Handwriting Paper: What’s Really Between the Lines?

Handwriting.

You focus on letter memory, formation, sizing, spacing, and line placement.

You try to find the right handwriting program from choices like Zaner-Bloser, D’Nealian, and Handwriting Without Tears.

You make sure a child’s little hand is ready for writing, maybe having some luck after numerous strength building exercises and sifting through different sizes and shapes of pencils or grippers.

But then, after all of that, you still have to think about which handwriting paper to use.

Never fear, my friends. That’s where this post comes in. To be honest, my head is still spinning after trying to put this together, mostly because I know it’s nearly impossible to compile a complete list of all the different types of handwriting paper out there. Occupational therapists are creative people, and always seem to be coming up with new ideas. Every time I thought I was done, I’d think of another, or run across something new online.

(FYI – I added a few links to actual examples of handwriting paper below. It’s just a random assortment of websites to give you a better idea of what I’m talking about. I don’t have have any affiliation or receive anything from the sources I’ve linked here.)

So here’s my attempt to familiarize you with most of what’s available.

Why?

As an OT, it is pretty important to know what type of paper a child is using at school so that I can better cue them in our sessions. Using primary writing paper at school and Handwriting Without Tears paper in sessions can be a bit confusing, as you’ll see why. Plus, choosing a specific type of paper can assist a child in targeting certain handwriting errors.

  • Primary writing paper:

Ah yes, the classic – 3 lines with the dash in the middle. A natural progression from big, wide lines to smaller, more narrow lines as the child moves through school and works towards switching to regular notebook paper. I’m sure you’ve seen these handwriting lines on copies of school worksheets or writing journals. As you’ll see below, these lines can be modified in many different ways in order to target certain handwriting errors.

  • Narrow Lines / Midline shift: 

When children are attempting to make that switch over to notebook paper, they really need to learn how to make their letters much smaller; hence the narrowing primary writing lines as children get older.

Some handwriting paper (Like the adapted notebook paper used in the First Strokes program- here.) even shifts that dashed midline down a bit for older children in order to avoid filling the entire space between notebook lines. 

  • Color cues for placement:

These colors provide a simple visual cue for line placement, letter sizing, and even letter starting points. Green for “go” and red for “stop” might help the child fill the lines appropriately so the letters don’t float in the middle, above, or below the line when they aren’t supposed to. (Fundanoodle makes a handwriting paper that uses these color cues, but I usually find myself using red and green markers to draw over the lines of regular paper.)

  • Raised lines:

With raised line paper, a child can actually feel the boundaries they are supposed to be bumping into. This is great for kids who need more of a tactile cue than a visual cue. You can find this paper in primary handwriting lines, as well as regular notebook lines. (Mead makes a reasonably priced option which has been fairly easy to find at places like Target.)

  • Highlighter cue:

This is one of the easiest ways to work on line placement and letter sizing. Yes, there is paper available to buy that comes pre-highlighted, but the cue is easy to apply to almost any paper you are using. (You can find an example of the “official” stuff here.)

  • Sky/Ground/Dirt visuals:

This is a good time to talk about cues we give children for sizing their lower case letters. There are tall letters (b, d, f, h, k, l, t) that touch the top line, there are short letters (a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, z) that typically go under the dashed line, and then whatever you want to call the hanging/dragging/in the dirt letters (g, j, p, q, y).

Paper with the sky/ground/dirt visuals comes in handy when discussing these letter sizes and placement. You can tell a child the tall letters go up into the sky, the short letters go on the ground, and the hanging letters go down in the dirt. This usually makes the process more fun, especially if the child is resistant to handwriting. That way if “g” isn’t going past the baseline, you can point out that he needs to go hang out with the worms in the dirt. You know, usual handwriting conversation.

Again, you can do this with your own markers (are you noticing a trend here?) or buy the paper with the decals already applied. (Smart Start makes one here.)

  • Targeted areas:

There are several different paper styles that work to highlight target areas for letter sizing and placement.  In this example, there is a highlighted space in the middle with blank space above and below, which makes it similar to the sky/ground/dirt paper, just with different visual targets. (Find an example here.)

You’ll also notice the sizing between rows usually starts very large for most of these examples, which assists children in limiting the amount of visual information they are processing at one time.

Regular notebook paper can be overwhelming for a child trying to accurately scan and keep things organized on the lines. Skipping a line, or highlighting every other line can help them sort information more effectively.

  • Grid lines for spacing:

While most of the paper mentioned previously attempts to assist children with letter sizing and placement along the line, this paper is more focused on spacing between letters and words. Some people just use regular graph paper for this purpose (which is also great for aligning math problems for children with visual-spatial difficulties), but there is, of course, commercially available paper. (Find an example here.)

In order to fade away from this high level of support for spacing, I will often switch to a “Space Man,” which is just a decorated popsicle stick that kids can place between words to make sure they leave enough space. Also, you can use the analogy of spaghetti spaces (between letters in a word) and meatball spaces (between words), as you shift away from the grid paper.

I was also just recently introduced to LegiGuide paper, which is a combination of grids lines and highlighter cues together.

  • Handwriting Without Tears progression:

Handwriting Without Tears plays by its own rules. Which can be great, or a little more difficult to merge into other programs. They start with Pre-K pages that involve tracing, and then work into grey blocks which assist children in sizing and correctly orienting their upper case letters.

Once they progress to lower case letters, they use two lined paper, but not like a typical notebook paper. In this program, those short letters fill the space between the two lines, with tall or hanging letters emerging from the top or bottom of the lines. I find that this makes sense to children as they learn lower case letters, since their typical urge is to fill the entire writing space given to them.

This program then fades the top line to a lighter grey, eventually moving the child to writing on a single baseline. I sometimes find it a little bit more difficult to transition into regular notebook paper with this program, so I might use something in between, or fall back to the highlighter cue for children that are having trouble.

  • Regular notebook paper:

With any of this paper, the ultimate goal would be to wean the visual/verbal/tactile cues down until the child can write on regular lined paper without any additional cues. We would call that process remediation. Or, you can use any of these papers as a compensatory method for a child that knows their letters, but maybe just doesn’t attend to guidelines. It depends on the child, their treatment plan, and what their therapist is focusing on at the moment.

I know there are still others out there, as well as several variations or combinations of the cues I’ve mentioned. Be sure to leave your experiences in the comments below for others to see! Happy writing!

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About TheAnonymousOT

Pediatric Occupational Therapist
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