Understanding Handwriting Terms and Phrases

Grass line, magic c, spacing, Oh-My!

Different handwriting programs use certain words and terminology that can be confusing to parents and new teachers and therapists. It’s so much easier for our kids when everyone uses the same language.

Language matters when it comes to handwriting.

  1. Use the same language consistently when teaching
  2. Follow the language of the program the child is learning
  3. Get the team on board!  Send information to the parents so they use the same language, too!

50 common handwriting terms that parents should know

(Get the printable!)  ➡       ➡       ➡       ➡       ➡  


Handwriting Terms & Definitions

  • 90-90-90 position – the ideal position of the body for writing; having one’s elbows bent at a 90-degree angle, hips at a 90-degree angle, knees at a 90-degree angle, and feet flat on the floor.
  • Automaticity – the ability to automatically and accurately form letters through motor planning requiring little to no effort.
  • Ball and stick – lifting the pencil and making a second stroke to complete the letter formation. For example, using ball and stick, the letter b is taught by making a vertical line and then lifting the pencil to draw a circle. (Ball and stick is NOT best practice!)
  • Baseline/bottom line – the line on which most letters rest.
  • Capital letter – an uppercase letter or a letter that is not lowercase
  • Center Starting Capitals – Capital letters that start in the center such as C, O, Q, G,S, T, I, J, A.
  • Developmental teaching order – how to teach the letters in the sequence that children are physically and developmentally ready to learn them, rather than from A to Z.
  • D’Nealian – A handwriting program that uses letters with tails in manuscript printing, to make the transition to cursive simpler.
  • Dotted line – the middle line, halfway between the top and bottom line
  • Dysgraphia – a learning disability that may cause difficulty with handwriting, motor, and processing skills.
  • Fall letters – letters that go below the baseline (bottom line)
  • Far point – copying letters from a board, requiring distance vision skills and the ability of the student to read and hold information to transfer to the paper
  • Fluency – ability to access, retrieve, and form letters reliably
  • Frog Jump Capitals – a term from the Handwriting Without Tears program, these are letters that start at the top left corner with a big line down. Next, the pencil jumps back to the start spot to complete the letter (Examples: E F D B P).
  • Fundations – a reading program that incorporates a supplemental handwriting component.
  • Graph paper – paper used for focusing on letter size and spacing between letters and words.
  • Grass line – the bottom writing line, aka baseline.
  • Gray box paper – paper with uniformly sized boxes to aid with sizing and orienting capital letters and numbers (from the Handwriting Without Tears program).
  • Handwriting Without Tears – a developmental handwriting program that uses simple strokes: big line, little line, big curve, little curve.
  • Left to right progression – the basis for reading and writing, tracking from left to right.
  • Legibility – readability of handwriting
  • LegiLiner – a self-inking, rolling stamp that draws handwriting lines
  • Letter formation – ability to form letters of the alphabet correctly
  • Letter groups – tall, small, and fall letters
  • Letter size boxes – boxes to correctly form the size of letters and correctly place them on the line
  • Letter sizing – the height of letters determined by the space the letter takes up, referring to forming tall, short, and fall letters.
  • Letter spacing – the distance between letters, words, sentences, and lines
  • Lowercase – a letter that is not capital or uppercase
  • Magic C letters – a Handwriting Without Tears term having the student write the letter “c” to begin writing a letter such as a, d, g, o, q.
  • Manuscript – print writing that is made up of lines and circles, often taught in elementary schools
  • Memory – the ability to produce a letter without a visual cue.
  • Narrow lined paper – a type of adapted paper
  • Near point – copying letters from a paper on the desk, which is an easier task than far point.
  • Orientation – refers to letters and numbers that are facing in the correct direction.
  • Plane line – The middle dotted handwriting line
  • Posture and proper positioning – 90-90-90 having feet flat on the floor, knees at a90 degree angle, back is straight, and forearms/elbows on the table at 90degrees.
  • Primary paper – three lined paper with a dotted middle line, helping students size
    letters properly
  • Redi-Space Paper – adapted writing paper designed to improve legibility by providing visual cues for proper spacing between letters and words.
  • Retrace – going back over the same line for a short distance when forming letters.
  • Reversals – writing letters facing the wrong direction.
  • Size Matters Handwriting Program – a developmental handwriting program that uses the terms of size 1, size 2, and size 3 letters
  • Skyline – the top handwriting line
  • Slant board – a slanted writing surface used to create a position to reduce strain for the wrist, arms, hands and shoulders and encourage a proper grip.
  • Small letters – letters that do not go above the middle line, such as a, c, e, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, and z
  • Space stick – a handwriting spacing stick used as a visual cue for handwriting, such as a popsicle stick
  • Spaceman space – an image to remind students to use spaces between words
  • Speed – refers to how quickly one can write letters and sentences.
  • Start spot – an indicator for where the letter starts.
  • Starting Corner Capitals – Capital letters that start in the top left corner such as B, D, E, F, H, K, L, M, N, U, V, W, X, Y, Z
  • Super “C” letters – a Size Matters Handwriting Program term for letters that start with a “c”
    and turn into another letter (o, a, d, g, q).
  • Tall letters – letters that touch the top line, such as b, d, f, h, k, l, t, and all uppercase letters
  • Top line – the line at the top of the writing space where tall letters will touch.
  • Tracking – the ability for our eyes to move across a paper and scan words and letters
  • Traditional paper – regular lined looseleaf paper with a top and bottom line.
  • Traditional teaching order – teaching letters starting with the letter A and ending with the letter Z.
  • TV Teacher – a developmental handwriting program that uses video modeling to teach handwriting
  • Worm line – an additional line below the grass line to draw fall letters such as g, j or y
  • Woo Tape – adhesive tape that can be used to add writing lines to a child’s paper
  • Zaner Bloser – a Handwriting program with writing straight up and down in manuscript printing and slanted in cursive.

Developmental Progression of a Pencil Grasp:

  • 1 to 1.5 years – Palmar Supinate– the pencil will be held in the palm with the thumb resting on top of the pencil while using larger muscle groups.
  • 2 to 3 years – Digital Pronate – the pencil will be held in the palm with the index finger pointed down to the paper.
  • 3.5 to 4 years – Static Tripod–  holding the pencil with the thumb and index finger and use the middle finger as support. Writing will be using larger movements from the shoulder and elbow instead of the fingers.
  • 4.5 to 5 years – Dynamic Tripod– thumb and index finger holds the pencil with the pinky and ring finger pinched in. Dynamic means that the fingers and wrist will provide more movement instead of the shoulder and elbow.

Motor Memory and Handwriting

Motor Memory Matters!  

Research shows that practice and repetition are the best way to teach children how to form their letters.  It turns out that Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid was right.

Remember “wax on, wax off?”  We need to practice the same motor movements again and again for them to become automatic.

The same is true when it comes to handwriting

Turns out, it makes a lot of sense NOT to teach the letters in A to Z order.  


Because it’s a lot easier to learn to write “F and E” on the same day than it is to learn “A and a”.  

Research shows that 1 in 4 children need more help with handwriting in order to grasp the concepts. This year, schools are full of kids who missed months of “typical learning” due to COVID-19. 

The truth is, there is less time for handwriting instruction in school. 

But here’s a trick that makes the process easier.

Teach the letters in groups by formation. Children learn better when the motor components of letter formations are grouped. Teaching “A” and “a” in the same week expects children to learn two totally different motor tasks. Teaching “F” and then “E” or “n” and then “m” is much easier.

Want to learn more? 

Here’s a FREE Handout about How to Teach the Letters in Groups 

This simple process of teaching letters in a developmentally appropriate way JUST MAKES SENSE!

Don‘t miss out on the webinar! 

CEUs are available: The course is AOTA approved, and you can purchase the webinar, slides and CEUs here

  • The webinar is approved for .2 AOTA CEUs.
  • Applies to any handwriting program your child has been using.
  • Taught by a certified handwriting expert and school-based occupational therapist with 20 years experience.


Teaching Letters in Groups Workbook: This 120+ page digital handwriting workbook is on sale for $14.99! It features all the capitals, all the lowercase, and all the letters that can be taught together on the same page.

BONUS: This week, when you purchase the workbook, you’ll get a 32-page FREE handwriting in groups packet. These handouts are perfect for centers, sensory writing, rainbow writing and more.

Watch Miss Jaime, O.T. teach how to “Mr. Miyagi” our kids!

Please keep in mind when teaching letters…

There’s a developmental progression to letters, too!   Children understand straight lines first, then circular lines, then diagonal lines.

So doesn’t it make sense to learn letters like H, L, T, F, E first as opposed to A, B, C??

Look at the letters of the alphabet and categorize them by straight lines, circular lines, and diagonal lines and teach them in that order.

In addition to the webinar, you may like these handwriting products:

5 Ways to Work on Pencil Grasp Without A Pencil

For an OT in the school system pencil grasp can be a big focus for our students. Knowing how to encourage proper pencil grasp is helpful for all of our young students.

A tripod grasp is functional and it helps with a reduction of pain and hand fatigue.

Many teachers and therapists believe that the dynamic tripod is the only grasp that’s functional. However, there are other functional grasps that are just as sufficient as the tripod grasp.  A tripod grasp does help with more things than just writing like utilizing math manipulatives and engaging in kinesthetic learning with wiki sticks, Play-Doh, and clay.

It’s important  to encourage good pencil grasp early on. After 2nd grade, a grasp becomes “locked in”, and is difficult to change.

How to work on grasp without a pencil

Here are the 5 ways I use to work on pencil grasp with my students.

  Use a Stylus

  • A stylus is convenient to  utilize whenever my students want to engage in an activity on the IPad.  (I am truly passionate about the fact that the students I see have learned to use their index finger so heavily (with technology at an all time high than ever) that the use of a pencil has become very difficult to learn.  Anytime your student is using an IPad, incorporate a stylus. I particularly like the crayon shaped styluses for the younger ones (they are fun and relatable to them).  You can check them out here:

Use Skinny Dry Erase Markers

  • Dry erase markers and chalk are always fun and engaging for the students
  • Writing on a dry erase board/table or utilizing sidewalk chalk
  • Use chalkboard paint to turn any wall or table into a fun writing surface
  • Break the chalk into a shorter piece will aid in enforcing the proper grasp

Magna Doodle & Aqua Doodle

Magna Doodle and Aqua Doodle are awesome tools that make our students feel as if writing and drawing is play and not work (our specialty). Most children haven’t ever seen them.

  • Introduce this tool to draw pre-writing shapes or scribble. They normally come with a short writing utensil (always a plus) and only requires minimal storage space.

A Peg and Clay

Use a short stick (it can be a spare peg, craft stick, etc) to draw in clay, Play-Doh, or shaving cream. You can make this into a creative game with your students. Have them draw a smiley face or a house. Practice shapes and lines.  This works on developing pencil grasp as well as pre-writing skills and visual-motor skills.

Use Fine Motor Toys

There are so many fun fine motor toys to help the development of our student’s pencil grasps.

  • threading beads
  • pegboard activities
  • peeling stickers
  • utilizing tongs
  • stacking blocks

Want more ideas?  Get a free printable handout!








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About the Author: 

Brittany Turner is a COTA/L (Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant) and a new member of the Miss Jaime, O.T. team. She has been in the OT field since 2014. She currently works full time in the public school system in Henry County Virginia with students ranging from 2 years of age-5th grade. She is also working PRN in a skilled nursing facility and inpatient rehabilitation. She’s busy in the OT field but she loves seeing the variety of patients and learning new things constantly.

Brittany graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Rehabilitation Studies from Winston Salem State University. She enjoys exercising, spending time with her family, and being involved with church activities.

6 Ways to Use Wootape at home & in the classroom


What is WooTape?

WooTape is the therapeutic handwriting tape that allows parents, teachers, and therapists to accommodate any worksheet or activity in the moment!  Simply peel, tear, and apply the tape to any paper or surface. It comes in three different sizes, so you can accommodate for each child as necessary.

This is so great for students who struggle with spatial awareness and letter size.

handwriting, letter size, spatial awareness, name writing

6 Ways to Use WooTape in the classroom or home

1) Support an early writer’s ability to properly size and place their name consistently

The name line may (or may not exist) on every worksheet a child receives. Regardless, the need to write their name on it will always be required.  Children need to write their name on everything.  After a while, they can scribble it down with their eyes closed. But without enough proper instruction and repetition, the monotony of it can become quick, meaningless, and often the most illegible writing on their paper.

When parents or teachers take the time to add the proper visual boundaries for children’s names on every paper (especially for early writers PK-1st grade), students get in the habit of proportioning the letters correctly. Instead, children sometimes aren’t provided any visual boundaries. This leaves them to guess how tall or wide to make them and helpless when required to spatially organize them.

To better support children, simply add WooTape to the name line to provide a topline and midline before copying worksheets.

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2) Use WOOTAPE TO Adapt charts to improve sizing and spatial organization

There are countless academic tasks with worksheets that leaving large open boxes/spaces to write in. Compare and contrast activities and graphic organizers are the worst culprits. Many times, the teacher requests that students provide a minimum of 3 examples.  When children don’t have visual cues telling them how big to make their letters, they often struggle to make them fit.

Place WooTape on the chart and the child has clear expectations of where their ideas can be written.

3) Label pictures, crafts, or science activities neatly

WooTape is excellent for placing directly on children’s art projects.  They can identify people in their pictures, give a title to their art piece, or label the parts of an insect or flower. These are tasks they are usually expected to do without proper visual supports.  This can end up ruining the finished product because they end up writing all over the page.

Instead, provide them a small piece of WooTape where it is needed, so the child can keep the overall creation clean, organized, and legible.

4) Use WOOTAPE to support grasp development and wrist alignment by using on a vertical surface

WooTape is fantastic for placing on any flat surface. Because there is a slight tackiness on the back, it is easily removable from most surfaces without damage making it the perfect handwriting intervention to place on walls, mirrors, windows, and doors or even under tables!

Working on a vertical surface is great for working on upper extremity strength, wrist stability, and pencil grasp.

Most walls have some sort of texture, so using WooTape on these surfaces provides lots of opportunities for tactile feedback.

(Disclaimer: when allowing your child to write on walls with WooTape, use a tool such as a pencil where it is easier to erased or wiped off)

5) Use it as a visual guide to improving cutting accuracy

Place any size WooTape on paper (preferably a thick cardstock or index card) and encourage the child to cut on the dashed line. If the child stays within the bolded sidelines, it is easy to track progress toward their cutting goal.

6) Wootape encourages fine motor skills and independence

Using tape has a lot of therapeutic benefits—fine motor skills to peel up the edge, bilateral coordination, and grading of force to unroll some but not too much tape.  It also takes and strength and coordination to tear a piece off.

Many students are able to master these skills independently by the 2nd grade. This allows them to accommodate their own work without assistance from an adult. Now the teacher can support other students in the class, and the child’s success and confidence are boosted by adding some quick and straightforward visual boundaries to consistently produce legible work.

For the rest of the month of April, you can get a 20% discount on Wootape with the promo code  OTMONTH.

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Ten Best Apps for Handwriting with Kids

As I walked into school the other day, a friend of mine grabbed me in a panic and said “Should my four-year-old really be practicing a page of letters every night?! This is the only time I get to spend with her and I’m forcing her to write a whole page of D’s! This stinks!”

No, as an OT, I don’t believe that a four-year-old should be practicing a page of letters for twenty minutes a night.  It’s too much for those little hands.

But – an educator who spends two days a week in kindergarten, I have to say, this is where the curriculum is going. Developmentally, preschoolers are still preschoolers, but kindergarten curriculum expectations have increased tremendously.  Little kids are expected to be able to write upon entering kindergarten.  Preschools are bowing to the pressure and teaching what used to be the kindergarten curriculum.

I felt empathetic towards my friend who just wants to play with her little girl at night, rather than drilling her to finish a worksheet.  But here’s what I told her.

Think about it differently.  You have the chance to make sure she learns all her letters correctly before she starts Kindergarten.  There will be other children in her class who don’t know their letters, and the teacher won’t be able to really sit with them one on one to make sure they get it.  Many teachers teach one letter a day in two forms (capital and uppercase), so the kids don’t really develop the motor memory.  It’s difficult for kids to learn it and to write comfortably at this rushed pace.   If a child learns their letters correctly it is so much easier for them to write neatly.  It becomes automatic.”


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Why not to push handwriting for kids

handwriting, preschool, school, writing, visual motor, graphomotor, OT, Miss Jaime OT

Pushing kids into writing before they are developmentally ready happens to be one of my pet peeves. (I actually have quite a few of them, you can read all about them here. )

Experience has shown me is that children should NOT be pushed into handwriting before they’re ready. So many kids are entering Kindergarten without the basic pre-writing skills they need. Yet the Kindergarten curriculum expects them to be writing right away!

Before handwriting, children need to master pre-writing skills

Pre-writing skills are the lines, shapes, and strokes kids need to master and know before learning how to print the alphabet. They develop from 1 year to 5 years old.

Pre-writing skills ARE important.

Kids need to learn and master pre-writing lines, strokes, and shapes and strengthen their fine
motor skills before learning how to form the letters of their name or the alphabet.

Prewriting Milestones

1-2 years old:

A baby is typically scribbling and learning to make marks on a paper. They are probably holding a crayon or marker with their whole hand. This is called a palmar supinate grasp.

As they develop more control, the next step is to imitate. Maybe you make a line or shape and
then your child imitates that same line or shape.

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Effortless art crayons

Effortless Art Crayons

“Effortless Art Crayons”  is a sponsored post

“Every time he wants to change colors, I have to waste two minutes adapting the crayon.  It’s such a waste of time!”

Occupational therapists and special education teachers are magicians when it comes to adapting stuff for our kids with weak motor skills, developmental delays, or atypical grasp patterns.  But sometimes it’s just a pain in the neck!

The main goal is to help children be independent.  So if an adult has to step in every few minutes to put the grip on a new crayon or adjust a child’s fingers so they are in a functional position, it goes against what we are working toward (Independence!)

It’s easy to keep a grip on a pencil, but what about crayons?  The child wants to change colors every few minutes- that’s half the fun!

I’ve found the solution. 

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