Handwriting is a complex skill to master. Tutor Helen Gard picks some tools and resources to help kids conquer handwriting and maybe even enjoy the process.
The mechanical skill of handwriting is about more than simply putting marks on paper. Kids will need to have good posture, be anchored with both feet on the floor and have developed strength and dexterity in their fingers.
Then there’s the more technical stuff: eye-hand control, established hand dominance – knowing if they write with their left or right – and visual discrimination: being able to link letter sounds to the shapes that they need to create. All of that is assuming they already have attention and listening skills.
In short, it’s an extremely complex task and one that many young children find challenging. Indeed, pilot research in a Hampshire infant school in 2006 identified that during their first term, over two thirds of reception children were not developmentally ready to write. Yet it is now expected that the average child will be able to write reasonably neatly and legibly by the end of Key Stage 1 and that once they have established a good script, they will be able to write imaginatively and creatively.
Throughout 40 years of teaching I have worked with a variety of children with handwriting problems and for differing reasons.
My own grandson struggled to progress with literacy during Year 1. He told me he was slower than his classmates. In actual fact, he struggled with letter formation and accuracy, which bothered him so much it affected his fluency and creative writing. Once he had been shown the correct methods, his handwriting improved along with his self-esteem. Now in Year 2, he perceives himself to be a good writer and will happily take himself off to write a story.
My granddaughter on the other hand was taught print writing (single letters) at one school but transferred to a new school that teaches cursive handwriting from the foundation stage. This has slowed her down…
It’s a minefield, but since all children learn differently, you will get the best success from a multi-sensory approach. Bombard their senses with the shape and formation of letters in a multi-sensory way so that it will sink in, one way or another.
Here are some tools, games and resources to help you support your child.
1. Ask The School For Their Style
The general consensus now is that cursive writing from the outset is simpler as it doesn’t require children to relearn letter formation. If your child’s school is teaching cursive writing, you can look at examples at www.cursivewriting.org but it’s essential to speak to the teachers and ask for a copy of the school’s particular style of cursive writing first. They should be able to give you a copy of the policy and a photocopy of the alphabet as they teach it.
2. Set Them Up For Success
It is important that the child is sitting correctly. The table and chair should be at the right height for your child to enable their knees to be at right angles and feet flat on the floor. The chair should be tucked in and the child should be able to support his forearm on the table. It is also important to have the paper angled to suit the laterality of the child. If your child is right handed then encourage them to angle the paper to the left (to the right if left handed).
3. Get In Some Exercise
Some fundamental exercises will enable children to get a motor sense of the shape of the letters: that can mean writing a letter in the air with their index finger acting as the pen making letters with plastecine, or using a paintbrush and water to free form huge letters on your back patio to help them get a sense of the letter shape. There are some easy and quick exercises here: www.teachhandwriting.co.uk
4. Get A Grip
Some children will need a pencil grip to enable them to adopt the best grasp. We like these grips. Soft pencils require less pressure and might be easier for some – there’s nothing like giving a child a rally feint pencil to get them pressing too hard. Cushioned and ergonomically shaped pens are good once writing is established during Key Stage 2 but I don’t advise using biro before they can write in pencil.
Winchester and Eastleigh NHS Paediatric Occupational Therapy suggest a little rhyme which you can teach them to help remind them how to hold their pencil:
On my pencil, can you see?
Thumb and fingers One, two, three
Hold your pencil just like me.
Thumb and fingers one, two, three.
Once a child consistently holds their pencil correctly, check that they are able to see what they are writing. If the grip is too low down on the pencil their view will be obscured. If it’s too high then they will have less control. Experiment with what is right for them and helps them to feel comfortable. Practise for a short period everyday and always reinforce good grip and formation with lashings of praise.
5. Say It Aloud
It helps to say the formation of each letter out loud as they write. e.g for a cursive lower case ‘a’ you might say, ‘start on the line with your approach stroke, go up and over, back and round to the top, down and… flick’. You would need to model this several times first so that they can see what you mean. There are YouTube videos you can watch to help left handers, in particular this video by TheSchoolRun with experts from the National Handwriting Association is helpful. Encourage children to say it out loud once they start to write the letter themselves. In this way they are speaking, feeling, seeing and hearing all at the same time, which helps to form a pattern in the brain until it eventually becomes automatic.
6. Let Them Be The Judge
Ask your child to self assess their handwriting and give themselves marks out of ten for legibility and neatness. Show them work they did when they first started writing so that they can see their own progress. This is very motivating and establishes a ‘can do’ approach, enhancing self-esteem.
7. Make It Fun
A game I played with my own children and now my grandchildren is drawing a letter on their backs. They have to guess the letter. This can be enhanced by having a set of letters in front of them to chose from and then you involve the visual element as well as the tactile. You could put some wooden letters (pictured above) in a feely bag and play ‘guess the letter’ which will encourage a physical sense of the letter formation. Or try tactile letters for them to trace over with their index finger.
8. Re-Program Bad Habits
For older children who have maybe acquired bad habits there are published programmes which might help. Write From The Start Books 1 and 2 are great. You don’t have to start with book 1 and work through though I do think it helps.Helen Gard is a writer and former special educational needs coordinator in a Hampshire primary school. Now retired, she tutors privately.