Why is my child’s writing so messy?

by | Nov 29, 2021 | Front page posts, Overseas parents, Parents, Teach, Writing | 0 comments

Are you concerned about your child’s poor handwriting? If so, you’re not alone.

Many school-age children have poor, and sometimes indecipherable, handwriting. It’s a problem that can seem overwhelming to their parents.

Example of poor handwriting, but with good letter formation. Messy handwriting such as this is fixable, as long as the child has specific goals to achieve.
Example of messy writing. This writing will progress quickly if specific targets set. Currently, there is good letter formation.

What causes messy handwriting?

A number of different sub-skills have to be brought together successfully in order for a child to produce well-formed and fluent handwriting. And writing requires considerably more sub-skills than reading.  When completing a writing task, your child will need to think about letter structure as well as the motor mechanics of handwriting. They will need to recall information to use the appropriate word and to spell it correctly.

Neat written work relies on gross and fine motor skills, visual memory, attention to detail, learned letter formation and, of course, the right tools for the task.

Sometimes a simple switch of writing tool – from a blunt pencil or scratchy biro to a fluid rollerball – will dramatically lift the appearance of a piece of writing. Do try it!

First, let me reassure you. Your child is not lazy. Their slow and disengaged response to a writing task is learnt behaviour. They have assessed the situation subconsciously and decided that a low-energy, low-commitment response is the right one given their circumstances. Or they are simply struggling and disheartened.

Also, don’t worry that your child is simply unintelligent. Messy handwriting and low intelligence are not a particularly good fit. In the UK, there’s a long-standing joke about doctors’ handwriting being impossible to read.

In fact, we often associate poor handwriting with bright, scientific types. Yet, neither of these stereotypes have any value.

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How is my child taught to write at school?

Our English schools follow the National Curriculum, set out by the Department for Education. Here are the different standards for different ages:

Five-year-old children are expected to hold their pencil comfortably and correctly and to form lower-case letters in the correct direction, starting and finishing in the correct place. They are expected to be familiar with handwriting families and to practice letter formation regularly.

Six-year-old children are expected to form lower-case letters of the correct size relative to one another. They are expected to start using some of the diagonal and horizontal strokes needed to join letters. There is a note next to these statutory requirements stating that: ‘Pupils should revise and practise correct letter formation frequently. They should be taught to write with a joined style as soon as they can form letters securely with the correct orientation.

When children are seven, eight, and nine the focus is on increasing the legibility, consistency and quality of their handwriting (for example, by ensuring that the downstrokes of letters are parallel and equidistant; and that lines of writing are spaced sufficiently, so that the ascenders and descenders of letters do not touch). The note here states: ‘Pupils should be using joined handwriting throughout their independent writing. Handwriting should continue to be taught, with the aim of increasing the fluency with which pupils are able to write down what they want to say.’

When children are ten and eleven they should continue to practise handwriting and be encouraged to increase the speed of it, so that problems with forming letters do not get in the way of their writing down what they want to say. They should be clear about what standard of handwriting is appropriate for a particular task, for example, quick notes or a final handwritten version.

At what age should I expect my child to have neat handwriting?

Considering the National Curriculum guidance for English schools, children should be able to write fluently and legibly by the age of eleven. Reading between the lines here, you can see that the English Government expects children’s handwriting to be legible and well-formed from the very beginning of their school education (when they are five years old).

A read of the National Curriculum Framework document suggests to me that if something goes wrong very early on – when your child is only five years old – it is likely to have a long-term impact on their ability to write neatly.

What Can cause messy handwriting in children?

There are some clear causes of messy handwriting and it is worth discounting them, or addressing them, individually:

1. Missed schooling

Writing cannot be picked up naturally from the atmosphere. Children need to be formally taught to write.

2. Confusing teaching strategy

It is interesting that the English National Curriculum Framework does not spell out the detail of how each letter should be shaped/formed, or where the starting point should be, in order to form each letter correctly.

Years ago when I was teaching in Hong Kong I noticed that young children were being taught to write the alphabet as if copying it from a typed font.

The lower case y was formed from three individual sticks (diagonals left and right at the top and a vertical one at the bottom). So was the capital I, with a hat and a base added on to the vertical stroke. Some letters were started from the bottom line, others from the top or the middle.

When a teacher is unclear about how writing should be formed, the children they teach are set up to fail. That y cannot be fluently joined to another letter, so a fundamental teaching problem will sit at the heart of a child’s inability to write neatly.

Example of handwriting in a style which will become messy once the child need to speed up writing, since it will not join up correctly.
This script will become messy if the writer needs to speed up, because the letters in this form/font do not enable fluent, joined-up writing.

3.  Trouble with gross or fine motor control.

If your child has difficulties with movement and co-ordination – perhaps they  haven’t been able to learn to ride a bike, or to kick or catch a ball ­– then dyspraxia (DCD) would need to be ruled out. This is a developmental co-ordination disorder affecting physical co-ordination. If you are concerned about your child’s health speak with your family doctor or the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator at their school.

Although dyspraxia does not impact on intelligence, children may need extra support to keep up at school and writing is likely to be a particular challenge.

If gross motor control is not an issue, but you feel the physical act of writing is the problem, then your child may be diagnosed with dysgraphia.

In the UK, dysgraphia is still under review by regulating bodies of specific learning difficulties as to whether it is a separate condition from dyspraxia or not. There is currently very little guidance and support available. A full diagnostic assessment is needed – by an Educational Psychologist – as their report will assess working memory and spelling which can impact on handwriting and written expression.

Researchers have identified several subtypes of the general diagnosis, including motor dysgraphia (lack of fine-motor coordination and visual perception – where children struggle with slow handwriting and poor drawing skills); spatial dysgraphia (related to problems of visual perception and children struggling with spacing their handwriting); and linguistic dysgraphia (spontaneously written text is often illegible).

A child with a dyspraxia or dysgraphia diagnosis will usually find the switch to touch-typing liberates them and is a huge boost to their academic confidence. If this is the case I would recommend pushing for your child to be allowed to use a laptop in class.

4. Lack of attention to detail/care

Learning to write neatly is really a chore, before confidence and fluency are achieved. Some children love trying different pens and pencils and experimenting as they glide over curves and waves. For these children, beautiful handwriting develops naturally.

But of course there are others who find pre-handwriting curves and loops – and the writing itself – tiresome and disheartening. They look over their shoulder at the confident child next to them and feel frustrated and disappointed with their own uncontrolled efforts. 

These individuals will need consistent praise, reassurance and positivity as their work develops…

And carefully targeted feedback is the answer.

At first, when you look at a child’s rushed and poorly-formed efforts you may feel the urge to recoil with disappointment. But dive in more deeply and – whatever your child has come up with – will have key strengths that you can highlight.

Perhaps they’ve started with a capital letter, or some of their letters are joined, or they have shown an awareness of the task, or even one word or letter is beautifully-formed. This is where your targeted and honest praise should begin.

Example of messy cursive writing which show a lack of attention to detail. Asking the child to focus on the sizing and position of specific letters — j, p, c, and s in this example — can help immensely.
This example of poor handwriting shows a lack of attention to detail. One specific goal to focus on would be on the sizing and position of letters j, p, c and s.

Six steps to improving your child’s poor handwriting

Step 1: Choose the right writing tools

Swap their scratchy biro, or blunt pencil for a smooth rollerball. My favourite one is the Uniball Eye Fine Rollerball (but the Micro is better for smudgers).

Step 2: Address their pen grip

Don’t be disheartened – I have a solution here.

If your child is left handed sit them up on a cushion, so they are a little higher at their table than their right handed counterparts. Encourage them to push their page forward a little and from there, the top right corner of the page should be tilted down the desk a little, and the bottom left corner pushed up. This means they don’t have to wrap their arm around and over the page, but can write from below as right-handers do.

Step 3: Think about fine motor control

Consider whether your child has shown any signs that they might struggle with gross or fine motor control. They will need specific support if so – so approach their school or your family doctor for a chat.

Step 4: Focus on correct letter formation

Check your child has been taught to form their letters correctly. Here is a set to guide you. Often some letters are correctly formed and some are not. This is great because you can pick out the awkward ones and correct them individually.

Step 5: Choose the right paper

Offer handwriting paper with a middle horizontal line marked – so all half sized elements of their letters can be exactly the same height.

Without handwriting paper you can use a sharp pencil to draw a middle horizontal line between each top and bottom line on the paper. It’s best to aim for bang on or slightly below the mid-point as too high and it stretches their half sized letters uncomfortably.

Go for every other line to make the guiding line easier to follow.

Step 6: Praise the positives

Transform your attitude to a more ‘can-do’ approach. There are positives to be found in your child’s writing if you look for them. Hugely praise the little details that are right and set only one tiny step forward as a focus for the next time. For example: sit your writing down on the line next time…

Always word the next target positively. Avoid ‘don’t do’ and flip instead to, ‘try to’ or ‘focus on’…

Messy handwriting such as this is fixable. First focus on what is working well, and then identify one next step—in this case, I would ask the child to focus on sitting words on the line.
Students will need individual targets and praise before we move them onto the next step. In this case, we would begin with sitting words on the line.

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