The Move from Pencil to Pen

pens 1

Last week we looked at why pencils, rather than pens, are a good first tool for learning to handwrite.

Children can’t wait however for that magic day when the teacher moves them from pencil to pen. It really is a big moment and means more than just “I can write neatly”, for them it is an acknowledgement of their maturity (growing up) and a status symbol of intellect and ability in their eyes and those of their peers.

Moving from pencil to pen can have a dramatic effect on a child’s confidence and self-esteem.  I have seen how moving a child from pencil to pen can give them a new found confidence and self-belief in their own ability, because I showed my belief in them by making that gesture. They may not have had the perfect font style in pencil but moving to pen did improve their ability to form letters more freely and become more consistent in their formation.

It is difficult to put an age on when a child should move from pencil to pen because every child is different. Schools have different policies on when this should happen, with most tending to make the move at around the age of 8/9 years old. It should really depend on the child’s ability rather than their age, as well as the potential benefits the move may have to confidence and self-esteem.

It does not make sense to keep a child working with pencil until they have a perfect handwriting style because that may never happen. For many a neat, beautiful handwriting style may never be a reality.

Advantages of pens:

  • A good quality pen will give an even ink flow.
  • A more consistent hand pressure is required, helping to develop and maintain a fluid handwriting style (reducing hand strain).
  • Fibre tip and roller pens can give the same look and writing experience as a good quality fountain pen, but are far less messy (especially for left handed people).
  • With the right pen everyone’s handwriting can look good, (I love my fountain pen for that reason).

Limitations:

  • Cheap biro pens require a lot of hand pressure and give an inconsistent ink flow (so not very different from pencils).
  • Cheap fountain pens can be scratchy and messy
  • Some schools will insist on using a particular type of pen which is not always good for all.

My tip would be to test a few pen types and weights to find out which ones your child finds the most comfortable and enjoyable to use. I realise this can be an issue if your child’s school insist on one type of pen. But if you can prove your child’s handwriting ability is great with a different style I think it is worth talking to them about it.

Moving from pencil to pen is an important point in a child’s education, affecting their confidence and self-esteem, and like any transition stage it should be approached with thought and care.

Pencil Power

pencil power 1

Why do we use pencils when we start to teach handwriting?

Modern classrooms use a range of technology, such as interactive white boards, so why are our children still using pencils when learning how to handwrite?

Pencils are a great first tool for learning to handwrite!

Why?

  • They come in different widths and lengths (to cater for the different gross and fine motor skills of the children).
  • Have different lead thickness and grades (soft to hard) of lead.
  • Provide varying degrees of resistance (depending on lead grade) which slows down the letter formation process enough for young children to have the control required to start to form their letters correctly. The greater the resistance the more the body can neurologically acknowledge (feel) the movement and help to send appropriate information to the brain.
  • As a child develops their handwriting skills to a more fluid handwriting style the pencil type can be easily changed.
  • Cheap and easily accessible.
  • A drawing medium which young children are already comfortable using.

Limitations:

  • Often a one size fits all approach to the pencil type, rather than tailoring to a child’s needs.
  • Difficulty in maintaining a good writing point, results in the child needing to use different levels of pressure, making handwriting hard work.
  • Over use of rubbing out mistakes (wastes time and develops a culture where making a mistake is seen as a failure). Making mistakes is how we learn, it is not failing!

Pencils are practical in School:

  • With pencil, children find it more difficult to write on one another and their clothes.
  • You do not have a whole class of children clicking pens (Velcro is bad enough).
  • Pen lids are not constantly lost or being swallowed.
  • Pencils seem less of a problem when stuck in ears or up the nose.
  • They are cheap.
  • Pencils do not explode, leaving a mess all over the room and any child that happened to be in the room at the time.
  • Time not wasted by trying to suck the ink up out of the pen.

Handwriting is a complicated skill to learn and having the right tools for the job always helps. It is worth spending a little time with children using a range of pencil styles and lead grades to find ones that they find comfortable to use for handwriting. These will be different from those they use for drawing. As their handwriting skills develop so the type and grade of pencil they begin to favour will change.

The Right Handwriting Tool for the Job!

writing tools 2

As with learning any new skill the right tool at the right time can make a real difference to the whole learning experience as well as the outcome. Learning to handwrite is no different.

Young children due to their gross and fine motor skills ability require chunky shafted tools so that they can grip them effectively. This means they have a greater control over the tool and can achieve a more satisfactory outcome. If they are using a tool that is too thin they will find gripping it difficult and have to keep changing their grip. They will have less control of the tool making the experience disappointing at best and off-putting at worst.

To help young children to store patterns and letter shapes formation into their motor memory it is important that the tools used provide a resistance rather than one flow effortlessly over the writing/drawing surface. The greater the resistance the more the body can neurologically acknowledge (feel) the movement and help to send appropriate information to the brain.

Some of the best tools for young children to begin learning to draw patterns, shapes and correctly write letters:

  • Chalk on boards, walls or paths
  • Flip chart pens or large felt tips on course paper such as sugar paper
  • Using appropriately sized paint brushes on course paper or surfaces
  • Finger painting or finger drawing in sand, paint or cornflour mix
  • Finger tracing and then trying to draw the pattern, shape or letter straight afterwards.
  • Try chalking the shape or letter onto a blackboard and have the child use a damp sponge to wipe it off again (make sure the child starts in the correct place and moves correctly around the shape or letter to the correct finish point).
  • Appropriately sized crayons and pencils on course paper or card (non-shiny side of cereal boxes and corrugated card can be good fun and different to use).

As children begin a more formal approach to learning to form their letters correctly then appropriately sized and lead grade pencils are the best tool for the job. Pencil come in all widths, lengths and shapes. The key is to find the style of pencil which best suits the child and their stage of pencil grip development. Remember one size doesn’t fit all!

When a child has learnt to join their letters and has a good and consistent letter size and places all their letters on the writing line correctly in relation to each other, then it maybe they are ready to be moved to pen. It is important before moving to a child to pen that they are writing with speed (appropriate for their age) and fluidity (comfortable writing all the letters of the alphabet lower and upper case correctly). A child whose handwriting is slow and laboured may need additional support and time before being moved on to pen.

Handwriting is a Physical Activity

 

assessment 2

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.

You will find our assessments on the ‘Key Strengths needed for handwriting’ page: http://bit.ly/2D1RKKs

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: http://bit.ly/2FhFkR7  and ‘Games for the other physical skills’ such as visual memory and eye tracking here: http://bit.ly/2M350S1

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.

Warm up For Handwriting!

tommy-thumb

Well the festive holidays are over and many of us are back at work and school. So it is time to get back into good habits for the New Year!

So, before you try to encourage your little darlings to sit and write, get them to do a few physical handwriting ‘Warm Up Exercises’.  Not only do they help to prepare the hands and fingers for the task ahead, they also help to release any tension that has built up. They are fun to do, which usually brings a smile and often laughter, an added tonic to any learning experience.

The warm up exercises can be accessed through a number of ways:

  • Teachers through the content section for the Key Stage you are teaching by clicking on the Handwriting warm up activities button.
  • Parents through the getting the most from our website section by clicking on the picture under the Taking the tension out of handwriting title.
  • Resources in the How to Teach Handwriting section by clicking on the Handwriting warm up activities button.
  • Follow this link: https://www.teachhandwriting.co.uk/handwriting-warm-up-exercises.html

Joining Letters – So Much More Than Just Good Handwriting

join sentences

Research in recent years by psychologists, educationalists and neuroscientists has found that older children, with better handwriting skills, showed greater neural activity in areas associated with working memory (used for planning, ideas generation and composition skills for written work).

Due to the way that our working memory functions the handwriting process can impact on the quality of the work. For instance, those who have poor handwriting ability use a disproportionate amount of their working memory capacity in recalling and forming the letters, effectively blocking the higher level composition process (Gathercole, Pickering, Knight & Stegmann 2004, cited Medwell et al. 2007).

This is because children with fluent handwriting skills have developed an automotive (instant, subconscious) ability to recall and reproduce letter patterns, making handwriting a lower level process within their working memory.

This would suggest that learning to handwrite with accuracy, fluidity, speed and legibility is a vital goal if we want our children to reach their true potential. Learning to join letters is therefore an important step to achieving this. Once handwriting has been mastered a child can focus more effectively on the composition and structure of the piece, which requires planning and logical thought processes, so that the plot or argument can be fully explored and presented.

Here at Teach Handwriting we also recognise that for some SEND children learning to join their handwriting may not be a logical option. However this does not mean that using a single letter font style stops them from handwriting with accuracy, fluidity, speed and legibility (though it may never be as fast as a joined font).

Bibliography

Medwell. J, Wray. D: Handwriting: what do we know and what do we need to know, Literacy Vol. 41, No 1, April 2007.

Tips for Teaching Left-Handed Writers

Left hand tips

Surprisingly there are few differences when teaching left and right-handed children to handwrite. A left-handed child needs a slightly different pencil grip, and needs to hold the pencil slightly higher up the shaft, as well as a different paper position and tilt. Some left-handed children do find handwriting challenging to start with because they naturally want to draw straight lines right to left rather than left to right.

If you find your left-handed writers are struggling with learning to handwriting, I would recommend you try the following:

The Best Type of Paper for Teaching Handwriting

Just as the writing tool used by children changes as they develop, so does the paper they write on.

Informal Pre-handwriting Pattern and Initial Letter Development

If your child is just starting out on the handwriting adventure then any type of plain paper (no ruled lines) is considered the best option, as many children find it less restrictive.

Young children, due to the stage of their physical development, use large movements to draw (from the shoulder rather than the wrist) which often creates larger shapes and lines; you don’t want to restrict this movement as it can cause handwriting difficulties later. As their gross and fine motor skills develop so does their pencil grip and ability to draw and write at a smaller scale, moving more from the shoulder to elbow and wrist.

Formal Pre-handwriting Pattern and Letter Development

When your child is ready to refine their pre-handwriting pattern skills, or move on to forming letters, it is a good idea to use plain paper. The aim at this stage is to learn how to form the letters correctly, not size or neatness as that comes later.

Before moving to lined paper, to help children to start to appreciate the letter proportions and positioning, paper with picture clues can be used.

On our website the free writing paper and animations reinforce the idea of letter proportions and positioning by splitting the backgrounds into three colour zones to represent the sky, grass and earth. There are a number of reasons why this can be beneficial:

  • It can create a sub-conscious memory in a child’s mind of where particular letters sit in relation to others without the constraints of lines or obvious boundaries, especially as the picture can be any size. Children remember where to place the sun, grass or worms in their drawings; so why not letters?
  • It can be easier to talk through the formation of how a shape or letter is formed with pictorial and colour clues to guide and inform the direction of the movements required.
  • As a child’s fine motor skills develop so the size of the picture/colour clues can be reduced to match their progress.

As a child’s fine motor skills develop it enables them to form smaller more refined versions of the letters and this is when it is more appropriate to use lined paper.

Transferring their handwriting skills from worksheets to paper 

The aim is to try and move children off the worksheets as soon as possible by encouraging them to transfer their skills to plain or lined paper which is appropriate for their ability. I realise that it is not possible to buy paper with the appropriate line height in all cases, so would recommend creating your own on the computer.

We realise that printing off our worksheets and coloured lined paper can become costly so, here are our recommendations for helping to reduce the costs:

  • Suggestion 1 – Use a colour version of the appropriate worksheet initially and then try printing in grey scale. Children usually make the adjustment to grey scale well once they are used to how the picture clues and colours work. You could also use the grey scale worksheets and colour the start of each row with the appropriate colour.
  • Suggestion 2 – Use a combination of worksheets and lined paper in each handwriting session with a child:
  1. Use the colour worksheet, or a grey scale version, and complete one or two rows.
  2. Then encourage the child to try the same patterns or letters on appropriately lined paper, again try one or two rows only.

 

Hopefully the worksheet will last over a couple of handwriting sessions and you and the child will see an improvement over the time. The sooner they learn to transfer their skills to paper the better.

For different types of pre-handwriting pattern and letter formation paper go to our animations and worksheet page and scroll down to the end of the page: http://bit.ly/1PKXB46

Vertical to Horizontal Surfaces for Handwriting

Artist with easel

Young children, due to the stage of their physical development, draw from the shoulder rather than the elbow and wrist using large arm movements. At this stage they often prefer vertical drawing and painting surfaces as it allows a free range of movements. This is often why young children will write on walls, not because they are being naughty but because it just feels comfortable and so more enjoyable.

Drawing and writing on a vertical surface is important at this stage as it helps young children develop the wrist strength and flexibility they will need later on to hold a pencil correctly for handwriting.

The jump from a vertical to a horizontal writing surface can seem too great for some children; due to their stage of development. These children may benefit from the paper being positioned on a sloped board.

If you are not sure whether a child needs a sloped board for handwriting, instead of buying a specialist board, you could make one. Try using a ring binder or lever arch file stuffed with magazines and newspaper to make a sloped board. Tape the edges to stop the papers falling out; you could cover it in sticky back plastic to give a smoother finish to the board. The advantage of this is that you can make them to any angle of slope. Try a few to see which, if any, the child prefers.

A homemade sloped board is just as effective as a bought one. Often a child only requires one for a short amount of time and quickly moves to writing on a horizontal surface. For a few children a sloped surface may be required for a few years, or indefinitely, in which case a purpose bought sloped writing board is a sounder investment.

Why Listening Skills are Important in Learning to Handwrite

Listening Games Scanning

A child with poor listening skills will find it difficult to complete tasks especially complex ones such as learning to handwrite. This is because they have not taken in all the information and so not understood the full extent of the task, or what was required of them. This can lead to a child flitting from one activity to another and never finishing anything, slowing down their learning. They also miss out on the sense of achievement and feeling of pride when a task is completed. This helps to build a child’s confidence, self-esteem and self-motivation to try again or attempt a more challenging task.

Listening is a complicated skill that requires children to learn how to pay attention – being able to focus on a particular voice or sound by filtering out other voices and ambient noises. They then have to concentrate on the voice or sounds to take in the information, building the stamina needed to listen for extended periods of time. Then they have to interpret that information to gain meaning – comprehension.

Listening is not a set of behaviours but a set of skills that need to be taught and developed, starting from birth.

For many children good listening skills do not develop naturally, they have to be taught!

Great Summer Fun Listening Games

These games are designed to help a child learn how to block out ambient noises so that they focus and concentrate on one particular sound.

Sound Scanning Games

The idea is to identify and talk about different sounds in different locations; in the park or at home in different rooms. Ask the child to listen for a moment (timed activity 30 seconds to start with then increase) and to pick out different sounds they can hear. Some will be close and easier to identify, other sounds may be further away and require more focused concentration to work out what they may be.

  • Sound Scanning Questions to help:
      • What can you hear that is far away?
      • What can you hear that is close by?
      • What can you hear that is loud?
      • What can you hear that is quiet?
      • What can you hear that makes a high pitched sound?
      • What can you hear that makes a low pitched sound?
      • What can you hear that sounds big?
      • What can you hear that sounds small?
  • Listening Walk Activities- You could record some of the sounds heard and talked about on the walk. Try changing the ‘What can you …?’ questions to ‘What did you…?’ Depending on your child’s age they may be able to draw a sound scape picture showing all the things they heard on the walk.
  • Where is the Sound? – The aim of the game is find out where the sound is coming from. Start by using something that makes a good clear sound. Ask your child to cover their eyes (can use a blindfold) and have them sit or stand in the middle of the room. Move around the room, starting not too far away from them and make the sound. Pause between each sound to give your child time to settle and focus on it before you make the next sound. Try to keep an even, slow pace. The aim is for your child to point in the direction they believe the sound is coming from. Gradually move further away, maintaining the same sound level. Swap places with your child, so you have to guess where the sound is coming from.

To make it more challenging:

  • Change the volume of the noise.
  • Change the object that is making the noise.
  • Change the speed (rhythm), as well as the location, at which the sounds are made.

Have Fun!