From worksheets to short essays, there are a lot of assignments for your kid to crank out -- and his teacher has to be able to read them. "Despite the increasing amount of technology in classrooms, a child's schoolwork still is mostly handwritten," says pediatric occupational therapist Jan Z. Olsen, founder of the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum program. "Teachers think good penmanship is crucial for communicating effectively." In fact, less than half of first- to third-grade teachers said that their students' handwriting was fast enough to keep up with classroom demands, found a Vanderbilt University poll.
If your child is struggling to put his words down on paper, he'll have less energy to focus on what he wants to say. Switching to a computer isn't the solution. Second-graders generated more ideas when writing by hand than by using a keyboard, University of Wisconsin researchers report. A sliver of kids who write illegibly, have a hard time forming letters, or find it difficult to complete written assignments may lack graphomotor skills and may benefit from occupational therapy.
Still, many kids with penmanship problems simply aren't getting enough practice. Bridge the gap at home with these clever ways to start off right.
Trace letters and simple words on your child's back and see if she can guess what you're writing. Then, swap and have her "write" a letter or word on you. Focus on the letters that are hardest for kids this age. Another Vanderbilt University study found that j, k, n, q, u, and z account for 48 percent of the mistakes when kids attempted to write the lowercase letters of the alphabet. Our how-to videos, above, and at parents.com/handwriting can help you teach your child these tricky letters.
Get a Grip
Kids who don't hold a pencil correctly may get tired of writing. Slide-on rubber grips, sold at school-supply stores, might help. But try a fun alternative: a small pencil, like the ones used in mini golf. Save them for games of pretend. Tell your child to imagine he's a waiter and have him write down your order. Or encourage him to dress up like a rock star; then ask for his autograph.
Take out the markers or crayons and draw a single capital letter on a piece of unlined paper. Ask your child to make the chosen letter part of a bigger picture. She might turn a capital I into a butterfly or transform an O into an octopus. As she decorates the letter, she'll also be focusing on its shape.
Using sidewalk chalk, have your child write a giant note that could be seen from outer space, then a tiny one for ants to read. (Or if your lawn looks like a winter wonderland, ask your glove-clad kid to write letters in the snow.)
Buy a notebook and ask your child to keep a journal for a week. Send it to a relative to add comments on your child's week, record a week in her life, and mail it on to another loved one. The last person should mail it back to your child. She'll get reading practice too!
Pick a Winner
Designate one night a week as activity night. Help your child write down stuff he'd like to do on slips of paper and place them in a jar: Suggest games (board, card, or sports), movies, or whatever interests him (building with Legos or baking muffins). When it's time, have your kid choose one and ask him to add a fresh idea to keep the jar fun-filled.
Leave surprise messages for your child -- on her pillow, the bathroom mirror, or in her backpack. End each one with a question, and ask her to write an answer on the back and leave it for you in a surprise location as well.
Get into the habit of asking your kid to write things for you. Dictate shopping lists, have him address envelopes, and jot down reminders on the family calendar. The more practice, the better.
Tools of the Trade
Stock up on office supplies. Collect awesome writing tools (gel pens, scented markers, funny-shaped pencils) and all sorts of paper (lined sticky notes, doodle pads). Stow them in strategic spots around the house. She'll also be more psyched to scrawl if her pencil has a cute eraser.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Parents magazine.