Handwriting Q&A

Handwriting is a complex skill. It requires our sensory and motor mechanics to work harmoniously together to make our writing remotely legible. And when we start working with our kids on how to write letters, numbers, and eventually words and sentences, we notice that their writing is never going to look like our own. That’s when we question what is “normal”?

From their pencil grasp to writing upside-down, we wonder if these strange tendencies are just a quirk of little kids or something to be really concerned about.

Kids start learning how to write around 4-5 years old. Around this time, they are familiar with letters, they begin refining their pen strokes, and experiment with how to appropriately hold their writing tool. Here’s how handwriting typically develops:

  • Preschoolers (3-4 years) – Little ones start to scribble and draw in large circular motions. When trying to write their name, they may do so with shapes that closely resemble letters.
  • Kindergarteners (4-5 years) – Children will write in uppercase letters and start to put separate words together to express a thought (ex: dog sleep). Words may also have vowels omitted (TLL for tall, CT for cat).
  • First Grade (5-6 years) Kids begin differentiating between uppercase and lowercase letters and may use invented or phonetic spelling (ex: tuf instead of tough is common). Their confidence also increases as their fine motor skills improve to write their letterforms correctly.
  • Second Grade (6-7 years) Handwriting at this age becomes smaller and neater as their hand/finger strength and coordination mature, focusing more on the content of writing rather than its mechanics.
  • Third Grade (7-8 years) Writing speed slows down while attention to letter formation increases. Introduction to cursive writing may start in this grade.

All this is not to say that letter reversals, spacing issues, or confusion between capital and lowercase letters don’t happen. Sure, it may be the norm as they master their penmanship, but it still piques our curiosity as to why.

Q: Why does my kid write backwards/upside-down/reversed?

This is called mirror writing (writing that would look correct when reflected in a mirror) and it’s fairly common between 4-7 years old, when kids first learn how to write. Research has noted that children tend to mirror write letters and digits that face left (or have an extension on the left-hand side like 2, 3, J, d) than those that face right (B, D, L, h), hypothesizing that children convert all letters/numbers to right-facing ones when they can’t recall the proper orientation. However, their chances of being correct are higher as most asymmetrical letters face right anyway.

What makes mirror writing astounding to parents is that no one ever taught our kids to write backwards. They just do it (and we momentarily freak out). I mean, have you ever tried to mirror write as an adult? Do you even remember how you did it when you were a kid?  

But how is mirror writing typical in children and not in adults? The visual system fully matures around the age of 7. That means they can simply look at an object and determine what it is without physically manipulating it. For instance, a cup is a cup regardless of its orientation (the handle could face left, right, or the cup itself could be upside down – it’s still a cup).

This statement can be applied to anything in our world, except with letters. Letter orientation can change the identity of a letter and therefore a word or phrase entirely. A b is no longer a b when flipped, it’s now a d. Turn that d upside-down, it’s now a q. Flip that q, it’s a p. Flip the p on a horizontal axis and now it’s a b. See how confusing this can be for a child?

Once our children understand that writing has a different set of rules to follow as they build their phonics skills and become more experienced readers and writers, mirror writing diminishes.

Q: Why does my child confuse their upper and lowercase letters?

Your child is learning how to write their letters two different ways. Because they are still acquiring this skill, they may get stuck recalling how to form a letter and substitute a capital for a lowercase, or vice versa.

Another reason could be because lowercase letters are generally harder to write than uppercase ones. Lowercases are smaller and have more rounded edges and curves, requiring more coordination and fine motor precision. If a letter is too hard to write, your child may just stick its uppercase counterpart in its place and call it a day.

Also, they are taking in a lot of new information on how to write. Remembering not only correct letter/digit formation, but spacing, spelling, postural alignment, and appropriate pencil grip can be a huge energy suck. As a result, a hodgepodge of lowercase and uppercase may occur simply due to fatigue. As your child gains more writing endurance through practice and exposure, the confusion should decrease.

Q: Why does my kid forget to use capital letters at the beginning of a sentence or when using proper names?

They may still be getting used to the rules for writing and parts of speech. This can improve as their reading skills progress and and they see how grammar is used appropriately. The same can also be said about punctuation. These aren’t usually taught until 2nd/3rd grade.

Q: Why does my kiddo have difficulties with spacing between words or letters?

This is tricky for a child to understand when learning how to write. They must plan the amount of space needed for the word based on the size of their letters and estimate if will fit in its intended location on the paper. They won’t have a clear understanding of that without a lot of practice. Graph or lined paper with dashes can be helpful in figuring out appropriate size and, in turn, spacing for words and letters. Same can be applied to writing in straight, parallel lines.

Q: Does it matter what pencil grasp my child uses when writing?

Yes, but not in the way you think. For years, occupational therapists urged many kids to use a dynamic tripod grasp as it is considered the golden standard of all the writing grips (I mean, there are so many pencil grips out in the market to achieve this. Like, woah). A dynamic tripod grasp involves the thumb, index, and middle finger to be placed on the barrel of the writing utensil while ring and pinky fingers are stabilized against the palm. Holding a pencil in this position provides the stability needed to create neat and aligned letters. The problem is that some kids aren’t fully ready to use this grasp, and they end up squeezing the writing utensil too tight, resulting in fatigue or pain.

If your child uses a different functional grasp, that’s completely fine. A 2012 study found that pencil grasp patterns do NOT influence handwriting speed or legibility in typically developing children. As long as they can write legibly, comfortably, and do so in a timely manner, then it doesn’t matter. I mean, have you seen Taylor Swift’s writing grasp? Despite how unconventional it is, it doesn’t seem to stop her from writing. Moral of the story: if your child can participate in all handwriting activities without fatigue or pain, then leave their grasp alone.

Handwriting takes a lot of thought and energy when first learning the skill. Mistakes and errors are bound to happen. But by the end of second grade, our kids write with clarity and fluidity. However, if your child continues to struggle after the age of 7, it wouldn’t hurt to let your kid’s pediatrician know. They can refer your child to see an occupational therapist (OT) who can assess and address any issues that may be affecting their handwriting (sensory, visual-motor, upper extremity strength/stability, fine motor, executive functions, etc). Learning difficulties (like dyspraxia, dysgraphia, dyslexia, ADHD) are also identified around this time and may be a reason for handwriting struggles.

Related Posts:
All I See is U: Visual Perception and How it Affects Handwriting
More Than Meets the Eye: Visual Perception
X’s and O’s: All About Handwriting Readiness
Get a Grip: Pencil Grasp Progression

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Handwriting: What’s Normal, What’s Not | Reading Rockets
Schwellnus, H., Carnahan, H., Kushki, A., Polatajko, H., Missiuna, C., & Chau, T. (2012). Effect of Pencil Grasp on the Speed and Legibility of Handwriting in Children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy66(6), 718–726. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2012.004515
3 Common handwriting problems and how to help (readandspell.com)
Mirror Writing: Why Do Children Write Some Letters Backwards? (scienceabc.com)

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