Tag Archives: Teaching handwriting

Is Automaticity The Key To Handwriting Success?

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I know that this is a bold statement.  Handwriting is a complex skill, with visual-motor coordination, perceptual, cognitive and postural components.  But when I evaluate a child’s writing, and I watch them having to think about where to start and sequence movements to form a letter and place it on a line, and then decide how far apart the letters and words should be, it makes me think that the lack of automaticity is often a child’s biggest hurdle.  Even if their motor control isn’t terrific, they can still have legible and functional writing if they make fewer errors and write fast enough to complete their work in a reasonable amount of time.  Slow and labored writing isn’t functional, even if it is beautiful.

Think about how important it is for any visual-motor skill to become automatic in order to be efficient.   You cannot hit that ball if you have to think about it.  You just can’t.  It has to be a smooth and automatic response that comes from practice and refined feedback loops developed by experience.  While practicing, professional athletes drill down on minute aspects of the swing, but during the game, they choke if they “overthink”.  Ask anyone who has done a ton of free-throws in basketball (you get an unimpeded chance to drop that orange ball into the hoop) for practice but cannot make it when the game is on the line.

In this current culture, teachers have so many skills to impart.  Handwriting is still a skill children need.  Paper workbooks and worksheets are still used extensively until 3rd or 4th grade.  You cannot wait it out until kids get old enough to keyboard.  And a struggling writer in second grade is already feeling bad about their abilities. Sometimes so bad that they don’t want to do the language arts work that develops spelling, vocabulary and creative expression.   So waiting until they can type isn’t the answer.  You want excitement and enthusiasm for reading and writing early on.  Nothing develops excitement like success.  Nothing kills enthusiasm like boredom and failure.

If automaticity is the key to handwriting success, how do you develop it in children?  I think the folks at Handwriting Without Tears have figured it out.  I no longer use any other handwriting materials.  Their workbooks and pre-K multi-sensory learning tools are just too good.

  1. If you look at the pre-K and early primary workbooks carefully, you will see that the left-to-right, top-to-bottom orientation is embedded in everything.  Even the cute animals for little kids to color are all facing left-to-right!
  2. The two lines (baseline and midline) are simple to use.  No wondering where to place letters.   The pre-K letters are at the bottom of the page, creating an emerging automatic sense of baseline.
  3. The developmental progression (versus the alphabetical progression) builds slowly from vertical and horizontal lines to curves and diagonal lines.  Letters are grouped by the way they are formed, making automatic movements emerge early and consistently.
  4. Workbook pages aren’t overwhelming with activities, but the skills are repeated to intentionally develop writing automaticity.

For example, instead of writing 12 letter”B”s and 12 letter “b”s,  uppercase letters, with their larger and simpler hand movements are taught together and earlier.  Letters “b” and “d” aren’t taught together since they can easily be reversed.  Letters “b” and “h” are taught together since the formation is very similar.  Fewer reversals, more success without having to go back and re-teach letter formation.

Take a look at the best “pre-K into K” book I have ever seen, HWT’s KickStart Kindergarten.  It is the perfect summer bridge activity for your preschooler or your older special needs child.

Happy summer writing!

 

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Have More Fun When You Use Drawing To Develop Pre-Writing Skills

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Why should learning to write mean a pile of boring worksheets?  It shouldn’t!  This week, try teaching your preschooler to draw fun shapes that mirror correct letter formation, start/sequence and connections, and watch their handwriting skills take off!

Why draw?  Because some kids need more practice, avoid writing due to fear of failure, or simply need their pre-writing practice to be more fun than traditional worksheets.  Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) does a terrific job of teaching pencil control skills in their preschool and kindergarten books, but their pages often don’t offer enough experience or variety for kids that struggle with pencil control.  I tried using multiple copies of their worksheets, but the kids I treated in occupational therapy sessions got bored too quickly.

I decided to develop tracing pages that naturally expand into guided and independent drawing practice.  As an example, kids have more fun drawing multiple large volcanos that imitate the correct formation of the letter “A” (two diagonal lines that start at the TOP) than writing the letter “A” on a worksheet ten times.  Connecting the lines at the bottom is also an easier way to teach children that they are aiming to connect the diagonal strokes when they write the horizontal line, not slashing wildly across them.

Kids usually enjoy embellishing their drawings.  This gives me more opportunities to work with them on pencil grasp and control skills.  Lava rocks are drawn as circles, and dripping lava curves down the volcano like the letter “S”.  Exploding lava can shoot out of the top of your volcano, curve and drop down onto the ground.  This drawing stroke is very similar to the tricky initial stroke that forms a lowercase “f” (a letter that trips up more kindergarteners and first graders than I can count!).  Beginning a crayon stroke at the top of the volcano is actually an important motor control skill needed for all the letters with top connections such as “F”, “D”, and “P”.   Children will work harder to make this connection because they think it is so cool that volcanoes explode!!

I use gray tracing lines for my beginner drawings for the same reason that HWT uses gray crayon strokes in their preschool workbooks.  Tracing, not connecting dots, helps kids understand that letters and numbers are made of  a sequence of strokes.  The alternative?  I see four year-olds writing the letter “L” without creating a sharp angle at the bottom; it’s a swoop.  I also see the letters “A” and “M” starting at the bottom, then curving up and around in a single line.  Oops!

An important goal of learning uppercase letters first is that these larger, simpler strokes are required motor practice for the finer movements needed to execute the trace-backs and reversals of lowercase letters such as “a”, “b”, “d”, and “p”.  I know exactly what happens if a child doesn’t have the control necessary to learn lowercase letter formation.  If I had a dollar for every letter “a” made from a little circle placed next to a short line….!

Incorrect letter formation and poor control are two of the most common reasons that children in first or second grade are identified as slow or sloppy writers and get referrals to OT for handwriting.  Not every child is able to or interested in re-learning correct handwriting skills later on, and why should anyone have to re-learn handwriting?  Don’t teachers (and OTs) have better things to do?  Teach it correctly the first time!

Drawing gives kids the visual-motor practice they need while providing a fun, creative experience that adds depth to classroom lesson plans about nature, holidays and other subjects.  Try drawing flags, birthday cakes (always a favorite), ice cream cones and more!

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Why Gifted Preschoolers Should Be Taught Handwriting Early (And With The Best Strategies!)

 

 

guillaume-de-germain-329206Gifted children are identified by their asynchronous development.   The three year-old that can read, the two year-old that can play a song on the piano after hearing it once at music class, the four year-old that can complete his sister’s math homework…from second grade! These children have one or more advanced areas of skill that classify them as gifted.  One of the skills that rarely emerges early in the gifted population is handwriting.  More often, gifted children have problems with handwriting. Some are just sloppy, some produce illegible products even after trying their best.

A few theories exist to explain this phenomenon:  gifted children are more concerned with expression and ignore handwriting lessons, their typical motor development doesn’t keep up with their advanced cognitive skill progression and they give up, or perhaps a gifted student with poor handwriting has an undiagnosed motor and learning disabilities.

I am going to suggest an additional explanation:  gifted children are not given effective early pre-writing instruction and are often taught to write using strategies that create confusion, boredom or frustration, turning a fast learner into an underachiever.  Gifted kids like novelty, complexity and intensity.  Tracing a dotted-line “A” over and over isn’t any of those things.  Gifted children often remain so focused on their passions that it is easier to let them go and shine in their chosen areas than to make handwriting fun and appealing.

Yes, it is true that children with advanced cognitive skills could have average or below-average motor skills that don’t allow them to independently write a complex original story.  Writing details down may take too long for their quick minds, or they need to use letters they don’t yet have the skills to execute.  A child with an amazing imagination and vocabulary may find standard writing drills dull in comparison to the creative process.  Gifted children may even be averse to the unavoidable failure inherent in practice that leads to mastery.

What can be done?

  • Good pre-writing instruction is essential to build the foundational motor control and spatial skills.  This includes teaching grasp rather than waiting for it to develop, purposely building two-handed coordination and drawing into play,  and using other pre-writing tasks such as mazes, puzzles and tracing/dot-to-dot (not for letters, for drawing).  See Why Dot-To-Dot Letter Practice Slows Down Writing Speed and Legibility to understand why dots aren’t a great strategy for any child.  Learning to draw balloons, birthday cakes and Christmas trees is fun.  It is also a great way to practice writing the curves and intersecting angles that letters require.
  • Use multi-sensory, multi-media methods to develop pre-writing and handwriting skills.  Many gifted children love sensory-based experiences.  Their natural drive for intensity and complexity can be satisfied when letters are made from pretzel sticks or Play-Dough.
  • Create a fun, open environment for learning, in which challenge is expected and success is both celebrated and beside the point.  If children are taught that they are expected to know all the answers since they are gifted, exploration can be suppressed.  If they learn that failure is anticipated and shame-free, it allows them to try again and invent solutions to the problems they face.
  • Harness the skills a gifted child possesses to advance their handwriting development.  Children that have great spatial awareness notice letter formation similarities and proportion rules.  They transform an “F” into an “E” and chop two vertical lines in half to make an “H”.  Children in love with language can use fun mnemonic devices or little “stories” that help them form letters correctly.  When the letter “S” starts as a mini “C” and then “turns around and goes back home” they remember the formation of this tricky letter more easily than copying or tracing alone.

As an occupational therapist, I use the Learning Without Tears program (formerly known as Handwriting Without Tears).  The materials are high-quality, the learning progression is developmental and builds one skill on top of the previous skill, and the early levels are more sensory-based than most writing programs.  See Can HWT’s Flip Crayons Transform Pencil Grasp in Preschoolers? and Why Do You Start (Uppercase) Letters at the Top? Speed and Accuracy for some HWT strategies that really work.  Gifted kids usually want to be creative and expansive when learning, so take a look at Have More Fun When You Use Drawing To Develop Pre-Writing Skills to make teaching a gifted child   easier.

If you are the parent of a gifted child, or if you teach gifted preschoolers, please share your best strategies to support handwriting here!!!  If you are wondering if you should tell your child that their advanced skills have a name, “gifted”, check out Should You Tell Your Gifted Child About Their Giftedness? for some good reasons why they need to know and how to approach this issue with them.

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

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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.

Dot-to-dot 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.  Want a terrific HWT book for your preschool child that is advanced, or your struggling kindergartener?  Check out KickStart Kindergarten: Get Your Child Ready for Kindergarten Writing The Easy Way!.

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 for the connecting number or letter.  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!

Avoiding Letter Reversals In Preschool

Are letter reversals in preschool normal?  Yes.  Can you avoid them, and thus speed up the accuracy and automaticity that are hallmarks of successful handwriting?  Sure!  This post will explain why reversals are slowing kids down unnecessarily and how to limit letter and number reversals right from the start.

Writing letters backward is very common in preschool, and is not considered abnormal if a few letters or numbers are reversed if a child is under the age of 8.  So why bother even thinking about how to teach letter formation without reversals?  Common Core, PARC, and all the other achievement tests have contributed to less classroom time made available to focus on handwriting, while demanding independent writing skills earlier and earlier.  Teachers in grades 1 and up expect that learning to write letters and numbers has been accomplished, and now it’s all about content.  That means that preschool and kindergarten teachers need to spend time on writing instruction, and they need to choose the most effective methods to do so.

That sounds so simple, but understanding how to avoid reversals without doing constant drilling is hard.  That is how your grandma’s learned to write: kids practiced daily and knew that good “penmanship” was a thing, a thing that mattered.  Today’s preschool teachers generally don’t have much (or any) instruction in how to teach handwriting, and certainly don’t review research on how to teach it the most efficiently for the fastest results.  They are asked to teach kids with learning differences, some of which make it difficulty for kids to perceive that they have reversed a letter, even when it is pointed out to them.  Their budget includes glue and posters, not training programs on something as targeted as writing instruction.  For some teachers, the best they get is a thick packet and some worksheets from their director.  That’s it.

Handwriting Without Tears does a terrific job of attacking reversals where they begin, with the start and the sequence of strokes.  To simplify it:  They start letter instruction with the letters that are easy to write and begin in the same manner without risk of reversals, use a style of writing that is less easily reversed, and they have great beginner tools which replicate the same cues throughout the program.  Their smiley-face icon for orientation while writing is a good example.  The repetition on workbooks and writing materials remind children where to start so many letters supports correct orientation right from the beginning.  They also use meaningful but simple directions.  No tree line, no worm line and no dangly tails that could go either way.  Letters such as “S”, “J”, and “Z” have specific cues to help children prevent reversals.  They are also among the last letters taught.

Kids have lots of practice with start and sequence before they hit the harder letters.  The kids with perceptual issues learn a motor plan that is so automatic that they may write a letter perfectly even if they struggle with object manipulation.  Their hands are telling them how the letter is made, not their eyes!  Should they still get practice with these skills?  Yes, but they need to be successful writers now.

In my opinion, the push for increasing demands in early grades is here to stay.  The smartest thing teachers and parents can do is to pick materials that fast-track kids toward handwriting independence and then use them consistently.  It is also the kindest thing to do.  Kids don’t need more pressure, they need more success!

 

How Do You Teach Word Spacing?

Kindergarteners need to learn to space their words correctly.  But how exactly do you do that?  Most teachers are using the “put your index finger next to your last word as a spacer” strategy.  This isn’t a terrible idea, but many children can grasp the true spacing measure.  Here is why you should attempt to explain it to young children.

First, children are often smarter than we think.  Secondly, they like to know what adults know.  And finally, picking up your “helper hand” off the paper to space words will often result in paper shifts or postural shifts that result in the next word being written incorrectly.  Out of the pan, into the fire!

As children progress from kindergarten through elementary school, they are likely to have less and less handwriting instruction.  Quite frankly, I am seeing even kindergarten classrooms trying to race to language arts, while their students are still unsure of how to write lowercase letters.  That is going to create some interesting substitutions and compensations.  Children know that they are expected to produce written materials, and will substitute uppercase letters in the place of the harder-to-form lowercase letters, or search for a different word with letters that they recall.  What they won’t do is ask for more instruction.  They are kids!

OK, here is the skinny on spacing.  Regardless of the size of the letter, the correct amount of space between words is the width of a lowercase “o”.

That’s it.  Large or small, cursive or print.  One of my sharp students asked why I had left more space than this between the sample words on her homework.  Easy answer:  beginning writers often write larger than the sample, or they make errors.  If I used standard spacing, when she copied my sample and wrote a few of her letters too large, it would be harder for her to fit in her writing directly below my sample.  Her letters would extend past my sample.  Having to move her eyes up and on an angle to see the sample makes it even harder for an early writer to do a good job.

Achieving correct spacing is really not expected until late kindergarten.  Well, it isn’t expected by OT’s that understand the developmental progression of handwriting.  If a teacher asks me to work on spacing at the beginning of the year, I tell them that we have some other things to work on first.  Have they already assessed whether the child knows how to write all 56 letters?   First things first…..!

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 struggle 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!!