How to Improve Handwriting Legibility: Pressure Grading (how much force to apply)

As a school-based occupational therapist, I receive many referrals for handwriting difficulties. Handwriting is a very complex function that requires many underlying skills. In this post, I will discuss the skill of pressure grading or knowing how much force to apply when writing, coloring, or drawing.  This issue can make handwriting very difficult to read. I will also provide tips, strategies, and resources to help kids who struggle with acquiring this skill. For more information on the importance of handwriting legibility check out this post. Handwriting Legibility: Why Is It So Important?

Several factors can make a child’s writing difficult to read.  

  1. Poorly formed letters
  2. Letters that are squished together or spread too far apart
  3. Words that are squished together or spread too far apart
  4. Poorly organized writing that is all over the page instead of aligned along the margin and lines of ruled paper
  5. Very faint print that is difficult to see due to inadequate pressure
  6. Very dark print that appears messy due to too much pressure

Now let’s talk about children who struggle with pressure grading or knowing how much force to apply when writing, coloring, or drawing.  Some kids apply pressure that is too light, resulting in very faint, hard to see, handwriting or color when coloring.  Some kids apply too much pressure resulting in handwriting that is far too dark and hard to read because of its messy appearance.  These children often break the tips of their pencils when writing.  

Why do some children have trouble with pressure grading?

Difficulties with pressure grading can be due to several factors.  

  • Inefficient grasp
  • lack of fine motor strength and/or control
  • sensory processing issues
  • poor proprioception or body awareness
  • poor motor planning

How you can help:

Here are some suggestions for helping children whose pressure is too light:

  1. Write with markers, gel pens, or felt tip pens instead of pencils as they print darker automatically.
  2. Roll out play dough or clay to create a nice smooth surface.  Draw or write in the play dough using a toothpick, craft stick, or dull pencil.
  3. Write on two-ply carbon paper.  The child must apply adequate force to make their writing appear on the second sheet.
  4. Increase sensory feedback by writing on a textured surface.  Sandpaper works great for this. 
  5. Use a weighted pencil. 
  6. Instead of coloring a design, poke holes along its borders using a pencil, push pin, or golf tee.  Place a piece of cardboard under the design. 

For children who apply too much pressure, offer cause and effect opportunities that will allow them to see what happens when they push too hard.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Write with a mechanical pencil, the lead will break when too much pressure is applied.
  2. Place a mouse pad, corkboard,  or another soft surface under the paper they are writing on.  If they poke holes in the paper they are pushing too hard.
  3. Have the child write on a slant board or 3” binder to act as a slant board.  This will promote wrist extension which may improve pressure grading.

These activities will address both problems, too little or too much pressure:

  • Do heavy work warm-up activities before handwriting to get the little muscles in the hands ready and to facilitate focus.   This means any resistance-based activity like pushing or pulling, or weight-bearing through the hands.  Read this post to learn more: What Are Heavy Work Activities and Who Should Do Them?
  • Build fine motor skills by doing the activities described in this freebie: Activities to Promote Fine Motor Development
  • Have the child work on a vertical surface to build strength, and improve positioning amongst many other things.  Read this post to learn more: Benefits of Working on a Vertical Surface 
  • Challenge the child by having him/her write on tissue paper without ripping it.
  • Play games! Here are my recommendations for building body awareness, pressure grading, and fine motor control: Don’t Break The Ice, Jenga, Honey Bee Tree, Operation, and Kerplunk
  • Use this freebie: “Finding the Just Right Pressure”.  These worksheets teach children how to apply the right amount of pressure by example.  Use crayons or colored pencils to demonstrate the differences in the shade when pushing too hard or not hard enough.  This provides a visual that kids can draw from.  They must mimic or try to match your shade.
Finding the Just Right Pressure Worksheet
Finding the “just right” pressure

Do you know of any other tips that may help children with this issue? Please share in the comments section below.

As always, have fun!


The Fun Strokes blog is designed for educational and informational use only for teachers, therapists, and parents. It is not intended as medical advice or therapeutic treatment that would be provided in an individualized treatment plan. If you suspect a child has delays, please consult an occupational therapist.

Published by Linda Craig Dennis

Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Author and Creator of Fun Strokes Pre-writing Program

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