At Mountain View Preschool in Boulder, young students build with wooden shapes, play with dough, and sing together. These might sound like typical preschool activities, but they actually build a foundation for good handwriting. Occupational therapist Erin Trendler leads Mountain View’s kids through these and many other prewriting activities, based on the curriculum, Handwriting Without Tears. The wooden shapes fit together to form letters; the kneading of dough strengthens fine motor skills needed for writing; the songs include lyrics on how letters are formed.
“When my kids started elementary school, I noticed how little handwriting instruction was happening and how (not writing well) was slowing kids down,” Trendler says. “Teachers just don’t have enough time.” She says that many students are referred to her for occupational therapy (OT) in second and third grade, as the writing expectation in school increases. Trendler hopes that if she can give more preschoolers a strong handwriting foundation, they”ll struggle less in school.
In a time where kids grow up using keyboards, some professionals are de-emphasizing the importance of learning to hand-write well. Many others, though, see its benefits, as well as the problems that poor handwriting can cause.
What Handwriting Can Do
“Perhaps the biggest effect that having poor handwriting has on a child is a lack of self-confidence because of embarrassment about their handwriting,” says Jennifer Raskay, a handwriting tutor in Broomfield and former elementary school teacher. “Many students have told me that they are made fun of by their peers or that their teachers don’t realize they are as smart as they are, because of the messy work they turn in,”
According to the New York Times article, “Why Handwriting is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age” by Dr. Perri Klass, there is a growing body of research on what the normally developing brain learns by forming letters. Research studies cited in the article suggest that writing can help children pay attention, retain information better, increase academic achievement and activate portions of their brains that keyboarding cannot. “It’s not just about writing, but about our brain development,” says Sarah Prowak, occupational therapist at Amaryllis Therapy Network in Denver. “There are so many things we do in life that working on handwriting can enhance.”
Deciphering Poor Handwriting
Just as there are many benefits to functional handwriting, there are many reasons why your child might be struggling.
“Until you talk to someone that works on handwriting development, (people) don’t know how really complex the skill of writing is,” says Karen Jones, an occupational therapist at Children’s Hospital Colorado Therapy Care in Broomfield.
Lisa Ankeny, a learning specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, advises parents who have a concern about handwriting to bring it up with their pediatrician first before going online and researching. “A developmental pediatrician can help you break it down a little bit more and refer you (to a specialist). Make sure you see someone who is following evidence-based principles,” she says.
When assessing students, Jones and other OTs consider how the whole body might affect handwriting: How do they grasp writing tools? Can they copy block designs? Do they have good posture? She looks to see if they struggle with self-regulation—meaning that a child may need to walk around, sit on an exercise ball or have some kind of movement—in order to stay focused enough to write.
When Jones” tests are complete, she”ll put together a therapy plan to help the individual student, but sometimes, she senses there is another issue. That’s when she”ll refer families to a learning specialist.
Learning Disabilities and Handwriting
If it’s determined that a child has a learning disability, such as dyslexia, autism or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), these can cause handwriting struggles, too. In these cases, parents might hear the term dysgraphia, known as a difficulty forming letters, words and/or organizing thoughts on paper. Dysgraphia is always diagnosed in conjunction with another learning disability and never on its own, says Ankeny.
“Dyslexia is a big one (to which dysgraphia is paired), because there is a problem with matching the sound to the letter,” Ankeny explains. “For example, we know the letter P says ‘puh” but this may not be automatic for dyslexic (people), so they also struggle in knowing what letter to put on paper.”
A learning specialist like Ankeny, who works in the Audiology, Speech Pathology and Learning Services department, can assess children to help determine if writing difficulties stem from one of these conditions or other learning disabilities. “Messy handwriting is not enough to have a diagnosis,” Ankeny says, noting that some kids do just have messier handwriting. “We consider if students are struggling in other ways.”
Learning specialists will offer different recommendations for individual students to be successful in school, such as keyboarding, spell check, grammar check, or text-to-speech apps to help students get their thoughts out.
“It’s really the parents” call, but if your child is in tears over writing every night, you might consider it,” Ankeny says. If making accommodations, it’s important that students still follow the expected writing conventions, like full sentences, capitalization, and punctuation. You should also make sure they are not held back from recess, lunch, or other activities because writing takes them longer.
“Having a learning disability is hard work,” Ankeny says. “Explain to them that some things are harder for certain people and that’s OK. We work around it.”
The Case For Cursive
Common Core standards used in Colorado public schools don’t require instruction on cursive writing, and as a result, some schools are de-emphasizing it, or dropping it altogether. While doing so makes more time for other subjects, many Colorado elementary schools continue to make time for it anyway. “Printing and cursive writing (engage) two different parts of the brain,” says Trendler, “and reversals (writing backward) are less common when writing in cursive.”
Kids who don’t love printing often have a much easier (and more fun) experience with cursive, Trendler says. In her OT practice, she’s found cursive to be easier for some students with learning disabilities.
“There’s not as much starting and stopping—they are using their body. It’s more fluid, more kinesthetic.”
Handwriting Exercises to Try
Occupational therapist Erin Trendler says that age four is the prime time to start with simple fine motor exercises that can improve handwriting later. While these exercises for preschool and elementary age kids can’t guarantee success, experts attest that they”re a good place to start.
- Squeeze water bottles.
- Paint or draw on a vertical surface. “This uses the whole arm and takes away the stress,” says occupational therapist Sarah Prowak.
- Pick up small objects with tweezers.
- Knead dough. “Play with it over and over. Roll it out, and understand the perceptual pieces. Can they make a ball? A square? Start to see how shapes turn into something by playing and exploring,” says occupational therapist Karen Jones.
- Build with Legos.
- Discuss the concept of top, middle, and bottom in the environment. “Point out the top, middle, and bottom of letters as well. Talk about how we start letters at the top; never at the bottom,” says handwriting tutor Jennifer Raskay.
- Lace a string through holes.
- Teach children to write in all capital letters first. “Capital letters are easier for a young child to learn because they are all the same size, they are made with very basic terms (big line, little line, big curve, little curve),” says Raskay. “Avoid having your child simply trace something because their sequence could be completely incorrect, which leads to bad habits that will need to be corrected later.”
- Crumple paper, then rip it and make
- smaller balls.
- Solve pencil and paper mazes and complete dot-to-dot drawings. “Some of our fine motor tests use these, so we can see if kids can visually track where they are going,” says Jones.
- Peel and place stickers.
- Prep or mix food, then research a recipe, and write it down. “We try to do things that motivate the kids when they are (at the clinic), that parents could also do at home,” says Prowak.
- Pinch clothespins.
- Do brain breaks. “Do five minutes of an obstacle course, then five minutes writing, then chew some gum, then write,” says Jones.
- Check out Handwriting Without Tears (hwtears.com) for helpful ideas, materials, and YouTube videos.