Tag Archives: preschool handwriting

How to Help Toddlers Prepare to Write

Ian, Lila, and Tom aren’t writing. They are drawing!

Contrary to the ideas of some preschool teachers, most three year olds don’t write their names.  In truth, most young fours don’t either.  I refuse to count the kids who “draw” their names like the photo above.  That isn’t writing.  That is drawing, the same as if I copied my name in Mandarin.  I would be drawing the characters, not writing.  Writing requires that I know the correct start and sequence of strokes.

So…What can you do to help late twos and the threes prepare to write?

The mom of a toddler brother of a private client asked me, and I know this child uses his fist to hold a crayon.  Improving his grasping skills should be one big goal, and there are a bunch of fun toys that can support this.  Read Water Wow: Summer Pre-writing Fun on the Road  and read LEGO Duplo My First Car Creations: Putting Together Cars, Building Hand Coordination for two great toys that kids in this age group will love.

 Another way to prepare a young child for handwriting is to build a child’s skilled use of spoons and forks for self-feeding.  I wrote a post on this  How Using Utensils To Eat Prepares Your Child To Write  , and I don’t think parents always fully understand that offering finger foods isn’t going to build hand skills after age 2, unless your child is very physically delayed.  Once they can pop a chicken nugget into their mouth, finger feeding isn’t building hand control.  It certainly isn’t enhancing grasp!  Getting a child the right utensils seems to be an issue in many homes.  Pre-pandemic, I did live EI sessions, and regularly asked parents to throw out those infant feeding spoons (they have a tiny bowl and a super-long handle) because they DO NOT HELP YOUR CHILD SELF-FEED.  THEY MAKE IT HARDER.  Read Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp?  and Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child   to find good utensils that support hand control.

The use of a vertical easel, the kind found in any preschool classroom, can build hand control and prevent the development of an awkward crayon grasp.  Stabilize the paper with clips or tape, because young children will not hold loose paper while coloring.  Using a screen stylus builds finger strength and makes drag-and-drop screen time into a hand exercise.  

Crayola’s PipSqueak markers and their My First Crayons are great choices for pre-writing.  ColorWonder paper and markers will not make a mess.  They will save your MIL’s couch at the same time!

Enhancing bilateral assembly skills will prepare a child for the visual-perceptual and midline awareness needed for handwriting.  I love MagnaTiles and DUPLO blocks, but there are other ways to build.  A great variety of building materials will support a typically-developing child.  Sitting passively in front of a screen will not.  Safety scissors should be offered.  The kind that really work: Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler

Finally, young children need to see adults and older siblings drawing and writing.  If your older kids are addicted to screens, you will have to be the one coloring and drawing.  During stressful times, this might help you relax as well.

Try “Rainbow Tracing” to Build Pre-Writing Skills With Creativity

delfi-de-la-rua-zolFYH_ygpw-unsplashI am not a huge fan of teaching preschool children to trace strokes.  I am very interested in the use of simple drawing to build pencil control and other pre-writing skills.  But done right, tracing can be fun and useful for both the child and the adult.  Here is one way to use tracing effectively:  Rainbow Tracing.

What is it?  The child traces the same target stroke with at least 3 different colors before moving onto the next stroke.   If needed, the adult can initiate/demonstrate first, and the child can repeat with additional colors.  It isn’t necessary for the child to be incredibly accurate, but they do have to start at the correct spot and attempt to end their stroke at the correct spot.

The target tracing line has to be sufficiently wide and simple enough to allow for reasonable expectation of success.  An example would be that a three year-old is asked to trace a curved line, not a series of diagonals.  The developmental progression assumes that most threes aren’t ready to execute diagonal lines independently.

Why is Rainbow Tracing helpful?  By repeating a traced line, a child receives more practice for stroke control and grasp.  It is colorful, and the colors are the child’s choice.  This allows some creativity and agency in an activity that might otherwise be boring and produce very little motivation in a child.

What about a child who traces over their errors?  If a child’s initial stroke is wildly off the target, they are more likely to re-trace their error.  If the adult knows that this is going to be an issue for this child, they can offer another copy of the same sheet, or the adult can be the first “tracer”.  They could also offer an easier and wider stroke to trace.

What do you do with the results?  Celebrate it, of course!  Kids love to put their drawings in an envelope and mail them.  Scanning them isn’t as exciting to a young child.  They like doing things “old school”.  So do a lot of grandparents and great-grandparents!

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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!

Preschool Handwriting Activity: The Tally Sheet

a sample tally sheet

a sample tally sheet

Preschoolers love to play games.  Take a few sheets of scrap paper and a crayon, and turn a game of chance into their first lesson in handwriting.  This activity is also very effective for older children with motor or sensory processing issues that need the extra practice on grasp, pencil control, bilateral hand use, ocular mobility, and visual-perceptual skills.  Really, it addresses all those areas of ability!

Making a top-to-bottom defined line is the beginning of your child’s handwriting journey.  Pairing it with the standard visual orientation for reading and writing English, letter recognition, and finger control makes this game so much more than just keeping score.

You will need:

  1. A straight edge, such as a ruler.
  2. Gray crayon for the adult, and color crayons for each child. Some children like to have lots of choices.
  3. One 8×11.5 inch paper for each player, turned in a “portrait” direction.  (Narrow ends at top and bottom)
  4. Fun game of luck with fast win-lose cycles.  I love Crocodile Dentist, but you can make your own game.  Try using limited pairs of Zingo pieces to make a “go fish” type game, perhaps.

For the youngest players who do not yet know how to write the letters in their name, make a horizontal line across the paper 3 inches from the top.  With your gray crayon, write their name in capital letters on their paper, using slightly larger spacing.  Make a small dot at the point where you start each letter.  Hint: all capital letters start at the top!  If your child has a very long name, you will want to tape two sheets together.  Using smaller letters or closer spacing is not advisable.  On your paper, write your name in a bold color while your child watches you writing. Now ask your child to trace their name on their paper.  Tracing rather than connecting dots allows preschoolers to learn the gestalt of letter formation, not jumping from one point to another, and is quickly removed as they progress to full recall.

If your child is not writing and has no experience of tracing letters, you may have to make 2 sheets with their name, and trace it with them at the same time that they are working so that they see how you start and sequence each letter.  This is also appropriate for children with motor planning issues and children with ASD that need repetition in their instruction. For children in the later part of kindergarten, you can make the line only 2 inches from the top and make only the starting dots for each letter (no tracing).  Bold the baseline to remind them that letters “bump” that line.  For advanced kindergarteners, switch to the “title case” so that the first letter of a name is a capital, and the remaining letters are lowercase.  You may add a single line at the height of a lowercase “o” as a guide for proportion.  You do not need an upper line; the top of the paper is your upper line.

Time to Play

Each time a game cycle results in a winner, that player will pick up their crayon, place the tip on the horizontal baseline, and make a vertical line down to the bottom of the page.  Stabilizing the paper with the non-writing hand is harder when it is oriented this way, and that is desirable.  Awareness that handwriting is really a two-handed skill should come early and be automatic by the time your child sits down to write in kindergarten.  When the last game is played, count the lines to determine today’s overall winner.

Have fun!!

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.