Tag Archives: handwriting without tears

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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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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Can HWT’s Flip Crayons Transform Pencil Grasp in Preschoolers?

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I gave a mom a few of Handwriting Without Tear’s flip crayons this week. She was amazed at what her son did with them. He picked them up, examined them and proceeded to figure out how best to hold them without a word from me. He automatically achieved the mature grasp that we had been talking about all spring. Bingo!

Will that happen with every child? Probably not, but flip crayons are a popular tool in my OT arsenal for a reason. They work more often than they fail. There is less effort from an adult, less redirection, which is often perceived as criticism by young children. Remember, children often hear “wait a second…” as “you did it wrong”. These small two-sided crayons are very visually appealing to young children, and become even more so when I introduce them as “kindergarten crayons” that I think a child might try. Every child wants to be seen as older and more skilled, even the anxious ones. I “sell” the use of these crayons as an advanced writing tool that we can use in therapy and at home.

Then I offer to show them how the older kids use them, and flip them from one color to the other while holding the crayon’s center between my thumb and index finger. This is actually an exercise and an evaluative tool for me. A child that doesn’t have the control and coordination to flip the crayon may not be able to achieve the stable tripod grasp needed to use a flip crayon.

The next step is demonstrating HWT’s wiggle stroke on paper. I use their preschool pages, but I created my own as well. Most of my clients need more practice than the 3-4 pages in the book.

Now it is time to trace the gray shapes and color in the shape pages in the workbook. Again, I created my own pages to expand and enrich. I could only do this because I took the HWT course (twice) and understand the principles behind the pages. If your teacher is riffing off of the workbook but her pages don’t have the same immediate success as the HWT workbook, that could be the reason. Knock-offs that aren’t true to the concept won’t work as well, or maybe even at all.

Order some flip crayons from HWT today at Handwriting Without Tears, and watch the magic happen!

Why Dot-To-Dot Letter Practice Slows Down Writing Speed and Legibility

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These beach umbrellas look like a dot-to-dot picture!

Most workbooks feature dot-to-dot practice for writing letters.  They shouldn’t.  Why?  The answer is obvious if you know how to teach handwriting.  The biggest problem is that so few people understand how children learn to write, and what gets in their way.

There are 3 stages of learning:  imitating an adult, copying printed materials, and independently writing a letter.  When the first stage of instruction is too short, poorly attended to (imagine a distracting preschool room) or nonexistent (“go practice at the writing table during your free period”), children end up drawing their letters, unaware of how letters are correctly constructed.  Dot-to-dot worksheets encourage drawing letters. They do a very poor job of teaching correct formation and a good job of encouraging bad habits in handwriting.

Dot-to-dot worksheets, even the ones with a starting dot or arrow, cannot be followed correctly by most very young children.  They look at the letter “a” in the same way I look at a Chinese character or a hieroglyph.  I could probably copy it, but I have no idea which lines make a single stroke, which to write first, second and third, and no sense that it should be similar to other characters.  Children really don’t follow a tiny arrow or understand that numbering the strokes means that a tiny number two at the top means “This is your second stroke”.  Older children do, but they aren’t the ones laboring over the dot-to-dot letter pages.  There is a better way.

To make my point clear, look at the letters that Handwriting Without Tears calls the “magic c letters”:  c, o, a, d, and g.  By the way, are you wondering why “q” isn’t in the group, since it is formed in a similar manner?  They add “q” later in instruction, due to the potential confusion with “g”,which is a more commonly used letter in English.  I have seen a single child write the letter “c” made starting at the baseline and curving up, then make the letter “o” correctly by first writing a “c”, and then write letters “a”, “g” and “d”  by drawing circles and adding straight or curved lines.

This method of letter formation never looks neat once children have to write full sentences with some speed.  It can’t look good, as the pencil control required to write well with these strategies is too challenging for young children once they have to write more than a few letters.  Ooops! Where did they come up with all those different methods of writing letters that should be made by starting with the letter “c” and then continuing to form the specific letter?   They figured it out for themselves, since no one was watching!

The “Magic C” approach is brilliant because it is simple to recall and it creates control and automaticity, two hallmarks of legible handwriting.  Dot-to-dot writing leads children down a path riddled with possible bad habits.  Want a terrific HWT book for your preschool child that is advanced, or your struggling kindergartener?  Check out KickStart Kindergarten: Get Your Child Ready for Kindergarten Writing The Easy Way!.

So are dot-to-dot pictures a terrible idea?  Not at all.  I love the way children have to control pencil strokes and visually scan the page for the connecting number or letter.  They are great visual-motor fun.   There are complex dot-to-dot pictures with over 200 dots that really challenge kindergarteners who can count.  Just don’t teach letters this way!

Avoiding Letter Reversals In Preschool

Are letter reversals in preschool normal?  Yes.  Can you avoid them, and thus speed up the accuracy and automaticity that are hallmarks of successful handwriting?  Sure!  This post will explain why reversals are slowing kids down unnecessarily and how to limit letter and number reversals right from the start.

Writing letters backward is very common in preschool, and is not considered abnormal if a few letters or numbers are reversed if a child is under the age of 8.  So why bother even thinking about how to teach letter formation without reversals?  Common Core, PARC, and all the other achievement tests have contributed to less classroom time made available to focus on handwriting, while demanding independent writing skills earlier and earlier.  Teachers in grades 1 and up expect that learning to write letters and numbers has been accomplished, and now it’s all about content.  That means that preschool and kindergarten teachers need to spend time on writing instruction, and they need to choose the most effective methods to do so.

That sounds so simple, but understanding how to avoid reversals without doing constant drilling is hard.  That is how your grandma’s learned to write: kids practiced daily and knew that good “penmanship” was a thing, a thing that mattered.  Today’s preschool teachers generally don’t have much (or any) instruction in how to teach handwriting, and certainly don’t review research on how to teach it the most efficiently for the fastest results.  They are asked to teach kids with learning differences, some of which make it difficulty for kids to perceive that they have reversed a letter, even when it is pointed out to them.  Their budget includes glue and posters, not training programs on something as targeted as writing instruction.  For some teachers, the best they get is a thick packet and some worksheets from their director.  That’s it.

Handwriting Without Tears does a terrific job of attacking reversals where they begin, with the start and the sequence of strokes.  To simplify it:  They start letter instruction with the letters that are easy to write and begin in the same manner without risk of reversals, use a style of writing that is less easily reversed, and they have great beginner tools which replicate the same cues throughout the program.  Their smiley-face icon for orientation while writing is a good example.  The repetition on workbooks and writing materials remind children where to start so many letters supports correct orientation right from the beginning.  They also use meaningful but simple directions.  No tree line, no worm line and no dangly tails that could go either way.  Letters such as “S”, “J”, and “Z” have specific cues to help children prevent reversals.  They are also among the last letters taught.

Kids have lots of practice with start and sequence before they hit the harder letters.  The kids with perceptual issues learn a motor plan that is so automatic that they may write a letter perfectly even if they struggle with object manipulation.  Their hands are telling them how the letter is made, not their eyes!  Should they still get practice with these skills?  Yes, but they need to be successful writers now.

In my opinion, the push for increasing demands in early grades is here to stay.  The smartest thing teachers and parents can do is to pick materials that fast-track kids toward handwriting independence and then use them consistently.  It is also the kindest thing to do.  Kids don’t need more pressure, they need more success!

 

Young Children With Dysgraphia Need Better Handwriting Instruction, Not Just Technology.

The diagnosis of dysgraphia is so vague that I almost hesitate to write about it.  The reason I am dipping a toe into these messy waters?  Almost every psychologist that gives a child this diagnosis recommends abandoning handwriting in favor of tablets and speech recognition programs.  I feel strongly that this does young children a huge disservice.  They will still need to write to survive at school and in life.  There are ways to help them accomplish this without sending the message that writing is hopeless.

When I meet dysgraphic children that clearly have difficulties with the control and placement aspects of handwriting, I know two things:  they are likely to need instruction in posture/paper positioning, and they probably did not have handwriting instruction in a developmental order.  Control (lines that don’t connect, overshoot, get re-written, etc.) can be fixed with some of Handwriting Without Tears’ best materials, including the magic of gray block paper.

Older kids, those in second or third grade, sometimes balk at being asked to write capital letters in those little boxes.  They don’t realize that the box borders and the uniformity they provide will automatically help them grade their control and build uniform sizing.  Really.

Adding some work on learning the  correct start/stop sequence with frequently used letters such as “e”, “a”, and “t” can make a big difference right away.  The number of children that have no idea that an “a” isn’t made with a circle and a short line is almost unreal.  Give them directions that don’t confuse them, use double-lined paper, and see progress occur.  Not a cure, but it can make a paragraph legible for the first time in years.

Many kids with dysgraphia also have issues with postural control, body awareness, and dyspraxia.  They do not sit in a position that gives them optimal pencil and paper control.  And they have never been taught that it matters.  Their teachers may not know the importance of posture/placement, or they assume that these children should have learned about it in preschool or kindergarten.  Not.  Being direct about the how and the why, and firm about not writing until they are physically ready to write can make a huge difference with dysgraphic kids.

A word about mastery.  A diagnosis of dysgraphia tells me that a child has been struggling with writing for a while.  When a dysgraphic child makes progress, they need to experience it fully and take joy in it.  Their peers felt this in preschool and kindergarten.  Give them the same chance.

Being successful hasn’t been emphasized enough in OT.  Mastery is a wonderful feeling, and sometimes we move kids to the next level before they have fully received the blessings of mastery.  Even if activities move forward, always keep a mastery task on board.  Start the session with it, use it on an “off day”, when a child really needs the chance to feel good, or end a session on a high note.  I never let the opportunity for a mastery moment slip by.  Ever!