medical field are used to deciphering illegible scripts written by the hurried physician. Somehow nurses, therapists, pharmacists, and other health care providers are able to decipher the chicken scratch the must teach in medical school!
However, when bad habits with written work leads to bad handwriting it can impact learning, educational performance in the classroom, and non-functional levels of written work (or bad grades as a result of illegible handwriting).
This is when we see a need to hone in on what’s really happening under the surface of written work.
Bad Handwriting Habits
Another part of the big picture of moving from illegible writing to good handwriting skills, is considering the age and grade expectations. Bad handwriting habits can begin even in good intentions. (Writing curriculum and grade level expectations in schools, I’m looking at you!)
Here are some things to consider about how bad handwriting might be established. This is all part of the bigger picture, so it’s important to cover these considerations:
- Therapy providers take into consideration the development of the student based on age and other considerations. For example, in third grade, a student is expected to write on single rule lined paper, but they may not have the skills under their belt to form lowercase letters accurately in the given space with line awareness, spatial awareness, and letter size. This can mean a whole journal page is illegible because there are missing pieces in their writing experience.
- Similarly, a kindergarten student may be expected to write sentences when developmentally, they are not ready for that. However, school and grade expectations don’t take this into consideration and you have a situation where the school curriculum zooms through handwriting instruction. The child forms bad habits and the muscle memory from practicing skills before they are developmentally ready.
Other things to consider in this realm of thinking:
- Cursive handwriting is another monster- In schools, cursive letter formation is covered over the course of a few months. Depending on the curriculum, a teacher might spend one day teaching a letter. Then the student has practice pages to complete cursive practice in repetition. This is a huge area of forming a muscle memory for poor formations. They practice the letter in the classroom while copying from the board. Then one mistake on a writing worksheet leads to rows of improperly formed letters. Then, that letter is expected to be “learned” even when there is a lack of form in the practice!
- Similarly, in most situations, cursive writing isn’t required so it’s not likely that the student loses the ability to form that letter. Cursive is essentially lost after that semester of practice one time in the second grade! This is especially true for uppercase cursive letters of the alphabet.
- Preschool…Oh we can talk a lot about preschool and pre-writing that is used by preschool educators. In a word, prewriting should not be done in the preschool setting. That includes tracing, name writing, and pencil tasks of any kind. Preschool educators that are touting a writing or even a pre-writing curriculum are leading whole classrooms to a future of bad writing by establishing bad habits before the child is developmentally ready. Focus on play, coloring with crayons, and more play at this stage!
- Finally, we know that handwriting is not an easy skill to teach because it is so complex. A child’s teacher is limited to a short period in the classroom to teach actual letter stroke formation and so the other components like line use, word spacing letter spacing, size awareness, rhythm of writing, are covered only when there is a problem. The child is expected to fix mistakes on their own, or self-check rather than practice these components from the start.
Activities to go from Bad Handwriting to Functional Writing
Pediatric OTs and OTAs take this into consideration when planning therapy intervention activities. They focus on the underlying areas, but also function.
A great handwriting activity addresses multiple skills:
• Form constancy
Others may not always realize the “behind the scenes” stuff going on with handwriting, or realize that a particular activity was chosen because it has many layers to it. But this is one of the reasons why I love being an OT – it’s in our nature to see the big picture!
Now, sometimes it can be tricky to find handwriting activities that meet these criteria, but don’t feel like just another writing task. Luckily, my “Fix the Mistakes” handwriting activity checks ALL these boxes!
How to Fix Bad Handwriting habits
When it comes to fixing bad handwriting habits, we take a look at the underlying skills, the development of the individual, and individualized needs. We can assess what is “missing” or what bad habits might be used in written work. Then, using specific strategies based on the needs of the child along with adaptations, modifications, and targeting specific goals can help to move from bad writing habits to functional and legible written work.
A huge part of that is self-awareness and self-correction.
Working on meaningful writing tasks and then self-correcting mistakes (or fixing mistakes) is often times the missing link in the classroom setting.
WHAT IS “FIX THE MISTAKES”?
“Fix the mistakes” is exactly as it sounds – the activity provides kiddos with handwriting mistakes, which they have to fix! Students will evaluate handwriting samples that do not adhere to handwriting rules (line placement, size, spacing & letter case). Students then rewrite the sample to fix the mistakes. So, how does it meet the above criteria?
• Students hone visual perceptual skills by focusing on differences in handwriting components and attending to spatial relationships.
• Students need to use their fine motor skills to put pencil to paper and fix the handwriting mistakes.
• Students utilize executive functioning to problem solve, sequence, and utilize working memory, just to name a few.
In order for students to know what proper handwriting looks like, it is important to explicitly teach handwriting rules (such as letter formation, letter size, spacing, line placement). This activity packet includes a visual “handwriting rules” guide to assist educators with this task.
There are several different themes and bundles of writing sheets to support various interests and to help make handwriting practice engaging and motivating.
- Fix the Mistakes Fun Themes Bundle includes: Princesses, Sports, Unicorns, Space, Superheroes, and Back-to-School themes
- Fix the Mistakes Seasonal Themes Bundle includes: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall themes
- Fix the Mistakes Holiday Themes Bundle includes: Valentines Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas themes
- Fix the Mistakes MEGA Bundle includes all of the above themes so it’s a huge resource for covering handwriting carryover skills throughout the year.
WHY IS THIS METHOD EFFECTIVE?
Kids LOVE pointing out mistakes and being able to play the role of teacher. Not only do students enjoy it, but the concepts are more easily mastered when the kiddo is able to identify and point out the errors themselves.
Fixing handwriting mistakes at different levels
One thing therapy providers do is focus on functional, better handwriting at different levels. We can do this in various ways using the strengths of the student as well as by focusing on individualized needs. Supports like use graph paper, a slant board, or using special pens and pencils can support individual needs.
The Fix the Mistakes bundles allow the therapy provider to use one bundle with a whole caseload of students because it includes writing lines for each level.
As OT’s, we know that every student has different needs. Ranging from copying individual words to copying higher-level sentences, “Fix the Mistakes” activities support that differentiation so the activity can be easily tailored to the needs of each student.
In addition to different levels, handwriting lines can be a major difference. Personally, I have found that some students respond best to 3-lines, others work very well with 2-lines, while some do best with a simple single-lined piece of paper! Every level of “fix the mistakes” has a copy of each line style – all you have to do is choose the best worksheet for your student, then print and go. Easy peasy!
Rachel Burgess, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 5 years of experience, graduating from Nova Southeastern University in 2018. Rachel currently focuses on school-based services, both in-person and teletherapy.