Tag Archives: handwriting

10 Easy Ways to Prepare Preschoolers to Write

Standardized testing has pushed the demand for handwriting down, down, down into preschool.  The great majority of preschool children by the end of the 4’s will not have the physical control of a pencil to write lowercase letters correctly, but some teachers tell me that their administrations require them to teach kids to write their names in title case (first letter in uppercase, remaining letters are lowercase) in preschool, in preparation for kindergarten!

Children that cannot write lowercase letters correctly because they cannot perform the reversals and back-tracing that this case requires will almost always figure out a way to “cheat”.  Not a criticism of children at all; these kids want to please.  So the”p” becomes a straight line placed next to a circle.  An “m” becomes two humps.  If not corrected quickly and effectively, I will be getting a call in a year or two for private tutoring.  I spend a lot of time doing home-based private work for families that paid for an expensive preschool, and it resulted in a child that created their own way to write lowercase letters.  Those adapted letters look cute when you are 4, even “advanced” to the uneducated eye, but they are just sloppy writing when you are 8. OOPS!

I cannot change the administrators’ attitudes about curriculum, but I can offer my very best suggestions to teachers of the 3’s and early 4’s who want to do right by these kids.  If you are being asked to teach lowercase letters this early, then your whole approach to writing needs to be well thought-out and comprehensive.  It’s like losing 50 pounds before a wedding: everything you do should contribute to your goal!  Yes, I said teachers of the 3’s.  Again, if a child is going to learn lowercase letters correctly at 4, that child needs skill development in the 3’s to get there.

This is a long post, and I am hoping that it will become an e-book so that teachers around the world will get solid advice that helps them.  Just telling you to buy a workbook or tiny crayons is not enough, not if you are being asked to bloom these little flowers early.

This does not mean that all you do is write.  If you have the HWT preschool teacher’s manual in front of you, you have a year’s worth of fun and multi-sensory activities to add to your lesson plans that incorporates language, social skills, pre-math awareness, and more.  The best pre-writing activities sometimes have no actual writing involved.  Small group play with wood pieces can be so much fun that kids don’t want to put them away!

  1. If you are going to expect pencil grasp this early, you must provide early and substantial opportunities for small object manipulation to build refined motor and sensory skills.  What does that mean?  As soon as they are not likely to swallow little items (use food pieces if you are not certain about this), have kids picking up tiny items and sorting/gathering/assembling them creatively. Expand this beyond just fingertips by using tweezers, chopsticks and all manner of tools.Take a look at Teaching Pencil Grasp Can Start with Edison Chopsticks
  2. Teach pencil grasp, don’t just expect it or wait for it.   HWT does this well, giving teachers easy group instructions.  Don’t let a really awkward grasp go by.  You are doing a disservice to the child.  If your teaching tricks don’t work, ask an OT for a screening.  You might need help in more areas than just grasp.
  3. Require a mature grasp by limiting the use of a fisted grasp with those giant dot markers, giant chalk, etc.  This is the time to care about materials.  Use small crayon pieces that are still a large enough diameter to support a fingertip grasp.  Find short brushes for painting, fun lacing activities that require a fine tip grasp, use q-tips for spreading glue, and more.
  4. Teach and practice the use of a mature spoon grasp as early as 3.5 years.  See my blog post Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp? on the best spoon style and activities to build this grasp Using Utensils To Eat Prepares Your Child To Write.  Why?  Because you want every opportunity to build hand control.  Don’t serve spoon-able snacks in preschool?  Use real toddler spoons for tactile play and scooping manipulative.  Those plastic disposable spoons don’t encourage the stable grasp and provide a non-slip surface the way good toddler spoons can. This is what I do in therapy, since I can’t always have a snack session in OT.    Use them consistently and wash them at the end of the day.  Better yet, have your kids do it.  Manipulating soap, water and towels are great, and they build a sense of personal responsibility to maintain the classroom.  A win-win, in my opinion.  The spoons can go right in the kitchen area so that dolls get fed with them and pretend meals are served with them.  The fun never ends.
  5. Use the prepositions and stroke descriptions that are needed to follow letter formation instructions when you speak to children.  Explain what you are doing as you write, and what each stroke is called.  Young children have no experience with the language of writing.  None.  It would be like not knowing the vocabulary of cooking.  Knowing the difference between “whisk” and “fold”  in baking is important if you are going to be a good baker.  Teachers, this is the same thing.  Handwriting Without Tears has the simplest instructions, so that is one good reason to adopt this program for teaching young children.  Games with wood pieces and roll-a dough incorporate the language of directionality and naming of stroke shapes in group instruction.
  6. Guess what builds comprehension of spatial prepositions like “up”, “across”, “down”, etc?  Movement, and lots of it,enjoyed by children and described by an adult.  It is the difference between saying to a 3 year-old: “Wow, big jump!” and “Wow! You jumped down to the ground and then popped right back up so-o-o fast!”.  Research tells us that children from families with higher levels of education use more words and more descriptive words when they communicate with young children.  By the time these children have entered preschool, they have had this subtle education in prepositions that give them an advantage when handwriting and reading are taught.  Let’s give that advantage to all children.
  7. Handwriting is a bilateral skill.  Ask anyone who has had their wrist and hand in a cast how difficult it is to steady the paper with one hand!  If schools are going to teach writing as early as possible, it means that more targeted bilateral (two-handed) play activities in your classroom have to be offered.  Montessori teachers do this really well.  Carrying those trays, sorting and dumping containers, stringing and snipping with scissors all develop coordination with both hands working around a center, one hand stabilizing and supporting, the other performing the target action. You can get scissors into the hands of young children if you choose the kind that don’t injure them.  Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler
  8. Body awareness and postural control are essential.  HWT uses Mat Man for body awareness and drawing, but there are other fun things too.  Toys that require balance are nice, but so is standing on one leg, hopping on one leg, walking on a masking-tape balance beam.  Of course, being a ROBOT on one leg is more fun, and so is being a DANCER on one foot.  Why wait for the day your kids go to “movement class”?  The free play time in the gym could be so much more than chasing each other or fighting over the pedal cars.  Small groups doing fun movement is good for teachers too.  We all need to move.
  9. How to sit at the table used to be taught at home with mealtime manners and such.  Even the kids in the 1% ( some of whom who live in the fanciest part of my own town!) sometimes haven’t been taught to sit at the table by 3.  It is time to teach it at school.  Teaching kids that sitting on their behinds with their feet flat is the way to get their bodies steady for writing would help.  Are your chairs too large for the 3’s to do this?  Hunt the school for a chair that fits the child.  Again, the Montessori people are really good at realizing that you can’t sit a 3 year old on a chair built for a 5 year-old and get good posture.  They have well-designed furniture in their classrooms, and it isn’t for decoration.  It is for function. Go online and see if you can get some for your class.  Tell the administration that it is an investment.  It is.
  10. Use coloring activities that build strength and control.  The single most important thing you can do to make coloring a pre-writing skill with young children?  Color together!  Even the kids who ignore you when you tell them to copy your actions will watch what you do.  My favorite move is to narrate my work, even make some mistakes and say out loud what I did wrong.  I get to model frustration tolerance but I also make an emotional connection and then I do a good job and show pride in my work.  We have to be showing genuine enthusiasm for writing and coloring if we want to transmit that value.  Select coloring pictures with simple backgrounds or none at all.  Young children simply cannot see the difference between the focal design and the background.  It is like those weird paintings that you have to look at twice to see the hidden items embedded inside.  Kids just won’t color on something like that.  They just scribble across the page.  Choose themes that are meaningful.  My most popular coloring page?  Darth Vader.  Very few little boys don’t want him to look good, and by good I mean menacing. And by menacing I mean all black except for the light saber.  OK with me!

 

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The Tally Sheet, Updated For End of Preschool

Fans of my simple and fun pre-writing activity Preschool Handwriting Activity: The Tally Sheet, come on back into the pool for more!  The tally sheet is a great way to keep score during a fast and fun game such as Pop-Up Pirate or Crocodile Dentist.  As this year’s group or preschoolers are approaching the stage in which they are independently writing their names in uppercase letters, thoughts turn to more challenging visual-spatial skills and grading stroke control.

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Enter the more advanced tally sheet!  The original had just a baseline at the top.  I kept the HWT smiley face as a cue for starting at the top left portion of the page.  Many kids  at this age will still start wherever their crayon lands, most likely directly in front of them.

Here is what your maturing preschooler will gain from moving up to this format:

  1. The additional line adds visual complexity on the page.  A child will have to remember that her name goes on the top line, not in the large space in between the two black lines.  It seems simple to figure out and remember, but not when you are 4.   Some kindergartens use Handwriting Without Tears, but some use much more visually complicated handwriting programs such as Fundations.  It’s time to build visual-spatial skills to navigate a slightly more complicated worksheet.
  2. Starting a tally line at the top and stopping on the bottom line demands more physical control of a crayon than just making a stroke down to the bottom of the page.  Better control of the crayon is needed to “put on the brakes”.  This prepares children for the stop-and-reverse formation of many lowercase letters such as “p” and “h”.

Good luck using the new tally sheet with kids who are preparing to graduate to kindergarten in the next month or two!

How Using Utensils To Eat Prepares Your Child To Write

My post on selecting great utensils has generated buzz with my clients.  When I mentioned in therapy sessions that every time a preschooler uses a fork or spoon with a mature grasp, they are building the strength and control needed for good handwriting, parent’s jaws hit the floor.  It never occurred to them that there is a connection. Time to explain.

A bit of history:  there was a time when preschoolers used utensils early during meals.  Perhaps as recently as 35 years ago, it was a land free of meats in nugget form and al dente vegetables with dipping sauces.  Forks and spoons were used for every meal, and fingers were rarely used for many breakfast and dinner foods.  “Table manners” were taught, and they included how to use utensils.

Life is now more casual and lived at a faster pace.  We eat in our cars, while talking on the phone, and our kids sometimes don’t even want to sit to eat.  They circle back to the table to have us pop a morsel into their mouth before going back to play.  Lifestyles have changed, but the need for finger dexterity and strength has not changed one bit.  If you have a 4 year-old who avoids coloring, has no interest in writing, and doesn’t want to use utensils, you have a child that can lag behind his peers in handwriting due to lack of fine motor skills.  He has missed out on years of useful fine motor practice that his teachers expect to capitalize on at 4.5  and up for handwriting instruction.  Teachers do not expect to do remediation for fine motor delays, they want to teach.  Since kids lose opportunities for fine motor development while they use tablets and push-button toys, utensil skills are a practical way to support good early fine motor skills.

The wrist control, finger isolation and grading of movement and force that goes into holding a utensil in a mature pattern (thumb on top, fingers in a gentle curved arc under the handle shaft, end of the handle visible resting on the large knuckle of the index finger) is a great way to develop those pre-writing skills.  Stabilizing the plate or bowl while eating develops into “helper hand” stabilization of paper while writing.  Scooping, piercing food with a fork, and even beginning cutting with a bread knife improve bilateral control and the ability to coordinate eye-hand control with accuracy, speed and endurance.  A lot of skill goes into feeding yourself a bowl of cereal or a plate of pasta.  Is your child still feeding herself only with her fingers?  That is a 12-month skill, my friends. Time to raise her game.

My previous post Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp?showed you a great handle style that has kid-friendly characters and is well-designed for easier grip and independent placement.  If you have to keep helping your child put their fingers in the right spot, it isn’t independence.  Take a look at that post for fun ways to build skills without your child even catching on that they are practicing!

UPDATE:  One of my almost-4’s has been using these utensils for 2 weeks.  He has not been able to put a crayon in his hand correctly all year, no matter how much we practice, demonstrate or reward.  Yesterday we played a game with my spoon, and he handled it perfectly.  Then it was time to use the iPad stylus for a pre-writing game.  I placed the stylus on the floor and turned my back to set up the app.  I turned around and he asked “Did I get it right?”  His fingers were in a perfect tripod position, ready to go!!!!

Homeschooling? Make Learning to Write Easy for Everyone

Handwriting is a skill that powers the development of language and literacy, as well as math skills.  This is an important early foundation skill.  Keyboarding does not replace writing at any age.  If you doubt me, gather up all your pencils and pens for a day or two.  See what happens.

If they are truthful, most early education teachers will tell you that they received very little training in how to teach young children to write.  They are using the curricula that their principal or lead teacher has chosen.  It usually has not been chosen because those professionals have actually used it successfully.  Often it is a district-wide decision and teachers may not even be trained in the basics of using the program, let alone the principles of teaching any handwriting curricula to typically-developing children.

Luckily, my favorite handwriting curriculum is easy for parents to use when they homeschool.  This will be one of those situations where your children’s skills will almost immediately exceed their public school peers, and stay that way through the years.  Even if your child has learning differences.

Handwriting Without Tears is an affordable program, has easy-to-understand parent/teacher guides, and multi sensory activities that engage young children right away.  The materials for cursive and above are not insulting to the older child that needs review and support.  Most importantly, if your child has learning differences, your child can use this program successfully because the materials support children of all stripes.

HWT provides pre-writing materials like wood pieces and Mat Man that are fun for 4’s or older kids working at that level.  Their workbooks are simple and uncluttered for kids with visual-perceptual issues, and the teaching progression is developmental, not alphabetical.  Kids that have motor issues will be supported to build control before they have to work on the tricky diagonals or curves of the letters “A” and “B”.  You can still teach phonics and any other literacy program that you desire.  HWT allows you to teach writing and reading separately or together.  You get to decide.

Kids on the spectrum are often literal thinkers, and get overwhelmed with complex teaching language.  You will be using repetition and routine with this curriculum, helping them learn by supporting their strengths and their desire to have structure and familiarity.  This will not slow down a sibling that isn’t on the spectrum.  That child will simply sail ahead!  The ultimate goal of handwriting instruction is simple:  legible automatic handwriting.  For all the excitement about spontaneous and free writing for literacy in kindergarten, if your child is constantly erasing errors in first and second grade, he or she will start to write less and less.  Making too many mistakes will reduce creativity and writing output.

The program is also written in Spanish and French, which may be helpful for children learning English or desirable for families that want a multicultural curriculum.  Same excellent and easy-to-teach format.

Visit their website, where you can download some free samples and try them for yourself.  Homeschooling requires parents to make many decisions, but this is one choice that makes things easier.

 

Why Low Muscle Tone Affects Pencil Grasp

 

Low muscle tone can cause a child to struggle with holding crayons and pencils.  Those little fingers wrap around them, fold over them and sometimes ball up into a fist to hold a pencil.  How a child holds a pencil does not automatically mean that his handwriting will be illegible, but it almost always makes learning to write more challenging.  A grasping pattern that cannot easily control the movement and force of a stroke will make beginning writers work harder.  Here are some reasons why this happens, and a few ideas to help kids develop a stable grasp:

Low tone reduces the sensory feedback from grasping and writing.  Without enough information from the muscle and joint receptors in the arm and hand, a child may use the wrong amount of force (either too little ,or more likely, too much) when writing.  Unless a child is looking at his pencil, he may not be able to write.  As adults, we do not realize the amount of time we look away or cannot see what we have written until our fingers move out of the way at the end of a letter or a word.  That can be too late.  Children with low tone are making writing errors and don’t know about it until they can see them.  If they don’t look, then they start the next word without correcting an error.

Low muscle tone will result in quicker fatigue and the poor legibility that comes with forcing other muscles to compensate.  Children who substitute extra muscles to get control of a pencil and achieve the typical pattern of movement, or have squeezed too hard on their crayon, will honestly tell you that their hands are tired.  This will cause them to adapt their grip into an even more awkward pattern.  If they have generalized low tone and aren’t sitting with support, then their shoulders and back are probably tired too.  They  might just refuse to continue to do their writing at all.

What can be done?

  • Good positioning reduces some fatigue and improves control.  When body parts are well-supported and aligned, fatigue will be delayed.  Make sure that a child has a chair that gives him a writing surface that is supportive.  The best idea that got lost in handwriting?  The slanted desk.  Why was it so helpful?  In days gone by, writing was a valued art, and the Palmer Method style was the standard.  This was a demanding style, and the angled desk supported a writer’s shoulder, wrist and hand so that control was achieved without as much fatigue.  Now we have to improvise with writing easels.  My favorite hack?  Turning a large 3-ring binder on it’s side and affixing the paper in a horizontal or “landscape” orientation.
  • Don’t forget the benefits of having feet on the floor.  As I write this post, I have one foot on the base of my office chair, bar room style.  I am sitting comfortably so that I can keyboard for a while.  A child with his feet wrapped around the legs of a chair is a big billboard announcing “I need more support for sitting, please!”
  • Consider using the pencil grip that actually strengthens finger muscles (see my post in August 2015), gradually increasing the amount of time a child can write with this grip.  Why gradually?  Using weak muscles in a new way will create rapid fatigue at first.
  • Work on holding utensils for meals.  My post Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child is great for the younger toddler, but if you have a child that is over 3 and is able to use their fingertips to neatly pick up cereal and can scribble with more than a fist, then you need Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp? to find a good spoon to teach a mature grasp (the kind where his thumb is on top of the handle and fingers are curled under).  Why should you care about self-feeding when this is a post about pencil grip?  Because children eat longer and more regularly than they scribble, and every scoop is giving them direct feedback about their progress.
  • Make sure that the pencil or crayon suits a child’s grasp.  I like triangle crayons for their extra sensory feedback from flat sides for finger placement.  Some kids need short crayons but thicker diameters, so snap thick crayons in half.  I have found automatic pencils with thick lead for older kids who snap the tips off of the #2 pencils.

Not sure that the problem is loose joints?  Read The Hypermobile Hand to learn how to spot a child with hypermobility and get a better sense of the anatomy and physiology of hypermobility.

Water Wow: Summer Pre-writing Fun on the Road

One of my favorite toys for 2-4 year olds is a perfect summer travel item. Melissa and Doug’s Water Wow series is a ring-bound set of 4 pages with a refillable plastic pen with a brush tip. Fill the base with water, twist the top on, and scribble as the water reveals colors and hidden items on the pages.

The size of the pen is just about right to encourage a three or four-finger grasp. Etched lines in the top add traction if fingers get wet. It is the crafty toddler that can figure out how to open the pen, so spills are almost eliminated. Hint: don’t let them see you lock it into position. Divert and distract!

The pages are large enough to include some fun themes, in a range from construction to animals. There are also number and letter books. They dry quickly and are reusable for many, many hours of fun. Some children have scratched the pages in frustration, as the brushes take a minute or two to start releasing the water from the wick inside the top. My current suggestion: have your toddler shake it up and down for a while. They will be having too much fun to get bored or frustrated.

The result? Happy toddlers and clean scribbling that can be repeated all vacation long!

no mess and great pre-writing activity on the go!

no mess and great pre-writing activity on the go!

The Science Behind Handwriting

The New York Times ran a fantastic story this week, summarizing the scientific research on the benefits of handwriting on brain development. As a pediatric occupational therapist with a specialization in handwriting instruction, it was very exciting to see their conclusions.

I have read the studies they referenced, and they are solid science, not just case studies. Especially interesting are the results regarding recall and knowledge gained from writing notes rather than typing them. Our children will not be able to do that at higher grades if they are not writing legibly at the elementary level. The article fully supports the use of putting the pencil to the paper for all ages from pre-school to college!

“The Science Behind Handwriting”>http://nyti.ms/1kyavGp