Tag Archives: handwriting

Why The Switch to Single-Line Paper Creates Handwriting Problems

It seems so simple:  if a child can write all of her uppercase and lowercase letters independently, she should be able to use paper with only a baseline as an anchor.   I see too many kids in kindergarten and first grade go from proud writers to discouraged writers when the “training wheels”  of extra lines come off too early. Why does the loss the of the midline and top line (or the mid line of Handwriting Without Tears) totally blow their minds and destroy their legibility?

I think I have the answer to this one.

These kids have not been taught, or have failed to grasp, the proportion and placement rules of letter formation.  They don’t have an internalized sense of placement.  This is what adults do automatically.  You can draw a midline and a top line through any adult’s writing easily.  A child that can’t place letters correctly will get a lot of red marks on their compositions.  My suggestion?  Emphasize placement as early as late pre-K, and avoid handing back all those papers covered in red!

Placement on the baseline and proportions of lowercase letters are handwriting details that don’t get enough attention in our world of early test prep for all.  Even for preschools that teach lowercase formation well, teaching sizing and placement concepts are often overlooked or taught too quickly.  Sometimes it is because half the class of kindergarteners are still shaky on mental and perceptual concepts of  “middle” and “left/right”.  They haven’t fully mastered those important pre-writing skills.  It is also very, very hard to teach children to write using only the baseline if they do not know the correct start/sequence.  Correct sizing and placement are only dreams if a child is struggling to remember if the letter “r” starts on the midline or on the baseline.  What do you see with single-line handwriting if a child has’t been taught lowercase/uppercase proportion and placement?

  • the letter “t” will be the same size as an “i”, and crossed in the middle, since even 4 year-olds have mastered a vertical cross.
  • letters like “t” and “l” will start on the baseline.  Kids are looking for an anchor spot to start their letters, and since they don’t have those other lines, they go for the baseline.
  • the letter “l” as a huge straight line, and if it is D’Nealian, add a curly tail that makes it look like a backwards “j” without the dot.
  • The tails of both “Y” and “y” sitting on the baseline.  Sometimes the “y” is half above, half under as the child remembers there is a difference but can’t recall exactly what it is.

You get the idea.

Simply put, letters like “t”, “l”, and “h” are twice the height of “a”, “e’, and “o”.  Stack two “o’s” and you should be at the correct height for the letter “t”.

If a child can stack two LEGOs and visualize the ratio, than they can learn this principle with writing letters. If they do not have the physical control to write lowercase letters this way, go back to writing uppercase letters.  Use those larger letters to refine control, getting smaller and smaller, removing starting points and lines along the way.  Just don’t make red marks all over worksheets and wonder what is happening…

 

Great Mechanical Pencils Can Improve Your Child’s Handwriting Skills

IMG_1145

Great mechanical pencils for kids !

These pencils help students with the following handwriting issues:

  1. They use too much force while writing, and the pencil tips break frequently.
  2. They need more tactile information to achieve and keep a mature pencil grasp.
  3. They rarely notice that they need to sharpen their pencil to improve legibility.
  4. Getting up to sharpen a pencil distracts or disorganizes them so much that it extends the time to complete assignments.

I usually do not recommend mechanical pencils for the earliest writers, but that changes after the first half of second grade.  Once a child is facing the volume and speed demands of later second grade or above, it is time to be creative and think outside the box.

Working on the physical skills and the sensory processing skills that cause a child to struggle with grading force, perceiving tactile input, and monitoring their performance is still important.  They would probably take away my OTR license if I didn’t say that!

The problem is that sometimes life hacks are essential to keep a child functioning and feeling like a success.  Having the right equipment is an important and easy life hack for the child that already (at 7!) thinks of himself as a bad writer.  Using this pencil can be one of those “low-hanging-fruit” situations where performance improves while skills are developing.

PaperMate hasn’t targeted the kids with low tone, sensory processing, ASD, ADHD, or any other issues, and that is actually a nice thing.  Older kids don’t want a “special” anything in the classroom or even at home.  They might reject seat cushions and pencil grips that help them because they don’t want to look different or feel different.  Well, these are easy to get at office supply stores.  There is nothing “special” about them at all, except that they really help kids write neatly.

  • The pencils have #2 leads, a good eraser, and come with both extra lead and erasers.  We all know that running out of erasers will communicate “I don’t really need to erase that mistake” to a child.
  •  The colors are appealing to kids, but not infantile.
  • Adults know that their handwriting will immediately look better with a fine point writing utensil, but kids do not.   Children that have visual-perceptual or executive functioning issues often struggle to accurately assess what is causing their handwriting to look illegible, and then take the appropriate action.  They just shrug it off and say that they are simply “bad at writing”.
  • The pencil shaft is smooth, but the thick triangular shape adds much more tactile input than a regular pencil.  Feeling an edge, rather than a cylinder, is often just enough tactile feedback to remind kids to reposition their fingers without an adult saying “Fix your grip”.  Kids get so tired of adults telling them what to do.
  • The triangular shape limits how often the pencil rolls away or rolls off the table.  For kids with ADHD, that can be enough to derail homework without any drama!
  • Finally, mechanical pencils seem more grown-up to children than standard pencils, and you can spin it as such.  What a nice opportunity to be positive about handwriting!

What happens when your child makes a mistake and needs to try again?  They need the best eraser!  Check out Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser , because the erasers on these PaperMate pencils are good but not great.  Having the best equipment positions your child for success!

 

 

Easy Ways To Build Bilateral Hand Coordination for Writing

Why do we need to use two hands for writing?  After all, you only need one hand to hold a pencil.  Well, did you ever injure your non-dominant shoulder or wrist? Without a hand to steady the paper and move it accurately as you write across a page, an adult will write like a preschooler or worse.  When you write, you are using one hand for writing and the other for balance, posture, paper stabilization and paper placement.  Bilateral hand coordination begins before a child’s first birthday and develops through early childhood.  Without it, handwriting is certain to be a challenge.

So many kids that struggle with crawling and walking as infants and young toddlers will continue to have difficulties using both hands together as preschoolers.  Occupational therapists like myself often observe that that they are not using one hand as a “prime mover” ( grabbing, reaching and writing) and the other hand as a “stabilizer”, i.e. holding a container or paper in a skilled manner.  What does it look like to stabilize a container with skill?  The container is held using just enough force and with the opening angled to allow the other hand to fill it without dumping the contents out. Take a look at my post  Better Posture and More Legible Writing With A “Helper Hand” to explore why that stabilizer hand placed on the table is essential for good handwriting.  Problems with bilateral control are often seen with children with ASD, SPD, and many neurological issues such as low muscle tone, but bilateral control delays can exist without any formal diagnosis.

Most handwriting programs, such as Fundations, do not pay much attention to the underlying physical skills needed for legible handwriting.  Handwriting Without Tears does an excellent job of teaching educational staff to remember the physical aspect of handwriting. Children ideally need good bilateral coordination BEFORE they begin hard-core handwriting instruction, not after.  If a child has identified neurological or developmental challenges that contribute to limited bilateral coordination, working on these skills are essential to prevent compensations and delays in handwriting.

As an OT working with kids over 4, when those basic bilateral control and grasping skills should have been achieved, I have to decide whether to spend precious time in every session on handwriting or on the basic abilities (coordination, strength, visual-perceptual, and sensory processing) that support handwriting.  Usually, I end up doing both, building target skills with intensive and complex treatment plans while I am working on handwriting instruction that gets kids up to speed as quickly as possible.

I am going to guess that if some of my toddlers and preschoolers in treatment had received more daily home and school practice with the following activities, I would have more time to teach great writing strategies.  For every parent that has asked me for some effective methods for early bilateral control skills, here you go:

  1. Do not hold or stabilize toys too much for them while playing.  Let them figure out that they need the other hand to steady a soft but large object or container.  Kids will often ask adults to hold a bag for them during clean up.  Your response?  Place their “helper” hand effectively on the bag and direct them to use the other hand to pick things up.  You did help, but you didn’t enable more dependency.  Safety first, so always support a container that could shatter or injure them if it dropped and broke.  But if the contents of a safe container spills?  That is another lesson in coordination to be learned by the child.  Encourage and reward a good clean-up effort!
  2. Provide good containers that demand bilateral skills. My Ziploc post Develop Pincer Grasp With Ziploc Bags also develops bilateral coordination during snacking (one of my favorite times of the day!).  Another fave?  Store little toys in the cosmetic bags with nice big zipper pulls that the department stores include with free-gift-with purchase events. Ladies, if you love makeup as much as I do, you have a pile of these in a drawer somewhere.  If not, the local drug store probably has a selection.  When a container is soft and collapses, it is a greater challenge to stabilize and open.  Challenge is good.
  3. Encourage your child to turn the pages of a book while holding the book on their lap when sitting on the bottom step of the stairs or a low bench.  With the book resting on their lap with one hand holding it, there will be no chance for the floor to hold the book, or for you to do it.  If it is a really heavy or large book, either give them one finger’s wobbly assistance under the book, or pick a lighter/smaller book.  Some of my clients would rather let me hold the book, so I try to have something in my hands to prevent them from asking for assistance rather than working hard.  I cheer them on, and make sure they have great books to look at every time!

 

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!

 

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.

IMG_1139

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.