Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Handwriting—Right from the Start

Since I work as a Reading Specialist in my other life, I have recently had a couple of friends ask me about handwriting suggestions for their children.  Their questions, and a couple of new students with atrocious handwriting, have reminded me of how critically important it is to teach children proper handwriting skills.  Breaking bad habits in handwriting is EXTREMELY difficult; it’s soooo much easier to teach proper handwriting in the beginning.  So, my appeal to you as early educators is to teach correct handwriting in your programs and teach proper handwriting techniques to parents so that they can reinforce it at home.
Proper handwriting can certainly make a child’s written work more legible, but it does more than that.  It can help keep the child’s hand, wrist and arm from becoming overly fatigued when writing.  It can also help with the problem of letter reversals.

As with most other skills that children acquire, there are foundational skills that need to be in place before the child is ready to write.  These skills are:
  • Small muscle development
  • Eye-hand coordination
  • Visual-perceptual skills—being able to tell what is different and what is the same, recognize forms, and follow the movements to make the forms
  • The ability to hold the crayon, pencil, etc.
  • The ability to form basic strokes
  • The ability to understand the conventions of written language—top to bottom, left to right.

Improving the small muscle development of even the youngest child is a way to start preparing for handwriting.  Something as simple as “tummy-time” for infants can help strengthen the child’s wrist muscles in anticipation of eventual handwriting.  “Crab walking” does the same thing for older children.  Playing with playdough also helps strengthen the muscles in the fingers and wrist.  Other activities for developing these small muscles, while increasing eye-hand coordination include playing with squeeze toys or fidgets (like stress balls), using clothespins or tongs to pick up small items, and stringing beads.  Visual-perceptual skills can be acquired through completing jigsaw puzzles and doing matching activities.

While a very young child starts by holding a crayon in his fist, children who are beginning to write should have developed a more mature grip.  If a child is having difficulty developing a proper grip, there are tools like pencil grips that are commercially available.  If you’re not sure about what constitutes a good grip, there are a lot of online resources or, if you know an Occupational Therapist, I’m sure they would be willing to talk with you about it.  If the child is wrapping his wrist around when he writes rather than extending it, you can do wrist strengthening exercises and have the child write either on a vertical whiteboard (or chalkboard) or on a slanted board on the desk or table. 

There are a lot of free traceable downloads available to help children understand the basic strokes required in handwriting—top to bottom, left to right, diagonals, and circles.  Just make sure that you teach the children the proper strokes; don’t just give them the paper and let them make the strokes however they think they should.  Throughout the child’s time with you, you should be demonstrating the top-to-bottom, left-to-right conventions of our language.  When you read a big-book to children, use your hand to follow along with what you’re reading.  Any time children are writing, they should be writing from left to right. 
If children are taught correct letter formation from the start, letter reversals will be virtually eliminated.  For example, the two most confused letters are “b” and “d”.  A lowercase “b” should be formed with the line first, then the circle.  A lowercase “d”, on the other hand, is formed with the circle first, then the line.  If children learn to form them this way, and are taught a solid left-to-right progression, they will have much less difficulty in discriminating between these two letters.

So, from someone who works extensively with elementary-age children with very bad handwriting habits, please, please, please, teach them proper handwriting from the beginning.  And, don’t forget to teach their parents the same thing.  Many parents weren’t taught proper handwriting, so don’t know how to make sure their children are forming their letters correctly.

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