Good handwriting is a skill that kids must learn, even in the digital age. Illegible handwriting could even cost them marks in exams if teachers cannot decipher what they’re trying to say.
Here, the experts share how you can help your child develop good handwriting skills.
1. Go with the flow
Forcing your kid to write before he’s developmentally ready can backfire. Rebecca Jaclyn Smith, a curriculum specialist with Learning Vision explains: “Children go through various stages when they’re learning to play and interact with their environment. When pre-writing activities are presented earlier than this stage, both you and your child will become frustrated, and this will affect his interest in drawing or writing.”
Around the age of two, children usually start scribbling with large circular motions, which then evolve into shapes, some letters and, eventually, their own name, she says. Don’t worry if you see your kid grasping the pencil in the middle of his palm – that’s perfectly normal. This is the most stable position for his relatively weak muscles.
2. Work the fingers
While his language skills may be improving by leaps and bounds, your child’s ability to write depends a lot on how his small finger muscles develop, and his ability to manipulate his fingers and wrist, as well as hand-eye and left-right hand coordination, says Jaya Mathew, an occupational therapist with The Child Development Centre.
Playing helps. Strengthen his fine motor skills by letting him use play dough and clothes pegs, asking him to open and close jars, peel things and pick up small objects. Rebecca recommends using different mediums to catch his interest. Try “writing” in paint or sand – they’ll let him feel as he writes, which helps him remember shapes of letters, besides being loads of fun.
Use short pencils or jumbo crayons to write or colour, and don’t force him to sit at a desk for long periods. Stick paper on the wall and let him stand or kneel and colour, she says. Letting Junior write on vertical or inclined surfaces helps to position the wrist correctly, and makes him use his finger muscles rather than those in his forearms, she explains.
3. When’s the right time?
Rebecca shares the signs that your kid is ready to write:
• He holds a pencil correctly.
• He can draw the nine pre-writing shapes that are used to form capital letters: |, – , +, \ , /, X, circle, triangle and square.
• He can identify letters.
• He’s motivated to write and is interested in writing.
4. Be encouraging
If your preschooler’s letters are way too big, draw boxes and get him to practise writing inside them, says Jaya. He’ll gradually understand the size of the letters he’s supposed to write. If he scribbles too high above the line, use a marker in his favourite colour to highlight the lines, and then ask him to jot on them.
Reward his effort, so he’ll be motivated to improve, she emphasises. Learning to write isn’t always a smooth-sailing journey, so a little empathy goes a long way when your kid makes mistakes, Rebecca says.
You could say: “I see that you feel frustrated sometimes because keeping the words on the line may be tricky. I know that forgetting to include your finger spacing between words in sentences leaves you upset, especially when I have pointed it out to you for correction. Let’s talk about how to help you do a better job at writing, because I know you’re trying your best and I believe you can do a good job.”
5. Right or left?
Left-handed children don’t just write the opposite way, Jaya says. “Languages written left-to-right, like English, are more difficult to write with the left hand. A right-hander writes away from his body and pulls the pencil, while a left-hander must write towards his body and push the pencil.”
The problem, she explains, is that if your leftie isn’t taught how to write properly, he’ll end up with an inefficient, slow and messy scrawl for life. So the most important factors to consider are the position of the writing paper, the angle of the arm and wrist, and the writing grip.
Rebecca suggests this strategy: “Teach him to tilt the paper about 45 degrees clockwise. This way, the challenge to manipulate the writing tools and hand during the writing process allows for less hassle.”
She adds: “It may always be helpful to encourage your child to keep his hand and wrist under the writing line. Such strategies will also contribute to minimising possible smudges, which often result in the final writing product looking messy.”
Most importantly, be encouraging and patient, stress co-authors of the Enjoy Handwriting series, Kathleen Chia and Linda Gan: “Don’t force your left-handed child to be right-handed.”
Handedness is linked to brain lateralisation, which refers to how the left and right halves of the noggin specialise in different functions.
If Grandma complains about the stigma of being a southpaw, point out that four of the seven most recent United States presidents (including incumbent Barack Obama) are left-handed. So are Prince William (heir to the British throne), astronaut Neil Armstrong and former UK prime minister Winston Churchill.
6. What’s that word?
It’s never too late to correct bad writing habits, even if Junior’s in primary school. At this age, Jaya points out, kids should be able to form upper- and lowercase letters correctly, and will evolve to the mature tripod grasp that adults use when holding a pen.
So, lousy handwriting could be a problem of poor spacing, weak posture or bad hand-eye coordination. Engage him in activities where he needs to manipulate fine finger muscles and wrist muscles, Rebecca suggests, like dough play, threading, tearing and cutting.
You can also buy triangular pencils or rubber grips that let kids hold their writing tools better. See an occupational therapist if the problem persists.
Watch this video by The University of Cambridge and the Lego Foundation about how play – not necessarily Lego – actually helps kids write better.