Category Archives: handwriting

KickStart Kindergarten: Get Your Child Ready for Kindergarten Writing The Easy Way!

 

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Starting kindergarten is so exciting for most kids, but learning to write can be challenging for those children that have fASD, SPD, fine motor or visual-motor issues.  Even though fewer and fewer teachers know how to teach handwriting well, it is still a necessary skill for young children.  Learning Without Tears has developed an amazing book that can help your child build skills faster and easier:  Kickstart Kindergarten!

Why Writing (Still) Really Matters

There are research studies that suggest that the physical act of forming letters positively affects memory and comprehension.  These studies suggest the benefits continue all the way through into college-level instruction.  Handwriting is a multi-sensory experience.  The brain is using many different areas of the brain are involved in organizing and coordinating it’s tasks to execute the ability to write.  Young brains need to practice and achieve a high level of coordinated activity before they can focus on comprehension and critical thinking.

The demands of writing create neural activity that could be considered  “brain exercise”.   I know I see it that way.  Taking notes at the high school and college level requires synthesis; the cognitive act of summarizing and condensing a lecture into a shorter message that you write down quickly.  It is a mental skill not required when you take verbatim notes on a laptop.  Oops.

Simply put, the reason keyboarding and digital access isn’t enough is simple:  by the time struggling writers are able to put their thoughts into words in a digital format, they have already developed frustration and even aversion to engaging in writing in any form.  

This is unacceptable to me.  Clever and creative kids are learning to dislike language arts because they can’t write with enough skill and speed.  I have struggling writers ask me: “How many words do I need in each sentence, and how many sentences”  This isn’t making them develop their ability to compose anything.  It is making them hate language arts.  At a time where communication skills are essential to success at any profession.

Kickstart Kindergarten:  Fun, Well-Designed, and Easy to Teach:

This workbook is the one you want to give your new preschool graduate this summer!  Filled with activities that boost the automaticity needed to go to kindergarten.

Here are some, but not all, of the terrific features of this workbook:

  • As with all HWT books, the paper is sturdy and won’t tear with repeated erasing or careless handling.
  • The individual letter pages start with tracing and fade to independence.
  • The gray boxes help kids with consistent and age-appropriate sizing and avoid reversals.  BTW, reversals are normal at this age.  Preventing reversals is even better than correcting them.  This book does both.
  • Each sample is placed near the space available for a child to write.  They don’t need to move their hand or copy the errors they made in the previous attempt (big issue for any kid with ocular control issues or visual organization issues!)
  • Letters are grouped into developmentally-correct bunches, based on the later pre-K motor developmental milestones.  This means that an “A” isn’t the first letter learned.  Letters that are all vertical and horizontal lines are the easiest to form, so they are first.
  • There are still coloring opportunities and plenty of chances to repeat and practice.
  • They include pages for parents and teachers to use as formation references.  You can’t teach writing if you aren’t sure how a letter is supposed to be formed.  I will confess that after taking the evaluation course, I found out that I have some very bad habits that probably date back to preschool.  And never got fixed.
  • Numbers are not ignored.  Numbers are presented in order, but their formation is actually not far from a developmental progression.

Here are some shots to get you excited about this book:

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Is your child entering first grade but in need of more practice?  These books aren’t going to make them feel self-conscious about needing help.  Take off the cover if you are worried that they will be embarrassed to use a book with Kindergarten int he title.  And tell them that this is the easiest way to get better at handwriting …fast!  You have their back, as always!

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Is Automaticity The Key To Handwriting Success?

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I know that this is a bold statement.  Handwriting is a complex skill, with visual-motor coordination, perceptual, cognitive and postural components.  But when I evaluate a child’s writing, and I watch them having to think about where to start and sequence movements to form a letter and place it on a line, and then decide how far apart the letters and words should be, it makes me think that the lack of automaticity is often a child’s biggest hurdle.  Even if their motor control isn’t terrific, they can still have legible and functional writing if they make fewer errors and write fast enough to complete their work in a reasonable amount of time.  Slow and labored writing isn’t functional, even if it is beautiful.

Think about how important it is for any visual-motor skill to become automatic in order to be efficient.   You cannot hit that ball if you have to think about it.  You just can’t.  It has to be a smooth and automatic response that comes from practice and refined feedback loops developed by experience.  While practicing, professional athletes drill down on minute aspects of the swing, but during the game, they choke if they “overthink”.  Ask anyone who has done a ton of free-throws in basketball (you get an unimpeded chance to drop that orange ball into the hoop) for practice but cannot make it when the game is on the line.

In this current culture, teachers have so many skills to impart.  Handwriting is still a skill children need.  Paper workbooks and worksheets are still used extensively until 3rd or 4th grade.  You cannot wait it out until kids get old enough to keyboard.  And a struggling writer in second grade is already feeling bad about their abilities. Sometimes so bad that they don’t want to do the language arts work that develops spelling, vocabulary and creative expression.   So waiting until they can type isn’t the answer.  You want excitement and enthusiasm for reading and writing early on.  Nothing develops excitement like success.  Nothing kills enthusiasm like boredom and failure.

If automaticity is the key to handwriting success, how do you develop it in children?  I think the folks at Handwriting Without Tears have figured it out.  I no longer use any other handwriting materials.  Their workbooks and pre-K multi-sensory learning tools are just too good.

  1. If you look at the pre-K and early primary workbooks carefully, you will see that the left-to-right, top-to-bottom orientation is embedded in everything.  Even the cute animals for little kids to color are all facing left-to-right!
  2. The two lines (baseline and midline) are simple to use.  No wondering where to place letters.   The pre-K letters are at the bottom of the page, creating an emerging automatic sense of baseline.
  3. The developmental progression (versus the alphabetical progression) builds slowly from vertical and horizontal lines to curves and diagonal lines.  Letters are grouped by the way they are formed, making automatic movements emerge early and consistently.
  4. Workbook pages aren’t overwhelming with activities, but the skills are repeated to intentionally develop writing automaticity.

For example, instead of writing 12 letter”B”s and 12 letter “b”s,  uppercase letters, with their larger and simpler hand movements are taught together and earlier.  Letters “b” and “d” aren’t taught together since they can easily be reversed.  Letters “b” and “h” are taught together since the formation is very similar.  Fewer reversals, more success without having to go back and re-teach letter formation.

Take a look at the best “pre-K into K” book I have ever seen, HWT’s KickStart Kindergarten.  It is the perfect summer bridge activity for your preschooler or your older special needs child.

Happy summer writing!

 

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When Should You Begin To Teach Handwriting? (You May be Surprised!)

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The ability to bring two hands to midline and use fingertips to hold a block is a pre-writing skill!

Many formal handwriting programs begin at 4 years of age.  Handwriting Without Tears, Fundations, and others begin with children tracing letters and quickly progress to writing.  But the foundational skills for handwriting actually begin early.  Before your child’s first birthday.  Yes, that early.  And, believe it or not, that is when you could be teaching important skills that will eventually morph into handwriting.

No, I am not suggesting that we start teaching infants to write!  I have met a handful of very gifted children, some of whom could read before 4, but not one was writing letters before their first birthday.  The foundational skills for handwriting are grasp, reach, bilateral control, posture, ocular (eye) control and visual perception.  And every single one of these skills is developing before a child turns 1.

How do you develop these skills?  Play.  Play with small toys, play with big ones.  Play that requires a child to move.  Crawling through a tunnel and climbing over cushions to develop arm and hand control.  Play on their stomach and play standing at a table for posture and core stability.  Play that requires more than tapping a screen or pressing a button.  I love my tablet as much as the next person, but I was fortunate to grow up before it was invented.  I had something called “toys”.

If you sent me to teach occupational therapists in a developing country, I would bring a small bag of the best toys I know:  crayons, paper, scissors, LEGOs, balls of all sizes, and I would use some things that every home is likely to have:  small cups for scooping and emptying, scarves for peek-a-boo, and little pieces of food for self-feeding.  This is all you need.  Really.  Giving a child the chance to feed themselves, play in water and sand, build and scribble can do a lot to build foundational skills.

One thing that I forgot to mention as a foundational skill is……interest. Some kids are very interested in coloring.  Many are not.  Same with reading.  How do you get your child interested in writing?  You allow them access to tools, make the tools desirable, and show them that you enjoy coloring or writing.  When your infant reaches for your pen and you slide it away from them, they are showing you interest.  They can’t use a pen, but they can mess around with food puree on their high chair tray, drawing lines in the goo.  Prewriting at work.  When your toddler wants to eat the marker, remind them that these are for scribbling, and help them to make a masterpiece.  Every day.  Find fun materials.  I am a big fan of crayons instead of markers, but there are some sparkly crayons and some great markers and papers that don’t destroy your home while your child is learning to draw and write Color Wonder Paper Will Boost Creativity and Save Your Walls.

Not an artist?  No problem!  Fake it.  Just like you gleefully eat veggies even though you’d rather have cake, scribble and make something silly on paper.  Show how much fun it is.  You might find out that you are more creative than you thought, or that once you kill that critic in your head, you actually like to draw.

Child development experts bemoan the limited language skills of kids from families without books.  Philanthropists like Dolly Parton donate tons of books to poor families in the hopes that children will be read to and develop a love of reading.  Guess what?  Children need to have early experiences with writing and drawing as well.  The family that has no crayons, no markers, no paper and no interest in drawing or writing will not inspire their children.

Give the gift of “pre” prewriting to your child, and give them a head start today!

Looking for more information on handwriting and development?  Read Have More Fun When You Use Drawing To Develop Pre-Writing Skills and Why Dot-To-Dot Letter Practice Slows Down Writing Speed and Legibility.

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Which Improves Pencil Grasp Best: A Pencil Grip Or A Thicker Pencil?

 

kelli-tungay-324329A a pediatric occupational therapist, I am often asked to weigh in on this debate.  Not often enough, it seems.  There are a lot of kids out there using pencils with wonky grasp patterns because no one has made an effort to improve the way they hold a pencil, or they doubt that it matters.  Oops.  Although grasp isn’t often or evn usually the biggest issue with writing problems, a really poor grasp can reduce control and increase pain and fatigue.  Not every kid with poor pencil grasp is a hot mess.  Some of them just need good instruction and good materials.  For the others, it might be time to get an OT involved.

Kids that struggle with pencil grasp are often (in my opinion, too often) given a pencil grip and told to use it when they write. It may help, but it may not.  An yet, I will still hand out my favorite pencil grip if I think that it will build control and strength. The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write.

I thought I would drill down into the ways that OTs think about the use of pencil grips, and present a few alternatives to reflexively sending kids home with a bit of plastic on the end of a pencil:

  • Change the pencil.  Triangular pencils give more sensory feedback during writing, and they offer a flat surface for finger pads.  Thick mechanical pencils still have a standard-thickness lead, but they also are easier to hold for some children.  Short pencils, including golf pencils, force more fingertip contact and can be helpful (but not if grasp is really weak or awkward).
  • Don’t jump into pencil use too early.  Until a child can manage a mature grasp, I try very hard to keep them using crayons when they are not yet in kindergarten.  I like the flip crayons from Learning Without Tears because they are so very small, but not all kids in kindergarten are ready for them.  I break a toddler crayon in two so that they get the benefits of a thick shaft but they will be unable to use a fisted grasp.
  • Like markers?  I only use them if they are the Pipsqueak markers from Crayola.  Nice thick, short shafts for little fingers.  Markers don’t give a child any resistance at all, so they don’t give enough sensory feedback or strengthening for my kids that need both.  And they make a mess most of the time.  I don’t have the time to scrub off markers.
  • Build strength and control with play.  Yes, fine motor play.  Totally outdated (just joking) but necessary.  I use the iCreate tablet stylus, bead stringing, therapy putty and lots of tiny toys like travel Connect Four games.  Even baking.     Utensil use counts too. How Using Utensils To Eat Prepares Your Child To Write    Children are spending less time with toys and more with tablets, so I insist that they use a tablet stylus with me in sessions.  They have no idea that the physical “drag” of the plastic point on the glass screen as they move objects around is creating resistance that helps their fingers get stronger.
  • Color with children, draw with children. A lot.  Coloring is less stressful to the risk-averse child who thinks he can’t write. Drawing simple shapes is directly applicable to writing letters and numbers.  Think “T” and a vertical cross, “A” and a volcano.  Watching an adult and listening to their narration, such as ” I am coloring around and around to fill in the balloon, since it is a circle shape”  is very helpful to young children who resist direct instruction.  The child that doesn’t naturally gravitate to coloring may need downloads of their fave character or stickers to add to the picture to make it exciting.  But the key is the adult interaction.

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Have More Fun When You Use Drawing To Develop Pre-Writing Skills

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Why should learning to write mean a pile of boring worksheets?  It shouldn’t!  This week, try teaching your preschooler to draw fun shapes that mirror correct letter formation, start/sequence and connections, and watch their handwriting skills take off!

Why draw?  Because some kids need more practice, avoid writing due to fear of failure, or simply need their pre-writing practice to be more fun than traditional worksheets.  Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) does a terrific job of teaching pencil control skills in their preschool and kindergarten books, but their pages often don’t offer enough experience or variety for kids that struggle with pencil control.  I tried using multiple copies of their worksheets, but the kids I treated in occupational therapy sessions got bored too quickly.

I decided to develop tracing pages that naturally expand into guided and independent drawing practice.  As an example, kids have more fun drawing multiple large volcanos that imitate the correct formation of the letter “A” (two diagonal lines that start at the TOP) than writing the letter “A” on a worksheet ten times.  Connecting the lines at the bottom is also an easier way to teach children that they are aiming to connect the diagonal strokes when they write the horizontal line, not slashing wildly across them.

Kids usually enjoy embellishing their drawings.  This gives me more opportunities to work with them on pencil grasp and control skills.  Lava rocks are drawn as circles, and dripping lava curves down the volcano like the letter “S”.  Exploding lava can shoot out of the top of your volcano, curve and drop down onto the ground.  This drawing stroke is very similar to the tricky initial stroke that forms a lowercase “f” (a letter that trips up more kindergarteners and first graders than I can count!).  Beginning a crayon stroke at the top of the volcano is actually an important motor control skill needed for all the letters with top connections such as “F”, “D”, and “P”.   Children will work harder to make this connection because they think it is so cool that volcanoes explode!!

I use gray tracing lines for my beginner drawings for the same reason that HWT uses gray crayon strokes in their preschool workbooks.  Tracing, not connecting dots, helps kids understand that letters and numbers are made of  a sequence of strokes.  The alternative?  I see four year-olds writing the letter “L” without creating a sharp angle at the bottom; it’s a swoop.  I also see the letters “A” and “M” starting at the bottom, then curving up and around in a single line.  Oops!

An important goal of learning uppercase letters first is that these larger, simpler strokes are required motor practice for the finer movements needed to execute the trace-backs and reversals of lowercase letters such as “a”, “b”, “d”, and “p”.  I know exactly what happens if a child doesn’t have the control necessary to learn lowercase letter formation.  If I had a dollar for every letter “a” made from a little circle placed next to a short line….!

Incorrect letter formation and poor control are two of the most common reasons that children in first or second grade are identified as slow or sloppy writers and get referrals to OT for handwriting.  Not every child is able to or interested in re-learning correct handwriting skills later on, and why should anyone have to re-learn handwriting?  Don’t teachers (and OTs) have better things to do?  Teach it correctly the first time!

Drawing gives kids the visual-motor practice they need while providing a fun, creative experience that adds depth to classroom lesson plans about nature, holidays and other subjects.  Try drawing flags, birthday cakes (always a favorite), ice cream cones and more!

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Why Gifted Preschoolers Should Be Taught Handwriting Early (And With The Best Strategies!)

 

 

guillaume-de-germain-329206Gifted children are identified by their asynchronous development.   The three year-old that can read, the two year-old that can play a song on the piano after hearing it once at music class, the four year-old that can complete his sister’s math homework…from second grade! These children have one or more advanced areas of skill that classify them as gifted.  One of the skills that rarely emerges early in the gifted population is handwriting.  More often, gifted children have problems with handwriting. Some are just sloppy, some produce illegible products even after trying their best.

A few theories exist to explain this phenomenon:  gifted children are more concerned with expression and ignore handwriting lessons, their typical motor development doesn’t keep up with their advanced cognitive skill progression and they give up, or perhaps a gifted student with poor handwriting has an undiagnosed motor and learning disabilities.

I am going to suggest an additional explanation:  gifted children are not given effective early pre-writing instruction and are often taught to write using strategies that create confusion, boredom or frustration, turning a fast learner into an underachiever.  Gifted kids like novelty, complexity and intensity.  Tracing a dotted-line “A” over and over isn’t any of those things.  Gifted children often remain so focused on their passions that it is easier to let them go and shine in their chosen areas than to make handwriting fun and appealing.

Yes, it is true that children with advanced cognitive skills could have average or below-average motor skills that don’t allow them to independently write a complex original story.  Writing details down may take too long for their quick minds, or they need to use letters they don’t yet have the skills to execute.  A child with an amazing imagination and vocabulary may find standard writing drills dull in comparison to the creative process.  Gifted children may even be averse to the unavoidable failure inherent in practice that leads to mastery.

What can be done?

  • Good pre-writing instruction is essential to build the foundational motor control and spatial skills.  This includes teaching grasp rather than waiting for it to develop, purposely building two-handed coordination and drawing into play,  and using other pre-writing tasks such as mazes, puzzles and tracing/dot-to-dot (not for letters, for drawing).  See Why Dot-To-Dot Letter Practice Slows Down Writing Speed and Legibility to understand why dots aren’t a great strategy for any child.  Learning to draw balloons, birthday cakes and Christmas trees is fun.  It is also a great way to practice writing the curves and intersecting angles that letters require.
  • Use multi-sensory, multi-media methods to develop pre-writing and handwriting skills.  Many gifted children love sensory-based experiences.  Their natural drive for intensity and complexity can be satisfied when letters are made from pretzel sticks or Play-Dough.
  • Create a fun, open environment for learning, in which challenge is expected and success is both celebrated and beside the point.  If children are taught that they are expected to know all the answers since they are gifted, exploration can be suppressed.  If they learn that failure is anticipated and shame-free, it allows them to try again and invent solutions to the problems they face.
  • Harness the skills a gifted child possesses to advance their handwriting development.  Children that have great spatial awareness notice letter formation similarities and proportion rules.  They transform an “F” into an “E” and chop two vertical lines in half to make an “H”.  Children in love with language can use fun mnemonic devices or little “stories” that help them form letters correctly.  When the letter “S” starts as a mini “C” and then “turns around and goes back home” they remember the formation of this tricky letter more easily than copying or tracing alone.

As an occupational therapist, I use the Learning Without Tears program (formerly known as Handwriting Without Tears).  The materials are high-quality, the learning progression is developmental and builds one skill on top of the previous skill, and the early levels are more sensory-based than most writing programs.  See Can HWT’s Flip Crayons Transform Pencil Grasp in Preschoolers? and Why Do You Start (Uppercase) Letters at the Top? Speed and Accuracy for some HWT strategies that really work.  Gifted kids usually want to be creative and expansive when learning, so take a look at Have More Fun When You Use Drawing To Develop Pre-Writing Skills to make teaching a gifted child   easier.

If you are the parent of a gifted child, or if you teach gifted preschoolers, please share your best strategies to support handwriting here!!!  If you are wondering if you should tell your child that their advanced skills have a name, “gifted”, check out Should You Tell Your Gifted Child About Their Giftedness? for some good reasons why they need to know and how to approach this issue with them.

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The Elf on the Shelf Could Get Your Child to Write a Letter to Santa!

 

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Write to Santa, but KEEP the note since the elf brings it to the North Pole…and then back to your home!

‘Tis the season, and Elf On The Shelf is back for more fun!  Some parents adore the concept and cannot wait to move that little elf around the house every night, and others mock him and his expanding merchandising.  Now that he is getting kids to write and draw, and parents will be able to save the heartfelt message as an ornament, I’m in with the Elf!  Not familiar with the Elf story?  Read Elf on the Shelf Controversy: Let’s Try Positive Gossiping to Santa.  Used as an encouragement and not a punishment or a threat, I am OK with this holiday tradition.

You use the paper and materials in the kit to write and bake-off a letter into an ornament that the elf “shows” to Santa on his nightly trip, and then he “returns” it to your tree.  The kit includes a storybook, materials to write, bake and hang your ornament.

As a pediatric occupational therapist, I wanted to share a few ideas that could make this more fun and a bit less stressful for children that struggle with handwriting, learning and attention issues:

  • The set includes 8 special sheets of paper that will get baked off in the oven to create an ornament, but I would encourage everyone to have their child refine their message and practice writing/drawing the note on regular paper before putting it on the special sheets.  Use these sheets as a template so that your child is aware that they can’t write more than a few lines at most.  There is no way to erase on the special sheets, and although some errors are charming, a child can be heartbroken if they think that they are sending a messy message.
  • I would encourage parents to consider copying the message so that kids have a sample to copy, rather than free writing.  Copying is an easier task in the developmental progression of handwriting, and reduces the stress for success on kids.  Nobody needs stress when making a special request to Old Saint Nick.
  • Younger kids, or kids with strong fears of failure or anxiety in general can draw or decorate a parent’s writing.  As long as they are involved, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing.  Many of my most avoidant clients get excited when I tell them that they just have to draw a sun (circle with rays) or some grass (short vertical lines that start at the top and descend to a baseline) to a picutre that I am drawing, and I  will take care of all the hard stuff.  Sometimes they even decide that they want to draw much more than they were planning to contribute.
  • Encourage your child to make the letters and designs a bit large, since they will shrink with the baking process.  Most young children cannot comprehend this step and will assume that the finished product will come out of the oven the same size that it was when it went in.  Tiny details may not be visible, tiny letters may be illegible.  Make a sample if possible for children that need proof of everything before they believe you.
  • If you know that your child may be impulsive or has such significant struggles with design, handwriting, or decision-making that you will need more than 8 sheets to create one final project, buy two kits.  The holidays are challenging enough without a fun activity ending without even one finished ornament.  If things go well and you don’t need the extra box, you have something that can be a wonderful gift for another family this season!

If you use this kit with your child this Christmas season, please write a comment and let my readers know how it worked out for you!