10 Must-Know Tips for Teaching Handwriting
A few years ago, we met with our kindergarten teachers. We were reviewing their students' written work, and the teachers voiced their frustration that their students' handwriting was so messy. We strongly suggested that our teachers add quick handwriting sessions to their daily lesson plans. They looked at us with exasperation, and said, “What? You want us to add one more session to our already jam-packed day?” We challenged them to try it for one month and suggested that they could incorporate handwriting sessions into one of three (3) periods: whole group before they were sending the kids off for centers or writer’s workshop; teacher-led center rotations; or small writing groups similar to those for guided reading.
Note: We learned that the most effective way to incorporate guided handwriting and small group writing was to do it first thing in the morning. Our VPK (4 year old) students would typically come in and do seat work before going out to explore our free centers. When we saw a group of students that were either on the same level in writing or needed practice in the same area, we would pull them together and bring them to our guided reading table. We would immediately give them handwriting paper, and they would participate in a quick 5-10 minute handwriting practice. After we were done with handwriting, we would move into our small group writing session. The sequence worked. Incorporating handwriting into our morning routine allowed us to meet with each child (2-3 times per week) to help them practice their handwriting. It was integral that this became a consistent practice to reinforce the importance of handwriting skills
A few weeks later, we attended a small performance in the VPK (4 year old) class. As the kids wrapped up their performance, and were mingling with their fellow students and parents; the teachers sheepishly said, “You were right.” The consistent handwriting practice had greatly improved their students' handwriting skills. Teaching students how to be good writers was much easier when our teachers could actually read their handwriting!
Disclosure: Handwriting practice is not fun. And that may be why tackling handwriting practice first thing in the morning works best. It's a little like my taking a shot of Apple Cider Vinegar and Wheatgrass as soon as I wake up. I know how important it is, and I know it has great payoffs for my health, but it is literally, (as I tell my family) "...the worst 30 seconds of my day." But the rewards are immeasurable, and I feel great! Think of your quick handwriting lesson as a shot of Wheatgrass every morning. The more consistent you are; the greater the rewards you reap.
As you probably know, handwriting instruction is a topic that is debated in early childhood education. However, we are big advocates for helping children develop their handwriting skills. As with all early literacy skills, we believe that developmentally appropriate exposure allows children to explore handwriting in a non-threatening and rewarding way. Children need to be encouraged to view themselves as writers at a young age. To learn more about the importance of writing with preschoolers, visit our blog _____________.
So, why do we teach handwriting skills?
We teach sight words, because 80% of the words in Kindergarten and first grade-level books are sight words. Mastery of sight words helps to save their mental efforts on decoding.
And why do we teach decoding? We teach children letters and letters sounds at an early age. We do this so when they get to decoding, they are able to recall those letter sounds; put the sounds together quickly; and say the word. When children are able to decode rapidly, they have greater reading fluency.
Sight words + decoding = reading comprehension:
- We teach children the proper way to hold their pencil as soon as they can hold a crayon. If children have proper pencil grip, they are putting equal pressure on all the fingers (thumb, pointer finger and index finger). This forces the child to use their fine-motor strength and not their gross motor (shoulder, arm, hand). By using their gross motor strength, the child becomes easily fatigued. By developing their fine- motor strength, children are not pushing down so hard on the pencil, which creates fatigue.
- We teach children letters and letter sounds early so they can recall them. When they sound out a word in their writing, they are able to recall the sounds and connect a mental image of the letter quickly so they can begin to write.
- We teach a child correct letter formation in a short daily practice so the child can fluidly write the letters that make up a word and save their mental efforts for the most important aspect of writing: the content.
Children should read fluently and write fluently:
As we teach sight words and decoding (to name a few) to help children read fluently, we teach handwriting to help a child write fluently. Instead of focusing on letters and formation, they are able to put their mental effort into creativity and content.
Ten (10) Handwriting Tips:
- Pencil Grip - Make sure you are teaching students a 3-finger pencil grip. Again, this helps children put equal weight on all three (3) fingers; helps develop their fine-motor skills; and eliminates the use of gross motor strength which can cause them to fatigue quickly.
- Pencils – I like to use golf pencils. I recently found a new type of pencil at a convention: Write Size. These pencils include age-appropriate lengths for ages 2-12, and the lead seems a little darker to help eliminate the hard push that comes naturally for some children. They come with a special pencil sharpener, so that helps too. I also suggest breaking your crayons. And while no one wants to break apart a box of beautiful new crayons, a nub of a crayon will force a child to use a 3-finger grip.
- Get rid of erasers - We have all had that child or student: the one who writes; then erases; then writes again; and then erases again. If we allow children to know that it is okay to make mistakes, and we cross out and move on; we are showing them that mistakes are part of learning. Also, it frees up that little perfectionist inside of us. Not only is erasing time consuming, but you want students to be able to see any errors they are making. This is part of the visual learning which helps to guide them in the right direction.
- Focus on accuracy not legibility or size - It is very common for children to start scribbling and drawing using their gross motor. It takes time to develop fine motor strength. So when a child is starting to write letters, it is okay if they take up the whole paper, or if the humps are different sizes on an /m/. We are more concerned that they are forming their letters – not so much the look and size of it. As a child continues to practice handwriting, they will gain fine-motor strength; get more familiar with the way each letter is made; and will start to automatically write smaller.
- Keep similar letters together - Below is the sequence in which we teach letters. We focus on the same set of letters for as long as we think the child needs. The goal is for the child to notice similarities in the way the letters are created, hence making the fluency of these letters better.
- Keep lessons short - 5-10 minutes daily.
- Only practice each letter once or twice - If you practice twice, encourage your child to circle their best try. They like to see their accomplishments, and it makes them more aware of their writing. Remember: don't let them erase, if it isn't their best... just try again!
- Be consistent with your verbal cues and movements. - The verbal cues and movements we use at The Reading Corner are a compilation of a few programs we have evaluated. But they are not the only ways. If you find verbal cues that work better for you and your child, that is fine. The important thing is to stay consistent.
- Give your child ample supplies - Make sure you have plenty of paper and pencils on hand. Don't let handwriting be interrupted by dull or broken pencils or ripped paper. If this happens, grab another one and go. Keep up the momentum.
- Do not focus on handwriting during writing instruction - I always tell my teachers to remind themselves before a lesson what their objective is. With handwriting, our objective is to form our letters the correct way and to create handwriting fluency. With writing, our objective is to encourage the children to take risks at sounding out words; to write familiar words from around the room; and to get their thoughts down on paper. If we correct every letter they make, they are going to get frustrated; shut down; or simply write as little as possible.
Note: once you have practiced handwriting for a few days/weeks, you can give quick redirections. For example, if I know a child is going to write the word /cat/ I might say, “Remember to start at 2 o’clock.”