Tag Archives: handwriting without tears

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!

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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.