Tag Archives: handwriting

Make Handwriting Fun While Getting Ready For The New School Year

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

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

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

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

Child Writing Too Lightly on Paper? It Might Not Be Hand Strength Holding Him Back

If your child barely makes a mark when he scribbles or writes, most adults assume that grasp is an issue. Today’s post suggests that something else could be the real reason for those faint lines.

Limitations in postural and bilateral control contribute far more to lack of pressure when writing  than most parents and teachers realize.  For every child in occupational therapy that is struggling to achieve good grasp, I see three whose poor sitting posture and inability to get a stable midline orientation are the real issues.

Think about it for a minute:  if you sat with your non-dominant (not the writing hand) hand off to the side and you shifted your body weight backward in your chair, how would you be able to use sufficient force on a pencil or a crayon?  Try this right now.  Really.  You would have to focus on pressing harder while you write and hope your paper doesn’t slip around.  That would require your awareness and some assessment of your performance.  Children don’t do “awareness and assessment” very well.  That ability comes from frontal lobe functions that aren’t fully developed in young children.  But they can learn where to place their “helper hand”, and that sitting straight and shifting forward is the correct way to sit when you scribble or write.

If a child has sensory processing or neuromuscular issues such as cerebral palsy, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome or Down Syndrome, achieving adequate postural stability may take some effort on the part of the therapists and the teacher.  Well worth it, in my experience.  There are easy hacks that help kids; good equipment and good seating that won’t cost a fortune or inconvenience the class.  Every child can learn that posture is important for writing.  But the adults have to learn it first.  Kids take their cues from what adults appear to value, and if they figure out that they are allowed to slump or lean, they almost always will.

I am doing a lecture on pre-writing next week, and I intend to make this point, even though the emphasis of my lecture is on the use of fun drawing activities to prepare children to write and read.  Why?  Because it may be the only time these preschool teachers hear from a pediatric occupational therapist this year, and I want to make a difference.  Understanding the importance of postural control in pre-writing and handwriting could help struggling kids, and make decent writers into stars!

Does An Atypical Pencil Grasp Damage Joints or Support Function In Kids With Hypermobility?

As a pediatric OT, I am often asked to assess and teach proper pencil grasp.  Once you start looking, you see a lot of interesting patterns out there.  When a child clearly has low muscle tone and/or hypermobile joints, the question of what to do about an atypical pencil grasp used to puzzle me.  I could spend weeks, or even months, teaching positioning and developing hand strength in a child, only to find that they simply couldn’t alter their grasp while writing.

Now I triage grasp issues by determining if it is a problem for the child now or in the future.  An atypical pencil grasp can be an acceptable functional compensation or it can be a contributor to later joint damage.  What’s the difference?  You have to know a bit about hand anatomy and function, how to adapt activities, and how to assess the ergonomics of writing.

Children aren’t aware of most of the problems that low tone and/or hypermobility create when they hold a pencil.  They just want to create. The effects of their unique physiology often results in grasp patterns that cause parents pain just to observe; fingers twisted around the shaft of the pencil, thumb joints bent backward, etc.  The kids aren’t usually complaining; their lack of sensory receptor firing at the joints and muscles gives them no clues to the strain they are inducing.  None.  Occasionally children will complain of muscular fatigue or pain after writing a few paragraphs or completing an art project.  For the most part, they are unconcerned and unaware of what is really going on.  For a more detailed explanation, please check out Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children,

Do these funny grasp patterns reduce legibility?  Only sometimes.  There are atypical grasp patterns that are good choices for children with hypermobility.  One is to place the shaft of the pencil directly between the index and third finger, and allow the thumb to support the side of the pencil.  The knuckle joints of those fingers provide more stability than the standard tripod grasp.  I allow preschoolers who need to keep more than 3 fingers on the shaft of the pencil to do so, and wait to see what happens as they develop more overall hand control.  Forcing a tripod grip isn’t always in their best interest now or for the future.

What can be done?  My favorite method to help children with low tone or hypermobility is to look at the problem with both a wide-angle lens and with targeted analysis.  I think about changing overall posture, altering any and all equipment, and examine the mechanics of movement.

These kids often need better proximal support, meaning that changing their chairs and writing/drawing surfaces could result in less strain in their hands and wrists.  To understand one way your whole body is involved in writing, take a look at Better Posture and More Legible Writing With A “Helper Hand” Using writing tools that reduce joint force by enlarging the shaft diameter or changing out lead for gel pens or markers is another strategy.  Take a look at Strengthening A Child’s Pencil Grasp: Three Easy Methods That Work  and Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser for more good ideas that actually make a difference.  I will teach kids how to pace themselves to reduce force and fatigue throughout their bodies.  A little awareness can be a big help.  Finally, I may suggest a pencil grip, but I assess this carefully in order to avoid forcing a typical grasp on a child that can’t manage it due to instability or profound weakness.  I might start with the Grotto Grip The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write., in hopes that we can strengthen and train a stable grip, but I will move on quickly if it doesn’t work within a month or causes more difficulty/pain in writing.

Wondering if there are issues beyond writing that your OT can address?  Check out Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children and Teach Kids With EDS and Low Tone: Don’t Hold It In! for more information.

Atypical pencil grasp can be a problem, but it can also be a solution to a child who is struggling to write and draw in school.  If you have concerns, ask your OT to evaluate and explore the issue this week!

 

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

geo beach.jpeg

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!

Teach Your Kindergartener How To Erase Like a Big Kid

Does it matter how a child erases their mistake?  You are probably thinking that I ran out of topics for my blog this week.  Not exactly.

I was thinking about what makes my handwriting posts different than other bloggers that publish posts on early writing skills.  I like to look at all the details when I work with struggling writers.  I search for every way I can build a child’s skills and confidence.   Knowing how to control an eraser is a simple but important skill for children in kindergarten to master, and can save a homework assignment from the trash bin.

Controlled erasing prevents removal of well-written characters.  This means more work and more time to complete an assignment.  It prevents paper destruction.  If your child struggles to write, imagine how he would feel if he accidentally tore the paper and had to start over.

Why would children fail to control an eraser?  Kids with limited hand strength and stability often press too softly or use too much force.  Children with sensory discrimination difficulties do the same.  Kids who have difficulty focusing, are impulsive or are defiant can make the same erasing mistakes.  Finally, kids with motor or orthopedic issues can have the same difficulty controlling the eraser that they experience with their pencil.

What can you do to help?

  • Select the right eraser.  Although pencils usually come with erasers, some children do much better with a larger eraser or one that is shaped for easier grasp.  A larger eraser can also have more textured edges and even more weight, giving children more sensory input with use.  My favorite eraser is the Pentel Hi-Polymer latex-free eraser.  Super at cleanly erasing, and easy to grasp.  Beats every pencil eraser I have ever used.  Here it is:Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser.
  • Demonstrate how to hold the eraser for control.  If a child uses a fisted grasp, they are erasing with elbow or shoulder movements.  These large movements are likely to be harder and less controlled.  Demonstrate that using a mature tripod pencil grasp will result in more control and faster erasing.
  • Make eraser practice fun.  Write awful letters, your worst products, in between good examples on a page.  Have your child erase your mistakes.  Draw mean faces and have them get rid of the “bad guys”.  Draw “coins” and see who has the most money left.  Bonus round:  have them write in the amount on the coins.  Larger number, more money!!

 

Does Handwriting Have An Uncertain Future in School?

I have read two reviews of Anne Trubek’s book The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, one of them in the New York Times The Story of How Handwriting Evolved, and May Soon Die Off.  I have not read her book yet, but since I work with young children, I spend plenty of time with “boots on the ground”, in the trenches with early writers and readers.

My first thought after reading both book reviews was “If handwriting dies off, does she predict that 4 year-olds will be typing?”.   I have not seen the amount of physical writing in early education diminish.  In fact, I am certain that kindergarteners are writing more now than we saw in first grade only 10-15 years ago.  Kids are working on tablets as well, but the flood of worksheets hasn’t slowed down at all.  If you have a child between 4 and 6, you know what I mean.  It is a lot of paper!

So much for handwriting dying out in the near future.  In fact, we are expecting kids to learn to write earlier and to learn it quickly.  That is hard enough, but no one is teaching educators how to accomplish this feat.  My local preschools change writing programs faster than they change playground schedules.  We now have large numbers of children moving into elementary education that were not taught to print correctly, and educators who want to help them but don’t know how. I will only briefly mention the children with autism and learning differences that are mainstreamed and expected to keep up under these crushing conditions.   No wonder business is booming: Sharp Rise in Occupational Therapy Cases at New York’s Schools .

Frustrating children, by not teaching them well (which often prevents full language expression) because you don’t know how to help them, is not the answer.  I spend part of each day working with children who feel bad about themselves as learners because they cannot write clearly.  They believe that the problem is theirs and theirs alone.  I help them build their skills and restore their self-esteem.  In most of my sessions I am not using extensive therapy techniques. I am teaching them to write in a developmentally-ordered, practical and logical manner.  I am observing their errors, and showing them how to succeed.

Brain research from education, psychology and neuroscience has suggested that children who physically write letters, rather than clicking them, will display greater ease of recall and improved legibility. Children with physical limitations have no choice but to write digitally, but that doesn’t make it the more desirable method for children without motor issues to learn letter recognition, spelling, and build literacy skills.  Kids with autism and learning differences deserve handwriting instruction that makes things easier and simpler if they are expected to keep up.  But is handwriting dead or dying?  Not if you are in the age group in which you still need a carseat to go away on vacation!

 

 

Summer Fun Pre-Writing Activities

Here in the U.S., summer is fully underway.   Pools, camps, and vacations!  Handwriting isn’t really on anyone’s radar.  Except mine.  Without practice, kids with learning differences, motor control issues, and visual-perceptual concerns can lose a lot of the skills that they worked so hard on all year long in therapy.

Here is a fun activity, not a boring worksheet, to keep or build pre-writing skills for preschoolers and kindergarteners.  Remember, into each summer some rain will fall, and there will be overcast days, or times when kids have to wait for a meal in a restaurant  while on vacation.  This activity can be a fun way to pass the time!

Ice Cream Cones

I picked this theme because ice cream is a food that most kids love, and the strokes/shapes needed have pre-writing value.  Your child will have no idea that she is building the visual-perceptual and finger control needed for handwriting instruction!

For the youngest pre-writers:  Draw an ice cream cone as below, at least 4-5 inches tall, and have your child aim for the “scoop” to wiggle their crayon, making sprinkles. I lightly colored in the scoop and drew lines on the waffle cone.  Younger children don’t always recognize a figure in a line drawing as easily as a completed one.  Their scribbles will be large, but demonstrate that our scribbles stay inside the scoop and are reversing vertical or horizontal lines, or a circular scribble.  The important thing is that they are attempting to stay inside the scoop and they are reversing the direction of their stroke.

IMG_1180

For children that are beginning to trace letters:

  1. Write the letter “V” in gray, about 3-4 inches tall.  Why gray?  So that your child can use a bolder color to trace over your lines.
  2. Have them trace your letter in a brighter color, then use your gray crayon to make a line across the “V” from left-to-right (for righties.  lefties will be more comfortable tracing right-to-left).
  3. Let them trace that line as well.
  4. Draw an arch, starting at the beginning of your “V”, curving upward and ending at the end of the “V”.
  5. Let them trace that line.
  6. Demonstrate how to keep your crayon tip barely moving as you “wiggle” to create a tiny sprinkle.  Ask your child to copy you.

IMG_1182

 

For kids that are writing their own letters with demonstration:

  1. Write the letter “V”on your paper, placed directly above theirs.  Ask them to copy you.
  2. Make a line across the “V” from left-to-right( for righties; lefties cross from right-to-left).  Ask them to copy you.
  3.  Make an arch to form the scoop, starting from the beginning of the “V”, curving upward and ending at the end of the “V”.  Ask them to copy you.
  4. Demonstrate how to wiggle your crayon tip slightly to create sprinkles, and even add little lines for drips of ice cream falling off the scoop.

 

BONUS ROUNDS:  Use sturdy paper and have your child cut out his ice cream scoops.  Have him ask everyone what kind of ice cream flavor and how many scoops they would like him to make for them.  Grab the toy cash register, and use the cones to play ” ice cream shop”.