How to Improve Handwriting Legibility: Letter Formation

Hello again! I hope you’ve enjoyed my Handwriting Series. If you’re joining me for this first time, welcome! In the series, I’ve covered why handwriting legibility is so important. I’ve broken down the components of handwriting legibility and provided tips regarding how to address issues with acquiring them. In this post, I will cover the most important component of handwriting legibility, letter formation. Letter formation is the ability to form letters of the alphabet correctly and following a standard (e.g. the method taught in school). Being able to form letters correctly, in a smooth, effortless manner is called handwriting fluency. Handwriting fluency is a vital part of academic success and plays a major role in literacy. Handwriting fluency begins with learning letter formation.

Historically, children are taught letter formation skills in kindergarten. It seems that many children begin learning this skill in preschool these days. What matters is whether or not they are ready to learn how to write developmentally.  

Before children are taught letter formation, there are very important developmental milestones that must be met to ensure handwriting readiness. These milestones are typically acquired during the preschool years and equip children with the foundation that is needed to meet the handwriting demands of school. Of utmost importance is making sure children have mastered the prerequisite skill first, pre-writing strokes. If children are not able to draw basic shapes (lines, crosses, circles, squares, and triangles) then it’s nearly impossible for them to learn how to write letters correctly and efficiently. If the child is unable to draw all pre-writing strokes, it is in his or her best interest to hold off on teaching letter formation until this skill is met.  

Once the child can draw pre-writing strokes with precision, I recommend teaching upper case letters before lower case letters. Why? Because upper case letters are the easiest letters to form in terms of stroke sequence and serve as a great introduction to the rules of handwriting. How do I mean? It’s easier for children to understand that letters should be placed within specific boundaries on the line when they all start and stop at the same point. Upper case letters do not have as many variances in size and stroke sequence as lower case letters do. They all start and stop on the top and bottom lines of primary paper. This is a great introduction to writing letters and forms good habits right at the beginning.  

Instead of teaching letter formation in alphabetical order, I recommend teaching letters in groups. Some programs or therapists may differ, however, after years of working with diverse groups of students, I’ve had the most success grouping letters in the following way.  

Start with letters containing similar simple strokes and then progress to more complex strokes. Begin with upper case letters comprised of vertical and horizontal lines.  

Teach the letters containing these simple strokes first. They are L, E, F, H, T, and I.

Progress to rounded letters next. They are C, O, G, S, D, P, J, U, and B.

Lastly, teach upper case letters containing diagonal strokes. They are R, K, A, V, M, N, Q, W, X, Y, and Z.

Once the child can form all upper case letters correctly, move on to numbers.  

Finally, teach lower case letters. Again, it is ideal to teach letters that have a similar stroke sequence in groups. Lower case letters vary in size and placement on the line so it is important to emphasize starting points and ending points as well. Lower case letters have three sizes, tall, short, and go under letters. Here are the letter groups I recommend teaching together.  

All letters that begin with “c” and start on the dotted middle line should be grouped. They are c, a, o, d, g, s, q. 

All short letters that start on the dotted line and “go down” and then climb back up should be grouped. They are r, m, n, and p. Follow these letters with their tall counterparts which start on the top line, go down, and then climb back up. They are h, b.  

Group letters that are straight, l, t, i, and j.

Group letters containing diagonal lines. They are k, v, w, x, y, and z.  

Teach letters that have a unique stroke sequence together. They are e, u, and f.

It can be helpful for many children to point out that some lowercase letters are simply a smaller version of their capital letters. They are Cc, Oo, Ss, Vv, Ww, Xx, Zz. Again, be sure to emphasize where these letters start on the line.

Always Use Primary Paper With Early Writers!

Never underestimate the importance of using primary paper when children are early writers. Typically when children are in Pre-K up to grade 2. Second grade is generally a good time to transition to standard wide-ruled paper, but of course, some children still are not ready. Early writers need the structure and visual guidelines provided by primary paper. I often see children writing on standard wide-ruled paper far too soon. Developmentally they are not ready and this can create unnecessary problems e.g. inconsistent letter size, bottom to top stroke sequence, poor line orientation. So please, do not skip this crucial stage! 

Positioning is also very important. Children who are in the developmental stage of acquiring fine motor skills need environmental support to become efficient handwriters. Ideally, children should be seated at a table that allows for both feet to be planted on the floor. Their posture should be upright with hips, knees, and ankles bent at the same angle. This is referred to as 90/90/90 positioning where the hips, knees, and ankles are flexed (bent) at a 90-degree angle. An upright posture with both feet planted on the floor facilitates good handwriting. It’s also important that the desk or table height allows for the child’s forearms to be parallel to the floor. The paper should be tilted to align with the child’s forearm. The hand and forearm should be resting on the table surface to provide stability as the child writes. The non-writing hand should anchor the paper in place as the child writes.  

90/90/90 Positioning

Address pencil grip if needed. If a child’s grip looks awkward or if the child complains of discomfort, chances are he or she will benefit from additional support. Learn more about typical development and what to expect by clicking the following link: Pencil Grasp Development: What To Expect

It’s also very important to spend time teaching letter formation.  Demonstrate how to form each letter/number and have the child imitate. Correct the child if they are not able to follow the right stroke sequence. Once they can do so, practice, practice, practice.  

If you notice a child struggling with learning how to write in the early stages, take action. This is a decisive time where intervention can have the greatest impact. Work with the child by providing extra support. The following suggestions will help with motor planning, muscle memory, and visual memory.

  • Have the child verbalize the stroke sequence for each letter while writing it.
  • Have the child write the letter with eyes closed in the air.
  • Have the child trace the letter followed by attempting it on their own.
  • Start with large muscle groups by writing letters with dry erase markers on a vertical surface and with sidewalk chalk on the ground.
  • Provide sensory input by forming letters with various mediums (shaving cream, pudding, whipped cream, sand, Play-Doh, Wiki Sticks, etc.)
  • Provide more tactile feedback by placing the writing paper over a piece of sandpaper when teaching letter formation.

For more information on the importance of handwriting legibility check out this post.  Handwriting Legibility: Why Is It So Important?

Want to learn more about other issues that can impact handwriting legibility and how to tackle them? Check out these posts from my Handwriting Series:

How To Improve Handwriting Legibility: Line Orientation

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

How To Improve Handwriting Legibility: Spacing

Now that we’ve covered all bases, it is time to talk about how to address handwriting legibility skills comprehensively. I’m thrilled to present this super fun activity that tackles them all.  

The Complete Handwriting Checklist a.k.a Be A Handwriting Sleuth! 

Once you’ve addressed the underlying issues impacting a child’s handwriting, ensure that they can effectively implement the strategies you’ve taught them by using a checklist. Why use a checklist? They help kids organize and plan out the steps needed to edit their handwriting. Some provide a visual model to help kids identify their errors. Also, checklists are interactive providing a hands-on approach to the editing process. 

The Complete Handwriting Checklist:  Be A Handwriting Sleuth
Be A Handwriting Sleuth

I strongly believe that if kids are having fun, it’s far easier to sustain their attention and level of effort with any given task. With this in mind, I’ve created a super fun checklist activity that addresses every aspect of handwriting legibility. When using this checklist children are morphed into handwriting sleuths and equipped with a magnifying glass to play the part! It’s a lighthearted approach to handwriting legibility that kids will love! The checklist can be individualized for each child, meeting them where they are and offering the “just right” challenge. It allows you to hone in on a few areas or many. The magnifying glass is a super fun way to highlight the errors needing corrections. Kids will be motivated to earn badges that celebrate their handwriting accomplishments and confirm their status as handwriting sleuths!  

Would you like to use this checklist with your students or little ones? Get your free PDFs here:

Disclaimer: 

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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