At a glance
Lots of kids have messy handwriting.
When kids have poor handwriting, it doesn’t mean they’re lazy.
You can help your child get better at handwriting.
Most people expect young kids to have messy handwriting. Learning to write letters and put them in the right spot to make words and sentences is hard. It takes time and practice for kids to be able to do it neatly.
As kids get older, people might think of their messy writing as a sign of laziness. That’s not usually the case, though.
Messy handwriting is often caused by trouble with motor skills. In fact, it can make some kids’ writing beyond messy — it can make it illegible.
Learn more about handwriting challenges and ways to help your child improve.
Handwriting difficulties you might see
Handwriting relies on a bunch of small skills. When kids have trouble with them, the result can be writing that’s messy and hard to read. These skills are:
- Forming letters
- Placing letters and words on the page
- Making letters the right size
- Spacing letters and words
- Holding and controlling a pencil
- Holding paper with one hand while writing with the other
- Applying the right amount of pressure on the paper with a writing tool
- Using the right arm position and posture for writing
If you look closely, you might see the types of errors these difficulties cause, like:
- Letters written from the bottom up, instead of the top down
- Letters written with too many strokes, or the strokes done in the wrong order
- Words and sentences floating above or below the line
- Words or sentences written on too much or too little a slant
- Letters and words spaced unevenly or running into each other
- Some letters darker and others lighter
Handwriting trouble can show up as early as preschool, when kids learn to grasp a crayon to draw. And for some people, the difficulty lasts into adulthood.
For the most part, adults can avoid writing by hand. We can use technology instead. But for kids in school, trouble with handwriting can really get in the way of learning.
What can cause messy handwriting
When kids have trouble with handwriting, it doesn’t mean they’re lazy or careless. They may be trying as hard as they can and need support to improve.
A good first place to look is your child’s age. Not all kids develop these skills at the same rate. Some take longer than others. The differences can be even bigger for kids who are young for their grade.
In some cases, kids have challenges that cause messy handwriting. Handwriting involves many aspects of movement — from forming letters to positioning the body and applying the right amount of pressure.
That’s why messy handwriting is often caused by poor motor (movement) skills, like fine motor skills. (This is the ability to make movements using the small muscles in our hands and wrists.)
You might hear motor skills difficulties referred to as developmental coordination disorder, or DCD. You may also hear people use the term dysgraphia to talk about writing difficulties.
There are also challenges that don’t seem related to motor skills but that can make handwriting difficult. For example, if kids are impulsive, they may rush through assignments. That can result in sloppy work and many mistakes.
No matter what’s behind your child’s trouble with handwriting, there are things you and the school can do to help.
What can help with messy handwriting
An important step is to take notes on what you’re seeing and talk to your child’s teacher or pediatrician. They can be great sources of information and advice.
Even if you’re not sure what’s going on, you can still work on building skills at home. You can try things like:
You can also find help for your child at school. Talk to the teacher about strategies that help in the classroom, and how you can use them at home. Ask about technology that could help, too, like speech-to-text.
Don’t forget to celebrate progress as your child works on handwriting. Remind your child that everyone has trouble with something — and that all people have strengths, too.
Messy handwriting can make it hard to do well in school.
Trouble with motor skills can cause messy writing.
Talk to your child’s teacher to find ways to help with handwriting at home.
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About the author
About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
Bob Cunningham, EdM serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.