The Struggling Learner Scenario: Poor Handwriting 

Scenario #1: My 12-year-old’s handwriting looks like a 6-year-old’s.  What can I do to help?

To clarify, when I say “handwriting” I’m referring to both print and cursive writing.  Does anyone teach cursive anymore?  I’m not sure, but I hope so!  For today’s purposes, let’s just assume we’re talking about printing.


Child’s hand holding pen, copying spelling words. Very sloppy writing. Image caption reads: The Struggling Learner Scenario: Poor Handwriting.

One big reason why a person can struggle with writing is…



What do you need to know about the learning disability known as dysgraphia?  Well, I researched dysgraphia recently to learn if anything new had been discovered.  Here’s what I learned.


If you ask 3 different experts to describe dysgraphia to you, you may end up with 3 different answers.


One might say: “It’s strictly about the mechanics of writing, about how we physically write letters and words.”


Another might say, “It’s about the mechanics of writing AND it’s about the expression of writing, how we organize our thoughts, then translate them onto paper.”


Still a third might say, “Dysgraphia was once considered an official learning disability, but now it’s not.”


To that I say, let the experts battle out the details.  In this case, how we define a label doesn’t actually matter here.


If you suspect that your child’s poor handwriting may rise to the level of a clinical diagnosis, then by all means, request a school evaluation for dysgraphia and/or dyspraxia, which is a motor condition that can also affect handwriting.


Before you run off for one more diagnosis, though, consider playing handwriting detective for a moment.  Whether your child has true dysgraphia or simply has sloppy handwriting, you can focus on what’s at the root of the difficulty, and take steps to improve it.


You, The Handwriting Detective

Okay, let’s figure out WHY handwriting is such a struggle.


Clue #1

Could fine motor be the challenge?

If it’s truly a fine motor issue, then your child will likely have just as much difficulty with drawing as with writing.  You can search Pinterest for a treasure trove of fun fine motor activities for kids.


First, though, I recommend that we take your detective work a step further and ask, “Is the medium the thing?”  Ask your child for a short writing sample, writing the same sample using 3 different mediums:

1) Pencil & paper

2) Chalk, perhaps on the sidewalk if you don’t have a chalkboard

3) A dry erase marker on a whiteboard or even a clear plastic binder sleeve


Now observe.  Is handwriting easier, faster, or more legible using one medium versus another?


Ease with a smooth dry erase marker may suggest that your child is struggling with the physical pressure required when writing with a pencil.  If so, focus your fine motor activity search on building hand strength.


Ease with a fat piece of chalk may suggest that a pencil is too thin for your child’s grip.  If so, you might try a few different kinds of pencil grips to find out which one feels best and makes the process of writing easier.


Clue #2

Could processing speed be the challenge?

Does your child think faster than she can write?  Most of us do.  However, this can be super frustrating if the thoughts disappear before they reach the paper.  This can happen if the channel in the brain that sends words to the hand is particularly sluggish.


One recommendation to increase processing speed SPECIFIC to writing is not very glamorous, but might do the trick: speed drills.  Say a single letter out loud.  Your child writes it as fast as possible while still maintaining good form and legibility.  Continue with a new letter.   (This is, of course, after you both have practiced what “good form” looks like.)


Next, pull out the timer.  How many dictated letters can your child write in 1 minute?  In 30 seconds?  In 10 seconds?  Keep practicing daily.  The goal is to increase the number of letters each day.  Then move on to short words, etc.


Side note: Pay close attention to any letters that may prove consistently troublesome.  Then focus heavily on those until they become second nature.  Build up from dictating letters to dictating words.


Once dictation becomes a breeze, try word associations.  You say a word, your child writes the first word that comes to mind.  Don’t have him say the word first.  This uses a different channel in the brain.


Also, don’t worry so much about spelling at first.  The goal here is to get your child to write his ideas down as quickly as he can think them.  Then build up to sentences, and so forth.


Clue #3

Could nutrition be the challenge?

Nutrition?  Really?  What on earth does food have to do with handwriting?  As it turns out, quite a bit, actually.  Had I not seen this with my own eyes, I would not have believed it myself.


Certain foods, in certain sensitive individuals (I raise my hand to this), can lead to inflammation.  If that inflammation occurs in our brains, it can affect, among other things, how well our brains communicate with our hands, and our eyes.  It can affect our sense of distance, and space.  You can understand, then, how the wrong foods can lead to messy handwriting.


I encourage you to read The On Again Off Again Student, a blog post that I wrote about students who seem to have it all together one day and lose it all the next.  Even if that doesn’t apply to your child, even if your child’s handwriting is consistently illegible from one day to the next, see what happens when you remove the 2 most commonly offensive foods.  (Yep, that’s a teaser.  You’ll have to read the post to know which 2 that I suggest!)


I witnessed profound changes in my students who took on the challenge of eliminating inflammatory foods.  Not only could students think clearer than ever before, not only could they focus and concentrate better, but their handwriting improved significantly.  Incidentally, I often use poor handwriting as a clue to check for potential food sensitivities.


If fine motor skills, processing speed, and nutrition are NOT at the root of your child’s handwriting difficulties, I have 3 more questions to add to your detective notebook.  Stay tuned.  I’ll cover those in Part 2.