Why Can’t My 4th-Grader Write? Part 1

The process of learning to write involves much more than simply learning what a period is and trying to figure out where it goes. It is a multi-faceted job – using the hand to form the letters on paper, perceiving sounds in words in order to attempt spelling, and actually outlining ideas and knowing what to say. For many students, putting all the pieces together is a struggle.

But the question is: which piece of the process is the problem?  (Is it just one piece or are there many?)


For some, the hardest part of writing is the physical process of putting pencil to paper to create words. The act of forming letters requires a great deal of concentration and makes writing a single sentence an exhausting ordeal.

What’s normal:

Normal in preschool: Scribbles–sometimes circular in shape – sometimes looking like a letter but generally not

Normal in Kindergarten: Enjoys drawing, may label a drawing with a “word” that has some of the sounds – for example, drawing a cat and writing “KT” under it. Writes in upper case printed letters.

Normal in first grade: Better fine motor skills. Printing both uppercase and lowercase letters.

Normal in second grade: Handwriting is smaller and neater and the child is able to put his attention on what he wants to say rather than on the physical act of writing.

Normal in third grade: Begin to learn cursive. Handwriting in cursive will be slow, so most class assignments are still done in printing, unless it’s a cursive practice assignment.

Normal in fourth grade: Cursive is used most of the time. It may still be somewhat slow.

What’s not normal by the end of 1st grade:

  • awkward pencil grip
  • hand up off the table rather than resting on the table while attempting to write
  • illegible handwriting
  • not using the lines on the paper as a guide
  • letters of different sizes in the same word
  • avoidance of writing or drawing
  • poor organization – no spaces between words, poor orientation of words on the paper
  • fatigue/inability to write for very long

Struggles with handwriting are often linked to a visual motor weakness. This weakness can also manifest in difficulty with fine motor tasks such as tying shoes, or visual-spatial issues like reading a map.

Handwriting might be the primary problem if:

  •  Your child can easily verbalize his ideas but balks at the point of writing things down.
  • Word/letter spacing is a major issue when writing.
  • Letters are often formed incorrectly – backwards, upside down, or scribbles

Applied Learning Processes can evaluate your child’s writing and help you determine the presence or absence of a processing problem in the areas of handwriting, spelling, or thinking about what to write.

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