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"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge
the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." ~Proverbs 24:3-4

Handwriting and Penmanship

Handwriting is the physical activity of writing printed or cursive characters with the hand and a writing instrument. It incorporates posture, balance, visual acuity, fine motor skills, and knowledge of how individual letters are formed. Penmanship is the art of writing clearly and quickly. The main purpose of penmanship instruction is to promote legibility in handwriting so that we can effectively communicate with others (and easily read our own notes!).

Does your handwriting look like scribbles and chicken scratches, or does your script flow gracefully across the page? Good handwriting is eye-catching, easy to read, and quick to write, while the fact that it is easily legible shows respect for the reader. The best handwriting is clear and beautiful, perhaps even embellished with calligraphy (stylized, decorative writing). Poor handwriting is careless and sloppy. Your character is reflected in the way you write. What does your handwriting say about you?

Mahatma Gandhi once said that bad handwriting is a sign of an incomplete education. However, there are many successful adults who are handwriting challenged. It seems like the more gifted, logically-brained people have the worst penmanship. Professor Stephen Hawking described himself as a lazy pupil with bad handwriting. "I wasn't the best student at all. My handwriting was bad, and I could be lazy. Many teachers were boring."

Studies have found significantly lower legibility than average associated with being an executive and being male. Doctors are notorious for having poor penmanship. Almost all computer hackers have terribly bad handwriting, often block-printing everything like junior draftsmen. (This profile is based on a detailed survey from about a hundred USENET respondents.)

The French emperor Napoleon had horrible handwriting. Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition didn’t write very well either. I. L. Gordon, the editor of Who Was Who, had such poor penmanship that he took to the typewriter. Music scholars believe that Beethoven’s “Für Elise” may have been titled “Für Therese,” but the printer couldn’t read the composer’s handwriting. Likewise, Eric Clapton’s instrumental piece “Badge” was actually called “Bridge,” but Clapton’s hand- scribbled title was misread. Even geographic landmarks and place names have been incorrectly labeled due to misinterpreting the scrawls of explorers and cartographers.

The need for good penmanship has not gone out of style in the computer age. We still have to sign our name on checks and other documents, jot down notes, write memos, make shopping lists, address envelopes, fill out forms, take written exams, etc. Calligraphy or artistic handwriting is not required in day-to-day writing but simple, graceful handwriting gives a warm personal touch to personal correspondence such as thank you notes, greeting cards, and letters.

Clear, legible handwriting is a valuable skill in the workplace, enhancing communication and preventing misunderstanding. Besides, more and more of the new computers and pocket organizers rely on "pen-based input", i.e., handwriting entered with an electronic pen on a special tablet or screen. Handwriting skills also complement other language skills such as spelling, note-taking, composition, and editing.

We know from observing young children that being able to print and write bolsters self-confidence as it develops fine motor skills. The practice of handwriting also fosters an appreciation for words and language as it teaches attention to detail. As children develop and improve their handwriting skills, the process of penmanship will eventually become automatic, an almost subconscious output of their brain. A person’s handwriting generally develops until about age 17, although even as adults our handwriting can change over the years.

Different styles of writing have been popular at different times. In the mid-1800s, the Spencerian form of penmanship was the standard. Palmer Hand became the style taught in most American schools through the late 20th century. Some schools view the teaching of D'Nealian handwriting as easing the transition from print to cursive writing. Getty-Dubay Italic Handwriting is also popular.

Keep in mind, however, that no one has identical handwriting. No matter what penmanship program is used and how strictly you force your students to follow the rules, by the time they leave school most will have developed their own style which may consist of printing, cursive, italic, or a combination of forms joined together. Each individual’s handwriting is as unique as their own set of fingerprints. The study of graphology – a division of psychology – has shown that handwriting can reflect our personality.

Handwriting Tips

Simple activities such as coloring books, dot-to-dots, and mazes provide an opportunity for preschoolers to have fun while learning basic pencil control.

Craft projects, puzzles, finger painting, Play-Doh or modeling clay, building with Legos, playing a musical instrument, etc. can all build small muscle coordination and fine motor skills which will aid in handwriting.

Have your child practice drawing basic lines and shapes (slants, diagonals, ovals, arches, etc.) as preparation for writing the letter shapes.

Keep in mind that ovals and slanted lines are easier for children to form than round circles and straight lines.

Have your child practice shading an area with light, medium, and dark pencil lines to get a feel for what different amounts of pressure on the pencil will do.

Save paper by laminating an alphabet chart for your child to trace over with a wipe-off marker.

Have an alphabet chart or sample letters / words for children to refer to as they are writing.

Writing legibility – or the lack of it! – is a common problem for young boys, especially gifted ones.

Dyslexic children who experience mirroring or reversing of letters can find handwriting difficult.

Gifted children often have trouble with handwriting because their brain can think faster than their hand can write. Learning how to write in cursive or italics may help.

The transition from ball and stick printing to a completely new alphabet of looped cursive is challenging for some children.

Letters shaped without lifting the pencil from the paper makes for smoother, faster writing. (But looped cursive writing is not necessarily much faster than joined printing or italics.)

Relax your hand from time to time by putting your pen or pencil down, flexing your hand and wiggling your fingers.

Handwriting Basics

Could your handwriting use some improvement? Important factors to be considered for better handwriting include: the proper selection of pen, pencil and paper, how the pen is held, placement of paper, sitting posture, light source, and ink flow. Handwriting can also be influenced by our personal circumstances, mood, and health.

Sit with both feet resting on the floor, with knees and hips bent at about 90 degrees. (Shorter children may need a footstool, box or block on which to put their feet.) Keep your back straight, supported by the chair. The desk surface should be at the correct height so that your elbows are bent at about 90 degrees. The writing hand should be resting lightly on the paper, while you are leaning on the non-writing arm.

Slant the top of the paper counter-clockwise about 15 degrees for right-handed students and left-handed students who write with a hooked wrist above the writing line. Slant the top of the paper clockwise for left-handed students who write with the wrist below the line of writing. Hold the paper steady with the non-writing hand.

Hold your writing instrument firmly but not too tightly with the thumb and index finger. Rest it near the large knuckle of the next finger. The fingers should be placed far enough above the end of the paint on the pencil so that the pencil tip is visible.

The space between lines on writing paper will be wider for young children and gradually decrease to college-ruled lines for advanced writers. Skipping lines (double spacing) is okay, too. Special practice paper for beginners comes with lines marked to show the position and size of the letters, as well as lines for capitals, ascenders, and descenders.

Young children may like to draw a picture on the top half of a page and write on lines on the bottom half. You can purchase paper that is already printed in this way, or you can print out some of your own.

Beginning writers may use crayons or a #2 pencil. Sometimes a short stubby pencil is easier for a child to handle. Older children can use ballpoint pens or mechanical pencils. Students who are struggling with handwriting can benefit from thicker lead (0.9 or 0.7 mm instead of 0.5 mm), soft contoured foam or rubber grips, and oversized barrels. (The Bic XXL Retractable Ball Pen has an extra-large barrel with foam grip. The Bic Matic Fun mechanical pencil comes with colorful foam grips and sturdy 0.9 mm lead.)

It may help beginners to place your hand on his to guide the pencil and verbalize the sequence for each letter as it is formed.

Letters should be made with the same sequence of movements every time.

The size, slant, and spacing of letters should be consistent.

Supervise your child’s penmanship practice so that he or she is not repeating errors. In a row of identical letters, teach your child how to recognize the good and badly written ones. (Have him or her cross out the worst ones and circle the best ones.)

Have your children practice writing both lower-case and capital letters, as well as numbers.

Letters within words should be placed right next to each other, while the space between words should be a letter-space apart. (It’s okay for younger writers to leave a wider space.)

Words should be written neatly at a comfortable speed. The speed will increase as their writing ability improves.

After your child has mastered the basic letter shapes, you can gradually add words and then sentences.

Once your child has mastered the basic letters like those found in a printed book, teach your child to recognize and read other penmanship styles (such as joined cursive letters).

Teach your child how to sign his full name in cursive.

Practice Makes Perfect

Handwriting is an art form that needs to be practiced regularly in order to improve and gain mastery. Practice writing quickly but legibly. Time yourself and increase the speed as your penmanship improves.

Technology propagates handwriting problems because students don’t get as much writing practice when they do most of their work on the computer.

Have your child practice their penmanship for at least ten minutes every day.

Writing the answers to questions in workbooks can count as penmanship practice.

Write out Bible memory verses, favorite quotations and sayings, spelling lists, vocabulary words and meanings, numbers and math formulas, history and science facts, etc.

Copying excerpts from high-quality literature into a copybook is not only good penmanship practice; it also expands vocabulary and models good composition.

A journal or diary is a great way to practice composition and penmanship skills on a daily basis. The journal may be a spiral notebook, composition book, or a fancy hardbound book. You might even provide them with a special writing pen that they only use for this purpose.

Consider corresponding with an overseas missionary family. Having a pen pal can be a good reason for your child to practice his or her handwriting, while also opening your child’s eyes to what these young people in faraway places are doing.

For both penmanship and composition, have a writing session about three to four times per week. Use writing prompts such as: "The best thing about today was..."; My favorite TV show/movie is...because..."; "The book that I just finished reading tells about..."

Be sure to maintain the same standard of penmanship in all of your child’s written assignments.

Writing games such as crossword puzzles will give kids additional writing practice.

To improve writing speed, have your child copy a short excerpt from a favorite book, about four sentences of descriptive writing without a lot of punctuation. Have him/her write it down as fast as he/she can. Time him/her and make a game out of it. The next day, have him/her try to beat the previous time. Do not worry at first about legibility because you are just trying to strengthen the hand. But while the goal is to increase speed, in the end it should be legible as well. Once that improves, pick a new passage and start the process over again as needed.

If your child needs to work on letter formation, practice is the only way to do it. However, for young gifted kids who are used to getting things quickly, this sort of practice will really test their patience. Try different writing tools such as fun markers and gel pens to maintain their interest. You may also need to motivate them by offering a reward for effort in this area, such as an ice cream cone or a special trip to the library.

For older students with less-than-perfect penmanship, try teaching an 8 to 12 week calligraphy class. Adapt the above ideas to work with this older group. You don’t have to use a special calligraphy pen; a flat-tipped ink pen or felt pens will work to produce thick and thin strokes. Have your students copy quotes, poems, or favorite literary passages into a special keepsake book or journal.

Artistic students may also enjoy trying their hand at calligraphy using a special calligraphy pen or felt pen. They can copy a verse, quotation, or poem on special paper and draw a decorative border around it. This can then be saved in a scrapbook or framed and given as a gift. Watercolor paintings with poems written in calligraphy also make lovely exhibits or gifts.

Additional Resources - Handwriting facts from Kate Gladstone. - 12 Rules for Good Cursive Handwriting. (NOTE: The illustrations for #3 and #8 are mixed up and should be reversed.) - How to Teach Handwriting, from Design-a-Study. - The Italic Project, an approach to handwriting that leaves nobody behind. This historical style is easy to learn and easy to teach. - Handwriting posture. - Holding the pen. - Hand control exercises. - Overcoming writing cramps. - Left-handedness. - Model lettering. - Writing numerals. - Understanding bad handwriting. - Secrets for improving handwriting with quick results. - Handwriting Repair - the italic approach - an illustrated talk with a sound track. - Handwriting: What Works in the Classroom? - Five Steps to Better Handwriting. – Handwriting For Kids practice worksheets include manuscript, cursive, math, Bible, and Spanish! - For ages 4-8, I recommend ReadyWriter by the Providence Project. It's a great handwriting curriculum incorporating character-building Bible verses on colorful activity pages. I like the pretty, detailed illustrations (farm scenes, flowers, etc.) on which the child completes each picture by drawing lines, loops, criss-crosses, curves, circles, etc. This develops their pencil control in preparation for writing actual letters. They will have fun while learning important stylus skills. Even better, they won’t mind doing these over and over again as they practice, practice, practice. – Handwriting Without Tears is an easy way to teach pre-printing, printing, and cursive handwriting. - Cathy Duffy reviews several handwriting curriculums for homeschoolers. - Printable penmanship papers from Donna Young.


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