Handwriting: First With Kids - Vermont Children's Hospital, Fletcher Allen

Doing the Write Thing


Parents have been writing to me asking me whether they should be concerned about their child’s poor handwriting. Well, let me see if I can script some answers to this question.

Handwriting is one of the most complex tasks we do that involves both critical thinking and motor skills. Much like learning to read, learning to write takes years to master. From initial scribbling to beginning to write letters, from putting those letters together and figuring out they form words—and then sentences—these processes are practiced and learned each passing month and year.  

Factor in the amount of time it takes to practice capital letters, lowercase letters, punctuation, and spelling, as well as print and cursive writing, and you have a good chunk of elementary school time right there. And that’s before we even introduce keyboard writing.

It is felt that writing skills reinforce reading skills and vice versa. Studies show that if children struggle with their handwriting and in turn their reading, it can affect their self-esteem and their attitude toward school.

So when should we be worried about messy handwriting? While children will normally develop handwriting skills at different rates, if a child is showing other signs of developmental delay in addition to poor handwriting, these signs may be indicators of memory problems, language problems, visual or sequencing problems, or possibly attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

If you find your child does have an awkward pencil grip, difficulty forming or writing letters, an inability to concentrate and complete writing tasks, avoids writing or misspells words when they do write, or you sense their verbal skills are far better than then handwriting skills, consider talking to your child’s doctor as well as their teachers. They may recommend further evaluation of your child’s overall development.  

If a developmental or learning disorder is diagnosed that is causing the writing difficulties, referral for tutoring or possibly an occupational therapist to improve writing skills may be recommended. In many cases, the more your child practices their handwriting, the better it will get. If the problem turns out to be associated with ADHD, medication may improve the handwriting as well as their ability to focus and pay attention.

Hopefully tips like this will (pencil) point you and your child in the “write” direction when it comes to improving their handwriting.

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids.