Tracing has been an activity frequently presented to encourage young children to learn how to form letter shapes, especially in early years teaching.
However, current research suggests that encouraging young children to free write is a more powerful way of engaging the brain to learn how to form letters when compared to tracing them.
Learning to handwrite requires a child to remember which shape they want to make (visual memory) and how to make it (motor memory).
Here at Teach Handwriting we feel that traditional pencil tracing activities are not a particularly effective way to teach children pre-handwriting patterns and letter formations. This is because children are often so focused on controlling the writing tool around the shape that they do not fully engage their motor memory storage and visual memory skills.
We believe that finger tracing a pre-handwriting pattern or letter shape is more effective than pencil tracing. The greater resistance provided by finger tracing stimulates a child’s nervous system, instantly making them aware of their actions and helping them to focus on the movement by engaging both the motor memory and visual memory. This information is initially stored in their short-term memory but, with continued practise, moves to their long-term memory. Having to think less about how to form the shape, because they can subconsciously recall how to make it, allows a child to then concentrate on controlling the pencil.
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 more information on how to identify motor memory and visual memory difficulties see our Other Physical Skills Assessment: http://bit.ly/2P5jS44
For games and activities to help support and develop these skills use this links: http://bit.ly/2M350S1
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!
- 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.
- 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.
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.