Messy, Sloppy, Disorganized Printing

Written by Michelle Brown

What to do when the teacher says “I can’t read that!”

Many children, especially young boys are reported to have poor written work or printing. Teachers struggle as they cannot read their work. Often, boys differ from girls as they typically don’t spend the same amount of time coloring, drawing and practicing their letters. Part of this is because many boys prefer gross motor activities in the pre-kindergarten years. As a result, boys simply don’t get the same amount of practice.  To further the discrepancy, boys typically don’t place a lot of importance on being neat and tidy when it comes to printing.

Of course there are children who have motor planning difficulties, visual perceptual challenges and generalized weakness which have detrimental effects on pencil control and printing quality. But for the majority of our messy, sloppy, disorganized printers, this is not the case.  Most children learned bad habits for forming letters, likely because they were asked to print letters before they mastered pre-printing prerequisites.  They mix up capitals and lower case letters because they did not have enough practice developing the motor memory for each case.  And their current letter size doesn’t fit on the lined paper associated with their grade level.

Many children, especially boys, simply don’t have the motivation to make their printing neat.  They would much rather get their work done quickly and move on to something more fun. How do I know this? Because when I’m asked to assess said messy printer, once I challenge him/her to position him/herself correctly, request him/her to slow down and really focus on his/her letters and show me his/her best work, suddenly a very functional and legible printer appears. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but its readable.

Here are seven tips that will improve written work quality so the teacher can mark it:

Give the child the bottom line.  If the teacher cannot read it, they cannot mark it, and they don’t know what the child actually knows.

Set the child up for success.  Ensure their desk and chair are the right height so they have a 90° angle at their hips, knees and ankles, feet can be supported flat on the floor when the chair is tucked in, their back is supported on the back rest of the chair and their forearms are resting on the desk. Teach the child to angle their page, slightly to the left if he/she is right-handed and slightly to the right if he/she is left-handed.

Relate proper seated positioning to something they can relate to.  For example, in hockey players are taught the ready position.  In baseball, there is a batting position.  In marital arts, there is a fight stance.  Find an association the child can relate to.

Do a printing warm up.  Especially for floppy, low muscle tone children, they need to activate their trunk and arms before they start to print. Many kids are in extracurricular activities that require them to do a warm-up, so they are familiar with the concept. Build this into their printing routine so it becomes a habit. Simple warm up ideas include: shoulder shrugs, bum lifts on the chair, squishing hands together, making a fist and releasing it, touching each fingertip to thumb tip.

Identify an acceptable baseline.  Students are used to receiving grades or levels of achievement from assignments and report cards. Use this system to rate their printing quality. For example, meets expectations or doesn’t meet expectations.  Then set a baseline for what is expected for all written work that is to be marked. If they do not complete their work within the guidelines, it goes back to be completed again. It’s as simple as that. If a child has to start redoing their work, chances are, eventually, he/she will start to slow down and do it better the first time.

Create reminder prompts.  Develop a mantra for why we need to print neatly.  For example, “neat work, less work” or “careful work once is faster than doing it twice”.  Or, place a SLOW DOWN sign nearby like in a construction zone.

Match letter size to line size.  Look at the size of the child’s natural printing and provide lined pages that support his/her letter-size. You can enlarge regular lined paper with your photocopier. Start here and gradually help the child learn to work on narrower lines.

Teach organization on the page with visual supports.    For example, draw a thick red line over the margin to prompt the student to always start on the left side of the page; draw horizontal lines for printing on so the child knows to use the entire line (this can also help with spacing between lines as this tells the student which lines to use); use a popsicle stick or a finger to create a space between words.  Offer


Put these strategies into practice and see which ones work for your child/student.

Good luck!  And as always, be the hero you are meant to be!

Courtesy photo by Chris Yarzab

Author: Michelle Brown
Michelle Brown is an occupational therapist and has been helping people since 1996.

You can find out more about Michelle Brown here:
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