In-Tuned™ Tip: Improving Legibility and Speed of Handwriting

Many children struggle with handwriting. Teachers have difficulty reading and grading a struggling student’s work, and parents are unsure of how to help the child beyond routine practice. Occupational therapists working in pediatric clinics and schools frequently receive referrals to work on children’s fine motor skills to improve handwriting; however, poor legibility goes beyond a lack of fine motor skills. In fact, the type of grip the child uses on the pencil does not contribute much to speed or legibility of writing.

Many children with brain-based disorders have either low muscle tone, which is more common, or have too much muscle tone. As a result, the big postural muscles of the body (trunk, abdominals, pectorals, and leg muscles) do not always work well together to support the child, especially when the child is in a sitting position. The child is more likely to overuse the helper accessory (secondary) muscles around the shoulders and neck for support. When this is happening, the child appears to be in a shrug posture, slumped forward over the desk, or may be sitting with legs folded under them in some fashion. These accessory muscles are not meant to sustain work for long, so they fatigue quickly and shift the work to the hand. In response, the hand gets overloaded, supporting too much body weight and therefore pushing the pencil across the page and forming letters inefficiently. Difficulty gauging pressure on the pencil and fatigue of the small muscles of the hand ensues.

Exercises focusing on engaging the large postural muscle groups and improving balance are important to resolve issues with handwriting in the long term, but there are some quick fixes that can bring about a more immediate positive result.

#1. Have the child stand up at the desk or at a higher countertop, supporting themselves with one foot placed in front of the other. The larger muscles of the legs, abdominals, and trunk work better to support the child in this position, so the hand is freer to move and gauge pressure. Lightening the load for the hand makes handwriting easier for the child.

#2. Trade the child’s desk chair for an 18-inch exercise foam roller to sit on. The child has to bear weight more through their feet and use the larger muscle groups to balance, again freeing up the hand to write rather than having to support the upper body.

Here is a caveat: When we are not great at something, we tend to do it faster. This is especially true of children who have self-regulation difficulties. Although there are some children with brain-based disorder who process slowly and write slowly, the majority of these children tend to write too fast to have good legibility.

#3. A quick solution to this issue is to get the child’s brain into a consistent tempo and rhythm using a metronome application on a smart phone, such as ProTap. Start off at about 35 beats per minute and have the child write a letter only when they hear a tap. Increase the beats per minute as the child is able to maintain consistent formation, size, and letter spacing. Practicing this for even five minutes a day, five days per week can have a profound effect on legibility and the child’s ability to self-regulate during handwriting. Continue this practice until the child is able to write using mental beats only.

Handwriting is a difficult activity for many children with brain-based disorder and is an activity many of them avoid. These solutions may not work for all children, because there are other reasons for handwriting difficulties, but I have presented two of the most common reasons.

Helping a child improve the legibility of their handwriting has far-reaching positive effects. They are now getting positive feedback about something they were used to getting negative feedback about; writing is less frustrating; and improvements in regulation with this activity can carry over to other areas.


Julia Grover