Guest blogger, Loren Shlaes is a registered pediatric occupational therapist and a regular contributor to the special needs blog at PediaStaff (where this post is also being published). This is the fourth in a series of posts 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.
When to Begin Handwriting
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 sentence
- understanding correct punctuation
- understanding how to organize your work on the page
Handwriting, 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.
Do you 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 poor.
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 if his hand is moving from right to left, or if he is taking many extra strokes, then 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 Teach Handwriting
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 bodies when they are young; it develops the necessary internal balance and stability required for the fine motor coordination in the hands and eyes).
Teach the 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 the point down, then allow the middle finger to come rest behind. Do this several times a day until it becomes automatic in nature.
Preschool and 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 term.
Standing at 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 little bodies.
Playing with 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 crafting projects to train their hands and eyes to work together.
Help Children Keep Their Writing Organized by Giving Them Good Writing Paper
Small children 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.
One problem 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, 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 organized.
Minds in Bloom would also like to thank PediaStaff for collaborating with Loren to make this series possible. PediaStaff places pediatric therapists in schools, clinics, 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.