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Introduce Handwriting, Now or Later?

by Nan J. Barchowsky

When do I begin to teach my son/daughter to write?" This question comes up often. You know your child as no one else does, so with some help from this article you can answer the question.

Wait. Do not be anxious. Wait until the child understands the meaning of writing, why the marks we make on paper mean something to ourselves or someone else. A child may be five before he or she comprehends that an assemblage of letters creates a message. Even with a seemingly late start the child will learn to write with no set back to academic progress. In some countries children are not expected to read and write until age seven. It is the long run, the end result, to which we teach. Unless a child is ready, no jumpstart in any instruction, handwriting included, will matter in later grades.

Writing letters and words at too early a stage in development can have negative effects.

Wait until your child can hold a marker comfortably before teaching letter formation. The tripod hold is considered ideal; the forefinger controls the movement. Call the forefinger the "writing finger." Some small hands may be ready to write but need the third finger on the shaft of the writing tool for support. Tolerate that position for awhile, but gently encourage your child to drop the third finger down underneath the shaft. The writing finger is on top, with the writing tool resting on the thumb and third finger.

Some elements of handwriting need not wait. Young children are keen observers of adults. They see Mom or Dad making a grocery list, or taking notes while talking on the phone. They may not really understand what is going on, but want to mimic. Let them. Give them a pad and let them scribble.

Scribbling can begin at any time. It is playtime for kids. For parents it is an opportunity to guide young hands in the directions that writing lines should move, top-to-bottom and left-to-right, and to help them to hold a writing tool well. Please keep the guidance low- key. Later there will be plenty of time for structured instruction.

Provide paper and colorful, washable markers and crayons. Light or pale colors may not yield a strong enough statement to satisfy the child. Crayons should be soft enough so the child feels no need to press hard. Older crayons often needed a scrubbing motion to get a satisfying mark. Now there are softer crayons available that do not need that extra pressure. There are also short, stubby crayons that are suitable for small, chubby hands. However, it may not be so easy to use the desired, tripod hold, or even the hold that lets the third finger do some of the work. You want to discourage the fist-like, baby hold.

Pressure is critical: Just enough, but never too much. Young children are eager to learn, and anxious to please their parents. Just look at that broad smile when you tell them a job is well done. If a child is not ready to learn how to form letters he or she will tend to hold the writing tool tightly and press hard on the paper. The child is just trying hard, too hard, to please you. Tension is detrimental to handwriting. We must remember that we teach to a goal. If the child’s name is Jim, and he learns to form the three letters for his name, he needs to form the letters with fluent movement, so that ultimately he can easily write Jim or Jane within paragraphs, thinking of the meaning of the whole only, and without concern about letter formation. As an older student or adult writes, a message forms in the mind. From there the message flows freely onto paper. At least that is the ideal, the goal!

In recent years both parents and teachers tend to push academic learning at an earlier and earlier age. Please do not rush handwriting instruction. It should be a delightful revelation to a child to put a message on a sheet of paper that states what the he or she wants to say, then give it to someone to read. It should never be, and need not be a frustrating chore.

Most children like to draw as well as scribble. Both should come before letters. The marker or brush that makes the picture can start each element of the picture on the left side of the paper. If you have a roll of paper, even paper toweling, you can pin it up on a wall to let the child have the advantage of gross motor movement from left-to-right, and preferably top-to-bottom. Remember, this is the way we read. Better to put the paper on a wall than on the floor, because the child’s posture is constricted when sitting or lying on the floor. Constricted posture inhibits the flow of lines that should always be as free and easy as possible.

Gross motor activities are beneficial as well as fun. It is easier to move one’s arm around freely than to move a pencil on a page. With gross motor activities the child is building the habit of free movement that is ultimately needed for legible, speedy handwriting. Here are just a few suggestions:

Pretend to conduct an orchestra. Extend the writing finger and direct the violins to play first (wave the writing finger around from left-to-right). Let the writing finger trace the flight of a bird, or airplane as it moves through the air up high on the left, and then comes down to land on the right. If the child is on a beach or has a sand box, a stick can trace the path of a pretend, wiggly worm. Note that the child will not hold a stick in the same manner as a marker, crayon or pencil.

Activities such as picking up pennies, marbles and other tiny objects to put into jars will strengthen hands and fingers. So too will cutting out shapes, or even helping in the kitchen to make rounds of cookie dough. Activities to strengthen fine motor muscles are important. It is no longer necessary for children to help with many chores around the house. Just gathering kindling and bringing in firewood strengthened hands and fingers. Are we gradually losing the dexterity that we need for handwriting?

Children also need to form good habits of movement that are specific to handwriting. Handwriting is more than a fine motor skill. It is a graphomotor skill, meaning that letter formation must eventually become automatic so that words flow to paper as one thinks. The preparation for learning the letterforms is play, critical play that precedes formal learning. You and your child can think of the introduction to handwriting as play. Enjoy! – N.J.B.