HomeAcademics & ActivitiesAcademic Skills

Ask the Experts

My Fourth-Grader's Writing and Spelling Are Horrible

By Allison Gardenswartz, Consulting Educator


My fourth-grader's writing is horrible and has been since she started school. Her spelling is just as bad. She still spells by sounding out the words.

When will this improve? No matter what I do she gets really frustrated and just quits altogether. I don't know what to do and don't know why her teachers don't help her.


Some students struggle with handwriting throughout their school careers, as do some adults. Fortunately, in this modern world of computers, your daughter can type most of her written work to make it legible. I would encourage her to do so with any work that she is able to.

Nonetheless, she will still need to complete some classwork on the spot and legibility is key. Encourage your daughter to take her time, write slowly and really try to make her work neat. Check to be sure she is holding her pencil or pen correctly. Try using a grip on her pen or pencil. There are small, trendy grips now that kids think are "cool" and can help her gain control. You can also discuss with her classroom teacher any ideas she may have to help improve handwriting. Having your daughter practice cutting and coloring in small spaces will improve fine motor coordination.

As for her spelling deficiencies, again, some students and adults are poor spellers. Having her check her work (on a computer using a spell check program) and in her own writing, (using her proofing skills) is important. You can also proof her work and mark her spelling errors so she can correct them. Encourage her to ask you how to spell unfamiliar words, rather than guessing at them. I discourage parents from making a chore of spelling and requiring students to look up unknown words. Don't punish her - rather try to make it a game where you figure out the spelling together.

Finally, I encourage you to talk with her classroom teacher about both her spelling and writing. Teachers often have creative ideas and it is important for them to be aware of a parent's concerns. It is also worth noting that some teachers realize the challenge of handwriting for some students and try not to penalize them for it. We want your daughter to enjoy writing and we want her to try to be creative in her writing. So it is great for both you and the teacher to be encouraging in her writing, especially in her initial drafts and then you can correct and work on the details in her final copies.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that there are occurrences when it is necessary to consult a professional. If the difficulty with writing continues, despite implementation of the above recommendations, then your daughter should be evaluated for a writing learning disability like dysgraphia.

Allison Gardenswartz is the founder of a San Diego tutoring center specializing in gifted and remedial learning and test preparation studies. An educator for over 15 years, Allison is an expert in identifying and enhancing the learning abilities of school-age children. Allison now fully devotes her time to parent education, consulting and college counseling. Allison has a teaching credential and has taught for several years in various public school systems. She has three children: Jacob, 11, Sofia, 7, and newly adopted Ryan, who is 3.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"My 13 year old son has dyspraxia (affects his fine motor skills, sight, touch). Several years of occupational therapy did not help but some areas have improved as he has gotten older (the extreme sensitivity to fabrics). He still struggles a little with food textures, cutting with scissors, hand writting (same as kindergarten), copying from board to paper). He has an IEOP that allows him to type in class (if he prefers), more time alloted for written tests, etc.. Since obtaining his IEOP he went from B's to solid straight A's. It's more common than you think. Ask your pediatrician for an evaluation or referral to an OT."
"The spelling tips are helpful but everything has been tried, including a speech pathologist since lst gr.- student is now a 4th grader - to no avail. Student is dyslexic & ADD - all other grades are in B & A range, including reading. It is sort of like 'here today/gone tomorrow' - or worse, minute to minute. He is tested in a quiet setting with only the test-giver present. Studying is done in a quiet, special room in my (grandmother)home. Of course, his writing is affected. Sometimes, it's like reading Hieroglyphics! Student seems to see no need for vowels except when it is blatantly evident. ex. ndangr = endanger - it is a complete mystery as to why his reading and english is not affected. Any help?"
"I do not think that this parent was referring to handwriting, but rather the ability to write a cohesive thought in a paragraph and/or story. "
"What type of testing do you recommend for a 5th grader with writing of a first grader? He misspells even easy words. He omits words. Legibilty isn't good. This is a bright child who reads 2-3 books a week and has a great memory. All of us are very frustrated."
"Any child who struggles with handwriting by the time they have reached the fourth grade, has had a critical skill overlooked. Take a look at, and find a Certified Handwriting Specialist, who is most often also an Occupational Therapist, and have your child assessed to dtermine which of the 8 main handwriting skills are the issue. Sometimes, simple changes in grip or posture make a world of difference, as does the right paper. The need for fine motor skills will never become outdated, or replaced by the computer. We are finding new ways to interface with our computers, namely the new tablets and UMPC's- and how does one interface with them? You guessed it- handwriting! "
"To those of you that struggle in similar ares with your children, don't think that you are the only pea in the pot. I too am dealing with this situation. I did take the extra step and consulted a professional that outlines ways for my son to improve in writing and reading. We learned what how our son learns..verbal vs. auditory and the affects of this learning method. Hang in there there are answers."
"I do not agree with your answer about using the computer whenever possible. Why would you not work WITH her to help with her handwriting that is the problem with the youth today they rely WAY too much on computers and that is a teachers & parents easy way out so they do not have to work with the child. The same goes for the spell checker idea. We all had to learn to print legibly and spell so why settle for mediocre? "