Tag Archives: handwriting without tears

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!

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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.

These 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.

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.  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!

 

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.