Teaching Tips

Ask an OT | Pencil pressure, learning cursive, and hand strength

August 11, 2020


6 mins


Ask an OT is a monthly series answering questions that we receive from educators, parents, and OTs, like you! This month we’re addressing how to build appropriate pencil pressure, learning cursive for children that have not mastered print, and fun and effective ways to build hand strength. 

Have your own questions for our OTs? Send us a message on Facebook or Instagram

Watch the full Ask an OT episode here and continue reading below for more advice on this month's topics. 



#1 How can I help a child increase pressure on a pencil or crayon when writing?

The ability to grade pressure when writing, coloring, or drawing relies on our body's ability to utilize information from the proprioceptive system, which is just a fancy word for how we receive input from the muscles and joints in our body. This system helps us coordinate and grade the amount of force and pressure we use. To give the proprioceptive system the training it needs, why not try a few activities to warm it up?

Here are some activities to try before coloring, writing, or drawing.

  • Animal or wheelbarrow walks
  • Wall pushups or yoga poses
  • Tug of war
  • Playing outdoors, climbing, and using push or pull toys

In addition to preparing their bodies with warm-up activities, children also benefit from activities that help them learn how to grade the pressure and force needed for their specific writing needs.

If they are pressing TOO hard:

  • Use crayons (or colored pencils) to color. Emphasize using a light touch to make the colors almost see-through instead of dark.
  • Check their grip. Is it too tight? Teach them to take breaks, shake out their fingers, and don’t let the pressure build.
  • Try a mechanical pencil. Apply too much pressure, and the lead will break.

If they are pressing TOO soft:

  • Use crayons (or colored pencils) to color and focus on using more pressure to get darker colors.
  • Try carbon sheets under their writing or drawing and encourage them to use enough pressure so a copy can be made. You can make carbon sheets by shading with a pencil or crayon on the back side of the paper.
  • Place a firm surface like a clipboard between the pages of their notebooks to give them something firm to press against. Try letting them have some fun by playing with a vibrating pen that wiggles. Children will have to use more force and pressure to control the wiggling pen, which can help them develop an awareness of the pressure they're applying.

#2 For a kiddo that is in a typical classroom and learning cursive before they have truly mastered print formations, do you recommend continuing with cursive, or should they master print first?

This a great question, and the answer is straightforward.

Yes, a child can learn cursive without fully mastering print. In most typical classrooms, children start to learn cursive in second or third grade, and that’s exactly when we begin to teach cursive in our Handwriting Without Tears curriculum.

For students who never mastered print and continue to struggle with it, learning how to write in cursive can be the answer to ending their frustration.

  • Cursive is more fluid and can help children who have struggled with print.
  • Cursive naturally helps with spacing problems, because what’s connected is the word and what is not is the space.
  • Breaking poor habits in print can be hard. Learning cursive is new. It can be fun and exciting, as most children see it as a grown-up way to write.

When you teach cursive, be sure to include hands-on learning with multisensory activities.

Here are my top three tips to keep learning fun, easy, and child-friendly.

  • Add multi-sensory activities, like the Wet-Dry-Try strategy using the Blackboard with Double Lines before workbook practice. This will help young writers learn the correct formations using larger movements with tactile feedback and create correct habits for cursive letter formations and connection skills.

    Watch this video to see Wet-Dry-Try in action: 

  • Engage children with fun animations, videos, and digital letter formations to keep them active during the learning process. Our Handwriting Interactive Teaching Tool has everything you need to keep your digital natives engaged and learning with cursive letter formations, connection skills, teaching videos, and more. 

    Here's an example of the award-winning videos you'll find in our online tool: 

  • Use child-friendly language with step-by-step formations that show them exactly how to form the cursive letters in ways they will easily understand. Take a look at how easy it is for a child to follow and learn in the Handwriting Without Tears cursive workbooks.  

#3 What are some best practices for building hand strength?

Hand strength in a child is necessary for many activities. From cutting to writing and manipulating objects for self-care and school participation, building hand strength will give your child the power to succeed.

Here are some easy-to-implement ideas for building hand strength that are fun, too!

  • Squirt toys are loads of fun! Use spray bottles to water plants or spray on a fence for sidewalk.
  • Use medicine droppers to build pinch strength.
  • Use dough or clay to squeeze, pinch, and roll. You can push items into the dough and create shapes! Give our Roll a Dough a try. Kids will build hand and finger strength as they roll, pinch and press dough to form letters and numbers
  • Use clothespins. Pinch and clipping 2 items together to make a match, or simply line them up on the edge of a folder or piece of cardboard is great. If you have more than one color, you can create patterns.
  • Have a relay with water. Use a few containers, water, and a sponge. How fast can your child soak up water from one container and squeeze it out in another? You could change this activity to use a turkey baster too.
  • Bubble wrap is always a favorite and so are wind-up toys.
  • Crumpling and tearing paper. You could turn this activity into an art project using the little torn bits of paper to create a mosaic picture or use this opportunity to let your child shred items that will go in the trash.

Check out our previous Ask an OT articles. 

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