If you’ve worked with kids teaching handwriting or fixing handwriting issues, they you probably have come across a common handwriting problem area…Pencil pressure when writing. Handwriting pressure can play a huge role in legibility, whether pressing too hard when writing or writing too lightly.
Pencil Pressure in Handwriting
Some kids press too hard on the pencil. They may press so hard on the pencil that the pencil tears the paper when they write. When they try to erase, there are smudges that never really go away.
Other students use too little force when writing. Or, you might see pencil pressure that is so light that you can’t discern letters from one another.
Either way, pencil pressure plays a big part in handwriting legibility.
Here are tips for pressing too hard when writing…and tips for helping kids write darker. Scroll down for everything you need to know about writing with that “just write” pencil pressure…Typo intended 🙂
Pencil Pressure with Writing
Learning to write is a complex task. Choosing a hand to hold the pencil with, pencil grasp, managing the paper with the assisting hand, sitting up straight.
And then there is the physical task of marking letters: letter formation, line awareness, letter size… this is multi-level functioning for a child!
Yet another aspect to consider is the pressure one exerts on the paper when writing. Press too lightly and the words are barely able to be seen. Press too hard, and the letters are very dark, the pencil point breaks, lines are smudged, and when mistakes are erased, they don’t really erase all the way, the paper tears, and frustration ensues!
Sometimes, when it comes to pencil pressure, simply helping kids become aware that they are writing too lightly or writing with too much pressure can make a big difference. Here is one simple activity to work on pencil pressure. All you need is a sheet of foam crafting paper.
Proprioception and Handwriting
The proprioceptive system receives input from the muscles and joints about body position, weight, pressure, stretch, movement and changes in position in space. Our bodies are able to grade and coordinate movements based on the way muscles move, stretch, and contract.
Proprioception allows us to apply more or less pressure and force in a task. Instinctively, we know that lifting a feather requires very little pressure and effort, while moving a large backpack requires more work.
We are able to coordinate our movements effectively to manage our day’s activities with the proprioceptive system. The brain also must coordinate input about gravity, movement, and balance involving the vestibular system.
When we write, the pencil is held with the index finger, middle finger, and thumb, and supported by the ring and pinkie finger as the hand moves across a page.
A functioning proprioceptive system allows us to move the small muscles of the hand to move the pencil in fluid movements and with “just right” pressure.
We are able to mark lines on the paper, erase mistakes, move the paper with our supporting arm, turn pages in a notebook fluidly, and keep the paper in one piece.
Heavy Pencil Pressure
When students press too hard on the pencil, handwriting suffers. Sometimes, children hold their pencil very tightly. Other times, they are seeking sensory feedback. You’ll see some common signs of heavy pencil pressure:
- They press so hard on the paper, that lines are very dark when writing.
- The pencil point breaks.
- When erasing, the pencil marks don’t completely erase, and the paper is torn.
- The non-dominant, assisting hand moves the paper so roughly that the paper crumbles.
- When turning pages in a notebook, the pages tear or crumble.
- Movements are not fluid or efficient.
- Handwriting takes so much effort, that the child becomes fatigued, frustrated, and sore.
- It may take so much effort to write a single word, that handwriting is slow and difficult.
All of these signs of heavy pencil pressure are red flags for pencil pressure issues. They are not functional handwriting.
Below, we’ll cover ways to reduce pencil pressure?
Writing Pressure: Too Light
The other side of the coin is pencil pressure that is too light.
Writing with too little pencil pressure is another form of non-functional handwriting. Some signs of too little pencil pressure include:
- Kids may write so lightly that you can’t read the overall writing sample.
- You can’t discern between certain letters.
- The writing pressure is just so light that the child’s hand or sleeve smudges the pencil lines and the writing sample is totally not functional or legible.
- The student starts out writing at a legible pencil pressure, but with hand fatigue, the writing gets lighter and lighter.
All of these signs of too light pencil pressure and too much force when writing can be addressed with some simple tips. Working on proprioceptive input and hand strengthening can help with too light pencil pressure. Try some of the writing tips listed below.
Pencil pressure and Messy handwriting
Messy handwriting can be contributed to many factors. Decreased hand strength, Visual motor difficulty, motor planning issues, visual memory difficulties, or impaired proprioception.
Writing Tips for Pencil Pressure
Bringing the writer aware of what’s occurring is one way to support pencil pressure issues. Proprioceptive activities allow the muscles to “wake up” with heavy pressure.
Moving against resistance by pushing or pulling gives the muscles and joints an opportunity to modulate pressure.
Resistive activities before and during a handwriting task can be beneficial for children who press hard on the pencil.
Pencil Pressure Activities:
Some of these pencil pressure activities are writing strategies to help kids become more aware of the amount of pressure they are using when writing.
Others are tools for helping the hands with sensory needs. Still others are tools for strengthening the hands. Try some or a mixture of the following ideas to addressing handwriting needs.
- Stress balls or fidget toys can help to strengthen pinch and grip strength.
- Use carbon paper or transfer paper to help kids become more aware of the amount of pressure they are exerting through the pencil when writing. Here is some easy ways to use a Dollar Store find to use carbon paper to work on handwriting.
- resistive bands- Use these as an arm warm-up to “wake up” the muscles of the whole upper body. They are great for positioning warm ups too.
- theraputty with graded amount of resistance (speak to a license occupational therapist about the amount of resistance needed for your child. An individual evaluation and recommendations will be needed for your child’s specific strengths/needs). Use these theraputty exercises for ideas to get started.
- hole puncher exercises before a writing task
- Gross grasp activities- These activities can be a big help in adjusting the grasp on the pencil, helping the hands with sensory input and strengthening the hands to help with endurance when writing.
- Write with a mechanical pencil: The lead will break if too much pressure is applied. Children can learn to monitor the amount of pressure used and it will provide feedback on modulation of pressure. A pencil with .7mm lead is better to start with for heavy writers. Read more about using a mechanical pencil for kids who write too dark or too light.
- Some children will benefit from using a liquid gel pen for fluid handwriting marks. The gel ink will provide feedback when gobs of ink are dispensed when writing too hard.
- Still others will benefit from a gel pen, marker, or using a dry erase marker on a dry erase board. This can be beneficial as a tool for teaching about pencil pressure or as an accommodation for those writing too lightly.
- Pencil Weights or Weighted Pencils- Weighted pencils can be helpful in providing sensory feedback through the hands.
- Practice letter formation and pencil pressure by placing a sheet of paper over a foam sheet or a computer mouse pad. If pressing too hard, the pencil point will poke through the paper.
- A vibrating pen provides sensory feedback to the fingers and hand and helps to keep children focused on the task.
- Practice handwriting by placing a sheet of paper over a piece of sandpaper. The resistance of the sandpaper is great heavy work for small muscles of the hand.
- Practice writing on a dry erase board with dry erase markers to work on consistent pencil pressure- Pressing too hard will make the marker lines wider and press down on the tip of the marker. Can the learner keep a consistent line with their writing or drawing?
- Use a grease pencil- These pencils are commonly used to marking wood or used in construction. The lead of the pencil is very soft and can be a great alternative for those that press too hard on pencils.
- Cheap eyeliner pencil- One cheap alternative to a grease pencil is using an inexpensive eye liner pencil from the dollar store. Get the kind that you sharpen with a turn sharpener (almost like a hand held pencil sharpener). Kids can use that pencil to draw lines and match the amount of pressure they are using. This is a good activity for those that press too hard when writing, too.
- Practice Ghost Writing: Encourage the child to write very lightly on paper and then erase the words without leaving any marks. The adult can try to read the words after they’ve been erased. If the words are not able to be read, the writer wins the game.
- Hand exercises are a great way to “wake up” the hands before a handwriting task. Encourage the child to squeeze their hand into a fist as tight as he can. Then relax and stretch the hand and fingers. Repeat the exercise several times. Practice holding the pencil with the same type of tight and relaxed exercises Practice writing on tissue paper. A very light hand is needed to prevent tears. Discuss the amount of pressure needed for writing on the tissue paper.
- This will provide the child with awareness and words for the way they are holding the pencil.
- Wrap a bit of play dough or putty around the pencil as a grip. Encourage the child to hold the pencil with a grasp that does not press deeply into the dough. Encourage using a “just right” pressure.
- Provide terms for they way they write. Encourage “just right” writing and not “too hard” or “too soft” marks.
- Use a lead pencil to color in a small picture, using light gray, medium gray, and dark gray. Talk about how using different amounts of pressure changes the shade of gray.
- Instead of writing on a notebook, pull a single sheet from the pages and place on a hard table or desk surface. The firm surface will limit the amount of pressure. You can also slip a clipboard between pages of a notebook to provide that hard surface, if sheets must remain in a notebook.
Need more tips and tools for addressing handwriting needs? Be sure to check out all of our handwriting activities here on The OT Toolbox.
More Handwriting Tips
For a comprehensive resource on handwriting, check out The Handwriting Book. This e-book was written by pediatric occupational therapists and physical therapists who focus on function and take a developmental look at handwriting.
In The Handwriting Book, you’ll find practical suggestions to meet all needs that arise with messy or sloppy handwriting. The developmental-based approach to teaching handwriting focuses on strategies to support common issues with written work.
Click here for more information on The Handwriting Book.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.