In our increasingly digital age, it’s becoming more difficult to make a case for handwriting instruction over keyboarding. In fact, many educational institutions nowadays are raising the question, “Is it even necessary to explicitly teach handwriting at all?” In this blog, we’re exploring this query and sharing some helpful tips for effective handwriting instruction.
Why is It Important to Teach Handwriting?
You may be wondering: if institutions are saying that the keyboard is king, why should I worry whether or not my students are able to write well by hand? And should I focus my efforts on ensuring that they become proficient typists?
Before you hop aboard the typing train, take a moment to think about the many ways that you still engage in handwriting on a daily basis. Most people write by hand when signing cards, jotting down notes or lists, filling out important paperwork, and taking written assessments. Despite our growing technology use, handwriting is still an essential skill that we use to communicate in our everyday lives.
Furthermore, according to Dr. Karen Holinga, reading specialist and founder of the Spelling You See program, the act of handwriting serves us in a variety of ways that keyboarding doesn’t. In fact, research shows that writing by hand activates more areas of the brain than typing does, improves comprehension, and increases recall.
So, while typing will likely continue to grow as the primary means of written communication, it’s still highly beneficial to teach handwriting skills to students prior to keyboarding. But what if your student struggles with handwriting? We have a few tips that can help!
5 Tips to Teach Handwriting Effectively
According to Dr. Holinga, handwriting difficulty creates a strain on a student’s mental resources. If handwriting isn’t automatic and comfortable, the student ends up expelling more mental energy than necessary on the act of writing rather than on the task or lesson at hand. This can significantly reduce their ability to learn.
Fortunately, there are many ways that you as a teacher and/or parent can ensure that your student learns how to write legibly and with automaticity. Here are five of our top tips!
1) Start BIG Instead of Small
When you first begin to teach handwriting, have your students practice letter formation with whole arm movements. Dry-erase boards are great tools for beginners, as they can write as big as they want and easily erase to try again.
Don’t be afraid to get a bit messy and let your students practice forming letters in the sand, dirt, or with flour. You can even have them create “imaginary letters” by using their pointer finger and writing in the air. As they learn and practice, their letter formation will become smaller and more uniform over time.
2) Foster Consistent Formation
While there are more effective ways to form letters than others, the key thing that you want to prioritize when it comes to letter formation is consistency.
Yes, letters constructed from the top down require less neurological work, but some children are “builders” who form letters from the bottom up—and that’s okay! Research tells us that consistent letter formation is crucial, so don’t fret if you have a “bottom to top” kind of kid. As long as they do it consistently and without difficulty, they’re on the right track.
That said, be sure to help your students form letters using continuous strokes as much as possible. Teach similar, single-stroke letters together (r, m, b, h). We also suggest teaching how to write reversible letters like b and d separately, as doing so at the same time can cause letter confusion.
3) Integrate Sound
As students learn how to write letters, they should also be learning and practicing the sounds that those letters produce. So, when you write the letter b, say the “buh” sound and ask your student to repeat it. Having them consistently connect sounds to letters while they’re writing will help them master formation and phonics concepts.
4) Check for Proper Grasp
There is a correct way to hold a writing utensil, and if your student doesn’t have a proper grasp, it’s likely to negatively affect their handwriting.
Correct grasp is commonly referred to as the “dynamic tripod,” where the index finger and thumb hold the utensil against the middle finger. This ensures that writing is comfortable and efficient, while an incorrect grasp can cause poor letter formation and hand fatigue.
If you notice that your student struggles to hold a pencil correctly, they may benefit from using a grip tool. A grip tool is a little piece of rubber or plastic that slides onto a pencil to help achieve proper placement and comfort.
5) Promote Proper Spacing
Aside from formation and grasp, you should also help your students with spacing when you teach handwriting. Spacing is an important factor when it comes to legibility. Letters and words must be spaced appropriately so that they can be easily read. If your student struggles with spacing, encourage them to use a fingertip to separate words or a popsicle stick as a tool. Be sure to check that your student has a proper tripod grasp and good sitting posture.
While keyboarding is the primary means of written communication in many contexts these days, handwriting is still a necessary skill for daily life. Handwriting also offers several benefits that typing doesn’t, making it just as (if not more) important for students to learn.
With everything on your plate, it can be easy to let handwriting fall by the wayside. However, a little effort each day can make a large impact. In fact, it has been proven that doing just ten minutes of copywork per day can improve student handwriting significantly.
Our Spelling You See program uses research-supported activities such as dictation and copywork to help students achieve positive outcomes, not only with spelling, but handwriting as well.
Explore our website to learn more about Spelling You See and how it works!
This blog was originally published on October 21, 2016 and updated in March, 2023.
Subscribe to the weekly Demme Learning newsletter for the latest blog posts.
Beth Schubert says
What if your child has a physical barrier to handwriting? My son has a neuromuscular disorder which has rendered his handwriting illegible despite years of occupational therapy. At 14, his writing descriptions and prose is fabulous but his grammar and punctuation is well below grade level. In his early elementary years, he was still trying to form letters while his classmates were writing sentences, complete with capital letters at the beginning and periods at the end. I truly believe his case proves your theory. How do I create a learned writer with this barrier?
Sorry for the late response; we emailed Dr. Karen Holinga (the author of Spelling You See) about your question. Here’s her response:
“This question is not unlike several I get at the office on a weekly basis. Interestingly, graphomotor dysfunction (difficulty with the physical part of writing: holding a pencil correctly, forming letters quickly and easily) often pairs with poor speech. For some reason, it is not uncommon for kids with auditory processing delays (trouble with language: receptive or expressive including poor grammar, especially pronouns, often verbs) to also struggle with handwriting. For more detailed information on this connected topic, Dr. Mel Levine’s books entitled “A Mind at a Time and Educational Care” are very informative and helpful. He is a pediatric neuropsychologist who specialized in developmental delays out of the University of North Carolina. I cited his books in our bibliography information in Spelling You See. Both can be found in local libraries.
I have three suggestions for you. First, when he is creating a story, SHE needs to do the scripting for him. Creating and writing are complicated and when you’re doing it, it takes all your energy and processing power to keep it going. Things like punctuation and grammar, holding a pencil properly, spelling, organization, paragraphing etc. are an unnecessary drain on the process and interfere dramatically, especially with a young or inexperienced writer. When you’re working on writing, just do writing! Leave the grammar, spelling etc. for the editing process another day; do one thing at a time.
Second, there is nothing more effective and easier for learning punctuation and grammar usage than copywork. She needs to do Spelling You See at an appropriate level and do it EXACTLY the way it is laid out. The research screams that this is the very best way to move the writing process forward. Copy good paragraphs over and over again. It enhances organization, spelling, grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary, etc.
My third suggestion is to do Andrew Pudewa’s IEW Level B Intro to Writing, Style and Structure. Learning about key word outlines, strong verbs, etc. is an easy way to teach strong writing in a methodical one step at a time way.”
Thank you for this post. I feel so much better that my son is a builder but does it consistently, I was starting to fret that he does not follow the proper sequence of strokes.
Eva Tutor says
Demme Learning’s article on teaching handwriting is an insightful resource for parents and educators looking to help children develop this important skill. The tips and techniques shared are practical and easy to implement, and the emphasis on practice and patience is important for encouraging children to master handwriting. Thank you for sharing this valuable information!
Hello, and thank you for this insight. As a k-12 teacher, I’d be helped if you could speak to handwriting and math. Graphomotor dysfunction can seriously hinder students’ ability to continue tracking with math when it grows more complex/abstract. I tutor upper elementary students whose math acquisition is plummeting as they attempt multi-step problems-long division, fractions, et al. Is grid paper the only tool available? How can a tutor, teacher, parent help support and propel the learning of children in the area of math when these writing challenges persist?