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Handwriting Practices for Struggling Writers

How should we teach our kids handwriting in the digital age? We cover this and more in this blog post.

How should we teach our kids handwriting in the digital age?

It becomes ever more difficult to make a case for good handwriting because there are many more ways we can communicate in the digital age.

In fact, many more educational institutions, with few exceptions, are asking the question, “Is legible handwriting even necessary?” (Source; page 2) Why should responsible homeschooling parents endeavor to wrestle with the beast of handwriting when institutions are saying, “Just keyboard”?

What are the issues concerning good handwriting instruction, what kinds of concerns should parents consider when addressing handwriting with their children, and most importantly, what is a plan of good handwriting instruction?

Dr. Karen Holinga

I am indebted to Dr. Karen Holinga for the information I am going to share with you today. Dr. Holinga is a reading specialist with a doctorate from The Ohio State University in Developmental Reading, Curriculum, and Professional Development. She is Reading Recovery trained and is currently in practice as The Reading Doctor, Inc. where she works full-time tutoring children with reading problems and counseling homeschool families in curriculum options; Dr. Holinga does hundreds of student assessments each year. Given that she homeschooled her own children, she has a thorough understanding of what it means to be a homeschool mom in the trenches, trying to create competencies in our children.

Dr. Karen Holinga talks about Spelling You See to a customer at a homeschool convention. src=

in 2014, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Holinga speak on the subject of handwriting at the Florida Parent Educators’ Association Special Needs Conference, and the room was packed; I am not alone in wondering why this can be such a complex and difficult issue to address with our children. According to Dr. Holinga, “Labored handwriting creates a drain on mental resources. Without automatic handwriting, the system for learning shuts down.”

Why Do We Teach Handwriting?

According to Dr. Holinga, research shows that incorporating ten minutes a day of handwriting copywork can double the increases in reading levels. And the research further indicates that 10-30% of children will struggle with handwriting at some point in their development.

Why would it make a difference to write, as opposed to using a keyboard? In the October issue of Reader’s Digest, Fred Barbash wrote of a study investigating whether taking notes by hand was more valuable than taking notes on a computer, saying:

All students received the same lectures, but some used laptops, and others took notes by hand. When it came to learning the concepts, the handwriters won. When it came to retrieving facts, the groups were comparable, except when given time to go home and look at their notes, at which point the handwriters did even better.” (Barbash, Fred. “Want to Learn? Lose the laptop.” Reader’s Digest October, 2014: pgs. 44-45)

According to Dr. Holinga, the act of handwriting serves us in a variety of ways, to include enhancing our comprehension and memory, “lighting up” memory centers of our brain, and is a predictor of academic success.

We can misunderstand legitimate handwriting struggles and think they show laziness or carelessness. We can unknowingly create more of an issue by making handwriting a daily struggle. There are strategies to help our children create those competencies, without enabling them.

3 Ways to Help Struggling Writers

1) Use a Recording Device

Giving them permission to speak their composition assignments into a recording device. This removes the pressure of having to remember the idea while attempting to put that idea on paper.

2) Use a Keyboard

Allow them to keyboard their thoughts, with the intention that their final product will be produced by hand. The keyboard draft is exactly that – no emphasis on capitalization or punctuation – the goal is only to capture their thoughts.

3) Be Their Scribe

You be their scribe – allow them to dictate to you. The difficult part in this enterprise is not to engage in editing while they are thinking. Let them talk through their ideas. Editing is for later.

Their final draft should be their own, in their own handwriting.

Neurologically, Dr. Holinga reminds us that handwriting orders the brain and thinking processes. It helps our children focus their thoughts. This is a discipline that has to be practiced to be gained. In fact, in the process of creating muscle memory for the written word, a child may need to engage in literally hours of practice.

My Taekwondo instructor used to say that we would have to practice a single move up to 2,500 times to make it part of our “muscle memory.” As a parent, don’t do your children an injustice by giving in too soon. Winning the war may just be over the next hill.

But how do I know this is a mountain worth trying to win? What is enough struggle and what is too much? There are things you can do to ameliorate the struggle.

8 Ways to Help Develop Good Writing Skills

1) Hand Dominance

If your children have not chosen a hand by school age, assist them in choosing one. This may mean observing them carefully and watching things like, which hand do they choose to throw a ball with, or hit with a bat, or which eye do they cover in the bright sun – the hand they use most, when they are not thinking about it, is the hand that is likely dominant.

2) Pencil Grips

Find pencil grips that work for you; there are many out there. A pencil grip is designed to help foster a proper pencil grasp, and is a little piece of rubber or plastic that slides onto the pencil. This is trial and error, but worth the effort.

3) Letter Formations

Help them create consistent formation of letters – Dr. Holinga says that letters constructed from the top down are less neurological work than bottom up, but some children are “builders” and may tend to form letters from the bottom to the top. Help your children create handwriting with as much single-stroke letter formation as possible. The research tells us that consistent letter formation is the key – don’t fret if you have a “bottom to top” kind of kid. As long as they do it consistently, you are on the right track.

4) Similar Letters

Teach similar letters together (r,m,b,h). These should be single-stroke letters.

5) Reversible Letters

Separate reversible letters like b and d – teaching them at the same time can cause letter “confusion.”

6) Handwriting/Sound Integration

When you write the letter b, say the “buh” sound. Any time you can incorporate a multi-sensory approach to handwriting, you increase the ability for the child to master it.

7) Use Whole Arm Movements

Practice letter writing with whole arm movements – the smaller letter formation will evolve. Use dry erase boards for practice. They can write as large as they want, and eventually the letters will become consistently smaller and more uniform.

8) Good Posture

Encourage good posture and good tripod pencil grip.

Remember, doing just ten minutes a day of copywork has been proven to improve handwriting significantly. But bear this important principle in mind – copywork must be done in PRINT, because we read in print. If you want to work on cursive handwriting, use the previous week’s copywork. This way the passage is familiar and children can focus on letter formation. ALWAYS start with print. Cursive is important and faster and easier for note taking and study, but if you have to choose one, choose print. And remember, spelling words should ALWAYS be studied in PRINT.

Do not engage in a handwriting enterprise while a child is in the process of forming their thoughts, as in the draft of a composition. Neurologically, it is too difficult for a child to focus successfully on both the act of letter formation AND the creativity required for composing their thoughts.

Above all, remember to PRAISE THE EFFORT. You might not be seeing progress, but praise and encouragement build emotional confidence in your child, and eventually you will see successful output from them.

It can be a long road to the successful creation of a confident, penmanship-praiseworthy student. We all have to start somewhere. As parents, the biggest struggle for us may be remembering to be encouraging and affirmative as we see our children grow and change. Remember, the days can be long indeed, but the years pass swiftly. Celebrate your child’s small handwriting victories, and when you look back, the struggle will fade over time. Not long after one of my struggling handwriters graduated from college, he said, “Mom, thanks for not giving up on me, or giving in to me. You showed me I could do it. It just took me a long time to believe that for myself.” I pray it will be the same for you.

About Gretchen Roe

Gretchen Roe educated her children at home for 21 years. With a degree in child development, she laughingly says it was not necessarily helpful for raising her own six children. She owned her own business for 15 years, as well as being involved in several nonprofit boards. She has spent the last 10 years in positions of homeschool advocacy and comes to Demme Learning as a Placement Specialist. She loves the outdoors, all things furry, and is in the process of learning farming and beekeeping skills.

4 thoughts on “Handwriting Practices for Struggling Writers

  1. Beth Schubert

    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?

    1. DemmeLearning

      Hi Beth!

      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.”

  2. Amy

    My son is almost 11. We’ve been struggling with writing since the beginning. He doesn’t like to color, draw or write. We started with “Handwriting Without Tears.” Tried “Spelling U See” and even introduced some cursive letters thinking they may be easier. We’ve traced lines, made letters in the sand, and even used a tablet to trace letters with fingers. While his handwriting has improved slightly, it is still very difficult to read and looks to be that of a 1st grader at best. While he writes mostly with his right hand, he does switch sides. He can color, inside the lines, with both hands at the same time and 2 different colors. He eats with his left, but cooks with his right. He throws mostly with his right, but switches sides as well. We have improved pencil grip, paper position and posture, but not handwriting. Any advice?

  3. Gretchen Roe

    Hi Amy — WOW, first those are impressive talents and to an adult observer, it seems like they are just that. But I can also tell you as a parent who has worked with my own children with learning glitches, and now countless families in my tenure with Demme Learning, these kid of situations present real challenges! From what you have related, there is some mixed dominance going on for him that would make any academic experience a challenge. There are several questions I would love to ask you, but to protect your privacy I will keep to generalities. You have really gone to some tremendous lengths to help him. How is his reading skill? Is there a struggle with all academics? Do you see that academics become progressively more difficult as the day progresses? Do some days feel like a repeat of the day preceding it (in other words, are you plowing the same ground)? I would love for you to reach out to me at Demme Learning. I do have some specific questions for you, and then some possible suggestions that might make his learning easier. You are welcome to email me at groe@demmelearning.com or give me a call at 717.524.5692.


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