Some kids seem to be born with the desire to write neatly…while others need a whole lot of convincing. (And I know, because I have one of each!) While messy handwriting can make it hard for kids to express their ideas in any subject, it’s especially a problem in math. That’s because every single number matters. If you mistake a 6 for a 0, or a 2 for a 7, you’re going to get the problem wrong.
My son Henry has never been a big fan of pencils, and I did a lot of scribing for him when he was younger. But now that he’s in third grade, his fine motor skills are much stronger, and he’s developed much greater stamina in writing. Sloppy mistakes have been starting to prevent him from showing what he knows on his math assignments, so I decided recently it was time to take some action. Here’s what I did.
Step 1: Practice number formation.
First, make sure your child is making the numbers correctly. Pull out a handwriting book (or print off a simple chart like this one) and make sure your child starts the numbers in the correct place and follows the steps correctly.
To help your practice correct formation, do math copywork and dictation (just as you might do in English). It also helps a lot to tape a card with the numbers written correctly to your child’s desk so that he has a model to copy any time he needs. (This is especially important if your child ever reverses numbers.)
Step 2: Use graph paper.
Graph paper is your friend! The boxes help children keep their numbers a consistent size and help them to keep the digits lined up in problems. In many countries, graph paper is the only paper used for math.
There are tons of sites that offer free printable graph paper in a variety of grid sizes. Half-inch grids are good for younger kids, while older kids might be ready for one-third inch or even one-fourth inch squares. You can also buy graph paper notebooks from Amazon if you know you’ll forget to print enough paper in advance.
Step 3: Fewer problems = more focus.
When your child is working on making her handwriting neater and more legible, it’s better to do several problems beautifully than a bunch of problems sloppily. For complex operations like long division or multi-digit multiplication, solving just 3-4 problems per day is plenty of handwriting practice.
Step 4: Nag. Hold your kids accountable.
New, neater habits will become ingrained more quickly if you consistently monitor your child’s math handwriting. Check your child’s work each day and have him fix or redo any sloppy work immediately.
Henry and I spent about 10 minutes per day for 2 weeks working on his math handwriting. In just that short amount of time, he not only improved his skills but also realized that I wasn’t going to let him get away with sloppiness—so it’s worth his while to do it right the first time!
It takes a little time to help messy kids learn to write more neatly in math. But if you have a kid who makes a lot of mistakes due to sloppiness, it’s well worth it. Neat handwriting only becomes more essential as kids get older and tackle complex topics that require writing out more steps. (Hello, algebra!)