The Chicken Scratch Solution: How to get Your Kids to Write Neatly

This year has been a struggle getting one of my sons to write neatly. Sometimes his handwriting is so atrocious I go cross-eyed trying to decipher his hieroglyphics. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But he does like to produce chicken scratch.

In the beginning of the year, we had some real battles… Feisty and I. He would give me a scribbly assignment and I would make him rewrite it. (That’s what tiger moms do, even lame ones.) You can imagine the griping and fuming that ensued. But I would hold my ground and he would have no choice but to rewrite that assignment in a legible manner. And then he would hold his ground: the next day his handwriting would be as messy as ever.

I needed to find a way to end the daily struggle. And little by little I did. Now Feisty’s handwriting is legible about 70% of the time. More importantly, he’s sincerely trying to write neatly… when I remind him. But here’s what helped:

Model neat handwriting.  Pretty obvious, right? If our own handwriting is habitually messy, it’s really hard to demand a higher standard from our kids. So, when you write corrections in your children’s work, or when your write out narrations for your child to copy, write neatly and clearly! That means you have got to take the time to write neatly. Which takes us to the next point….

Do not hurry your children. Some children, like my Feisty, always want to rush to get their work done. (Some of my other children like to dilly-dally.) We need to teach the kids who like to rush to work deliberately and carefully. They need to learn to pay attention to details, like crossing their Ts and dotting their Is. This means we should not hurry them. Rather, we need to make sure we give them sufficient time to do their work well. If your tone and manner is impatient and rushed, it may very well show up in your children’s work.

Use mid-line guides through grades three or four, or until neat handwriting is clearly established. Have you noticed that your children’s handwriting deteriorates when they transition from using paper with mid-line guides to wide-ruled paper? But here’s the problem: I have not been able to find lined paper with mid-line guides that are spaced closely enough together for 3rd and 4th grade writing. The standard 3/8″ or 1/2″ spacing used in kindergarten and 1st grade is just too large for 2nd grade and beyond. They’re fine for learning how to print, but once printing is mastered, the kindergarten-spaced lines make writing cumbersome. I ended up making my own writing paper for 2nd to 4th grade which you can download for free. Here is Gr. 3-4 paper with mid-line guides  and here is  Gr. 3-4 paper with smaller mid-line guides.

These are samples of handwriting using these papers. The first two are Feisty’s (Gr. 4), and the third is Rascal’s (Gr.1-2). Using paper with closely-spaced mid-line guides helps them to keep a consistent letter height.

Understand that multi-tasking is hard for children. When you ask a child to write out an answer to a question or to write a story, you are asking him to: think of the answer or story, figure out how to spell the words, and write it out in a comprehensible and legible manner. For a child who is in the 2nd or 3rd grade, that is a lot to do at once. It is better to require neat handwriting only for certain subjects, such as handwriting and copy work, where the children can focus on neatness without having to worry about spelling and content at the same time.

Define “neat” and be consistent about it. In order to avoid continuous arguments over what constitutes neat writing, you need to lay down some requirements. Here are my requirements for Feisty:

  1. no floating letters (letters have to touch the line)
  2. lower case letters have to be consistent in size (here’s where mid-line guide helps)
  3. the letters can not be scrunched up
  4. the spacing has to be even

Then, I have to be consistent about requiring neat handwriting, but only for specific subjects. I never require perfectly neat handwriting for brainstorming and rough drafts of compositions. In these cases, the handwriting simply has to be somewhat legible. Good copies, however, need to be perfectly neat.

Make them rewrite messy assignments. Sometimes Feisty just has to rewrite one word. Other times, he has to rewrite an entire assignment. Of course, most children will protest, but stick to your guns. If you do this, over time they will realize that they are better off writing neatly the first time. Some children, like my Feisty, will really fight you on this. Stand firm, anyways. It’s not just about neat writing. It’s about developing the virtue of diligence, hard work, and careful attention to detail.

Find ways to motivate. As a friend of mine says, “You can beat a donkey with a stick or you can lead it with a carrot.” Giving your child a small treat for a day or a week of neat handwriting will probably motivate him far more than having to do rewrites. You can put a sticker on each assignment that was neatly written and tell him he can trade in 10 stickered assignments for a special privilege or treat. Make sure you both decide on that treat ahead of time. When he does write neatly, encourage, encourage, encourage! Let him know you notice and appreciate his efforts. Words of praise are much more motivating than words of criticism.

Pray for a change of heart. In the end, your child will develop the habit of writing neatly only if he wants to. Now, we can punish our children with rewrites and motivate them with treats, but only Christ can change their hearts. Only Christ can make them see the virtue and value of doing their work carefully and neatly. So we need to bring our children before Our Lord in prayer and ask Him to flood their souls with His grace. At the same time, we need to ask Our Lord to give us patience and serenity. And if it takes a year or two for our children to develop the habit of writing neatly, so be it. Persevere. Perhaps it is really us who needs that year or two to grow in patience, and Our Lord is simply working on us through our children and their chicken scratch.




4 thoughts on “The Chicken Scratch Solution: How to get Your Kids to Write Neatly

  1. And then there are special cases. My (I’m guessing gifted) son really struggles with the physical act of handwriting. I’ve used a special program that is to help dysgraphia. We’ve had him in occupational therapy (his grip strength was waaaay below what it should be, amongst other things). Although he’s “graduated” from OT, we continue to have him do special exercises each day. Yesterday I almost cried when he aced a spelling test AND I could read every word.

    I think his writing will never be perfect, but he’s worked really hard to get where he is.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this post, and your whole website. I love it.
    Especially useful are the writing papers in different sizes.
    I have taught at primary school level (elementary), secondary school level, university level, post-graduate level. But I have forgotten how to use the lined paper. Could you do one with some writing on it, to remind people like me, how to teach their grand-children.
    thank you!
    Moira Eastman PhD

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your interest in this post and for your kind words. I have updated this post with some samples so you can see how we use the lined paper. If you click on the samples, they should enlargen so you can get a closer look. Hope this helps!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s