Strategies for Improving Handwriting

There is so much you can learn about a student’s phonics skills just from looking at writing samples.   One of the big “ah-ha” moments from my Phonics First training (Orton-Gillingham based program) was when the trainer said that a student has not fully mastered a phonics rule until you see him/her use it in writing.  Of course, that makes sense.  Sometimes you just need someone to point out the obvious.  Since that time, I’ve made it a point to really take some time to analyze writing samples.  One of the problems I’m having with some students is actually trying to read what they are writing.  This issue has led to numerous conversations with our Occupational Therapists regarding handwriting.  Admittedly, it the past, when I came across illegible writing, I was quick to call in the OT.   But lately, in the spirit of Response to Intervention (RtI), I’ve been working with teachers in providing strategies first.   Here are some strategies for commonly occurring handwriting issues:

Letter Size Differentiation

The writing of students whose lowercase letters are as large as the uppercase letters or their “descending” letters don’t drop below the line is difficult to read.  Our OT’s refer to this as “letter-size differentiation”.  Students need to be taught that tall letters are “tall” and reach the top line (e.g. b, d, f, h, k), small letters are “small” and are printed in the middle of the line (e.g. a, c, e) and descending letters drop below the bottom line (e.g. p, g).  To help cue students into the correct formation of the letters, having them practice writing letters on highlighted paper and/or using the highlighted paper for writing assignments can be beneficial.


Hi Write Hi-Write Wide-Ruled Notebook Paper
Hi-Write Beginner 1 Paper – Pack of 100
Hi Write Intermediate Paper – Pack of 100 Pages – Grade 2

You can purchase highlighted paper commercially; however our Assistive Technology guy easily generated this highlight paper using a program on his Mac.  Just for fun I tried my hand at creating highlighted paper with Microsoft Publisher.  We couldn’t find highlighted paper for specifically for spelling so I whipped this up for my first/second grade teacher friends.

Highlight paper spelling list2

Click the following link to download this pdf Highlight paper spelling list2

We also recommend the use of raised line paper as the students can feel when their pencil touches the line.

Another fun strategy is cheering out spelling words.  I LOVE this strategy as incorporates movement and doubles as a multi-sensory strategy for learning words.    Students jump in the air with arms raised high for tall letters.  For small letters, they stretch their arms off to the side and for decending letters they crouch down low.

 Spacing Between Words

Another issue that affects legibility is not putting spaces between words.  In April, I wrote a blog regarding a specific strategy that our fabulous OT, Lyzz, uses to help students with word spacing.  Here’s the link to that post Teaching Students to Space Between Words

Case Consistently

Have you ever had a student write in all capital letters?  Students who are not correctly using capitals or lowercase letters need direct instruction and practice.  A reminder strip with simply upper- and lowercase letters on the desk may help.

Letter Formation

Students who are not forming letters correctly will need re-teaching of the correct stroke sequence.  Using multi-sensory strategies such as writing letters in sand or shaving cream will help.  Writing letters in the air prior to writing on the paper is a great strategy because it involves whole body movements (this is known as “air writing”).  For a more structured program, the Handwriting Without Tears is a program which is highly respected and has proven effective in improving handwriting.   In general, students need practice in writing the letters correctly.  This will involve direct supervision when practicing writing as we do not want them practicing incorrect strokes (remember: only perfect practice makes perfect).  It will take repeated practice writing letters correctly to reverse an old habit.

Handwriting Without Tears now has a new app.  I absolutely love it!


It’s the Wet, Dry, Try App.  It’s great because first the student is given a model of the correct letter strokes (voice too).  Then he/she must wet the letter with the sponge, dry it with a towel and then write it again with the chalk (of course, all virtual).


Handwriting practice worksheets also provided the extra practice needed when learning correct letter formation.  These handwriting practice worksheets are available in my TpT store.  I like to print a color copy and then lamintate the pages (I use the heavier laminating sheets) so that they can be used over and over again.

Write the Alphabetprevpg3

Click HERE or on the picture below to download handwriting practice pages for the letters of the alphabet.


Letter Reversals

Okay, I know this is a big one!  So big in fact I wrote a blog devoted to just this issue.  Here’s the link Why Students Reverse Letters

With a little bit (or quite a bit) of deliberate practice, our little writers can improve their penmanship.


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Focus Sticks

I love my job.  I really, really do!  One of the favorite parts about my job is that I get to network with a whole bunch of very talented teachers.  I love hearing about and seeing them implement creative strategies to improve student learning.   During the past several years, many of our local school districts have focused on improving writing instruction.  All of our schools, from elementary to high school, received training in the Collins Writing Program.  In addition, teachers were able to participate in other inservices such as the 6 Traits of Writing to enhance their instruction in this area.

My good friend and colleague, Michelle (same job, just different schools) came back to our office one day so excited to share what she had seen in one of the first grade classrooms she visited.  She was so impressed with the quality of writing and the independence displayed by this classroom of first graders during their writing time that she just had to bring back the tool the teacher used to show us all.  Sue, a first grade teacher, uses ”focus sticks” to help her students develop and assess their own writing.  The focus sticks are placed in a cup in the center of the table.  After completing their writing, the students use a focus stick to check to be sure their writing includes the pictured elements.  The icons placed on the sticks serve as cues.  Below is a stick that Sue uses during the beginning of the school year.

During whole group instruction, she has explained and modeled the expectation for each icon.

Click the following link to download these focus stick icons Focus Sticks Level 1

As the year goes on, and as each student progresses in the writing process, the icons on the sticks change depending upon the expectations.  So, here is another stick that Sue uses as her students advance.

You can see in this focus stick, she has incorporated three of the six traits:  ideas, voice and sentence fluency.  Of course she has provided instruction in those areas before introducing the icons on the stick.

Click the following link to download these focus stick icons Focus Sticks Level 2

When appropriate, Sue transitions the students from the use of the focus stick to a written rubric.

Not all students use the same stick at the same time.  Some students may be working on the skills contained within the initial focus stick for a long time while others quickly move to the second stick and then to the written rubric.  For our struggling students, removing icons is always an option.  For example, for one student, the goals of a writing assignment may be to use correct letter sizing and to draw a picture to match the text.

You can also cut the icons out individually if you’d like to focus on specific skills.

To make your own focus sticks you will need large craft sticks (I color coordinated my sticks, but it is not necessary), wiggly eyes (I used 25mm, but any size will do), full size Avery labels and cups.  The amount of materials will depend upon how many sticks you wish to make.

1. Print the desired pdf of the focus stick icons on the full size Avery labels and cut along the dotted lines.

2.  Center the icons on the stick and fold over the edges.


3.  Using a hot glue gun, glue the wiggly eye at the end of the stick.  Here’s a trick… put the glue on the stick, hold the stick upside down and push the wiggly eye up on the stick.  This way the wiggly eye will wiggle.  If you push the eye down on the stick, the black wiggly touches the glue and won’t wiggle (tragic, I know).

upside downblog

4.  Adhere the sticker on the cup.

I’ve included a classroom set of posters which corresponds to the icons on the focus sticks for use during instruction as well as reminders for students as they are writing.

Click the following link to download all classroom sized posters Writing sticks Posters

If you’d like more information on the 6+1 Traits of Writing, the book is awesome!

6 Traitsblogpic


Blog Flower Borders

Teaching Students to Space Between Words

One of the great benefits of my job is that I have the privilege of working with many skilled professionals from various disciplines.  We have a dynamite staff of Occupational Therapists who are never short of ideas and suggestions.  I recently had a discussion with one of our OTs, Lyzz, regarding letter reversals and handwriting in general.  Lyzz said that if students space between words and use correct letter size differentiation (using tall, short and below the line letters) that despite spelling errors, you can typically read and understand what was written.  Although there are several strategies that can be used to teach and remind students to space between words, Lyzz’s preferred method is the one which includes using small stickers.  She likes this method best because it doesn’t take the student “out of the writing process”  such as what happens when using a stick or clothespin after writing each word.  The sticker strategy goes something like this:

1.  The student is told that the spaces between words must be wide enough to fit a small sticker.  Small smiley face stickers work best.  These stickers can be found in the teacher supply area in office supply stores such as Office Max or Staples.  Smiley face stickers are made by SmileMakers.

2. A visual reminder is placed on the student’s desk during the writing process which shows a small sticker placed between the words.

3.  After the student finishes his/her writing, the paper is given to the teacher and a small sticker is placed between words where the sticker will fit.  If the space between the words is too small, a sticker is not put in that area.

4.  A reward system can be used.  For example, when the student reaches a predetermined amount of stickers, a reward is earned.

Student Word Spacing Reminder Strips

Click the above link to download a free pdf of student reminders for their desk.

Of course not all students in your classroom will need this intervention.  Use this strategy for only those who have difficulty with word spacing.  Once the student is consistently spacing between words, the intervention can be faded to occasionally placing stickers between words on writing samples (e.g. once a week).

Another common writing issue in the early grades is students not using their non-writing hand to stabilize their paper.  Here’s a cute and effective strategy to help.  For students who write with their right hand, place a visual of a handprint in the left hand corner of the paper and instruct the student to place their non-writing hand over it.    Lyzz likes to use the “Squishy Prints” handprint which is commerically available through Abilitations.  Typically, using this strategy for about two weeks resolves the issue.

Occupational Therapists are great resources for ideas and strategies to help our beginning writers develop strong writing habits early on. Thanks, Lyzz, for your contribution to this blog!


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