Deborah Smith is a highly experienced paediatric occupational therapist with over 30 years’ experience working in the NHS, social care, education and the private sector. She offers her advice on how to support students who have difficulties with their handwriting.

by Deborah Smith
19th December 2019



The advent of technology has led to differences in children’s fine motor skills. Many children spend time on electronic devices rather than playing with Play-Doh and jigsaws, or playing outside. Limiting opportunities for manual dexterity could be a factor in causing a child to have muscular weakness within the palm.

Handwriting is one of the most physically challenging activities the body does. Motor skills develop outwards from the trunk from early infancy. Poor alignment of the shoulder affects the function of the elbow, the elbow affects the wrist, and the wrist affects the hand. Students may be prevented from being able to move the pen or pencil within their hand, which is necessary for changing direction in writing (we do this when the pen forms the letters f, k, t, x and z). 

General data suggests that at 15–16, students should write at about 15 words per minute, and students aged 17–18 should write about 20 words per minute. This does not take into account difficulties with processing speed or difficulties with spelling and composing.

In secondary school, students are writing to learn, rather than learning to write and it is therefore crucial that we support them when we recognise difficulties. 

The psychology, and what behaviours might look like

Any difficulty in recording work is going to have a significant effect on a student’s learning. It will become increasingly difficult for them to listen and remember what is being said, whilst trying to write what they heard a couple of minutes ago. This leads to inaccurate or incomplete work. 

Failure to keep up can cause anxiety or panic. This, in turn, leads to one of three reactions.

  • Fight: disruptive behaviour, throwing items, handling them roughly, chatting, shouting out or melt-down.
  • Flight: getting up to get something out of a bag, leaving the class, asking to visit the bathroom.
  • Freeze: daydreaming, not doing any work, looking out of the window, chewing on a pencil or pen for an extended period of time.

In terms of the specific needs students may have in relation to handwriting skills, you could be looking at some of the following issues.

Bilateral integration (when both sides of the body work together) is required for good handwriting skills; for example, because one hand supports the paper while the other writes. If students have problems with bilateral integration, they will find handwriting a challenge.

Students who stretch out their hand may be experiencing hand tiredness as a result of poor pen grip.

Also look out for students who are ‘hooking’ their feet on the front legs of the chair. This may mean they have difficulty maintaining pelvic stability. A stable pelvis ensures that the arms are free to move without excess strain on the spine. The muscles in the front must be as strong as the ones in the back. They must work together to maintain the trunk in erect alignment with gravity. Hand and arm movements will require minor adjustments to the trunk. If a student puts their head on the desk or rests their head on a forearm to write, this could be an indicator of poor core strength and stability. In this case, it would be a good idea to work with the PE department to develop a student's core stability and to ensure that the desk and chair are set at the correct height.

How can you help students?

You can support a student who is experiencing handwriting difficulties in a number of ways. You can optimise their working environment, the way they position themselves at their desk and their use of equipment to make sure they are ready to write.

  • Environment. A chair/desk which is too low will encourage the student to slump forward and restrict the free movement of the forearm. If the chair/desk is too high, and the feet don’t touch the floor, the student will need to hyperextend at the spine to gain balance to write. You should ensure that a student's chair is approximately floor to knee crease height plus one to two inches. The desk height should allow a student to prop their forearm a couple of inches above the height of the bent elbow.
  • Shoulder position. Look for a ‘triangle’ gap between the shoulder and the waist so the writing arm is free from being trapped against the body. This allows the arm to be free to move for directionality.

  • Elbow position. The elbow should be bent and just off the edge of the desk to allow free movement of the arm and hand.

  • Wrist position. The wrist is a highly complex joint, with many little bones grouped together to allow fine motor skills. Entrapment of the bones will lead to a lack of free movement within the hand. 

  • Pen grip. Tripod grip is the best for handwriting. Ideally, the pen should be held with an open web space between the thumb, index and middle fingers, with the pen balanced in this space. If a student holds the pen too firmly, the hand will become tired, and the writing will be affected. Look at their work – the indent of the words may be visible from the other side, or the paper may be torn. Similarly, if the pen is not gripped firmly enough, there will be poor control, and the words may be very faint.

In the resource below, Deborah provides activities and information on how you can support students in improving their handwriting.






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