Handwriting can be an exasperating subject for teachers and parents. There never seems to be enough time to focus on it and if you belabor the issue, then you surely lose the interest of your little writers. Without question, good handwriting and letter formation is still important. When a child can form letters easily and in the most efficient fashion, writing becomes less of a chore and more of a joy. When others can read their writing, children get more positve feedback, too! So here are some things I learned as a teacher that made handwriting instruction much more palpable.
1. Make 'Em Big
First off, if you are just starting to learn how to form letters, work with big sizes. Big sizes of paper, big paintbrushes, big sidewalk chalk, big blocks, you name it. People have the misconception that you have to start out small on paper when learning how to form letters correctly. This is not so. Make them huge! It's ever so much more fun that way. Another fun way is to do it many times in rainbow colors, as explained by Pauline at Lessons Learnt Journal. She talks about her Rainbow Writing and even offers up free printables to do it with your child!
2. Practice Pre-Writing Skills
Anything that makes little fingers stronger and more nimble can help them develop for writing. Play dough, using tweezers, or picking up little things and putting them in a bowl all count. It's also helpful to practice the shapes and lines that letters are made up of. A great app for this is called Ready to Print. Some of the things they provide practice for are touching things one at a time, in a certain order, following a path, matching shapes, pinching things together, and connecting the dots. They also have letter and number writing practice. You can of course do most of these things the old-fashioned way on paper, too. In Handwriting Without Tears they also encourage the kids to form their letters with blocks, play dough, and stamps before beginning to write them.
3. Encourage Correct Pencil Grip With Song!
This video that has a cute song for correct pencil grip. She sings it about a crayon, but it's the same thing. The other tip I have heard before is to pretend like you're holding a kleenex with your pinkie and ring finger. The other thing to remind kids is that their other hand should be used to hold the paper! A bunch of them never figure that helpful hint out on their own.I myself have a horrible pencil grip to this day because I never got out of the habit. My third grade teacher tried to get me to stop, but by then it was way too late. I am a functioning member of society, but I do have a nice callous on my finger to show for it and my hand cramps up when I'm writing. So if you can avoid it by teaching good pencil grip early, do it!!
4. Where Do You Start Your Letters? At the Top!
Now that we know how to hold our pencil, the main thing for your child to learn is to start their letters from the top and to make them in the most efficient way possible (i.e. don't take the long, unintuitive squiggly route if you can help it). There is an amazing program called Handwriting Without Tears that comes highly recommended from many parents, teachers, and occupational therapists. It is really important that the occupational therapists like this program because they are the ones working with kids who have a hard time with their fine motor movements, pencil grips, and writing. It is a program that whole schools can adopt, but you can also purchase their products for use at home here. They even have some online subscription options now. I have learned many great tips from them and used the program in my classroom for several years. I am not a paid spokesperson, just a really passionate fan! One of their tips is that starting your letters at the top helps with effective letter formation. They even made up a little ditty to remind kids to start their letters at the top. It goes like this - "Where do you start your letters? At the top! Where do you start your letters?" At the top! If you want to start a letter then you better, better, better, remember to start your letters at the top!" If you want to hear a rock n' roll version for yourself, click here.
5. Make the Lines on the Paper POP
There are so many different kinds of handwriting paper and thoughts about handwriting paper. HWT uses two lines so that kids can use the bottom line to keep the letters going straight across and the top line to differentiate between uppercase and lowercase letters. You can refer to the video at #6 down below to see a sample. You can also use the typical top line, dotted middle line, and bottom line. If you Google handwriting paper, you will find lots of free ones that you can print on your own if you like. You can try to highlight the space between the dotted line and the bottom line to help your kiddos differentiate between lowercase and upper case. You can also tell stories about the letters that go up to the top line like they go up in a helicopter or rocket and bump the top but no further. There is actually paper that you can buy with raised lines so your tactile learners can actually feel their pencil stop. They also have papers where there are little clouds drawn on the top line and grass on the bottom so the kids can say to themselves, "go up to the clouds, then down to the ground." Whatever works best for you and catches on with your child is the right thing to use. You might have to try a few things before you find your best fit. Don't be afraid to turn in homework on a different kind of paper, either. Talk with your teacher if something is working especially well at home. They will usually not have a problem with that.
6. Model the Right Way First and Frequently
Handwriting experts have stated that the best way to have children learn a letter is for them to see you do it first and close up. In other words, not copying letters already written on a board across the room. So make sure every time you are practicing handwriting, you take time to model the correct formation of the letter. It's an easy thing to do and makes such a difference. The other thing is, you want them to do a few really good practice letters - not a whole long page of letters where each one just gets a little bit worse and pretty soon they are copying the letters from their copies and they just keep getting worse and worse. Definitely think quality over quantity! If you get a big page sent home where they're supposed to write the letter D 20 times, try to at least split it up so they write it 5 times, then go on to something else. Search on YouTube for more handwriting demonstration lessons and songs!
7. Give Them Words to Say in Their Head
If any of us are trying to learn something, we talk ourselves through the process. It's no difference for our kids with handwriting. You can use the script Handwriting Without Tears provides or you can use your own. I use a mix of both. I also have some number formation rhymes I learned long ago that go like this -
2 - Around and back on a railroad track, two, two, two (said like choo, choo, choo)
3 - Around a tree and around a tree, that is how we make a three
4 - Down and over and down some more, that is how we make a four
5 -The bee goes down, around the hive, go back up to make a five
6 -Draw your rope at the top and around some sticks, that is how we make a six
7 - Across the sky and down from Heaven, that is how we make a seven
8 - Make a S and do not wait, go back up to make an eight
9 - First a circle, then a line. That is how we make a nine.
Other teachers blog about very similar poems here at Simply Kinder and here at Little Giraffes. Simply Kinder also sells some number formation practice sheets if you're interested.
8. Teach the Starting CornerThis is another Handwriting Without Tears tip. As you can see in the picture with the little girl, the slate blackboard has a happy face drawn in the upper left corner. If you can teach your children to write their letters and numbers within a box frame like that (drawing a square or using little white boards work well, too), then they will have a much easier time with letter reversals. Which, by the way, are completely normal and rarely a sign of dyslexia or learning problems in the early elementary years. Just draw a little happy face on your board (or buy the nifty HWT one!). It's much easier for the kids to learn the few exceptions like O, Q, A, and the number 9 because there aren't that many and most of those we don't often reverse anyway. I recently learned another great trick for double-checking if you've reversed a number. A teacher came up with the idea of using your left hand and especially your thumb to see if your number is the right way. Basically, you learn that all letters "cup" or have a space for your left thumb. Who knew? Love tricks like this! Check it out at Dilly Dabbles. She has free printable bookmarks for reminders, too!
9. Watch Out for the Shark!
As with almost everything, I find that if you can make learning something silly or funny you get a much faster buy-in from your child. Letting letters go below the bottom line when they're not supposed to is a major offense in handwriting (for instance, letting your lowercase o sink below the bottom line that you're writing on). It makes things messy and confusing for your reader. In order to communicate this in a fun way, I taught my students about THE SHARK. We even drew little sharks underneath the bottom line of our writing paper (you have to envision the primary style writing paper with a dotted line in the middle and then a bit of extra space between each writing line). If your letter dipped below the line, the shark would eat it! Oh no! So as I conferred with my young writers, I would mention every once in a while that it looked like the shark was going to eat this letter. They would quickly fix it to keep the letter safe from the shark. Some of you quick thinkers out there might be saying, "Wait, what about p and q and g and j and y?" Well, my dear friends, p has a nice straight line that is a fishing pole, so it is allowed to go down there to entice the shark. Sharks are not interested in fishing poles. The rest of the letters have hooks when you write them. These, of course, are fishing hooks that will be pointy and catch the shark if he gets too close. I'm telling you, kids eat this up.
10. Hop Around and Learn Letters in Groups
Current educational research suggests that kids learn nearly everything by connecting bits of knowledge to things they already know and/or by grouping those words with similar patterns together. You can apply the same thing to handwriting instruction. There are certain "kinds" of letters that we write. There are many capital letters, for instance, that can use Handwriting Without Tears' Frog Jump. You start in the starting corner, draw a line down, then (and you better say it with a fun voice!) FROG JUMP back up to the starting corner to complete your letter. Examples of these would be P, F, E, D, and P. Check out the video below for a cute song that goes with it. Then you could teach the ones that just start at the starting corner but don't need to jump. Examples of those would be H, K, L, and U. After that, you have the center starting capitals like O, Q, G, and S. Yes, it is easier to learn the capital letters before lowercase. When you get to the lowercase letters, there are also little tricks like learning to form all the letters that start with the "magic c" like g,d, and a as well as "tall" letters like d, t, and l. Here's a great little video with a song about the Frog Jump Capitals.
Not sure you can do it all? You are in such luck, because Handwriting Without Tears recently released an APP that does it for you! It's called Wet, Dry, Try after their proven method and order of teaching the capitals and numbers. It looks like this and is available for iPhones, iPads, and Android apps. It's not super exciting, but it has a soothing woman's voice and nice Hawaiian like music in the background. Plus the kids earn stars for practicing.
11. Accentuate the Positive
Finally, I will remind you of what you surely already know. If we were to pick out all the things wrong all at once with our little learners, they would crumble and not feel like doing another darn thing. So pick your battles and choose your focus. If they're getting an awesome story down, maybe this isn't the day to worry about perfect letter formation. Maybe you treat it like "stretching" and do it for five minutes before beginning your writing homework. Another thing my students used to love to do was to circle the best word or letter
they did. They also liked to see if I agreed or had a different favorite. See if you can get yourself to do that, so you're not always just harping on the little things they've not done right. It's also really fun to keep writing samples from past years so that you can show them how much they've grown. They love to look back on that writing and feel so much bigger and older now that they know better.