Writing on the Lines: Should our Children Write on Lines?

Like so many aspects of handwriting, the writing lines vs no writing lines debate is as passionate and diverse as there are people discussing it.  Should our focus be writing on the lines, or should our children work on blank paper and within wide writing lines?

The South African CAPS Handwriting Curriculum advocates that children should start writing with wax crayons on blank paper in Grade 1.  From there they progress to 17mm lines for formalised handwriting instruction.  CAPS also highlights that it is the preference of the school if they prefer to continue with blank paper, even through to Grade 2.  CAPS goes on to advocate 8.5mm lined books by Grade 3. These, however, seem to be guidelines and there is latitude for the schools to follow their own policies for handwriting instruction.

As an occupational therapist who has worked with children with fine motor and handwriting difficulties for more years than I can remember, I have to say, I respectfully disagree with the blank paper and 17mm lines for our Grade 1’s.  I am a fan of lines.  All The Time.

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If we look at this Grade 1 child who has written his news with no lines, compared to his writing where a guideline sheet was placed under the page, there is little to discuss when it comes to the dramatic improvement when he has the structure and boundary offered by the lines.  Nothing else changed.  We just added lines.

Writing on the lines : letters on the line or no lines?

I am fully in agreement that Grade R letter formation should be without lines.  At that point the children should be focusing on starting points and formation patterns, rather than how the letters are positioned on the lines.  The letter forms are big and the movement for writing movement is initiated from the wrist.  This movement lacks the refinement required to place it on lines.

Grade 1: how to teach a child to write on the line.

It has been explained to me that the reason for no lines in news books in Grade 1, is that worrying about lines interferes with the child’s freedom of thought and creativity.  When I look at the improvement when children write on lines, to me that doesn’t really seem important.  The child is going to be so proud of the presentation of their work compared to that with no lines, that I believe they will write more anyway.

I believe that learning to write in Grade one is a little like learning the words and tune of a song.  It makes sense to learn the words and tune together rather than first the tune, and then the words.  And for me, it is the same with lines and letters.  I firmly believe they should be taught at the same time – children are well able to learn the spatial placement of letters on lines.  If that is the case, why would we leave them without the boundary and structure of the lines that can make handwriting easier, when providing lines is such an easy option?

Highlighting lines for handwriting: head, tummy and tail letters.

We divide our letters into head tummy and tail letters according to their spatial placement on lines.  The children first learn the tummy letters which are the letters that take up only one line space.  Head letters like the h, k and d come next – they take up two lines spaces, the tummy and the head.  And finally, the tail letters like j, y and q that take up the tummy and tail spaces.

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When learning the tummy letters, the children colour in the tummy and then ensure they write on the tummy line.  After that, we add the head letters and finally the tail letters.  If the children are still battling, it can be useful to use a highlighter pen to highlight the whole of the tummy line until they have internalised the concept.

As we discussed under choosing a handwriting style, the top third of the class may well experience no difficulties orientating the letters correctly, even if they do not have the external structure of the lines to guide them.  But again, the middle third may fall to the bottom, and the bottom third may well experience difficulties that become hardwired as they practice their letters with the incorrect spatial placement on lines.  Where children write on the wide 17mm lines, their writing often floats around, and they are never quite sure where they should be placing the letter.  The letters also lack the grounding of sitting on the baseline.

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Children who experience a lack of well-developed pencil control, do well when they are given the external structure of the lines with both free and structured writing tasks.  Those with poor pencil control may go over the lines or not quite touch the line, but that is less significant than the child who has “floating” handwriting.

The child whose writing is all over the place in their news book, but achieves well-presented handwriting when given the structure of lines, should be given lines.  We all have different experiences but as someone who spent years and years working with children who were struggling with handwriting, I have found over and again, that lines result in an immediate improvement.

Writing on the lines: speckled lines.

And even more than lines, I love speckled line books!  Children find it easy to learn that the tummy of the letter sits on the solid line, while the speckled lines still provide the structure.

letter sizing activities, baseline orientation

Where children are struggling with the spatial placement of letters on lines, I give them a week’s trial on speckled lines.  Of course, they need to be taught how they work – which they quickly pick up – and then, if we find an improvement, we transition all their books across to speckled line books.  And with this, I usually find that within a month, their spatial placement issues have all but resolved.  This doesn’t mean that the underlying spatial issue that caused it in the first place has magically resolved, it just means that they have a strategy that helps them to overcome it, and be able to function in the classroom situation.

I believe that intervention for handwriting needs to come from improving both the foundations, as well as providing strategies to address the output issues.  We need to tackle handwriting from the bottom up, and the top down.

Lines are like scaffolding. They provide a structure while the horizontal orientation of handwriting matures. Some people never really master the horizontal orientation, while for others it is a piece of cake. We need to ensure we have strategies (and lines!) in place to help the children whose writing goes all over the place.

Writing on the lines :Irish lines.

Traditionally in this country, Irish lines were introduced in Grade 3.  It makes sense that with the development in our children’s refined pencil control, that the size of the line should decrease.  And our Grade 3 children do well on the Irish lines.  You can even get Irish speckled lines!

Early introduction of Irish lines.

Where I have children in Grade 2 who are struggling with handwriting legibility issues, I like to give them a chance to work on Irish lines for a week.  And one of two things happens.  Either it doesn’t really make a difference and they don’t really like them.  Or, it works like magic!  There is an immediate improvement in the quality of their handwriting and because of that, the children really love them.  I know it doesn’t always work, but for the children who respond well, the difference is so impressive that it is worth the times that it doesn’t work.  If it doesn’t work you have lost nothing, but if it does, you have gained everything.  Then we just replace all their books with Irish line books and off they go.

Not that we need it after all of this, but in summary, I believe in writing lines!  I believe it helps children who struggle, and it assists in preventing children from beginning to struggle.  With so little time available for the teaching of handwriting, a skill which relies so heavily on time to consolidate it, we need to use all the strategies we have at our disposal to facilitate our children on this journey in as smooth a way as possible.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

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