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Clear Thoughts, Messy Handwriting

Education Expert Advice from Barbara Callaghan

Q: Hi! I have a third grader. He has always had difficulty printing and getting thoughts down on paper. Some of the problem is he just doesn't want to do it. He has poor small motor skills--an occupational therapist said he could improve when he learned cursive. He has learned to print so many letters incorrectly he can't really improve printing.

Well, school has started and I already have a call from his teacher that he won't write in his journal. He had to stay in from recess and still didn't do any writing one day. I need some fun and neat tricks to get him to put thoughts on paper. He is bright and has ideas--he reads well and does so every night. Thank you for your help in advance.

A: There are really two issues that need to be looked at. One is the actual formation of letters, and the other is putting thoughts on paper.

The occupational therapist is the expert in prescribing activities to improve fine motor control and improve your son's penmanship. Cursive writing has far more continuous strokes then printing and therefore may be much easier. Since it has already been determined that this is an area of weakness, it is going to require extra practice and support. You could help by giving extra practice at home. Get a copy of the alphabet with arrows from the teacher so that you know the proper formation of each letter.

Have your son do some writing every day at home. Then, both of you critique it using the guide the teacher gave you. Make the writing interesting by doing things not done at school, such as making a list of the types of jello in the cupboard, writing the names of all the relatives on one side of the family, establishing a roster of who lives on your block. Keep the activity short, and give consistent undivided attention when you both evaluate the quality of the work done. Give encouragement and support until you reach the high level of accuracy that you want and then pour on the praise and celebrate the accomplishment.

The second issue is putting thoughts in writing. Some students have a hard time when told they have to write and they can write about anything. It is too open and ill-defined for them. It may be helpful if you could generate a list of ideas every morning with your son so that he goes to school with ideas already in his head. The ideas should be both factual and fictional so that he has lots of choices. Use the information you know about to help him brainstorm. My Brother Pete, The Day the Broccoli Talked to Me, My Favorite Meal, The Worse Thing About Riding the Bus, are the type of ideas that he may even want to write down and keep available at his desk.

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After teaching in California for nearly ten years, Barbara Callaghan moved to New Hampshire in 1985 and became a principal. After 10 years as a principal, she returned to teaching, her first love and true vocation.


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