Paper lines – sizes and interlining: Experiment with different widths of lined paper to see which size your child is most comfortable with. Some children more easily make very large letters, while others do better with smaller letters. For beginners, use interlined paper so that the child knows how “low” lowercase letters are, and how “high” uppercase letters are.
Practice curves and other letter shapes: If a child has fine motor difficulties and is having a hard time forming letters, you can have him work on improving his fine motor skills by drawing different kinds of lines for him to trace–wavy lines, up and down lines, circular lines, v-shaped lines, and so on: any kind of lines that are similar to the kinds of lines in letters, but joined together across the page from margin to margin. Use interlined paper, and make the tracing lines to be similar to where letters would lay on the lines. Note: this method can also be used for children who are having difficulty moving from manuscript (printing) to cursive (writing).
Use a variety of writing tools: Another way to help children with fine motor skill difficulties is to use thick writing tools (fat, erasable markers or crayons, for example). Do large size writing on black or white boards, or even better, on interlined erasable sentence strips. Some children like to “paint” their letters with large paint brushes as well.
Letter houses: If a child is having a really hard time figuring out where letters go on lines, and even interlined paper is not helping, draw a series of “houses” with a “main floor,” an “upstairs/attic/rooftop,” and a “basement.” Place problem letters in each house, and explain where each part of the letter “lives.” For example, you could say, “The stick in the ‘h’ starts at the rooftop, and goes down to the main floor. The hump of the ‘h’ starts on the main floor, goes up to the ceiling, and then curves back down to the floor.” Some children have trouble with “upstairs/ main floor/ basement” so you can let them decide what “room” is on each level. For example, upstairs could be “bedroom,” main floor could be “living room,” and basement could be “laundry room.”
Dot to dot worksheets: Some children find tracing dots very helpful when learning to draw their letters. For a child who is really struggling, you can make your own dot-to-dot worksheets. On the top line, make the dots for each letter very close together. On each successive line, use fewer dots, more spaced out, till finally there are no dots and the child is forming the letter by himself.
Handwriting workbooks: There are many inexpensive workbooks available to practice handwriting–both for manuscript (printing) and cursive (writing). Dollar stores usually have good supplies. Take your child and let them choose one they like. If you have an older child who feels that the handwriting books are “baby books,” a good alternative is to get an interlined notebook; you can write in it in good standard manuscript (or cursive) and your child can trace and then copy below (leave an empty line below each row of your writing so the child can copy after tracing). Or do a google search for “handwriting worksheets”–many are free or very low cost, and you can even make and print out personalised ones with favourite poems, sentences, etc. For focusing on particular letters, a fun thing to do is get a copy of a book (or online site) with lots of tongue
Tongue twisters: For focusing on particular letters, a fun thing to do is get a copy of a book (or online site) with lots of tongue twisters, and write ones that feature the particular letter you want your child to practice. (I have a great little tongue twister booklet in my “Easy to Learn” series at TeachersPayTeachers.com). For a child who has already learned how to print or write all their letters and just needs practice putting them together, you can do the same thing with an interlined notebook, but instead write samples of good poetry, prose, proverbs, and so on.
ABC books: The Curious George Learns the Alphabet book is a good source of help for a child who is having difficulty learning particular letters, as each letter is introduced as the basis of a related animal or other creature or thing. This is especially helpful for children who learn graphically, as the letter shapes are similar to things they already know (and which start with that letter/sound). Of course, as with other “Curious George” books, the story is also fun, which provides motivation for the child. A child who is artistic may even want to reproduce the letters with their pictures, or you can trace them, and your child can colour them.
Pencils, erasers, sharpeners–and pressing lightly: Some children have difficulty with handwriting because they hold the pencil very hard and/or press too hard. Encourage your child to press more lightly, and you may find an immediate improvement. Also, you can help with that by getting a softer pencil–instead of the standard “HB” handwriting pencil, you could try an “HB4” drawing pencil. Also, keep the pencil tip reasonably sharp, and use good quality pencils rather than “cheap” ones. A good quality pencil sharpener that the child can handle is also important, and a good quality eraser as well (pencil top erasers usually wear down quickly, and they are often very hard and leave streaks; “character erasers” are cute but often don’t erase easily).
Good pencil-holding methods: Watch how your child is holding her pencil. While some methods of holding a pencil are generally better than others, don’t be too concerned unless it is obvious that the child’s method is causing problems (finger cramps, slow writing, messy writing). For some suggestions on good pencil-holding methods, you can google “how to hold a pencil” (and for left-handed students, be sure to google “how to hold a pencil left-handed”). The illustrations or video instructions will also give you tips on teaching proper pencil grip, and other pencil-control issues. Allow your child to try 2 or 3 different, well-accepted methods, and see what method works best for her.
Various surfaces, textures, finger tracing, and more: Some children find working with pencils (and pens) very difficult, due to lack of fine motor development. Try using “fat” pencils, crayons, markers, or chalk, and have the child write on a large surface, such as a blackboard or even on a sidewalk. A child might like to make a big hop-scotch with alphabet letters in each square.
Other children have difficulty learning the “shape” of letters simply by looking, tracing, or copying. They may find that using the sense of touch makes a big difference. Finger tracing large letters, especially those with a textured surface (for example, made from sandpaper) is a good way for such a child to learn their letters; also “feeling” foam or cardboard letters also works well. Some children do well by “writing” with finger paints or in shaving cream.
Some children also learn well by “feeling” as you “write” letters on their back, or on the palm of their hand, with your finger. And some children do well by “writing” large letters in the air with their finger or even with their arm and hand.
Integrate handwriting with other lessons: If your child’s writing is sloppy and he doesn’t want to bother improving it, and/or if your child’s spelling needs improvement, it sometimes helps to point out that people will be wanting to read the child’s stories, letters, lists, and so on. You can take a sample of the child’s writing, and read it to him, just as it is spelled and as the writing looks–without making any corrections as you read. This may help him realise why it is important to practice spelling and handwriting. If you integrate into your child’s lessons the kinds of writing people will actually be reading, like notes to family, grocery lists, etc., it may well encourage him to improve. Another thing you can try is to have him write out what he wants to order before you go to a restaurant, then read it to him just as it looks, and discuss what the waitress might bring if she has to read his order.
Alternative handwriting styles: An alternative to the standard “manuscript” (printing) format is called “D’Nealian Handwriting” which is almost like half-way between manuscript and cursive (it looks somewhat like italics). For some children, it is easier to learn than standard manuscript, and for other children who are struggling to switch over to cursive, it may be a useful middle step. On the other hand, some children who have already been learning standard manuscript may be confused if you switch them over mid-stream to “D’Nealian,” and some people are concerned that the little curves at the ends of the letter make learning the letters more difficult. If your child is just starting out, you might want to try D’Nealian from the start if she has fairly good fine motor skills; and if your child is ready to move on to cursive writing but is having a bit of trouble with it, you might use D’Nealian as a middle step. There are lots of free D’Nealian worksheets on the internet if you’d like to give it a try. If manuscript (printing) is really difficult for your child, try cursive (writing) instead: back in the day, children were actually taught cursive first, and it really does work well for some children.
Lowercase first, then uppercase … and examples: If possible, teach lowercase letters first, matching the letters up to word pictures (nouns) that start with that letter. Then, when teaching uppercase (capital) letters, try always to, at the same time, teach when capitals are used–primarily, of course, at the beginning of sentences, and for proper nouns. Of course, some common nouns can also be proper nouns. For example, in my name, Norma Hill, the common noun “hill” has become the proper noun “Hill.” I use this example with my students by drawing a sketch of a little hill with “hill” written below, and a funny little sketch of myself with “Mrs. Hill” written below it.
This also works well with names of cities and geographical features with which children are familiar. In our area, “summer” can be matched with “Summerland” and the words “fish” and “lake” can be matched with “Fish Lake.”
Flashcards: A lot of commercially available flashcards only use the uppercase (capital) form of letters. This is confusing for children. If you really want to use these store-bought flash cards, white out the capital letters and replace them with lowercase letters (except for proper nouns). But here’s a better idea: You can easily create a set of flashcards (on index cards) with the actual names of people, places, stores, schools, etc. that your child is familiar with (Safeway, Parkway School, Donald Duck, Vancouver). You can also make cards with just common nouns (girl, boy, town, store, cafe, school). Have your child help you illustrate them by cutting pictures from old magazines, and snapping and printing out photos of people and places around your home. Have your child sort these cards into capitalised proper nouns and non-capitalized common nouns. As your child has been involved in creating these flash card, he will remember the letters and their forms much more easily.
Watch for uppercase letters as you read together: As you read books and other written materials, watch for all the uses of uppercase letters, and have your child explain each use. Do the same with street and building signs as you walk or drive along.
Copywork: As your child’s handwriting skills develop, go beyond just letters, words, and sentences. An excellent way to further develop skills is to have your child copy poems (or prose). There are some very good copywork materials available online, many of them free or very low-cost. Google “copywork” for worksheets that are ready to download, or “copywork generator” if you want to make personalised copywork sheets.
A favourite handwriting kit of mine is “A Child’s Garden of Verses”–based on the classic children’s poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, which provides copywork in both manuscript and cursive, and also offers various formats, including ones in which the child can illustrate the picture. It also provides great reading practice, and an opportunity to teach poetry along with the handwriting. (PrintnPractice.com also has many excellent phonics, math, spelling and other worksheets).
For more great handwriting tips, why not check out my Improve Handwriting and Stop Reversals booklet in the “Easy to Learn” series at TeachersPayTeachers.com.