handwriting · modifications · teaching tools · technology

The Physical Act of Writing

Seven Ideas to Help Kids with the Physical Act of Writing - Two Writing TeachersWhenever someone asks what it means to be a literacy consultant, I say, “I go into schools and work with teachers, coaching them about the teaching of writing.”  Most of the time people think I’m talking about handwriting.  (I do clarify and explain a bit about writing workshop.)  However, I’ve been thinking a lot about the physical part of writing a lot lately.

Some of you might remember my post earlier this year about my daughter’s Childhood Apraxia of Speech, or CAS, diagnosis.  While CAS is a motor speech disorder, often children with CAS have trouble with motor planning in their daily lives.  Motor planning is defined as:

[T]he ability to conceive, plan, and carry out a skilled, non-habitual motor act in the correct sequence from beginning to end. Incoming sensory stimuli must be correctly integrated in order to form the basis for appropriate, coordinated motor responses. The ability to motor plan is a learned ability which is generalized to all unfamiliar tasks so a child does not need to consciously figure out each new task he or she faces. The child with motor planning difficulties may be slow in carrying out verbal instructions and often appears clumsy in new tasks (Retrieved on 10/8/14 from http://bit.ly/10RbNpg).

One of my largest concerns this past spring was my daughter’s lack of pre-writing skills.  She was having trouble copying straight lines or drawing a single circle.  As an educator this made me nervous since I know our written language is made up of lines and curves.  If she couldn’t do these basic things, I worried she’d struggle later once writing demands increased in preschool.  Her occupational therapist agreed.  Therefore, in addition to working on things like dressing herself, navigating simple obstacle courses, and hand strengthening activities, my daughter’s occupational therapists added coloring and pre-writing goals.  (As a result she now receives three occupational therapy sessions each week, in addition to her three speech therapy sessions.  Seeing as this post is not about her, I’ll summarize to say the therapy has been going well and is helping her make progress!)

I had several students who received occupational therapy when I taught fourth grade.  That was when I learned about things like raised lined paper and fidget strips.  In the past few months, my eyes have been opened to some of the tools available for kids who have trouble with the physical act of writing.  Here are a few things I’ve seen that might help some of your students with the writing part of writing workshop.

Coloring in a prone position with a foam gripper and a Handi-writer.
Coloring in a prone position with a foam gripper and a Handi-writer.

POSITION THAT PEN (OR PENCIL OR CRAYON)! — Isabelle’s OT has been working on her tripod grasp for months.  It’s been challenging to transition her from a palmar grasp to a more mature position. Two things have helped: a foam gripper and a Handi-writer (pictured to the right). I especially love the Handi-writer since it’s a terrycloth bracelet that goes around the wrist and forces the child to hold their writing utensil properly.  The ones I purchased online have dolphin charms on them, which she tucks into her palm using the pinkie and ring fingers.

For classroom use: If you have a bunch of students who need something like Handi-writers, but you don’t have the budget to buy them, consider using rubber bands and cotton balls to simulate the Handi-writer.

Broken CrayonsTHE SMALLER THE BETTER! — My daughter’s OT suggested breaking crayons in half in order to force her into using a tripod grasp. One afternoon we went outside and broke a bunch of large crayons in half, which helped position her hand in a more adult-like position.

For classroom use: If you don’t want to break your brand new crayons, consider finding some old crayons for this purpose.  Also, don’t pitch those stumpy pencils! Give them to students who need a little help with their grasp.

CLIP IT! — We have a mantra, “One hand helps, the other hand works.” This reminds my daughter one hand holds her paper while she’s writing or coloring.  Clipboards help too!

For classroom use: Have clipboards available in your writing center for students who need them.  Slanted handwriting boards exist and can be purchased (or made) for children who need an angled writing surface.

AN APP FOR THAT! — One of my daughter’s occupational therapists told me about Writing Wizard, an app that provides handwriting practice for children. We started out with simple lines and curves a few weeks ago and have progressed to letters since Isabelle is interested in them.  The app provides practice through tracing and includes sounds and animations to keep kids engaged.

(I created a digital story to show you how this app is used in our home. Click here to view it using Steller.)

For classroom use:  One can leave a child alone with this app since it has a timer, as well as record-keeping features.

WIGGLE SEATS! — Some kids cannot sit still, which impacts their ability to sustain writing for a long period of time.  A squishy cushion or wiggle seat is less costly and less noticeable alternative to an exercise ball chair.

For classroom use: Work with your school’s OT to find the item that will suit any wiggly students’ needs.  Some inexpensive ideas are stretch resistance bands around the base of students’ chairs or cushioned shelf liners on students’ seats.

HELP ME CUT THAT!  — My daughter had trouble operating regular scissors for months.  For quite awhile, she needed self-opening scissors to cut something as thick as an index card.  The spring-action in these scissors provided her with the bounce she needed to help her get used to the movement she’d need to make on her own with traditional scissors.

For classroom use: Check out resources like Fun and Function or Southpaw for scissors to meet the needs of your students who need assistance with cutting.  (This may help their ability to revise since they’ll be able to physically CUT and paste!)

JUST SAY IT! — No matter what modifications you put in place, some children will still have trouble writing.  Speech recognition software is a great option, if your school will pay for it!  I recently purchased Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium since I continue to have wrist, elbow, and shoulder pain when I write at the computer.  While I would prefer to type, having the option to dictate on days where it’s too painful to type and use the mouse is an enormous aid.

For classroom use: Work with your school’s OT to train students who need speech recognition software to use it in lieu of physically writing or typing.  If your school hasn’t purchased software like this, there are several companies who provide discounts to academic institutions who wish to buy the software and microphones/headpieces students will need for dictation.

I’d love to know what YOU do to help your students who have trouble with the physical act of writing.  Please leave a comment with tips and suggestions that have worked for some of your students so other teachers will have some additional ideas that could positively impact their students.

  • Disclaimer: I’m not an occupational therapist. The suggestions I have put forth in this post should not be used in place of consulting with a licensed occupational therapist.  Please speak with your school’s occupational therapist before moving forward to help your students who are having difficulty with writing.  S/he may have targeted suggestions that will help you meet the needs of your individual students.
  • Related article: “The right — and surprisingly wrong — ways to get kids to sit still in class” by Angela Hanscom.



15 thoughts on “The Physical Act of Writing

  1. I appreciate this post! I think sometimes we attribute students’ lack of writing stamina to attitudinal issues, when they can be the result of physical challenges. My son has motor apraxia and has benefited from some of the tips outlined in the post. To follow up on “the smaller the better,” we found golf pencils to be a fabulous tool!


  2. I have felt this year, more than ever before, that the physical act of writing is getting in the way of my writers’ growth. Thanks for the tips, Stacey! Their printing is a mashup of made-up strokes. This is prompting me to go looking for information on teaching printing. Do people still do that in Kindergarten/grade 1?


  3. This post is extremely helpful to parents of young children and primary teachers. My response to Althea’s question is (sadly) not too encouraging. I believe fourth grade is most likely too late to make a permanent change in the pencil grip.


    1. What about first grade? I have a little one that is dead set on her pencil grip and it’s becoming impossible to change because she goes home and repeats the bad habit. Any thoughts?


      1. Missy – I’d defer to your school’s occupational therapist. However, from a non-OT standpoint, try to work with the girl’s family on this. Is there something they can do (e.g., carry over verbal instructions/reminders for grasping the writing utensil or using the same kind of gripper you use in school) to support her at-home? I think the more we can work with parents, the faster we can see positive changes.


  4. I teach 4th grade, and I have many students who can’t grip the pencil correctly. I mean, some grips are quite creative and would be difficult for me to model. Some say that it’s too late to change these bad habits by the 4th grade and try to reteach them how to hold a pencil correctly. What do you think?



    1. Alethea — I’m honestly not sure since I’m a trained classroom teacher and literacy specialist, not an OT. That said, from my personal experience (as an upper elementary school teacher), it’s really hard to retrain a child to fix their grip. I think if a child is motivated to want to fix it (i.e., they know it’ll make writing easier for them), then it’s something you can work on with them. However, if the child doesn’t see the problem with it and they’re able to write well enough with their existing grip, I wouldn’t push it because it looks awkward.


  5. Your post is filled with great information. As a special educator, I have often worked with the OT to find strategies that would make “writing”. Your suggestions are great, Lucky for us, and for your daughter, that you have so much information to share about writing, from every angle. Thanks for the information. Good luck to your daughter.


Comments are closed.