Category Archives: handwriting

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!

 

 

Make Handwriting Fun While Getting Ready For The New School Year

Here in the US, kids are getting ready to go back to school.  And most of them haven’t been writing much in the last 6-8 weeks.  At the kindergarten level, some children will have forgotten any lowercase letters they knew in the spring.  At the 1-2 grade levels, it is not uncommon for kids to forget how to form letters, where to place them on the baseline, and how to use simple punctuation.   Teachers sometimes need to use the first 1-2 weeks for review alone.

What if they didn’t need to review?  What if your child was ready to hit the ground running (and writing)?  There is nothing like seeing a confident kid sit down to crush her homework instead of struggling through it.  For all those writers who worked hard last year and are a little nervous to pick up a pencil again, here are some ideas that help getting back to writing fun and easy:

  1. Get good materials.  Kids are just like adults.  We like new, cool stuff.  So do they.  I recommend using the best eraser (Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser ) and either the small Learning Without Tears (they changed their name!!!)  pencils for kindergarteners, or the Papermate 1.3mm lead mechanical pencils for older kids.  Take a look at my post on these useful pencils Great Mechanical Pencils Can Improve Your Child’s Handwriting Skills
  2. Use fun workbooks like Madlibs and games like Hangman.  Make up games that you think your kids will find funny.  Try the Junior version of Madlibs for grades 2-3, and the regular one for the higher grades.  There are themes for every kid, trust me.  Something will be funny.  Do them together with your child, have a contest for silliest madlib, send them to relatives that can appreciate this humor, etc.
  3. Target any errors made in writing their first and family name first.  Those errors will be repeated over and over in the first few days of school if you do not focus on them.  Time to make this a priority.
  4. Figure out where the gaps are, and hit the low-hanging fruit next.  Why?  Because that builds confidence.  Look for simple errors with easy-to-write or frequently written letters.  Think “a”, “e”, and “t”.  Doesn’t even have to be letters; could be numbers.  Kids need to feel like they can hit singles, and then they will try harder for doubles and triples.  Forgive the baseball reference; I saw a ton of stickers and vanity plates today.   Apparently all of my neighbors are big baseball fans!

There are only a few weeks of summer left, but if you make a small effort,  it can mean a lot to a child’s first weeks of school!

Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser

 

 

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A good eraser can make a frustrated child more willing to fix writing errors.  A bad eraser confirms their failure as a writer.

Occupational therapists in some schools hand out HWT pencils and a variety of pencil grips like candy, but many forget about how important it is for kids to erase mistakes successfully in order for their work to be truly legible.  The Pentel Hi-Polymer eraser is the one that gets the job done.

I will confess that I did not discover this eraser on my own.  A smart parent turned me onto this amazing school tool, and I am over the moon about how much it helps children complete their writing assignments.   It would be almost criminal to let kids go back to school this fall with those nasty pink erasers that leave more of a mess than they remove!

Here is an example of how well this eraser works.  I used my fave mechanical pencil for younger children, the one I blogged about in Great Mechanical Pencils Can Improve Your Child’s Handwriting Skills , and wrote a few numbers in the darkly shaded boxes of a Handwriting Without Tears sheet.  Notice that the shading wasn’t removed along with the pencil marks:

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Numbers 5 and 6 have been erased so well that tracing-over the original mistake is impossible!

Here are a few reasons to add this eraser to your back-to-school list:

  • While large enough for small hands to use, it is not so big that it is difficult for children to control.  Think erasing isn’t a real skill?  Take a look at Teach Your Kindergartener How To Erase Like a Big Kid
  • It is latex-free, a necessity for children with latex sensitivity.
  • There are fewer eraser “crumbs” created during use, so less mess (for parents) to clean up, and less visual and tactile distractions for kids with ADHD, SPD and ASD.
  • This eraser doesn’t require substantial pressure to remove marks.   Great for kids with Ehlers-Danlos, JRA, and all the other conditions where strength and endurance are concerns for handwriting.
  • Because of it’s softness and effectiveness, it rarely tears paper, even the thin paper commonly used for school worksheets and workbooks.

Pentel Hi-Polymer erasers are very affordable, and commonly come in packs of three. This is helpful when you know in your heart that the first two will be lost before the week is over, never to be seen again.  When your child realizes that this eraser helps them finish their homework a bit faster (you might want to mention this if they don’t notice it right away), they will work harder to hold onto that last one!

Taping The Paper To The Table For Your Child? Stop!

Many young children between 2 and 5, especially children with low muscle tone or postural instability, will struggle with bilateral control.  In preschool, one way to notice this is to see the paper sliding around the table while a child colors.  The common response of teachers (and parents) is to tape the paper down.  Oops!  This  eliminates any demand for both hands to work together.  Bilateral control only develops if it is needed and practiced.

The better approach, the one that makes the brain work and builds a child’s skills, is to make it even more slippery while making the activity more fun.

Why?  This child,’s brain, as described, needs more information about what is going wrong with the activity.  You can use heavier paper, stickers in a book that need accurate placement, or fun glittery markers.  Really, anything that makes a child care more about placing marks accurately.   I select the smoothest table surface available.  Glass coffee tables are a fave at home.  The alternate choice is a bumpy surface, something that will be slightly uneven and make the paper move more with each stroke.

I have some older kids that really struggle but can use a visual cue.  I make a mark on their paper and tell them to put their “helper hand” – the one not coloring- on this mark.  This is sometimes helpful, but it is limiting the extent that this hand is providing optimal postural support.

Yup, support.  The hand that holds the paper is also performing another function.  It is stabilizing the child’s body so that the dominant hand can execute a skilled movement.

So….no more tape on that paper, OK?