The Move from Pencil to Pen

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!

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.

Is your child reluctant to handwrite or has a poor writing speed?

There are a number of possible reasons why a child may reluctant to write or have a poor writing speed. Over the last few months, we have looked at a number of these:

  • Having the right writing tool
  • Hand swapping
  • Letter and word spacing
  • Too much or not enough pressure
  • Visual and Motor Memory issues
  • Spatial Awareness and eye tracking issues
  • Copying from the board

Other key areas to look at we have also cover are:

  • Sitting correctly and why they may find this difficult.
  • The importance of learning to position and tilt the paper appropriately.
  • Pencil grip – is the grip appropriate for their age and ability and when to support them.
  • Having the writing hand under the writing line.
  • Learning to write their letter correctly.

Tips for a Child who Actively Avoids, or is Reluctant, to do Writing or Drawing Activities

  • Best tip – Don’t force them, the more you push the more reluctant they will become.
  • Assess their physical ability.
  • If weaknesses are found play the games that will build the appropriate muscles groups.
  • Develop directional skills and shape formation through activities that don’t require a pencil so that they are still developing their motor memory skills which will help them later on when they do start to draw and write.
  • When ready, try timed drawing and writing activities after your child has had a good run around or physical activity (but not when they are tired).
  • Set up a good writing environment where they are sitting comfortably and without distractions, such as the TV.
  • Correct poor posture and keep the activity short. One minute of happy drawing is better than no minutes.
  • Try a ‘Playtime Drawing /Writing Session’ (see below).
  • End the sessions with a fun activity or treat.
  • This will take time, patience and encouragement, each improvement, no matter how small, needs to be recognised and positively praised.
  • Remember as your child’s skills develop so does their confidence to try, and their self-esteem, as they succeed where once they felt they failed.

How to Organise a Playtime Drawing/Writing Session

  • When ready, try timed drawing or writing activities after your child has had a good run around or other physical activity (but not when they are tired).
  • Set up a good writing environment where they are sitting comfortably and without distraction, such as having the TV on.
  • Correct poor posture and keep the activity short – up to 5 minutes initially. However, one minute of happy drawing/writing is better than no minutes.
  • After the drawing/writing play a non-drawing activity or game with your child. Make this break between 3 and 5 minutes long, ensuring your child knows when it will end (use a timer so they can see when they will need to stop)
  • Return to the original drawing/writing activity for up to another 5 minutes.
  • End the sessions with a fun activity or treat.

Tips on Running the Session

  • Start with 2 drawing/writing activities and then slowly increase the drawing/writing time and/or the number of activities and reduce the playtime slot times.
  • You could try to do a couple of these kind of sessions at different times during the day.
  • It may take time for your child to be comfortable with the sessions. You need to show a lot of patience and encouragement, each improvement no matter how small needs to be recognised and positively praised.
  • Remember as your child’s skills develop so does their confidence to try and their self-esteem grows as they succeed where once they felt they failed.

Making it Easier to Copy from the Board

Copying accurately and quickly from a board at the front of a classroom can be a challenge at the best of times. For young children and those with specific learning difficulties it can be near on impossible. It is amazing how many children lose some, if not all, of a break time because they could not complete the copying task quickly enough in the lesson time.

The practise of taking information off the board has its uses and there are times when there is just no other alternative but it can be made more manageable, here are a few ideas which may help.

  • Make sure the child is sitting facing the board.
  • That they can see the board clearly.
  • That light is not reflecting off the board so that the writing disappears.
  • Try using a different colour marker pen for each line of writing (this way a child will be able to quickly locate the line they were copying from).
  • Or try numbering the lines so the child can more effectively find their way around the text.
  • Leave more of a gap between each line of writing so that each line is clearly visible from the back of the room.
  • Ask those children, who struggle copying, to start the first line of writing as you transfer the text to a smaller board which can then be placed at a more appropriate distance and level for them to continue copying from.
  • If you know the information that will need to be transferred to the child’s book then pre-prepare a text that can be given to the child to copy from. It may be in a different order or layout to that on the board; but it is the information and the child’s ability to access it, that is important.
  • Is a full sentence explanation always required or could the information be presented in another way such as a mind map or diagram which would be equally, or even more, useful to the child.

It can be surprising how frustrating and upsetting being asked to copy from the board can be for many children. So, anything that can help to alleviate these emotions and difficulties has got to be worth a try!

How Poor Eye Tracking and Spatial Awareness Skills Impact on #Handwriting!

Eye tracking and/or spatial awareness difficulties can have a dramatic effect on a child’s handwriting ability.  Weak skills in these key areas make it difficult for children to form letters correctly (curves and lines often not joining to complete the letter shape), as well as being unable to appropriately space letters in words and words in sentences. Other poor presentation skills include being unable to write on lines and often missing lines out when following on with a sentence.

It is also worth pointing out that a child with poor eye tracking and/or spatial awareness skills will also find reading difficult.

Eye tracking is the ability to control and coordinate the fine eye movements needed:

  • For left to right eye movements, without moving the head, needed to follow a line of writing as the letters are formed or for reading a line of print.
  • To focus and move the eyes to follow an object without moving the head, in all directions.
  • To track/follow objects near and far.
  • To focus on one object without moving the eyes.

Poor eye tracking skills can make handwriting very difficult, causing letter formation, spacing and positioning problems, leading to poor presentation. Often words are missed out or repeated, causing composition and legibility issues.

Activities that help to build these strengths and skills are: Swing Ball, target games and catching games.

Game idea: Goal post skittles

You need: Posts/marker, large plastic drink bottles/skittles and a range of ball sizes.

How to do it:

Place the posts about 2 metres away from the start position and about half a metre apart. Place the skittles about half a metre behind the posts but directly between them. The child starts by rolling a large ball through the posts to knock the skittles over. Before they roll the ball explain to get a maximum score, they need to knock all the skittles over in one roll and that the best way to do this is to look directly ahead through the posts at the skittles, NOT at the ball or their hand.

It may take a little practise, as they improve they can use a different size ball or move the skittles so that they form different patterns which means they have to be more accurate with the roll.

This game can also be used as a foot and eye activity, the same rules apply, they must look to where they want the ball to end up not at their feet or the ball, tricky!

Spatial awareness is the ability to be aware of:

  • The space around you and your position in that space.
  • The position and relationship of other objects in relation to one another and yourself.

Poor spatial awareness skills make handwriting difficult as it affects the ability to understand and produce the directional pushes and pulls required to form letters; as well as difficulties with spacing and positioning. Combined, these difficulties can cause poor presentation and possible legibility issues.

Activities that help to build these strengths and skills are: games such as ‘Twister’ or ‘Simon Says’ and jigsaws and pattern making.

Games idea: Pattern making

You need: Beads, building blocks, Lego or shapes.

How to do it:

Talk through the process of making the same pattern as shown on a card or already produced; for instance, the red square goes on the right of the blue square and the yellow square is below the blue square. Ask the child to verbalise what they see and are doing to recreate the pattern.

Patterns can be created and copied with all sorts of items – beads, building blocks, Lego and shapes.

As skill levels improve tessellation (a pattern of shapes that fit perfectly together) activities and square or patterned paper for colouring and creating their own pattern designs are enjoyable.

Poor Motor Memory and Visual Memory Skills and Handwriting

Motor memory and visual memory difficulties can have a dramatic effect on a child’s handwriting ability. Possible signs of poor motor memory or visual memory skills can be that their handwriting is slow and deliberate or fast and messy (as they try to hide their letter formation issues), making it difficult to read. They can spend so much time on trying to remember how to form the letters, they have no working memory space left for the important tasks of composing their writing and spelling.

Poor motor memory skills can make handwriting difficult as shapes and letter formation movements are often forgotten, causing letter reversals and incorrectly formed letter shapes, which can make joining a very slow process to learn. A poor and often slow handwriting style can develop as font styles are mixed and capital letters are used inappropriately. Combined, these difficulties can cause poor presentation, spelling and legibility issues.

Poor visual memory skills make handwriting difficult as the ability to recall how letters look and reproduce them with appropriate spacing and positioning is partially or completely lost. This leads to poor letter formation skills, letter reversal along with spelling and presentation difficulties.

Visual memory and motor memory skills are linked and so a game or activity that supports one is likely to support the other.

For games and activities ideas to support and develop these skills use this links: https://teachhandwriting.co.uk/handwriting-motor-skills.html

Too much Pressure or not Enough – #Handwriting?

Some children may hold a pencil correctly but struggle to maintain and control the pressure required to handwrite.

Here are some additional tips to help support a child who is pressing down too hard with their pencil:

Focused games and activities can develop both the physical strength and sensory perception areas.

  • Make sure that the pencil isn’t gripped too close to the tip of the pencil (check out the how to teach section for more information).
  • Play dough writing – flatten a large piece of play dough/clay on to a desk and using a pencil write or draw onto it. The idea is to create smooth lines, not torn ones, which pressing too hard will create. The advantage of this activity is it gives a child instant feedback about whether they are pressing too hard or not. When a good pressure has been found ask the child to try doing it with their eyes closed and talk through how their body feels when they are using the right amount of pressure.
  • Corrugated card – place some corrugated card under the writing paper – the aim is to try not to flatten the bumps in the card.
  • Tin foil writing board – wrap a piece of card in tin foil and place the paper on top, the aim is to not rip the foil when writing.
  • Carbon copies – use carbon paper to create an extra copy, start with two or three sheets of paper on top of the carbon paper then move to two and then one, so that your child starts developing an understanding of how much pressure is needed for a task and how that feels. Talk through with them how it feels as they need less pressure to create a copy.
  • Pattern work – look at and discuss light and dark line patterns and how to create them. Then using different writing tools ask the child to try and create their own. Talk through how it feels when they are making dark lines compared to faint/pale colour lines using the same pencil or crayon.

Here are some additional tips to help support a child who is Not pressing down hard enough with their pencil:

Focused games and activities can help develop the physical strength and sensory perception areas.

  • Crayon rubbings – when a good pressure has been found ask the child to try doing it with their eyes closed and talk through how their body feels when they are using the right amount of pressure.
  • Wax drawings – rub a wax crayon all over a piece of paper then turn it over on to a plain piece of paper. Draw on the back of the wax crayoned paper and when finished lift and see another copy of the picture. The greater the pressure the more complete the hidden picture will appear.
  • Carbon copies – use carbon paper to create an extra copy, start with one sheet of paper on top of the carbon paper then move to two so that the child starts to develop an understanding of how much pressure is needed for a task and how that feels.
  • Use a softer pencil such as a B6 or B4 and slowly change the pencils so that they work up to a HB. Each pencil change will mean they have to exert a little more pressure to create the same line mark. B marked pencils are softer than H.
  • Pattern work – look at and discuss light and dark line patterns and how to create them. Then using different writing tools ask the child to try and create their own. Talk through how it feels when they are making dark lines compared to faint/pale colour lines using the same pencil or crayon.

Hand Swapping Issues?

Hand Swapping is a normal developmental stage in infants and young children and therefore, at this stage, not a sign that a child is uncertain of their dominant hand. However, this is not ideal for a child who has started school.

Hand swapping throughout a task is not necessarily a sign that a child is uncertain of their dominant hand.

There are two routes to tackling the hand swapping issue, the one to use depends on your answers to the following questions.

1. Does the child usually start with the one hand and then swap when that hand gets tired?

You can usually tell if this is the case because they may shake out or rub the tired hand and once it is rested go back to using it again. This is probably because their fine motor skills are weak. Through focused games and activities (https://teachhandwriting.co.uk/handwriting-muscles.html#hand ), the muscle strength and dexterity can be gradually built up in the dominant hand, which in turn will build their stamina so that the hand swapping will reduce until they stop it altogether.

Once you are sure of dominance gently discourage swapping hands by taking a break from the activity and coming back to it a couple of minutes later using the preferred hand.

2. Does the child use their left hand if items are presented on their left-hand side and their right hand if they are presented on the right-hand side?

In toddlers and young children this is expected. In older children however it could mean that they have developed a delay in their skill to cross the mid-line point. This developmental bilateral coordination skill is vital to develop and can be addresses through a range of simple games and activities (https://teachhandwriting.co.uk/handwriting-muscles.html#bilat ).

Poor hand position can cause a poor pen grip

We often talk about the most appropriate grip for handwriting being the tripod grip; but this usually only refers to finger position. It is easy to forget the importance of the actual hand position in relation to the pen and paper for handwriting.

The ideal position is for the hand, wrist and elbow to be below the tip of the pencil and under the writing line for both left and right-handed writers.

Some children will hold the pencil in a tripod grip but develop a hooked hand position or move the elbow too far up the table, causing the forearm and wrist to be nearly horizontal with the table edge, because they feel they can see what they are writing more clearly.

A hooked grip puts unnecessary strain on the hand ligaments and forces the body into a poor sitting position, again putting extra strain on the body. This in turn makes handwriting a tiring and uncomfortable task, impacting on a child’s overall learning experience.

It takes time to correct a poor hand position but it is well worth the perseverance as it will enable a child to write freely and more comfortably.

When writing normally, encourage children to angle the paper appropriately as this will also help to correct a poor hand position. With the correct paper tilt they will always be able to see what they are writing. If the paper is tilted at the correct angle for them, they will find a hooked hand position, or having their forearm further up the table, more difficult and uncomfortable to maintain.

Some children will find writing on a sloped desk helpful. Not all are comfortable writing or drawing on a flat surface and may benefit from the paper being positioned on an angled or sloped board. If you are not sure, 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 or 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, your child prefers. You may find that they only need the sloped board for a short while. It may also help to reduce the angle of the slope over time so that they gradually get used to moving from a sloped to horizontal writing plane.

Paper Position & Tilt are Important for Good Handwriting

The paper position and tilt on the desk, for both right and left-handed writers, can make a big difference to a child’s handwriting experience and comfort and yet it is an element which is often neglected.

The correct paper position and tilt enables your child to handwrite comfortably while being able to see what they are writing. It also allows the non-writing hand to move the paper up the table so that the writing hand elbow can stay in the same position. The aim is to have the paper move up the table, rather than the writing hand moving down and eventually off the table.

With the non-writing hand moving the paper up the table the writing line stays in the same place which means eye movements are less, helping to make the writing experience less tiring and stressful.

If the paper is positioned and tilted correctly, with their writing hand under the writing line, they will also be able to see more easily what they have just written and where to place the next letter, word or section of text on the page. This is especially important for left-handed writers.

The most appropriate paper tilt angle is generally suggested as anywhere between 20 to 45 degrees anti-clockwise for right-handed writers and 30 to 45 degrees clockwise for left-handed writers.

For more tips and advice on developing a good paper position and tilt:

For Parents: https://teachhandwriting.co.uk/paper-position.html

For Teachers: https://teachhandwriting.co.uk/paper-position-for-comfortable-handwriting.html