Standardized testing has pushed the demand for handwriting down, down, down into preschool. The great majority of preschool children by the end of the 4’s will not have the physical control of a pencil to write lowercase letters correctly, but some teachers tell me that their administrations require them to teach kids to write their names in title case (first letter in uppercase, remaining letters are lowercase) in preschool, in preparation for kindergarten!
Children that cannot write lowercase letters correctly because they cannot perform the reversals and back-tracing that this case requires will almost always figure out a way to “cheat”. Not a criticism of children at all; these kids want to please. So the”p” becomes a straight line placed next to a circle. An “m” becomes two humps. If not corrected quickly and effectively, I will be getting a call in a year or two for private tutoring. I spend a lot of time doing home-based private work for families that paid for an expensive preschool, and it resulted in a child that created their own way to write lowercase letters. Those adapted letters look cute when you are 4, even “advanced” to the uneducated eye, but they are just sloppy writing when you are 8. OOPS!
I cannot change the administrators’ attitudes about curriculum, but I can offer my very best suggestions to teachers of the 3’s and early 4’s who want to do right by these kids. If you are being asked to teach lowercase letters this early, then your whole approach to writing needs to be well thought-out and comprehensive. It’s like losing 50 pounds before a wedding: everything you do should contribute to your goal! Yes, I said teachers of the 3’s. Again, if a child is going to learn lowercase letters correctly at 4, that child needs skill development in the 3’s to get there.
This is a long post, and I am hoping that it will become an e-book so that teachers around the world will get solid advice that helps them. Just telling you to buy a workbook or tiny crayons is not enough, not if you are being asked to bloom these little flowers early.
This does not mean that all you do is write. If you have the HWT preschool teacher’s manual in front of you, you have a year’s worth of fun and multi-sensory activities to add to your lesson plans that incorporates language, social skills, pre-math awareness, and more. The best pre-writing activities sometimes have no actual writing involved. Small group play with wood pieces can be so much fun that kids don’t want to put them away!
- If you are going to expect pencil grasp this early, you must provide early and substantial opportunities for small object manipulation to build refined motor and sensory skills. What does that mean? As soon as they are not likely to swallow little items (use food pieces if you are not certain about this), have kids picking up tiny items and sorting/gathering/assembling them creatively. Expand this beyond just fingertips by using tweezers, chopsticks and all manner of tools.Take a look at Teaching Pencil Grasp Can Start with Edison Chopsticks
- Teach pencil grasp, don’t just expect it or wait for it. HWT does this well, giving teachers easy group instructions. Don’t let a really awkward grasp go by. You are doing a disservice to the child. If your teaching tricks don’t work, ask an OT for a screening. You might need help in more areas than just grasp.
- Require a mature grasp by limiting the use of a fisted grasp with those giant dot markers, giant chalk, etc. This is the time to care about materials. Use small crayon pieces that are still a large enough diameter to support a fingertip grasp. Find short brushes for painting, fun lacing activities that require a fine tip grasp, use q-tips for spreading glue, and more.
- Teach and practice the use of a mature spoon grasp as early as 3.5 years. See my blog post Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp? on the best spoon style and activities to build this grasp Using Utensils To Eat Prepares Your Child To Write. Why? Because you want every opportunity to build hand control. Don’t serve spoon-able snacks in preschool? Use real toddler spoons for tactile play and scooping manipulative. Those plastic disposable spoons don’t encourage the stable grasp and provide a non-slip surface the way good toddler spoons can. This is what I do in therapy, since I can’t always have a snack session in OT. Use them consistently and wash them at the end of the day. Better yet, have your kids do it. Manipulating soap, water and towels are great, and they build a sense of personal responsibility to maintain the classroom. A win-win, in my opinion. The spoons can go right in the kitchen area so that dolls get fed with them and pretend meals are served with them. The fun never ends.
- Use the prepositions and stroke descriptions that are needed to follow letter formation instructions when you speak to children. Explain what you are doing as you write, and what each stroke is called. Young children have no experience with the language of writing. None. It would be like not knowing the vocabulary of cooking. Knowing the difference between “whisk” and “fold” in baking is important if you are going to be a good baker. Teachers, this is the same thing. Handwriting Without Tears has the simplest instructions, so that is one good reason to adopt this program for teaching young children. Games with wood pieces and roll-a dough incorporate the language of directionality and naming of stroke shapes in group instruction.
- Guess what builds comprehension of spatial prepositions like “up”, “across”, “down”, etc? Movement, and lots of it,enjoyed by children and described by an adult. It is the difference between saying to a 3 year-old: “Wow, big jump!” and “Wow! You jumped down to the ground and then popped right back up so-o-o fast!”. Research tells us that children from families with higher levels of education use more words and more descriptive words when they communicate with young children. By the time these children have entered preschool, they have had this subtle education in prepositions that give them an advantage when handwriting and reading are taught. Let’s give that advantage to all children.
- Handwriting is a bilateral skill. Ask anyone who has had their wrist and hand in a cast how difficult it is to steady the paper with one hand! If schools are going to teach writing as early as possible, it means that more targeted bilateral (two-handed) play activities in your classroom have to be offered. Montessori teachers do this really well. Carrying those trays, sorting and dumping containers, stringing and snipping with scissors all develop coordination with both hands working around a center, one hand stabilizing and supporting, the other performing the target action. You can get scissors into the hands of young children if you choose the kind that don’t injure them. Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler
- Body awareness and postural control are essential. HWT uses Mat Man for body awareness and drawing, but there are other fun things too. Toys that require balance are nice, but so is standing on one leg, hopping on one leg, walking on a masking-tape balance beam. Of course, being a ROBOT on one leg is more fun, and so is being a DANCER on one foot. Why wait for the day your kids go to “movement class”? The free play time in the gym could be so much more than chasing each other or fighting over the pedal cars. Small groups doing fun movement is good for teachers too. We all need to move.
- How to sit at the table used to be taught at home with mealtime manners and such. Even the kids in the 1% ( some of whom who live in the fanciest part of my own town!) sometimes haven’t been taught to sit at the table by 3. It is time to teach it at school. Teaching kids that sitting on their behinds with their feet flat is the way to get their bodies steady for writing would help. Are your chairs too large for the 3’s to do this? Hunt the school for a chair that fits the child. Again, the Montessori people are really good at realizing that you can’t sit a 3 year old on a chair built for a 5 year-old and get good posture. They have well-designed furniture in their classrooms, and it isn’t for decoration. It is for function. Go online and see if you can get some for your class. Tell the administration that it is an investment. It is.
- Use coloring activities that build strength and control. The single most important thing you can do to make coloring a pre-writing skill with young children? Color together! Even the kids who ignore you when you tell them to copy your actions will watch what you do. My favorite move is to narrate my work, even make some mistakes and say out loud what I did wrong. I get to model frustration tolerance but I also make an emotional connection and then I do a good job and show pride in my work. We have to be showing genuine enthusiasm for writing and coloring if we want to transmit that value. Select coloring pictures with simple backgrounds or none at all. Young children simply cannot see the difference between the focal design and the background. It is like those weird paintings that you have to look at twice to see the hidden items embedded inside. Kids just won’t color on something like that. They just scribble across the page. Choose themes that are meaningful. My most popular coloring page? Darth Vader. Very few little boys don’t want him to look good, and by good I mean menacing. And by menacing I mean all black except for the light saber. OK with me!