Is HWT Gray Block Paper All You Need?

HWT Gray Block paper does so many amazing things all at once to help a young child learn to write.  I had to take the Handwriting Without Tears assessment class twice to really understand why it works.  All you have to do is read this blog post.
IMG_1107.jpgThis paper is intended for children that write at the kindergarten level.  That means that a 4 year old that is leaving his classmates in the dust can use it, and a second-grader that struggles with getting his letters small enough to fit on homework assignment sheets can use it too.  The HWT people don’t put grades on their materials so that it can be used by anyone.  I find that really kind to the egos of children everywhere.  If you aren’t good at writing you probably know it, but having it broadcast throughout the school isn’t helpful.

This paper is for uppercase letters and to be used with pencils, but I have had children who need the waxy grippy-ness of a very pointed crayon succeed on this paper unless they use too much force.  Pencils are still the best tool for writing in such small spaces.  I frequently have a child use my favorite pencil grip  The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write. You can address a lot of needs and IEP goals all in one activity if you use Gray Block paper!

The paper comes in the center-starter cues version or the alphabet/numeral copy format shown above, but it also has a blank-box version and a left corner-starter cues version.  Example:  the letters “E” and “L” begin at the top left corner, but the letters “T”and “C” start at the center top.  The dots tell a child where to begin a letter.  The alphabet/numeral page provide correct starting dots for each character.  HWT has given teachers and parents sheets that create a progression from copying a model to independent writing, while still providing clear boundaries for size and control.  More on that later.

Starting letters in the correct spot is a primary goal for legibility.  An uppercase letter that is started at the bottom may look good, but it will be made a bit slower.  Once a child starts writing words and sentences, using an incorrect start can result in being the slowest writer in the class. Starting at the bottom also makes it harder to control your hand for an accurate stop, therefore a child’s letter can be too long or have a straight line that develops a curve as they try to come to a halt with an upswept wrist or finger motion.  When a child starts a letter correctly, the chances of using the correct sequence of moves rises significantly.  The blocks also help a beginning writer avoid reversals.  For example, children cannot reverse the “D” if they stay in their block.  An immediate reminder.  Make “D”s this way for a while, and a child’s brain automatically glides the pencil to the right to make a big curve.  No decisions needed.  It is a habit.  And no parent/teacher correction needed.  I love it when I don’t have to say or do anything to get good results!!!!

So far this magic paper has controlled the start and assisted in getting the sequence of movements correct while avoiding reversing letters.  The size of the boxes and the shading make it very clear how large and how wide the letters should be, supporting correct and consistent sizing.  The boxes are in a horizontal row to help a child identify the baseline, which is correct alignment of uppercase letters.  Sometimes I will take a black crayon and draw a line under the row, making a bold baseline.  I told one child I see for private tutoring that only adults make the baseline, and in true form for him, he insisted that he be allowed to make his own baselines. His letters still wobble a bit, but he always aims for his baseline now.   Another win for both of us!

I have recently seen some preschoolers that I treat privately come home with sheets that look like HWT’s gray blocks, but are actually just rectangles drawn on paper in pre-K sizing (yes, there is a way to know what is standard sizing is, even this early).  These pages sometimes even come from the occupational therapist at school!  OOPS! This make me think that they (or someone at school) has seen the Gray Block paper and thought that they would create them for younger kids.  Sorry, guys: you missed the part of the lecture on why Gray Block paper works and for whom it has the best results.

Preschoolers that are advanced can jump into using gray block paper, but there is an important thing that simple rectangles on a page can’t deliver for children that are not yet ready to control a pencil and not writing without a model.   The shaded block gives a subtle visual cue that four drawn lines do not.  For beginning writers, especially for kids that have visual-perceptual issues, those extra lines can create more confusion than support.  Gray Block paper provides simple visual guidelines for the creation of vertical and diagonal lines without confusion for older children.  A child writing an “N”, for example, traces the left-side edge of the shaded block, jumps back to the starting corner, then makes a diagonal line to the lower right-hand corner, and then traces straight up to the top right-hand corner.  The letter “N” is a tricky one for many preschoolers and kindergarteners, who use all diagonal lines or reverse the letter because they aren’t sure when to jump up and when not to jump.  Gray blocks that are shaded, not drawn, allow them to see their writing through the shaded areas, developing more control and independence.  They aren’t writing within the blocks, they are using the edges to trace lines without a letter model.  You can’t trace a dark edge and still see your own work.  The effect of shaded blocks acting as a bridge to independent writing is one of the things that make this paper “magic”.  Making your own blocks is not going to deliver the same effect.

The blocks are spaced evenly but they are larger than “real-life” writing.  No worries; children will gradually imitate adult writing and make their free writing smaller than the blocks after practice.   The blocks give adults the chance to explain that letters need space.  You can even teach word spacing by always leaving one empty space between them.  It turns out that the correct amount of space between words is the lower case “o” in the size that you use for your age.  Gray blocks deliver again.

So…let’s list the things these little blocks can do for beginning or struggling writers:

  • appropriate for a wide range of ages
  • provides prompts for correct start and sequencing
  • discourages reversals
  • encourages awareness of a baseline
  • develops automatic and uniform sizing
  • promotes awareness of spacing letters and words
  • creates a bridge between tracing and independent writing
  • improves control with fewer confusing lines

Teaching handwriting to young children can be fun, but it can also be complicated.  Out of all of HWT’s products, this is one of the most useful items in my office now.  It gets results so quickly for so many children!


By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!


    1. Hi! As far as I know, there is no lowercase gray block paper. Kick Start Kindergarten is a great workbook that blends tracing lowercase letters and independent writing. Double-lined paper is available for writing as well. Reviewing uppercase letter and number formation with gray blocks often solves many of the reversals and control issues that appear in lowercase writing. Hope this helps!

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