Teaching Handwriting to Toddlers Isn’t as Easy as Connecting the Dots

An exercise in frustration for your child!

An exercise in frustration for your child!

I recently saw a preschool homework sheet with dots forming the child’s first name.  My initial thought was “Not again!”.  And then I decided to be a bit more kind.  Preschool teachers aren’t given any solid instruction in how to teach pre-writing.  They are trying their best, and hoping that the workbooks they have in the classroom or the websites they visit will help them.  Sadly, most aren’t up to the task.  I have trained preschool teachers in workshops and they are usually eager to learn techniques that make handwriting lessons easy and successful.  Most admit that they had little or no instruction in how to teach toddlers to write.

If you are a parent of a preschooler or a teacher, and you want to support pre-writing with your child, here are some suggestions based on established neuropsychological research on fine motor and visual-perceptual development.

  • Reading and writing are two different skills.  Seems obvious, right?  One is primarily language based, with auditory and visual-perceptual components.  The other is related to hand strength and coordination, motor planning, sensory processing and visual-perceptual skills.  You can teach them together, but I think teaching them apart makes more sense and is less stressful for children.  Most children have the ability to recognize letters before they can write them.  Tracing a letter that you don’t recognize seems like a waste of time at best.
  • Uppercase letters are easier to recognize and easier to write.  They are all the same size, writing begins in the same location for each letter (at the top, not necessarily at the top left), and the easier muscle movements do not require tracing back. Tracing back on a line is much harder for little hands.  Use letters that are easier to identify and copy from a visual-perceptual and visual-motor perspective, not the hanging alphabet strips.  Start teaching uppercase letters first, and  begin with the letters composed of vertical and horizontal lines.
  • Demonstrate the sequence of movements to write a letter clearly, which means writing upside down if the child is sitting across the table from you.  Use simple descriptions of those movements.  Handwriting Without Tears excels in this approach.  Imagine learning to dance with either simple directions or with complicated French terminology.   And then imagine copying dance moves directly or trying to reverse them as you dance in front of the instructor.
  • Use writing tools sized to fit small hands and developing coordination.  Crayons have some “grip” on the paper and give more pressure and touch feedback than thin pencils or smooth markers.  Again, Handwriting Without Tears does a great job with tiny little flip crayons and short pencils that both support good grasp but also promote the use of mature grasp.  Triangular crayons and the app crayon stylus have appeared on this blog in the past because they also support the development of a controlled pencil grasp.
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