The Three Stages to Learning Handwriting

There are three distinct stages for children to progress through to develop a good handwriting style:

Stage 1 – Pre-handwriting Patterns

Pre-handwriting patterns support a child towards handwriting success. They help the them to learn the shapes and directional pushes and pulls required to form letters. All letters are a combination of these shapes and lines.

Stage 2 – Single Letter Formation

For children to develop a good handwriting style it is important to learn how to form the letters correctly.

Beginning with lower-case letters and only the capital letters for the first letter in a child’s name, examples: Peter Rabbit, Sally Green, George Blue or Mary Shell.

Learning the correct lower-case letter formation also makes the transition from single letter formation to joined letter handwriting much easier.

Stage 3 – Joined Handwriting

Learning to join letters for handwriting enables children to develop a speedy, fluid and legible handwriting style.

The Importance of Using Letter Names for Developing Handwriting, Phonics and Reading Skills

Here at Teach Children we have always promoted the importance and power of teaching the correct letter names to begin with; through our Teach Handwriting website, Schemes and Teach Phonics website. Unfortunately, some schools, teacher and parents still seem to be concerned that this is not consistent with the teaching of phonics, which is just not correct.

A myth which became popular, in the early years of introducing synthetic phonics into schools, is that children should not be taught the alphabet letter names as they find it too confusing. However, in recent years this has started to change as phonics schemes have adjusted some of their approaches to teaching phonics to include the use of letter names.

Learning the unique letter names of the alphabet is a pre-phonics skill; as well as an early learning goal. It has to be remembered that a letter is a shape which only represents a sound when it is placed within a word or sentence (has a context). Also, a letter or combination of letters can represent more than one sound and so the only unique way of identifying alphabet letters when we talk about them is to use their names.

It is important to remember that just because a child can correctly recite the ‘Alphabet’ song it does not mean they know the letters of the alphabet. It is surprising how many children can do this but when shown letters from the alphabet cannot name them at all. They may be able to tell you the sound the letter makes but have no idea of the letters name.

Learning the correct letter names helps to reinforce that when talking about the letter ‘a’ (ay) for example it has a set shape regardless of the sound that it will be representing in the word. This further supports children’s handwriting development as the communication of your requirements is unambiguous.

Teaching the correct letter names is important when supporting handwriting as this can in turn affect a child’s phonics understanding later on. For example, it can seem very easy when explaining to a child which letter to write when they ask which one is making a ‘kuh’ sound in a word such as cat to say a ‘curly kuh’. There is no such letter in the alphabet called ‘curly kuh’ it is the letter ‘c’ (cee). By adding the ‘kuh’ sound to the letter it reinforces incorrect phonics knowledge. The letter ‘c’ does not make a ‘kuh’ sound in words such as: city, circle, cycle and centre.

Some children will then only ever refer to the letter ‘c’ as ‘curly kuh’ and the letter ‘k’ as’ kicking kuh’. As I say these are not letter names of the alphabet and also devalue the power of phonics at the same time.

How can the education establishment get hot under the collar about not using the correct terminology in the teaching of English in schools such as: phonemes, graphemes, digraphs, modal verbs etc… yet still refer to the letter’s ‘c’ and ‘k’ as ‘curly or kicking kuh’!

Phonics is a powerful decoding and encoding tool. However, so is the alphabet letter naming system. Both need to working side by side to support our children, especially in those early years of their educational journey.

The English phonic system is very complex but this is why our language is so rich. Young children need to use letter names as an additional tool, as it takes many years for them to be introduced to the more complex phonics coding system.

Alphabet Name animation (scroll to the bottom of the page): https://www.teachphonics.co.uk/phonics-graphemes.html

Drawing – a Pre-skill for Handwriting

Drawing pictures is a great way to help your child develop their pre-handwriting strokes and shape forming skills. It is amazing how, by using these simple shapes, you and your child can create fantastic picture.

Try using basic shapes such as circles, rectangles and triangles to begin with and then add some swirls, curves and spiral to give extra detail.

Handwriting Really Starts with Play

Learning to handwrite does not start with pen and paper but through play, as children explore shape and motion (how the body moves) through their senses – touch, sight and body awareness. Play is such an important element of your child’s physical, emotional, social and academic development.

Young children learn many of the directional pushes, pulls and changes in direction, required for handwriting, on a much larger scale, long before they pick up a pencil, through playing with cars or pretending to cook. These movements become the drawings/scribbles which young children form once they start mark-making, initially as big uncontrolled movements then becoming more controlled and smaller as their gross and fine motor skills develop.

It is through play that you can really engage your child in learning how to correctly form pre-handwriting patterns and letters (the start points, orientation, directional movements and finish points).

Our non-pencil – ‘Big to Small’ activities are an easy fun way to start developing these skills early on through play: https://teachhandwriting.co.uk/big-to-small.html   

Young children love seeing their name so it is a great way to introduce letter formation; here are some other fun ideas:

  • This activity can be done indoors on large sheets of paper or using chalk on a path or patio (the beach is also a great place to do this). Write your child’s name very big and make a mark on each letter that represents a start point (an arrow showing the direction of travel can also help). Remember to use a capital letter for the first letter of their name and we would suggest lower case letters for the remaining letters. Use the letters as a track for racing cars or toys. If you make the letters big enough your child could walk, hop, jump or skip around the letters. To help them remember the letters, once they have finished a letter, encourage them to say that letter‘s alphabet name (NOT a sound the letter can make).
  • Collect stones, twigs, leaves, etc…  Use them to make the letters of your child’s name. They may only make one or two of the letters, before making a hedgehog house, nest or den for their toys becomes more interesting, but this does not matter, it is all part of the adventure.
  • Feely bag games are a fun way to explore shape and form. Try placing the letters of your child’s name into a bag or box they cannot see into. It is useful to talk through the letter shapes beforehand so they can see them as they move them about in their hands; then place them in the bag. Ask them to put their hands in (both hands, if possible, but if not, then use the dominant hand) the bag, picks up a letter, feels it, identifies it and pulls it out to check only AFTER identifying it. If correct, they get to “keep” it, if wrong, you get to “keep” it. The winner is the one with the most letters at the end. For some children it can help to have another set of the letters outside the bag to help them identify the shape they are handling in the bag. Again, encourage them to use the alphabet name of the letter.
  • Play-dough, clay and Plasticine activities are great for developing hand strength for handwriting and learning how to form letter shapes.

Your child will love these sort of activities as they see it as just playing and they get your undivided attention. You will enjoy it as you are sharing quality time with your child helping them to develop more than just their letter formation ability but also their communication and social skills. Learning through play is a powerful way of supporting your child’s development. So have fun and play!

Are you Supporting Handwriting or Phonics?

Supporting your child at home can be a big challenge for so many reasons.

So here is a tip that might just help a little.

When confronted with homework from school think about what it is that they are asking your child to do.

For instance, if it is teaching something about phonics then that is all you and your child should be focused on. Yes, you may have been told that your child needs to work on their handwriting but this is not the time to do that. This is pure phonics time.

When supporting your child with their phonics work they will have to write letters and words. The important thing is for your child to have a go at writing the letters correctly, especially those they have been taught or are learning to how to form.

Remember they may not have been taught how to form the letters correctly yet. So, ask them to just have a go. Now is not the time to teach them handwriting; it is the phonics skill you are supporting. This way your child will not get confused or frustrated with the sudden changes in focus. The phonics homework will then be more appropriately focused, quicker and successful.

If your child has been asked to do handwriting homework then that is all that you and your child should focus on – learning to form their letters correctly or how to join them. Learning phonics skills or spelling is not the important element of the homework. The only thing that should be commented on and discussed is the handwriting.

It is important to remember that handwriting and learning the phonics system of a language are two very different skill sets. They should be taught separately, as trying to combine the two can cause your child to become confused and frustrated.  

Correctly Naming the Letters of the Alphabet

Learning the unique letter names of the alphabet is a pre-phonics skill; as well as an early learning goal. It has to be remembered that a letter is a shape which only represents a sound when it is placed within a word or sentence (has a context). Also, a letter or combination of letters can represent more than one sound and so the only unique way of identifying alphabet letters when we talk about them is to use their names.

Learning the correct letter names helps to reinforce that when talking about the letter ‘a’ (ay) for example it has a set shape regardless of the sound that it will be representing in the word. This further supports children’s handwriting development as the communication of your requirements is unambiguous.

One of the first things we like a child to be able to write correctly is their name, however most names are impossible to spell using the simple phonics code taught to young children. A name does not have to be long in length to be phonetically difficult to spell such as Christopher or Charlotte. Shorter names such as Lucy or Liam also cause a problem. 

The only logical answer is to use the letter names (an alphabet coding system) alongside the simple phonics system introduced to young children. 

Jim Rose in his report back in 2006 ‘The Independent review of the teaching of early reading, final report’ highlighted the fact that:

“… research indicates that children often learn letter names earlier than they learn letter sounds and that five year olds who know more letter names also know more letter sounds. The reasons for this are not fully understood by researchers’.”

It is important to remember that just because a child can correctly recite the ‘Alphabet’ song it does not mean they know the letters of the alphabet. It is surprising how many children can do this but when shown letters from the alphabet cannot name them at all. They may be able to tell you the sound the letter makes but have no idea of the letters name.

Teaching the correct letter names is important when supporting handwriting as this can in turn affect a child’s phonics understanding later on. For example, it can seem very easy when explaining to a child which letter to write when they ask which one is making a ‘kuh’ sound in a word such as cat to say a ‘curly kuh’. There is no such letter in the alphabet called ‘curly kuh’ it is the letter ‘c’ (cee). By adding the ‘kuh’ sound to the letter it reinforces incorrect phonics knowledge. The letter ‘c’ does not make a ‘kuh’ sound in words such as: city, circle, cycle and centre.

Some children will then only ever refer to the letter ‘c’ as ‘curly kuh’ and the letter ‘k’ as’ kicking kuh’. As I say these are not letter names of the alphabet and also devalue the power of phonics at the same time.

How can the education establishment get hot under the collar about not using the correct terminology in the teaching of English in schools such as: phonemes, graphemes, digraphs, modal verbs etc… yet still refer to the letter’s ‘c’ and ‘k’ as ‘curly or kicking kuh’!

To use, or not to use, a pencil grip aids? That is the question.

Aids to support good pencil grip can be very useful for some pupils. However, one of the issues with their use is that, when a pupil has not got the pencil grips to hand, they revert back to the original poor grip position.

Pencil grip aids generally do not correct the grip, they just force the hand and fingers into the correct position for writing. To correct the grip permanently the physical factors that have created the incorrect grip need to be addressed.

The use of grips can encourage a pupil to write more fluently, building their self-esteem, whilst you work on correcting the factors that have caused a poor grip to form. The long-term aim must always be to get the pupil to grip the pencil correctly without the use of aids.

Hand Dominance!

Hand dominance is where one hand has more influence or control than the other. This is sometimes referred to as hand preference, where one hand is preferred or chosen over the other, as it is more reliable in performing a range of skilled activities (handedness).

Children tend to develop hand dominance between the ages of 3-5 years old, for some it may be slightly later and for a few it does not become a subconscious decision until they are 8 or 9 years old. Many children will naturally develop a clear right or left-hand dominance which is greatly influenced by their genetics.

Some can develop a mixed dominance; this is where a child finds they have more control and greater skills for handwriting with say the left hand but prefer and display more precise skills with the right hand in tasks such as using scissors. Studies have shown handedness can be based on the type of muscles used in controlling gross and fine motor skills for completing particular tasks. The control of various muscle types is located in different hemispheres of the brain. Those relating to dexterity (fine motor skills), required for writing, are strongly related to hand dominance, whereas the larger muscle groups (gross motor skills), involving strength, rely less on hand dominance.

Whether a child is right or left-handed does not affect their academic ability or progress, if they have developed and been taught the appropriate key skills. The important thing is not to force particular hand dominance on a child. It will never feel natural for them and the acquisition of gross and fine motor skills will feel awkward and may well appear clumsy, delaying their development, skills ability, confidence and self-esteem.

Only about 1% of the population are truly ambidextrous, which means they are able to perform tasks using either hand with equal skill and proficiency; a rare trait indeed.

Handwriting is a Physical Activity

Handwriting with fluidity, speed, accuracy and over longer periods of time requires a complex range of whole body and hand strengths and skills. So it is not surprising that many children find handwriting challenging.

For a good handwriting style children need to develop their:

  • Gross Motor Skills – so they can sit correctly for periods of time.
  • Fine Motor Skills – so that they can hold and control the pencil and move the paper up the table as they write.
  • Motor Memory Skills – so they can recall how to form the letters.
  • Visual Memory Skills – so they recall what a particular letter looks like.
  • Spatial Awareness Skills– so they can place the letters correctly on the paper and in relation to one another.
  • Eye Tracking Skills– scanning from left to right so that the letters are formed and placed correctly.

If a child is struggling with handwriting it is important to take a closer look at their physical abilities. If they do not have all the appropriate key physical strengths to support their handwriting development getting them to do more of the paper and pencil activities is not the answer.

Our assessments are simple to complete and do not need any specialist equipment. The important elements are; your knowledge of the child and your observations of them at play and while they are engaged in normal day to day task.

For information on how to assess your child at home follow this link: https://teachhandwriting.co.uk/parent-assessment.html    

For information on how to assess at child at school follow this link: https://teachhandwriting.co.uk/teacher-assessment.html

A better understanding of a child’s key skills abilities enables you to focus more effectively, through targeted physical games and activities, to help them build and develop their skills.

You will find ‘Games to build gross and fine motor skills’ here: https://teachhandwriting.co.uk/games.html

Handwriting is such an important skill as it engages the neurological pathways and working memory in a way that pressing a keyboard just doesn’t; so once mastered it helps to open up the doorways to other literacy skills such as phonics, reading, spelling and composition.

Different Types of Play and their Importance

We are always being shown how important play is in the development of young animals’ survival and hunting skills. How many times have you thought how cute or lovely when watching kittens, puppies or polar bears playing?

Humans are also animals which thrive and develop through play; in fact, play is so important the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights state it as a right for every child (Ginsburg, 2013).

We often think of play as a frivolous pastime rather than a practical and meaningful one. However, here at Teach Children we see play as a vital part of a child’s physical, emotional, social and intellectual growth and well-being.

There has been considerable research over the years on play, which supports our point of view, with the consensus being that children need to experience five different types of play (Dr.D Whitebread, 2012). These five types of play are roughly based on the developmental opportunities they provide, especially if it is child driven rather than adult lead:

Physical Play – active exercise (running, jumping, skipping etc..), rough & tumble and fine motor skills activities to develop whole body and hand and eye co-ordination strength and endurance. The outdoor element of such play develops independence, resourcefulness and self-regulation while the fine motor skills activities support the development of concentration and perseverance.

Play with Objects – starts as soon as a child can grasp and hold an object; mouthing, biting, turning, stroking, hitting and dropping. It’s how we all learn through the exploration of our senses (sensory-motor play). This type of play develops our abilities to; physically manipulate items, think, reason and problem solve, to set challenges and goals as well as to monitor our own progress.

Symbolic Play – refers to the development of spoken language, visual symbols such as letters and numbers, music, painting, drawing and other media used for communication of thought and ideas. This type of play allows children to develop the abilities to express and reflect on experiences, ideas and emotions. Sound and language play develops phonological awareness required for literacy, while number play that relates to real life situations supports numeracy skills.

Pretence/socio-dramatic Play – Pretend play provides the opportunity to develop cognitive, social, self-regulatory and academic skills. This kind of play means children have to learn and pick up on unspoken rules of interaction, taking on the role of a character and playing within the expected confines of that role.

Games with Rules – physical games such as chase, hide & seek, sport, board and computer games. Develop social skills and the emotional skills of taking turns, winning and losing as well as other people’s perspectives.

                                                             So, to play is to learn!

Bibliography

Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, 25/07/2013; ‘The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds’: THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182.full

Dr.D. Whitebread, April 2012: ‘The Importance of Play’; Commissioned for the Toy Industries of Europe:  http://www.importanceofplay.eu/IMG/pdf/dr_david_whitebread_-_the_importance_of_play.pdf