Why handwriting is important
Handwriting is an essential life skill.
For example, children who can write smoothly and clearly are better able to use writing to record thoughts and ideas. When handwriting is automatic, ideas can flow. Children also need to write for many school lessons and tasks.
Handwriting skills help children develop reading and spelling skills. Handwriting also helps with the ability to recall and remember information.
And we need handwriting skills to do many tasks later in life, like writing birthday cards, filling in forms and signing important documents.
How handwriting develops
Handwriting is a complex skill that develops over time. To learn handwriting, children need to combine fine motor skills, language, memory and concentration. They also need to practise and follow instructions.
Handwriting starts with scribbling and drawing then moves on to forming letters, words and sentences.
You can encourage your child to develop an interest in handwriting by giving them opportunities to draw, scribble and write. This prepares your child for the formal handwriting they’ll learn at school.
Left-handed writing in children
Most children choose to write and draw with their right hand. But some children choose their left hand. This is OK. When children choose their left hand to write with, there’s no need for them to swap hands.
Children who write with their left hand might find it hard to see their writing because their left hands cover their writing as it moves across the page. If you tilt your child’s page so that the left-hand corner is highest, your child can more easily see what they’re writing or drawing.
Toddlers: drawing and early handwriting skills
Drawing is the start of handwriting for toddlers, usually at around 2 years.
Drawing starts with making marks or scribbles on paper and other surfaces. At first, toddlers usually move markers, crayons or chalk back and forth across paper. Gradually, they gain more control and might try to make lines and curves. Sometimes older toddlers might tell you what their marks are – for example, ‘a caterpillar’ or ‘a cat’.
Here are ideas to get your toddler scribbling, drawing and ‘writing’:
- Have crayons and paper, or chalk and blackboard, handy. Small chunks of chalk or crayons encourage your toddler to use a fingertip grip. This helps your toddler learn to hold a pencil.
- Provide various materials for your toddler to draw on – for example, coloured paper, cardboard, and notebooks with lines and blank pages.
- Sit with your toddler and draw pictures together.
- Encourage your toddler to draw things that interest them. For example, if your toddler likes insects, you could draw a centipede and your toddler could add a lot of legs. Or on a rainy day you could draw a big cloud and your toddler could draw rain falling down.
- Prop up your toddler’s drawing surface so that it’s on an angle. You could use an easel or blackboard. This helps your toddler make downward strokes, which they need to do for writing later on.
- Encourage your toddler to squeeze and pinch things. This could be threading big beads, squeezing and pinching playdough into shapes, or building with blocks and Duplo. This helps your toddler develop the hand muscles needed for using pencils.
- Let your toddler see you writing by hand for different purposes – for example, to make a list, leave a message, or write down a phone number.
Preschoolers: getting started with handwriting
Children usually start to draw straight and circular lines in the preschool years. Your child might even put these lines and shapes together to draw people and objects. Your child might also start to form letters and numbers.
Plenty of opportunities to draw will help your child keep developing the skills they need for handwriting:
- Keep giving your child chunky crayons and chalk until they develop the finger and thumb grip needed to hold a pencil.
- Encourage your child to trace simple top-to-bottom and left-to-right lines on a page, trying to stay on the lines all the way to the end. Make up a story to add interest to the activity. For example, ‘Help this puppy find the way home’.
- Practise drawing anticlockwise circles that start at the top of the page. This is the pattern we use to form letters.
- As your child gets more control over crayons or pencils, encourage them to draw simple stick figure people. If you put your child’s pictures on the fridge or wall, they’ll feel proud of their work.
- Encourage your child to trace over the letters of their name. At first you might need to put your hand over your child’s hand to help them.
- Help your child learn the alphabet sequence. Try clapping your hands in a steady rhythm while you say the letters together. Doing this with music or singing the alphabet song together can also help.
- Encourage your child to write and draw with other materials. For example, your child could draw lines in sand or mud, trace over letters on signs with their finger, form 3D letters from playdough, and so on. Take photos of these drawings if you want to print them out and display them.
Creative and pretend play can improve your child’s literacy. It also puts some of your child’s drawing skills into practice.
Handwriting education at school
During the first 2 years of school, your child will learn to:
- form letters
- recognise and spell frequently used words
- put spaces between words
- write letters and words in a similar size and in a line
- write about familiar events.
Children develop their handwriting ability at different rates, but most children gain these basic skills within the first 2 years of school. From Year 2 on, children start to write more complex sentences and write about their experiences.
Handwriting: encouraging your school-age child
Here are tips to encourage your school-age child’s handwriting:
- Make a place for writing at home. Have a stable chair and a surface at the level of your child’s belly button. If your table is too high, you could use a cushion or tall chair to raise your child higher, with a footstool to support your child’s feet.
- Ask your child’s teacher for a sample sheet with the starting points for each letter clearly marked. This can help your child practise at home.
- Write letters lightly and correctly yourself and get your child to trace over them. Show your child where to start drawing the letter by putting a green dot at the starting point and a red one at the finishing point.
- Say the names of letters and the letter sounds with your child as they draw or trace the letters.
- Use everyday opportunities to practise writing. For example, get your child to add items to the family shopping list, write notes to grandparents, help with birthday and other cards, or make labels with post-it notes.
- Make it fun. Use a stick to draw large letters in the ground or at the beach and fill the letters with pebbles or shells. Use non-permanent markers on a window to trace a letter over many times. Bath crayons are also good for this activity.
- Surprise your child with different types of writing materials and accessories, like pencils, pens, pencil cases and rulers. This shows your child that you value handwriting tools.
Learning to write takes time and practice. Praise your child’s efforts. It’s good to help your child spot their best letters. And you can encourage your child to write more letters like them. Focus on the letters your child writes well rather than the mistakes.
Signs of handwriting problems in early school-age children
Learning to write involves a combination of skills and abilities and an understanding of language. If your child is having difficulty with one or more of these skills, they might have some trouble with learning handwriting.
Here are early signs that your child is having difficulty developing the skills to write by hand at school:
- Swapping hands while drawing or handwriting during the first year of school – most children prefer using one hand for drawing before they reach school, but some children have started school when this happens.
- Writing slowly or struggling to draw letters correctly – your child might need some help developing motor skills to make smooth, careful movements.
- Gripping a pencil differently from the way they were taught or gripping the pencil weakly – this can slow down your child’s handwriting and make it hard for them to complete work in a reasonable time.
- Lacking interest in or avoiding drawing and handwriting – this might happen if your child isn’t confident about drawing or their writing isn’t as advanced as their classmates’ writing.
- Writing in an untidy way – this might look like reversed letters, letters not correctly closed, inconsistent letter size, letters that don’t sit on the line and inconsistent spacing between letters and words.
- Not following the teacher’s instructions while learning to write – this might be because your child has trouble concentrating, paying attention or understanding instructions.
If you notice these signs, it’s possible that your child can’t clearly see the board, their own writing or the print in books. Or your child might have additional learning needs that affect handwriting development.
Getting help with handwriting
Talk with your child’s preschool or school teacher or your GP if you’ve noticed your child having difficulty with handwriting skills. Your GP might recommend you make an appointment with an occupational therapist, audiologist or optometrist.
Children with handwriting difficulties might need extra help and aids. These might include:
- angled writing boards
- chunky pencils
- pencil grips
- paper with coloured dotted lines, bold lines or raised tactile lines.
An occupational therapist can let you know what aids will help your child.
You can get handwriting apps on tablets and smartphones. Handwriting apps can be useful, so long as your child uses them only as an extra option for handwriting practice, rather than as a replacement.
It’s also important to make sure that any apps you’re interested in use the handwriting script that’s taught at your child’s school. It might be a good idea to talk with your child’s teacher before you decide on a handwriting app for your child.