Key Components to Legible Handwriting

This is the fifth and last part of the series to help you, parents and teachers, understand and improve your child’s handwriting skills.  In this portion, I will be discussing the key components to a legible handwriting.

Catch up on the previous parts of this series here.

What is Legibility?

Legibility simply means that the written figures or letters are readable and decodable.  Sometimes, the legibility of a written material is subjective.  It depends on how good the reader’s eyes are to decipher what is written.  We, OTs, look into the legibility components to objectively decide whether or not a child has legible handwriting.

What are the key components of a legible handwriting?

Letter formation

Simply put, this is how a letter is formed, whether its upper and lower case forms we are talking about. For each letter, there is a particular sequence of drawing lines to form the letter correctly.  For example, forming letter A starts with a left diagonal line, then right diagonal line and finally, the horizontal line between the two diagonal lines.

This is considered to be the proper formation, although some other manner could also be considered acceptable.  I have seen people form an inverted V or U in one stroke, and the horizontal line in the middle.  If this has become a habit for this person, then this can also be an acceptable formation of letter A for him.  Letter formation is there to ensure smooth transitions of making lines to form letters, making the writing task efficient, fast and automatic for us.  And yes, this also applies to numbers; and to cursive writing (when your child is 8 or 9 years old).

From my years of experience watching how; and closely examining what a child writes, I learned that several factors and skills contribute to how a child masters the formation of each letter, ultimately leading to legible handwriting.  These are:

Memory

Most of us must have had a poster of the alphabet at home, whether it was for us when we were children ourselves; or for our children currently or then, when they were still in preschool.  After all, ABCs is the one of the first concepts we tend to teach our children around the time when they were just starting school. These posters help children to remember and memorize what each letter looks like.  When we point to the letters or have them point to the letters we say, we help them associate the name of each letter to the figure, so they know what to call the letters.  In their brain, they pair up the image of the figure to its name, much like, how all of us build our vocabulary.

Eventually, we teach them how to write these figures and they also tend to remember how it is done, which brings us to the next 2 factors of letter formation.

Sequence

Drawing shapes or writing letters entails several steps or sequences.  It is, actually, a multi-step task.  Since writing is automatic to us, we may not realize that our child needs to remember 2 or more steps just to write one letter.  Vital to this factor is also to recall and execute minute details such as where to start, where to continue and where exactly, to end.

kid, boy, child

I hope, you are now realizing how hard it is to start writing the letters!  It should not be forced to a very young child, unless he is able to perform multi-step tasks in his other activities such as in self-care or in his play schemes. 

Orientation

Now, a child may know how a letter looks like and how to write it, but sometimes, some of them tend to get confused with its orientation.  Letter orientation is the proper direction the letter is facing.  This is, usually, not a problem with symmetrical letters like A, H, I, M, O, T, U, V, W, and X.  However, some kids also tend to write letters upside-down and then it also becomes a problem for these letters. Reversals are common with children who also have concerns with coordination, left-right discrimination and dyslexia. See the reversed word, red, below.

Spacing

Another key component of legible handwriting, space is the gap we leave between letters and words.  Some children tend to leave too little spaces, producing cramped up or superimposed letters; or too large spaces, making it difficult to recognize the letters that are grouped together (word). 

Alignment

You might be thinking that this is, probably, easy to have our child follow on ruled paper, especially with our Grade 1 pad, which is “wide-ruled”.  But, it is actually one of the hardest component to teach, next to letter formation.  Getting them to write the letters on the blue line is easy.  But telling them to pay attention to the line above (also blue line) or in the middle (red or dotted) is another story.  The fun part is letter formation and alignment go hand in hand at the start.  When you teach your child to form the letters, the reference to the lines is very helpful and we also, touch-base in teaching our children to pay attention to the lines and regard them when they are writing.  It is also helpful when teaching letter sizes, which is the next component here.

Sizing

Consistent letter size is also important for a legible handwriting and this is not about the upper or lower case forms of the letters.  This means that /A/ is written from the blue line to the blue line and /a/ from red line to blue line.  This also applies even when we are writing on a different-ruled papers such as wide-ruled or college-ruled; even a non-ruled paper.  To paint the importance of this component, a better example is writing the letters /l/ and /i/.  Imagine if your child writes both in the same height, then you will always be on the look out for the i’s dot, right?

Pressure

A child should be able to gradate his strokes to just-right, not too heavy and not too light.  Light-pressure strokes would be very hard to read.  I have had students whose writing are almost invisible.  Heavy-pressure strokes would be very tiring to the child.  When he is tired, behaviors and other components of legible handwriting would be affected as well.   

Slant

Some think that this component is only for aesthetics, so your handwriting is nice to look at.  I believe them but I also believe that this does not need to be taught. If you remember, in part 4 of this series, the correct posture, pencil grip and arm positions were shown in an image.  You may have noticed that there is an ideal paper slant when writing.  This, I think, produces the slant in our writing and it is okay.  A problem I have encountered with this component is the inconsistency of the slant, which, I have observed to root from changing positions (sitting, arm position, pencil grip) while writing. For some readers, inconsistent slant can be a point against legible handwriting.

Speed

This is a very important factor for proficient handwriting.  It does not help improve legibility but it should work closely with it. After learning to write the letters, practice is key to develop speed and automaticity.  A child should be able to produce legible handwriting with an appropriate speed to function well in school work such as copying, answering seat works and taking tests.  Wikipedia puts an adult’s minimum copying speed at 26 letters (5 words) per minute.  Due to the lack of reference for children’s handwriting speed, I think that we can take this as a reference and apply on our children to be their average to maximum handwriting speed.

alarm, clock, time

And now, the most awaited part… how do we teach and improve legible handwriting?

To help with letter formation, start them young.  But don’t start them with letters yet!  I have included age-appropriate figures to draw in the part 3 of this series.  You can have them draw and master these shapes first, line by line, and corner by corner.  Watch out for proper closures (line meeting at corners) and proper shape formations.

Before starting the “writing proper,” be certain that your child’s fine motor skills are ready.  Review the earlier parts of this series and tick off the boxes one by one.  Does she have a definite hand dominance or handedness?  Can she do in-hand manipulation? Has she achieved the tripod or quarupod pencil grasp?  Does she draw lines and shapes with ease?

writing, children, learning

Teach writing and reading simultaneously.

I am strongly suggesting to teach writing and reading simultaneously.  This helps them to organize information better in their young minds.  If you are telling him what this letter is, might as well, show him how to properly write it as well.  Then, let him try, perhaps on a scratch paper, a white or black board, or a magic slate.  These skills, if developed, help your child in copying tasks later on.  She will not have to memorize the letters she is copying.  She will just read the word and spell it as she writes it.  Being able to read and understand the words makes her appreciate writing them.

Start with the letters of your child’s name.  This is practical and functional, why?  The first word your child should learn writing is her name.  You don’t want to teach her all the letters she will not be using in writing her name.  After she gets familiar with the letters of her name, and writes them well, teach her how to spell it.  Have a go at her first name first.  After she’s mastered this, add her second name; then her surname.  Later, she will be able to write her full name on her own.

It is also recommended to teach the upper case letters first.  They are easier and easily transitioned from the shapes, where you started.

Pre-requisite skills for Handwriting are useful.

ABC posters with arrows might help.  Just make sure that your child understands what arrows stand for.  It would also be an advantage if your child knows directions (go up, go down, to the right, to the left), positions (above, on top, beside, next to, under, below), size (big, small, long, short), lines (vertical or standing line, horizontal or sleeping line, diagonal or leaning line and curved or bending line), colors (especially blue and red), shapes (circle, crescent or moon, half- or semi-circle) and action words (start, stop, draw, write, trace, color).  These will be easier for you to give her verbal or spoken instructions.

To ease her into following lines, pre-writing tasks are a must.  Have her trace different lines, color different shapes, solve simple mazes and draw simple figures in a box.  Before introducing her to lines, try drawing letters, especially upper case letters in a box.  The box should be a “snug fit” to the letter so she can use the four corners as cues as well in her letter forms.  If she can follow this well, introduce the wide-ruled paper and have her follow blue-to-blue lines.  Mention the red line or the line in the middle when writing parts of letters such as the sleeping line of A and H, etc.

Say it with me: Top to bottom, left to right.

For orientation component, make sure to teach her to write/draw, read or answer worksheets in a top-to-bottom and left-to-right manner.  Most letters are written this way so if they are used to this sequence, reversals are avoided.

Target 3 birds with one stone.  You may teach letter formation, alignment and sizing, all at the same time.  When teaching how to write a letter, mention the respective lines and sizes.  This awareness of writing details will surely go a long way for the child.

For children with light-pressure strokes, motivate by using colorful writing tools.   Fun art activities like clay molding, shading, erasing, stenciling (with or without the use of carbon paper) and leaf marking can also be done.  Writing and drawing tasks can also be done in prone position (lying on tummy) on the floor can also be tried.

For children with heavy-pressure strokes, use of mechanical pencil is useful and the aim is to avoid breaking the lead.  Use of parchment and thin papers also satisfies this purpose, this time preventing to tear the paper.

Make handwriting time fun and enjoyable.  Harness it with your child’s interests.  If your child loves My Little Ponies, draw them and write their names.  Give short but frequent writing tasks and always reinforce good effort and completion.

After your child learns how to write, how do we level her up?

After pre-writing skills, the hierarchy moves along tasks such as imitating, copying then writing.  Imitation is copying as it is being formed.  If you let your child write as you write, then she is imitating you.  This is different from copying, where you show her a finished product of material to be copied and she has to figure out where to start on her own. 

child, boy, paint

Copying can also be near-point and far-point copying.  Near-point is copying on the same plane.  A book (copy from) and a notebook (copy on) on the same table is considered near-point copying; whereas far-point copying such as white board to notebook, is copying on different, usually perpendicular planes. 

Then, in writing, there is free and upon dictation.  Free writing is when your child writes spontaneously such as when she is writing her name or penning a sentence she is formulating.  Writing upon dictation, is writing words dictated by another person.

So, from learning to write letters by imitation, you can give your child copying (near-point, then far-point) and then writing on her own before writing that of which is dictated to her.  This is usually done in her gradeschool years in school.  These are all very important writing skills included in life skills.  We do this once in a while when we are taking note of information from various offices, or when we take messages on the phone, not to mention when we merely sign off documents or write a letter to our child’s teacher.  One way or another, our children will learn.  Might as well make it easy and fun for them by taking to heart guidelines I have suggested in this series.

Good luck and enjoy the handwriting journey with your child!

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