Tag Archives: Teaching handwriting

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 and advanced 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 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.

If you are the parent of a gifted child, or if you teach gifted preschoolers, please share your best strategies to support handwriting here.!!!

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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.

These worksheets, even the ones with a starting dot or arrow, cannot be followed correctly by most very young children.  They look at the letter “a” in the same way I look at a Chinese character or a hieroglyph.  I could probably copy it, but I have no idea which lines make a single stroke, which to write first, second and third, and no sense that it should be similar to other characters.  Children really don’t follow a tiny arrow or understand that numbering the strokes means that a tiny number two at the top means “This is your second stroke”.  Older children do, but they aren’t the ones laboring over the dot-to-dot letter pages.  There is a better way.

To make my point clear, look at the letters that Handwriting Without Tears calls the “magic c letters”:  c, o, a, d, and g.  By the way, are you wondering why “q” isn’t in the group, since it is formed in a similar manner?  They add “q” later in instruction, due to the potential confusion with “g”,which is a more commonly used letter in English.  I have seen a single child write the letter “c” made starting at the baseline and curving up, then make the letter “o” correctly by first writing a “c”, and then write letters “a”, “g” and “d”  by drawing circles and adding straight or curved lines.

This method of letter formation never looks neat once children have to write full sentences with some speed.  It can’t look good, as the pencil control required to write well with these strategies is too challenging for young children once they have to write more than a few letters.  Ooops! Where did they come up with all those different methods of writing letters that should be made by starting with the letter “c” and then continuing to form the specific letter?   They figured it out for themselves, since no one was watching!

The “Magic C” approach is brilliant because it is simple to recall and it creates control and automaticity, two hallmarks of legible handwriting.  Dot-to-dot writing leads children down a path riddled with possible bad habits.

So are dot-to-dot pictures a terrible idea?  Not at all.  I love the way children have to control pencil strokes and visually scan the page.  They are great visual-motor fun.   There are complex dot-to-dot pictures with over 200 dots that really challenge kindergarteners who can count.  Just don’t teach letters this way!

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!!

 

Does Handwriting Have An Uncertain Future in School?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Why Writing An “M” Like a Mountain Slows Handwriting Progress

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I had this conversation with a very sharp grandma this week.  She was curious about why I did not teach her granddaughter to write an “M” this way, since it is so much easier than the standard formation.  Here is my answer:

  1. Teaching it incorrectly? No! None of the common handwriting styles (Zaner-Bloser, D’Nealian, Handwriting Without Tears or HWT) use that formation.  She will be expected to use standard formation later in kindergarten or first grade.  Teaching her a formation that isn’t correct then changing it later, especially for this little girl, (who resists even gentle redirection) is likely to frustrate everyone later.  She may never make this letter correctly.  At the very least, teaching her one way now and another next year is a waste of my time.
  2. Automaticity. Teaching the standard formation, in which she is required to write a long vertical line and then move her crayon back up to the top of that line, reinforces the automaticity of what HWT calls the “starting corner capitals”.  These are the letters such as “E”, “N”, and “P”.  There are 11 capital letters and one number that start with this long straight line, and 8 of them jump back to the top of that line.  Teaching similar letter start and sequence builds automaticity and speeds learning.  One of the hallmarks of people with legible handwriting is automaticity.  They don’t have to think about how to make letters, they can think about what they want to say in their compositions.  It is not a good idea to slow down the development of automaticity in writing.
  3. Time saved in the future for educators.   A child can certainly learn an immature style and then learn that there is a grown-up way, but Common Core and all the testing have turned classrooms into testing training rooms.  Teachers are not able to take the time to evaluate each child’s handwriting and do spot corrections.  They will say it once and then move on.  Learning correctly now will save everyone time later.