Handwriting Woes Can and Should Be Corrected

Dear Dr. Fournier:

My daughter has an awful way of holding her pencil. Her writing is as difficult to read as it is for her to write. Homework assignments are agony. Although she is good in math, she has a hard time making her numbers, and she has points taken off for incorrect calculations. The school psychologist tested her and found no learning disability. Therefore, my daughter does not qualify for assistance from the school system. The pediatrician says my daughter is fine. Meanwhile, teachers keep writing “Redo this, I can’t read it” on her papers. She now has to write cursive and often in ink, which makes it even worse.

Donna G.

Dayton, OH

Dear Donna:


Problems with fine motor skills, such as writing, usually spell big trouble for children in school.

Students are expected to demonstrate understanding and learning in writing. For the child with an awkward pencil grasp, this may be a monumental task. Even though she understands the material, her writing does not adequately demonstrate that knowledge.

Asking a teacher to give an oral assessment of the child often is impractical. But there are other ways to help a student with fine motor difficulties without asking the teacher to do additional work.


Donna, I am giving you two different types of instructions that are to be done simultaneously. We need to address both the emotional needs of your daughter to show that she is having success to the teacher, while going to work on her pencil grip. Ask for a teacher conference, and prepare for it thoroughly by researching and analyzing your child’s academic problems.

1. Strategies for adjusting your daughter’s grip

I have been down this road with many students. In the beginning, no matter how much you explain that it will be better, you can expect to meet with resistance once they try and make the switch. This is normal. Change is never an easy thing, and frustration will probably set in at one point or another. Since this is a learning process akin to riding a bike, I recommend you do not make demands that are beyond what your child has the stamina for.

For example, I would start with a child by asking her if she thinks she can write with the new grip and trainer (see paragraph below) for one or two minutes. I then time the student to give them both an end time and a bar to reach if they are able. When the timer goes off, it is then their choice. I ask if they feel like they can or want to keep going with a new timer, or if they would like to go back to their grip of choice. The next day, I push the envelope a bit further… another minute to two minutes on the timer. Every day, unless there is a major regression, I will continue to adjust the timer to give a higher bar.

I mentioned above that I recommend buying one or more pencil grip trainers. There are several on the market that I have put to the test in the past, and the success of each of them will differ from individual to individual. At the bottom of the article I am including one of many websites that will point you in the right direction.

2. Strategies for School

First, pick a current assignment in each subject, and time your daughter as she reads the directions and finishes the work. How long does each assignment take? Does she have the required knowledge but seem unable to express it in writing? Track her progress and analyze the timed results to determine which assignments are most difficult for her.

For each difficulty you are able to identify, develop solutions to present to your daughter’s teacher. Remember that each solution must require that your daughter do the intellectual work required of all students to master the knowledge at hand. The goal is to eliminate repetitive tasks involving content your daughter has already mastered.

Since computer technology has becoming more and more accessible, one simple solution is to teach your daughter as early as possible to type on a keyboard. Many schools either allow or require students to bring laptops to class and complete work on a word processing program, and or the current trend in tablets. Many others allow at least homework assignments to by typed on a computer.

For the work that must be written by hand, here are some possible examples and solutions:

Problem: Writing sentences from an English book and underlining each noun takes an hour and ten minutes.

Solution: Photocopy a month’s worth of pages and have your daughter identify the parts of speech by underlining only. (This strategy works for math computation drill exercises also.)

Problem: Computing ten math problems takes fifty-five minutes because your daughter has trouble spacing the problems on the page so they don’t run together.

Solution: Fold your daughter’s paper into six sections. Write a problem in each box and have your daughter stay within the box with her computation. Draw a square at the bottom of the box, in which your daughter places her final answer. Have your daughter do as many problems as she can in thirty minutes, or at least half of the work. If she completes a sufficient number correctly, she is demonstrating mastery of the concept. Otherwise, she will do the rest of the problems the following evening.

Redoing work because of errors in ink takes up valuable time. Have your daughter use only pencil so that errors can be erased rather than crossed out. Get her a large gum or kneaded eraser so her erasures can be complete, which will result in neater work. This will allow her to produce legible work she can be proud of.

Writing in cursive causes homework delays and frustration. Have your daughter complete work in manuscript, except for assignments that are specifically intended to work on handwriting. This will help her practice and perfect a style of writing she has already learned while she is going through the pains of grip adjustment.

Teachers want to help their students but must fulfill their own responsibilities. Your solutions should demonstrate that the teacher would not have to do more work in order to use techniques that respect your child’s differences. In a parent-teacher conference, you can work collaboratively to find solutions that will benefit all three learning partners – student, educator and parent.