Is your child using sloppy handwriting?

Is your child:

  • Using illegible handwriting?
  • Getting frustrated while writing?
  • Hearing from the teacher that she can’t read his work?
  • Rushing through writing tasks?
  • Getting work turned back to re-do because it’s too messy?
  • Feeling very frustrated when she has to write a lot?
  • Refusing writing tasks?
  • Handwriting slow and laborious?
  • Holding the pencil in an ‘awkward’ way?
  • Writing really big or really small?


Does your child have poor or illegible handwriting? She may become frustrated and have crinkled papers all over her desk. Alternately, he may not realize his handwriting is so sloppy and may be surprised when no one can read it. Children with poor penmanship may write ill formed letters that are hard to read. Some of the issues may  be:

  • The letters may be all different sizes
  • Capital letters may be strewn about with lowercase letters
  • The words may be slanted on the page, failing to touch the lines
  • The child’s ‘g’ may not dip below the line
  • The child’s ‘H’ may fail to touch the top of the line
  • The pressure on the page may be too light or too hard
  • Too much or little space may be present between letters and words

Your child with handwriting problems may also have trouble copying from the board or transferring information from one place to another. Your child may hate to write and seem to get much less down on paper then he or she wants to say. He or she may seem inattentive, rushed, or very slow in working style. Your child may seem to exert extraordinary effort to do writing tasks. Sometimes, they may refuse or avoid writing tasks; other times, it may take them a very long time to write short sentences.


Clinically, poor handwriting is generally considered a problem with fine motor skills.

Fine Motor delays: Fine motor is the coordination skills required to complete smaller, complex movements with the hands and fingers. With younger children in preschool and kindergarten, fine motor skills may be a bit behind due to lack of exposure and practice. This delay is not cause for concern.

Preference for gross motor activities: Some children who are more drawn to gross motor activities, such as running and riding a bike, rather than coloring and drawing, may simply not have enough practice with grasping a pencil or crayon. These concerns can be remedied with proper time and attention. However, if the child is becoming so frustrated and slow with his or her writing that these challenges are truly getting in the way, it may be worthwhile to look into them further.

Attention: Another issue to consider is whether your child has the attention skills to focus on his or her handwriting. If sustaining attention is an issue, it could be a sign that testing is warranted. Problems with handwriting could also be related to the areas of concern listed under Similar Symptoms.


In the younger grades, at least from kindergarten through third grade, it is important to put interventions in place to make sure your child knows how to write. Poor or illegible handwriting could have life-long effects.

Try different types of pencils and paper. Giving your child a variety of options can help make handwriting less laborious. Writing on a vertical surface helps work on many skills contributing to handwriting, including:

  • Wrist extension
  • Pencil grasp
  • Shoulder and elbow stability
  • Posture

Try writing on a whiteboard or drawing letters in the sand. Handwriting without tears [1] is an excellent program for working on letter formation and general writing skills. Generally, with practice and repetition, a child’s handwriting will improve.

Suggestions to help with your child’s handwriting


Too much pressure

  • Practice writing on tissue paper
  • Try writing on paper placed on top of a piece of Styrofoam or carpet while trying to not tear or poke any holes
  • Try learning to color the same picture light, medium, and dark to increase awareness of pressure
  • Try writing with a mechanical pencil as it will break easily if too much pressure if applied.
  • Try writing words lightly and erase them with the goal being to not leave any marks

Too little pressure

  • Practice writing on a carbon copy or color scratch paper
  • Practice fine motor activities to strengthen the hands, such as hole-punching, clothespins or tongs
  • Practice using a weighted pencil
  • Practice writing with a golf tee in putty

Body Awareness (warm up exercises)

  • Squeeze stress balls
  • Try wall push-ups
  • Roll playdoh into snakes
  • Push finger tips together
  • Try crabwalks, wheelbarrow walks, or bear walks

Handwriting grasp (promoting the mature dynamic tripod grasp with thumb, index and middle finger with open web space)

  • Utilize toys with tongs
  • Color with short/broken crayons
  • Pop packing bubbles with tripod grasp
  • Write on a vertical surface
  • Use a variety of pencil grips


  • Practice keeping feet flat on the ground, knees, and hips at 90 degrees, paper tilted (25 to 30 degrees to the left of midline for right-handed students and 30 to 35 degrees for left-handed students) [2]
  • Keep table surface 2 inches above flexed elbows when seated, and stabilize paper with non-dominant hand [2]

Visual Motor Integration

  • Try using stencils
  • Try grid drawings
  • Try mazes

In the older grades, handwriting is much less important than content. Once your child is in middle school or beyond, focus those resources on typing and dictation. Google or Dragon Dictation offers a chance for your child to speak what he wishes to write and then to edit this text on the computer. Typing and speaking more lengthy text can save lots of time and will be more practical as your child gets older.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Visual tracking: the ability to visually follow words on a page as you read or an object as it moves through space impacts handwriting
  • Focused attention: the ability to maintain attention to a task impacts handwriting
  • Motor planning: the ability to plan and execute motor movement impacts handwriting
  • Depth perception: the ability to judge the distance in space between the child and other objects in the visual field may impact handwriting
  • Spatial reasoning: the ability to see how objects fit together may impact handwriting
  • Coordination: abilities like running, walking, catching a ball, kicking a ball may be impaired along with handwriting
  • Learning problems: academic abilities in reading or writing may be impacted when handwriting is impaired
  • Body space awareness: the ability to judge physical space and attend to nonverbal cues may also be impaired when handwriting is impaired


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Developmental Coordination Disorder: challenges with fine motor, likely including poor handwriting
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: challenges with social communication and restricted repetitive interests/behaviors
  • Specific Learning Disability / Dyslexia (Educationally Identified Disabilities): challenges with reading that have underlying visual processing deficits
  • Specific Learning Disability / Dysgraphia (Educationally Identified Disabilities): challenges with writing due to visual or motor processing deficits
  • Specific Learning Disability / Dyscalculia: challenges with mathematics may relate to visual-spatial deficits
  • ADHD: challenges with sustained attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity
  • Motor Apraxia: challenges with gross motor movement


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or to chat live with a psychologist
  • Physical Therapist: to assess and treat gross motor coordination; to help with large muscle groups and movement
  • Occupational Therapist: to assess and treat fine motor skills and sensory integration needs
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in context, as they may be related to visual spatial problems, attention, or learning

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • MVPT-4: test of visual perception, including the following aspects:
    • visual closure– what would a partially drawn object look like completed
    • visual figure ground– locating a visual figure in a distracting visual image or an object that is altered to be smaller, larger, or darker
    • visual memory– recalling a picture presented a moment before among distracting objects
  • Beery VMI sequence: test of visual-motor integration, visual perception and motor coordination.
  • WISC-V: test of intelligence. Using tasks of block design, coding, symbol search and cancellation, examiners can look specifically at visual tracking and visual motor (IQ test)
  • DAS-2: test of cognitive ability. Provides a spatial index score consisting of block design and a copying or recalling designs subtest depending on your child’s age. Concerns with writing or fine motor can be assessed using the spatial index (IQ/Cognitive test)
  • CTMT: test of executive functioning that includes visual search and sequence by drawing lines from symbol to symbol. Assesses sequencing, visual attention and distractibility.
  • Grooved Pegboard: test of fine motor dexterity that can impact writing
  • TOVA: continuous performance test of sustained attention in the absence of immediate reinforcement. Often, children with significant challenges with sustained attention have poor handwriting. Ruling out a diagnosis of ADHD will be important if sustained attention/ hyperactivity or impulsivity are challenges.
  • WIAT-III: test of academic achievement for related concerns in reading, writing, or math (academic test)
  • WJ-IV: test of academic achievement for related concerns in reading, writing, or math (academic test)
  • TOWL: test of written language that provides standard, age and grade equivalent scores for writing only (academic test)
  • Writing Samples: assessments of handwriting samples from your student’s language arts class are helpful to assess legibility (academic test)


[1] Handwriting without tears.

Retrieved: www.hwtears.com

[2] Amundson, S., & Schneck, C. (2010). Prewriting and handwriting skills. In Case-Smith, J., & O’Brien, J. (Eds.). Occupational therapy for children (681-711). St. Louis: Mosby. [3]

[3] Dragon Speak App.

Retrieved: http://www.nuance.com/for-individuals/mobile-applications/dragon-dictation/index.htm

 [6] Mather, Nancy & Goldstein, Sam (2015). Learning disabilities and challenging behaviors: Using the building blocks model to guide intervention and classroom management, third edition.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Learning-Disabilities-Challenging-Behaviors-Intervention/dp/1598578367/

[7] Peacock, Gretchen Gimpel & Collett, Brent (2010). Collaborative home/school interventions: Evidence-based solutions for emotional, behavioral, and academic problems.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Collaborative-Home-School-Interventions-Evidence-Based/dp/1606233459/

Image Credit:
Description: Cute girl writing something, isolated on white background
Image ID: #59676679 (Shutterstock)
By: swissmacky
Previously Licensed on: May 13, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for Clear Child Psychology

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