Tag Archives: handwriting without tears

Child Struggling With Pencil Grasp During COVID-19? Flip Crayons Restore Skills

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All of my kindergarten clients and some of my preschool clients are using them.  None of them are backtracking into a fisted grasp with pre-writing or early handwriting.  Flip crayons from Learning Without Tears (formerly Handwriting Without Tears) are one of those simple grasp development strategies that keep on giving.

Why?  Their design does all the work for me.  Well, almost all the work.

Flip crayons have the same diameter of a standard school crayon, not a toddler crayon, or those ridiculous and useless egg/fingertip crayons Egg Crayons or Fingertip Crayons: When Good Marketing Slows Down Fine Motor Skill Development  .  They are shorter, so they do not allow a fisted grasp or even a palmer pronate grasp.  The crayon demands finer grasp, not the adult.

Selling an item to a child is important. They have to want to try these out.   I “sell” them as kindergarten crayons.  Every preschooler wants access to something they think is for older kids.  Their unique appearance is almost always appealing to kids.  I have met very few rigid kids, even with ASD, that are unwilling to give them a try.  Within a month of regular use, I see huge improvements in grasp without manhandling a child, begging them to “fix your fingers”,  or any of the other methods to address grasp issues.

COVID-19 is dragging us all down.  Why work harder than you have to?  I need children’s parents to see me as a problem solver, not someone asking them to work harder.  Flip crayons are an easy answer to a challenging problem.  I have another huge box of them sitting in my office to drop off as “gift baggies” at the end of the month!

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When Should You Tell A Child NOT to Erase Their Mistake?

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I wrote a post on erasing Teach Your Kindergartener How To Erase Like a Big Kid and one on erasers Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser , but there are a few situations in which you don’t want a child to run for the eraser.

  1. The child who stalls for time.  Some kids want to run down the clock on their therapy session or on their homework time, and realize that erasing can help them do just that.  The fun of rubbing the eraser on the paper exceeds the fun of struggling to write or struggling to answer a question.
  2. The kid that gets upset when they make a mistake.  Some children are oblivious, but some are distressed when they write poorly.  So upset that they lose some of their focus and ability to listen to your suggestions/instructions.
  3. The child who persistently traces over their original mistake.  These kids were taught with a lot of tracing in pre-K and K, and their brains have been trained to trace.  When they see the faint outline of their mistake, they have to struggle NOT to trace it.  Oops.

What SHOULD you do?

These strategies assume that an adult is helping a child directly.  You may not need to remain there for the entire homework assignment, but adult assistance is needed to get this train turned around:

  • Ask them to write the word again.  You may need to fold the paper so that their mistake is not visible, but a correct model is visible.  You may have to write a new visual model in the margins or above their work space.
  • Use Handwriting Without Tears pages.  Their workbook pages are designed to be simple but offer visual models across the page, not just at the left margin.
  • Erase the mistake yourself.  Adults can use more force and erase more effectively.
  • Make a copy (or 2) of your child’s homework so that you can ask them to start over again, but only if it is a short assignment.  No one wants to rewrite a long page.
  • Provide more instruction before they begin their word or sentence.  A reminder that certain letters are tricky or that they need to space words out How Do You Teach Word Spacing? can prevent errors.

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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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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.

If your gifted child is driving you nuts, or is driving their teacher nuts, read   Gifted Child? Try “How Does Your Engine Run” For More Peace at Home and SchoolWhy Gifted Children Aren’t Their Teacher’s Favorite Students…. and Is Your Gifted Child A “Troublemaker”? to better understand what could be going on.

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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.  Start and sequence of writing strokes is essential to creating automaticity and control. Young children 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!.

What about tracing?  Well, I am not a fan of tracing letters or numbers, but I do use tracing for fun.  Read Try “Rainbow Tracing” to Build Pre-Writing Skills With Creativity to learn more.

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 writing letters and numbers this way!

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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!

 

Should Your Child Use A Pencil Grip?

I will be asked about pencil grips every time I teach a workshop or lecture on handwriting.  My popular post, The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write. , partially explains when and why I would recommend the use of this excellent pencil grip with older kids.  I have a message for preschool teachers that see awkward or clumsy pencil grasp in their 4 -year-olds:  don’t use a grip until you have worked on grasp!  The reason?  The other grips will not develop better grasp, and pencil grips are too frequently lost or used improperly with young children.

Pencil grips can be a huge help for older children or children with specific muscular or neurological issues.  Kids with low muscle tone or too much joint mobility in their fingers can really benefit from their use.  Children with mild cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy can also benefit from the use of a good grip and the correctly-sized writing tool.

For typical kids who aren’t using a tripod or quadruped grasp but are writing letters, the better choice is to get creative with crayon and marker dimensions.  Short crayon pieces, Flip crayons from Handwriting Without Tears (HWT), and writing with a tablet stylus from iCreate can strengthen muscles and increase tactile and proprioceptive awareness.  Finally, teach grasp actively.  HWT does a fabulous job in their teacher guides.  These books, especially  the pre-K book, are underutilized.  They are fantastic resources for any preschool teacher and pediatric occupational therapist.

Pencil grips can help some children, but don’t jump into a grip until you have addressed the reasons you were thinking of using a grip in the first place!

Which Crayons Promote Mature Writing Grasp?

It is back-to-school time here in the U.S.  Stores are pushing clothes, backpacks, shoes and school supplies.  Time for teachers to set up their classrooms and get excited about a new school year.  When I see the amazing variety of crayons on display at Target or Walmart, it reminds me to speak to the families I serve about selecting great writing and pre-writing tools.

First of all, let’s get the “giant crayons for smaller hands” thing out of the way.  My crayon gauge starts with the standard Crayola crayon, and goes up or down from there.  Mostly up, since I have rarely seen crayons that are narrower.  Pencils?  Yes, but not crayons.  Most children that cannot hold a crayon with a tripod or quadruped grasp (three or four fingers, respectively) will use a hook or fisted grasp to hold a standard Crayola crayon.  Why?  Often because they don’t yet have the strength and control to do so, sometimes because they haven’t been taught to hold crayons this way.  This is going to create problems for controlling that crayon and those pencils.  Let’s not even mention the bad habits that could continue for years.

Crayon and pencil grasp is not something that shows up naturally, like walking.  We are wired for walking, but prehension is a skill that developed later in humans.  Children that do not teach themselves by copying siblings and adults need to be taught.  If you present it as a grown-up skill and reward rather than criticize, many children need no more instruction.  Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) does an amazingly simple job of teaching mature pencil grip. Handwriting Without Tears

Kids older than 3 who cannot hold a standard crayon in the mature pattern can benefit from a large crayon that has been snapped in half.  Why break a perfectly good crayon?  To reduce the shaft length and prompt the child to use their fingertips, not their fist to hold a crayon.  Will those super-sized crayons or the triangle/ball-shaped crayons help?  Sorry, but no.  They appear to have been designed to give infants who use a cylindrical grasp (totally normal) the ability to scrape a crayon across a page.  It looks so cute to have your 9 month- old actually coloring!  If your older child has serious motor issues such as significant cerebral palsy, they might work.  If your child simply struggles to use a mature grasp, you could be setting them back by allowing them to use a less mature grasp to scribble.

Handwriting Without Tears sells their Flip Crayons.  These are very short and the diameter of a standard Crayola crayon.  Therefore they are shorter and narrower than a large crayon that you broke in half.  They will require more fingertip control because there is less space for  a child to use much more than a few fingertips.  I have had parents remark on how small they are for themselves, and then realize that their pencil grasp is actually not a standard grip either!  Not to worry, unless they struggle with handwriting as much as their child does!  Children who are adept at flip crayon use will progress quickly to the use of short golf pencils, which HWT sells with erasers, or your local office supply store sells without erasers.

Flip crayons have one color on one end, another color at the other end.  Children learn to “flip” them over in their hand to change colors.  Great coordination skill, and fun too!! Four year-olds are usually ready to use these, and if not, then they need to work a bit more on fingertip strength and control.  What if your child just palms them, even after they have been taught how to hold them?  Give them a few supervised turns, with you as the model.  If they are still struggling, they are not ready yet and should try the “broken crayon” strategy.  Don’t forget to periodically try out the Flip Crayons, since you want to raise their game rather than keep them at a pre-pencil stage if they are ready to move on.

What can you do to help them?  All the great activities that develop hand control.  Scissors  Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler, dough, tape  Melissa And Doug Tape Activity Book Is Reusable Fun, and especially spoon and fork use with a grown-up grasp  Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child.  Check on them after a month of finger control “boot camp” at home, and see what has happened to their pencil grasp!

 

Transition to Kindergarten By Beginning With a “C”

This isn’t about the grade “C”.  It is about the benefit of writing a circle by starting with the letter “C”.  I just taught a dad how to build his son’s handwriting skills without teaching him any letters or numbers.  His son will be starting kindergarten in the fall, and although there were few worksheets in preschool, we all know he will get lots of worksheets in September.  Many of those will ask him to circle the correct answer.  If this child and his dad use my suggestion on practice sheets this summer, he will be improving his pencil control and start/sequence automaticity for handwriting.  Without ever writing a word.

All he needs to do is to circle the target on his worksheet by writing a letter “C” around it, then continuing the stroke from the bottom to the top to close the circle.  Handwriting Without Tears talks about the “magic c”.  It is pretty magical the way that children who begin letters this way develop faster formation recall and better speed/control for “O”, “G”, and “Q” in preschool, and “a”, “d”, “g”, “o”, and “q” in kindergarten.  The initial formation of a “c” for these letters is exactly how HWT’s preschool book teaches drawing a circle.  Making the leap from drawing circles to circling answers on classroom worksheets sometimes gets lost in translation. It shouldn’t.

Combining motor skills with visual search/discrimination,literacy and math skills on a worksheet is where the rubber meets the road in kindergarten.  You will start to see which kids are mastering writing and which are struggling with one or more components.  Many of my kids will look pretty good with one-on-one instruction in letter formation, but then when perceptual skills, spelling and line placement are expected, they crumble.  If their start/sequence and formation is rock-solid, it frees up attention for learning where and how to look, thinking about the correct answer, and marking it with a circle or writing a response.

Children that start a circle on the bottom or the side of a target, or start at the top and turn to the right side (a backward “C”), will then have to think briefly every time they begin writing one of these curved letters.  It isn’t automatic for them.  Every type of manuscript writing will start these letters in the same manner, so if your school teaches D’Nealian or Zaner-Bloser, and not HWT, you are still following the correct formation.

Don’t worry about letters and numbers that reverse this pattern, like “D’ and “3”.  When you use the HTW chalkboards or Gray Block Paper, you avoid reversing these letters.  The magic “c” letters appear more frequently as a group in early literacy (excepting “Q q”) so they are more essential for legibility at this early stage.  All will be well.

Preschool is the perfect time to introduce this idea of using a “C” to circle things, since most kids are excited but a bit nervous about making it in the big time.  Teaching them that circling their answer this way is the more “grown-up” choice makes them feel confident and mature.  You don’t have to mention the part about how much better it is for their writing.

The Two Important Handwriting Teaching Strategies For Lefties That Everyone Forgets

Teaching left-handed children to write in a right-handed world (estimates for right dominance varies, but always hovers over 80%) isn’t really all that different.  However, there are two specific actions that parents and teachers need to make while teaching that rarely make it to the blogs and articles on the web.  Read on.  I will highlight the basics of lefty teaching, and then explain the missing moves.  They can make all the difference in the world to a left-handed child.

Tilted paper placement and using the non-dominant hand to stabilize the paper apply to both righties and lefties.  Left-handed kids will often want to tilt their paper to a more extreme angle to see their writing.  Let them.  They need to use a mature grasp pattern with their fingertips on a pencil.  Lefties who do not do either will twist their wrist so that they can see what they are writing.  This makes for more fatigue and less comfort.  The likelihood of hearing “I hate to write!” goes up dramatically under those conditions.

Make sure that the printed model on a worksheet is not obscured under their hand.  Most worksheets usually give one letter model on the far left side of the page.  Add more models in locations that they can see. Handwriting Without Tears does an excellent job of supporting left-handed kids in this way.  They give all children multiple models across a line on a worksheet, so that kids don’t have to pick up their hand to check the spelling and letter formation/placement of a model.

The two comments that very few bloggers or professionals mention when giving suggestions relate to the almost-forgotten art of teaching children to write by demonstrating how to write.  This starts earlier than you might think, as your curious 3 year-old watches you write his name.  He is taking mental and motor notes on this skill, and is practicing with crayons to copy circles and other shapes.  If you have a lefty, you are going to change HOW YOU WRITE to support their learning:

  • Teach kids to cross their letters in the direction that is easier for them, i.e. not the way righties do it.  The letters that they can cross more easily from right-to-left are: A, E, F, f, G, H, I, J, T, and t.  There are plenty of letters that are harder for left-handed kids and cannot be altered easily, such as “U”, “L”, and “B”.  Don’t make even more of the letters tricky for them.  I have a few preschoolers in tutoring or therapy that have already created a habit of writing with the right-handed cross.  When I ask them which is easier, and they admit that the right-to-left cross is easier, they still go back to the way they were originally taught. The right-hand way.   I am sad that I did not meet them earlier and make these letters a bit easier for them.
  • If you are right-handed, sit to the right-side of a lefty when teaching so the they can see what you are doing, and you can see what they are doing.  You are already writing upside-down if you are sitting opposite them, right?  Where you sit as you write matters.  Imagine if I were teaching you to dance and you had to mirror all my moves, versus having my back to you so that you could move exactly as I do.  So much easier.  Let’s make this easy for everyone.  If you are teaching a small group, where the lefties sit so that they can see your writing matters as well.  It isn’t a criticism or at all negative to tell the other children that you care so much about every child that the girl who writes lefty needs to sit in a particular spot so that she can see you.  Delivered properly, your comment coveys that the difference is no way a problem for you, nor should it be for anyone else.  We accept everyone for what they are.

Not sure if your preschooler is a lefty?  Two words of advice:  watch which hand they use for utensils at mealtime and with skilled play like LEGOS. Since it is very hard to alter dominance, it should become apparent over time with fine motor skill development.   If a child is wired for dominance of one hand but you have been demanding use of the other, she may comply, and then she will switch the pencil or spoon to the hand with which she feels has the most control.

Unless you are very vigilant and unbending, you will see natural dominance emerge between 2 and 5 years.  So far, I have had just one client who did not develop clear hand dominance in this period.  He had ASD and many other issues, so it wasn’t a total surprise that dominance did not emerge even at 7.  We watched him carefully, and saw that he was slightly more right-handed.  That is what we supported, but it was only after a lot of observation and targeted fine motor play.  He was encouraged, not forced.

Please feel free to comment and share your strategies and challenges of left handedness in pre-writing and beginning writing instruction!

 

 

 

Build Pre-Writing Skills With A Focus on Scribbling

The greatest criticism an older sibling can level at a young child’s drawing is to call it “scribble scrabble”.  But wait!  If you want to develop finger control for future handwriting success, then you want more scribbling and coloring!  Random strokes aren’t going to move the needle forward for a child older than 3 years of age with typical visual and motor skills.  This is the time for good tools and materials that are selected to build skills and creativity.  Before a child writes letters, coloring and scribbling with intention and focus builds hand strength, hand control, visual-perceptual skills, and more!  Here are suggestions on  how to harness the power of the scribble with young children:

  1. Pick sturdy paper.  Young children are learning to control the amount of force they use, and if the paper tears, they can become discouraged.  Cheap coloring books have thin pages and will not survive the enthusiastic strokes of younger children.  Print out pictures from the internet on your thickest paper or buy great coloring products from companies like Melissa and Doug.  Their coloring pads use wonderfully sturdy paper.  Short on cash?  Study the quality of your junk mail.  Some of my junk mail uses nice sturdy paper, so I flip it over to the other side and use it for scribbling.
  2. Some threes and fours enjoy the possibilities of a blank page, but there are young children who color more, and color longer, on a simple graphic that is meaningful to them.  Handwriting Without Tears does an especially good job with their “My Book” and their preschool workbook pages.  I also search the internet for free coloring pages that have simple drawings with strong appeal.  In therapy, I will find very simple coloring pictures that have designs that require the target strokes a child needs for writing. Develop circular strokes and small wiggle strokes with bubbles or chocolate chip cookies, and swords or kite strings drawn on a diagonal for a child that is practicing “K” or “X”.  Coloring on a simply drawn Darth Vader or Rapunzel picture is so much more fun for these children than filling in a geometric design.
  3. The shape and coloring properties of your tools matter more at this age.  Handwriting Without Tears sells their flip crayons, those tiny two-sided crayons that require a tripod grasp.  Genius. But some of my kids, even the 4 year-olds that the flip crayons are designed for, need a thicker crayon.  They have low muscle tone or another issue that affects their ability to sense what is in their hand.  They need more “square footage” to refine their grasp in this pattern.  I break the thicker crayons in two.    Crayons are waxy, and that waxy grippy-ness helps kids feel what their hands are doing.  Markers just glide, and don’t give the kids with low tone or coordination issues enough sensory information about what is happening as they color.
  4. Look beyond the crayon.  Chalk has the same grippy input as crayons, plus the sound on a chalkboard gives another sensory reinforcer to boost attention.  Don’t buy thick sidewalk chalk and expect to build pencil grasp.  It is way too wide for little fingers.  Buy thin chalk once a child doesn’t press so hard that it crumbles all the time.  One of my clients used pastels for extra grippy input and fabulous colors.  They were super short but a little thicker than flip crayons.  He graduated to Crayola’s preschool pencils and is on his way to a standard pencil.
  5. For kids whose strokes barely registered paper when they scribble, the Magna-Doodle boards with magnetic pens can reward them with a dark mark on the screen from only light touch.  Finally, a tablet stylus (my favorite is iCreate’s stylus that looks like a preschool crayon) also gives some resistance and actually builds control while trying to drag and swipe while using it.
  6. Why haven’t I mentioned pencils?  Because until a child has a decent amount of control with their strokes, I agree with HWT and don’t bring pencils into the conversation.  Pencils require a lot of control to avoid falling into a fisted grasp.  I did review Crayola’s preschool pencils last yearPreschool Pencils That Develop Hand Control (and with tips that won’t constantly break!), and I use HWT’s pencils with the older 4’s and all kindergarteners.  This year I started using the Grotto grip The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write.with thin colored pencils for my kids that did not progress their grasp pattern with a heavy diet of play-based hand strengthening, but had all the other components of readiness to start writing.   It has worked better than I ever thought possible!
  7. Color with a child and make your comments count.  Why?  Preschoolers don’t always want to be told how to do something, but they watch everything we do and listen to everything we say.  Describe exactly how you plan to do a good job, how you match your stroke to the shape of the design that you are coloring, and how you fill in a design without going over the lines.  Be proud of your work if you want a child to value their efforts too.  Narrate what you are doing and why with lots of details, But don’t direct the child to copy you.  They might start to do that spontaneously.
  8.  Extra Bonus Round:  Use prepositions and describe shapes that kids need to know in order to follow handwriting instruction later on.  They need to find out what is right and what is left, what the top-middle-bottom of a shape means, and what triangles, rectangles,straight lines, curves and diagonals are.  HWT teaches all that in the preschool book, but if you are using these concepts with 3.5-4.5 year olds, you never know what is going to stick.  It all adds up to writing readiness.

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.