Pencil Pressure When Writing

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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. 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. 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¬† ūüôā

These writing tips are great for kids that press too hard when writing or write too lightly.


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. 

Pencil pressure is dependent on proprioception, one of the sensory systems.  With October being Sensory Processing Awareness month, this is the perfect time to talk sensory and handwriting!
As an occupational¬†therapist¬†in the school setting, I’ve come across many school-aged children showing difficulty with pencil pressure. ¬†There are reasons for these dark pencil marks and some tips and tools for helping with this handwriting difficulty.¬†


Tips and tools for kids who write with too much pressure in handwriting.  Does your child write or color so hard that the pencil breaks?  Writing too hard makes handwriting difficult to read and effectively write.


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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.

Writing Pressure: Too Dark

Sometimes, children hold their pencil very tightly. ¬†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.¬† It’s messy. It’s not functional handwriting.¬†

Writing Pressure: Too Light

Another form of handwriting that is just not functional is when pencil pressure is just too light. Kids may write so lightly that you can’t read the overall writing sample. Other times, you can’t discern between certain letters. Still other times, 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. Other times, kids start out writing at a legible pencil pressure, but with hand fatigue, the writing gets lighter and lighter. 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. 
Difficulty with grading the movements required in drawing or making letters in a coordinated way may present as messy, smudged, illegible handwriting.

Writing Tips for Pencil Pressure

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.¬†
  • 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).¬†
  • 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.¬†
  • 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.
  • Practice letter formation and pencil pressure by lacing a sheet of paper over a foam 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 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.
Help kids with pencil pressure and handwriting problems with these writing tips to work on heavy pencil pressure or writing too light.

Need more tips and tools for addressing handwriting needs? Be sure to check out all of our handwriting activities here on The OT Toolbox.

2 thoughts on “Pencil Pressure When Writing”

  1. LOVE this post! Thanks for all of the great ideas – this is something I see on a daily basis in my school-based OT practice. So great to have all of these strategies in one place! Pinning this post now! ūüôā

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