What happened to tracing perfect capital Ps and Q s? With kids learning to type as they learn to write, less class time is devoted to penmanship.
Even though first graders now e-mail Grandma instead of sending a letter, as an occupational therapist I've seen how essential it is to tackle handwriting problems early on. Why? Handwriting is a key developmental skill that incorporates fine motor skills, visual perception, sensory integration, gross motor-trunk stability, and self-esteem.
It is the primary production that a child makes, both in school and out-true long before your students face the now-mandatory handwritten essay on the SAT.
Because handwriting is supposed to be “automatic,” we often ignore difficulties by assuming that students will “figure it out” over time. In truth, handwriting problems need attention as early as possible. Here are some of the most common hang-ups children face, and what you can do to help. If problems persist, the next step may be to seek the support of an occupational therapist.
Handwriting Hang-Up #1: Alignment and line awareness
Ross is a delightful writer, but you have trouble reading his work since his letters sometimes float above the line and other times fall below it.
What you can do: Highlight the bottom line in blue so that it is thicker and distinct from the others. If the child is also having trouble with capitals and lower-case alignment, you can highlight the top line in green and add a yellow line in the middle for the lower-case letters. Instead of reminding students to “touch the top line” (which requires knowing where the “top” is-just another confusing element for some kids), you can now say, “touch the green, bump the blue.”
Handwriting Hang-Up #2: Size of letters
No matter the size of the lines on the paper you give her, Claribel writes giant, three-inch letters. Often she has trouble fitting five or six words on a page! Diego, in contrast, writes so tiny and cramped you can barely make out that there are words on his page.
What you can do: Avoid the traditional handwriting papers that have dark lines, dotted lines, and spaces. Often this is just too much for a child to visually “get.” Instead, try simpler paper without the dotted line, available from companies like Handwriting Without Tears (www.hwtears.com). Surprisingly, fewer lines often help kids size up their work.
Handwriting Hang-Up #3: Case consistency
Ella writes in all capitals. David never capitalizes anything at all. Marvin mixes it up-occasionally using capital letters but usually not in the right place.
What you can do: Practice, practice, practice. Start with learning about capitalizing proper names-such as all the children's names. Using a flannel or magnetic board, put all the children's names in lower case and have children take turns “fixing” a name (not their own). Move onto the name of the school, the names of the teachers, and family names.
Handwriting Hang-Up #4: Poor pencil grasp
Max holds his pencil so lightly that his writing is almost illegible. He often drops his pencil four or five times per lesson!
What you can do: This may be a more serious issue, and a good time to speak with an occupational therapist. However, for new writers, playing with spinning tops, pulling apart clay, bouncing a small rubber ball on a piece of colored paper with the dominant hand while holding the paper with the non-dominant hand, and playing jacks and pick-up sticks are excellent activities for promoting better grasp and “in-hand fluency” (how an occupational therapist describes the ease and speed of a child's handwriting). Try playing these games in a circle and all of your students will benefit, not just those struggling with grasp.
Handwriting Hang-Up #5: Reversals
Almost all of your kindergarteners occasionally fall victim to Es that look like 3s and Ss that look like 2s.
What you can do: Persistent letter reversals in first and second grade may be a sign of dyslexia, and again an occupational therapist can help you and the child's family with this diagnosis. But it's normal for five- and six-year-olds to occasionally reverse their letters. Put them on the right track by playing games like Candyland, which require them to move the pieces in a specific direction. You can also let them form letters from wax Wikki Sticks, then place them under a paper overlay for them to “feel” the direction the letter faces.
Handwriting Hang-Up #6: Pressure/Speed of production
Madison bears down so hard on her desk when writing that she frequently breaks her pencil tip and has to re-sharpen it. It also takes her twice as long to write the same sentences as her peers.
What you can do: Often children who press too hard write very slowly, and asking them to “go faster” is futile. They are going as fast as they can. Help hard-pressers lighten up and increase their speed by tracing letters on foam with markers. If they press too hard the marker will get stuck. On the other end of the spectrum, if you have a child who isn't pressing hard enough, have her practice writing on tracing paper so that if she doesn't increase her pressure, it won't come through to the other side.
Handwriting Hang-Up #7: Spacing
Kevin has an unofficial case of the “Big Bird Syndrome”: When he writes it looks like one huge unending word (just like how our friend Big Bird always tries to read the alphabet as one word).
What you can do: The problem is not so much spacing as it is the fact that the child may not be seeing the words as discrete units. Often we ask students to put a finger between words, but this can be awkward and it does not promote good writing posture (holding the paper with one hand and writing with the other). Instead, use games that emphasize words as distinct units. For example, make train-car cut-outs and have kids write sentences by putting one word in each car.
All handwriting activities should take place in a game-like atmosphere and not be treated like an assignment. Encourage parents to “play” with their children, too, while reminding them not to become anxious. Students pick up on our emotions, and if handwriting is made to seem like fun, it becomes easier to engage their interest and make them better hand-writers in the process.