Guest blogger, Loren Shlaes is a registered pediatric occupational therapist and regular contributor to the special needs blog at Pediastaff (where this post is also being published). This is the fourth in a series of post from Loren about how to help students who may be challenged with attention, sensory, or other issues be successful in the classroom. Most likely, you have at least a few students with these challenges every year, but even if you don’t, the information in these posts are relevant to all teachers.
The ability to
write is one of the very highest levels of human achievement. Learning to write requires a great degree of
fine motor control and visual motor coordination, along with sufficient
attention span and frustration tolerance.
Forcing a child to learn to write before these underlying skills are
solidly in place is counterproductive.
In New York
City, where I practice, children are expected to be able to write at the age of
four. In my clinical opinion, this is two full years before they are
developmentally ready, and does more harm than good. If a child does not yet have the internal
strength and stability to perform such a high level task, in order to comply
with the grownups demands, he is going to have to manufacture it by straining
and contorting his body in a very unnatural way. This sets him up for a lifetime of poor
posture and bad habits.
Why Formally Teach Handwriting?
Pretty much the
entire point of an academic education is to enable a child to represent his
ability to solve problems and to express his ideas easily and fluently in
writing, yet the current educational trends seem to be drifting farther and
farther away from actually teaching the child how to do so. In order to be able to write articulately and
effortlessly, you have to have internalized the rules and mechanics of writing
so that they are completely automatic. Consider what this entails:
how to correctly hold the pencil
how to precisely form each individual letter
how to spell words correctly
understanding what constitutes a coherent, grammatical
understanding correct punctuation.
understanding how to organize your work on the page.
across the lifespan, is a necessary daily skill and a direct reflection of who
we are, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different. Children who cannot
write easily and legibly struggle in school.
Want to give
your pupils the very best start to their
academic lives, give them confidence in themselves as scholars, and provide
them the tools they need to succeed?
Teach them legible, rapid penmanship, so that they can write down their
thoughts and do their schoolwork quickly and easily, and enable them to
represent themselves and their abilities to their best advantage.
In order for a
child to be able to write well, he must be formally taught how to do it. If the child is
left to guess for himself how to write letters, the chances of him being able
to write fast enough to keep up with his thoughts and to stay legible are
The only way to
write both neatly and quickly are to start all of the letters from the top and to have the hand traveling in the
same direction. If the child starts his
letters from the bottom, or his hand is moving from right to left or he is
taking many extra strokes, he can only write neatly if he writes very
slowly. When he speeds up, his writing
falls apart. So he can either write neatly
or legibly, but not both at the same time.
Teach him the correct habits of letter formation and you’ve gone a long
way to make sure that no one will ever have to force him to redo his homework
because no one can read it.
If a child is
required to produce written work while he is still struggling to remember how
the individual letters are supposed to look or which way to turn the tail on
the J, his mind will be so taken up with the mechanics of getting the letters
down that he won’t have much mental energy left to formulate or express his
ideas. Wait until all the letters are
formally taught and the children’s writing is automatic in nature before
requiring them to write compositions or keep a journal.
Give Your Students a Great Start By Learning How To
If you don’t
know how to teach handwriting, I highly recommend that you attend the one day
“Handwriting Without Tears” class. If you go to their website, you can either
find a class coming to your area, or, better yet, hire one of their instructors
to come to your school or district and teach all of you. You will have all the
tools you need to become a first rate handwriting instructor. The teaching materials were developed by an
occupational therapist who had a special needs son of her own. Her methods are superb and get great results.
Handwriting Readiness Begins With the Ability to Hold
a Pencil Correctly
How a child
holds his pencil is critical to his comfort while writing for long periods and
to his ability to control the strokes.
The most comfortable, efficient grasp is called a dynamic tripod. The thumb is bent, the forefinger and middle finger
form an open ring, the arm and wrist stay still, and the fingers move in and
out of the palm.
Being able to
hold and use the pencil this way depends on the strength and stability of the
trunk. A strong, sturdy body provides
the necessary foundation of support for the refined, controlled movements of
the hands and fingers (this is one of
the reasons it is so critical for children to exercise and to move their bodieswhen they are young; it develops the necessary internal balance and stability
required for the fine motor coordination in the hands and eyes).
children how to hold a pencil correctly by having them curl up the last three
fingers into the palm, pick up the pencil between the thumb and finger with the
point facing up, twirl the pencil back into the thumb space with point down,
then allow the middle finger to come rest behind. Do this several times a day until it becomes
automatic in nature
kindergarten teachers can assist with acquiring good pencil grasp patterns by
getting rid of all of the markers, fat crayons, giant paintbrushes, and
sidewalk chalk, substituting them with one inch nubs of chalk and crayons, and
cracking off the handles of the paintbrushes.
This way the children are forced to hold all of the drawing, painting, and
writing materials in a strong, open pinch.
Don’t worry if they can’t manage them very well at first. Developing
that strong pinch is far preferable in the long term than the child being able
to draw you a nice picture with a fist around a fat crayon in the short
easels to paint and draw strengthens and stabilizes the shoulders, elbows, and
wrists. Old fashioned chalk boards are
an excellent way to practice letters and draw pictures. The chalk provides plenty of traction, nobody
minds broken chalk, and erasing the board in big sweeps is a great activity for
Play-Doh and modeling clay is a wonderful way to strengthen little hands and
fingers. I also recommend that the
children do lacing, beading, and make craft projects to train their hands and
eyes to work together.
Help Children Keep Their Writing Organized by Giving
Them Good Writing Paper
have not yet developed the internal structure that allows them to organize
their handwriting without lines to guide them, so providing them with lined
paper is best.
with conventional dotted paper is that it’s too busy. There are so many lines that the child doesn’t know which ones to follow, and so he ignores all of them. The other problem is that the lines are often
larger than the child’s finger excursion, so he is having to strain to make his
letters as big as the paper is requiring. Blank paper doesn’t help the child organize his work.
I like the
plain double lined paper utilized in the Handwriting Without Tears program. The child writes his letters within the
double lines, which teaches correct sizing and keeps his work very neat and
Loren Shlaes is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration, handwriting remediation and school related issues. She is also a manual therapist and a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. Her informative site won the “favorite resource for therapists” poll conducted by yourtherapysource.com. Her writing has been featured on Parents.com, and she is a regular contributor to the special needs blog at Pediastaff. She is in private practice in Manhattan.
Minds in Bloom would also like to thankPediaStaff for collaborating with Loren to make this series possible. PediaStaff places pediatric therapists in schools, clinic, and hospitals throughout the country. In addition to their highly informative blog, they also have a huge Pinterest presence with over a hundred boards pertaining to education, child rearing, special needs, and various kinds of therapies. This post can also be viewed on the PediaStaff Blog.
Did you learn something new from Loren? Do you have ideas to add? Please comment.