Kindergarten and 1st grade are the critical times when a child is mastering handwriting. So much of good letter formation depends on your child’s fine motor development. Muscles in the hands and little fingers need to connect to their eyes and brains, developing and maturing eye-hand coordination.
Here are three fun, pre-paper activities to help your young student develop good, legible letter and word printing:
Air writing This is an activity I do often with my 1st graders. Standing next to your child, facing in the same direction, ask her to say a letter. Then, both raise your writing hand, index finger pointed out, and “print” the capital and lowercase letter in the air. When she can easily do this with letter partners, try simple words.
Tactile writing Fill the top of a small gift-sized box halfway with sand or salt. With the index finger of his writing hand, have your child trace partner letters you vocalize. As he gets good with letters, practice simple words. Once he can easily trace letters and words with an index finger, use an unsharpened pencil. Using the unsharpened pencil allows him to “feel” how the word is formed when using a writing tool. “Broadcast” writing “Talking out” the strokes of letters and words will give your child another way to remember how they are formed. For example, for capital h, help her say “straight line down, straight line down, bridge across the middle.” For capital or lowercase s, “sss” around and curve like a slithery snake.
Children love these activities, as it gives them a chance to be successful printers before facing the challenge of writing on lined paper.
Parents often worry when young children keep reversing letters and numbers in their written work.
When young children first begin to print, it is very common for them to reverse letters and numbers. The most common are b, d, g, p, q, s, 3, 5, and 9.
When a child starts school, backward numbers and letters can affect his understanding of math computations and reading comprehension. By the time a child is in 1st grade, he should start to recognize and self-correct as it is very important that these errors don’t become a “bad habit.”
Here are some simple ways to encourage proper formation of letters and numbers:
When you notice reversals on homework, gently ask him to check and see whether he notices anything that needs to be changed. Guide him if he has trouble finding the errors. Then, let him erase and correct.
Keep a simple chart of capital and lowercase letters for her to reference when she’s doing work.
Also keep a small number grid handy to reference number formation for math assignments.
Try bringing in another sense. Help her roll out clay and form letters or numbers that are giving her trouble.
Or, add salt or sand to a small, shirt-size box to practice writing letters and numbers with his finger, then gently shaking to erase.
Since practice makes perfect, have her rewrite correctly any words on papers containing backward letters. She will soon understand that it’s simpler to write the numbers and letters correctly the first time rather than have to erase and make corrections.
Normally, I write blogs to offer advice to parents. This time, I am writing to ask your opinion. Recently, I received a number of documents signed by my students. I had not asked them to also print their name below their signature, and this turned out to be a huge mistake. I could not identify who had signed each document, because their signatures (except for one) were completely illegible. This led me to do some research on the current legal advice about signatures.
Court cases related to petitions have ruled that the signatures on them were invalid because they were not legible. When these cases were appealed to higher courts, though, the higher courts always ruled that a person’s signature does not need to be legible to be valid. Of course, for petitions and other election-related signatures, this might be problematic. A person must be able to prove who they are, and that the scribble on the page belongs to them. Technically, by law, a person’s signature can be totally illegible, misspelled, a single letter, or pretty much whatever a person chooses it to be. It does need to be consistent, though—the signature has to be recognizable as belonging to the person.
According to Medicare rules, a person’s signature needs to be legible. If you continue reading their rules, however, there are ways to attest that an illegible signature belongs to you. Some claim that physicians purposely write illegibly to prevent someone from copying their signature to obtain prescriptions illegally. The doctors actually want the pharmacy to call them to confirm their signature.
Here is my question. Do you think it matters? Do I need to teach my students to write their signature so I can read it? Do you think my students have illegible signatures because they want to “make a statement” with their signature? Or is this just a part of a greater issue—they cannot write anything legibly? (I rarely see their handwriting, because I require that everything be word processed.) Should we still be teaching cursive handwriting in school? Tell me what you think!
Recent research published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly confirms the need for preschool children to learn to write with a pencil. Researchers claim that children learn the sounds associated with letters as they practice their handwriting skills. Despite the research, many schools no longer teach cursive handwriting. They claim they do not have time to teach it given the demands to meet achievement in core subjects as well as the common opinion that cursive is obsolete. I have advocated in the past for continuing to teach handwriting (both manuscript and cursive). The end goal should be efficient, legible handwriting. I primarily work with older students and have noticed through the years that a greater percentage of these students do not write legibly and can no longer read cursive. Many say we no longer need to teach it because we should be teaching 21st century skills—which do not include handwriting.
Admittedly, when I go through the list of reasons we should teach it that I have cited before, for every example where people use cursive handwriting to communicate, I can think of an electronic way to do the same thing. It is unlikely that students will ever write checks now that online banking is free and easy to use; only a small percentage of students actually use cursive on the SAT even though instructed to do so; and there are apps on our phones for everything we used to write by hand.
But if we totally quit teaching cursive, will we lose other important benefits? One concern I have relates to developing fine motor control in the hands. The ability to control the small muscles in the fingers and hands is developed when children learn to write legibly first in manuscript and later in cursive. These same skills are used for other important tasks. Using scissors, cutting up food, picking up tiny objects, catching a ball, buttoning a shirt, or screwing on a tiny cap require the ability to adjust pressure applied by the fingers and respond to feedback from the brain to the fingers and back. If we no longer teach handwriting skills, this fine motor training needs to be replaced with other activities that develop the same motor control.
Another concern is the potential inability to read letters, diaries, and historical documents written in cursive. One of my favorite activities is to read letters my mother and grandmother wrote. The most moving exhibits in the museums I visit are the journals and documents written by hand. I can imagine the person sitting down to write their thoughts on the page. It is true that we will have historians who can tell us what these documents say, and they can post them online; but when I see these documents and read them myself, I feel connected to that historical figure.
Educators and parents should watch for research on cursive handwriting. It is possibly related to the development of language skills as cited in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly. It is definitely linked to the normal development of fine motor skills. We may lose an important link to our historical past. Perhaps having legible cursive handwriting is indeed a 21st-century skill that we need to prioritize in our curriculum. Only time will tell.
Until a friend described a recent visit with his middle-school-age grandson, I had no idea of a debate raging about the teaching of penmanship. My friend told me, “I got tired of his being in some alternate universe with his electronic gadgets, so I decided to try involving him in something else.” He asked the boy to put aside his handheld gadget so Grandpa could teach him some practical stuff, like filling out a bank deposit slip. He showed his grandson the form and began explaining how to fill it out when the boy interrupted with, “I don’t do cursive.”
My friend’s annoyance reemerged when he told me about the encounter, and my amused response didn’t help. But when I thought about it later, I decided that doing away with cursive really wasn’t funny. What I assumed was bedrock education in elementary schools is no more because some schools no longer include cursive writing in their curriculum. Until my friend’s rant about schools’ failure to teach the basics, I was unaware of the ongoing controversy in educational circles about what was once called penmanship. I was surprised to learn that seven states, including California and Massachusetts, have filed legislation to implement penmanship as a permanent part of their school curriculum.
There are logical arguments to support its demise. Some teachers insist it takes too much time to teach when there are more important things for kids to learn. Skills involving keyboarding, they say, will help their students succeed in school and in careers more than cursive would. In a Washington Post article, Michael Hairston, the head of the country’s largest teachers union, the Fairfax Education Association, calls penmanship “a dying art that has been replaced by technology,” emphasizing that teachers need to make hard choices, given time constraints “and little or no flexibility.” He also said that much of teachers' instructional time is dominated by the need to teach to a standardized test. In an article called “Forget Cursive: Teach Kids How To Code,” author Keith Wagstaff questions what an 8-year-old’s future boss “[is] going to be more impressed by, the ability to write cursive or to code?”
As for me, I’m firmly on the side of continuing to teach our students to read and write cursive. My conviction is partly based on my own experience teaching high school students to write essays demonstrating critical thinking about the literature they were reading. Much of my after-school time was spent writing detailed comments and suggestions in the margins of the essays, the closest I could come to one-on-one teaching in my crowded classrooms. If I had to print my recommendations—something I do slowly and poorly—I would have struggled for many more hours to finish the essays promptly and return them. No matter how elegant the fonts and professional looking their printed work, my students welcomed the handwritten suggestions for strengthening their writing skills.
Cursive is also an effective tool in teaching students with dyslexia, experts say, because all the letters start on a baseline and move fluidly in the same direction, a help to dyslexic learners. A number of research studies also suggest that more areas of the brain are engaged when students use handwriting rather than a keyboard.
What about those occasions when the computer is down but the work has to go on? Business won’t stop because no one knows how to read or write without a computer. And think about all those practical needs for our writing, from signing checks to putting our names on electronic devices when we use credit cards. There are those inevitable forms to be filled out in doctors’ offices, our signatures on drivers’ licenses and, more personally, on birthday cards. At times in our lives when we need words of comfort or encouragement, who doesn’t feel a special warmth in receiving a handwritten note?
As educators and academics respond to the challenges of our technological society, their debate about the merits of teaching penmanship will undoubtedly continue. I’m on the side that hopes, like my indignant friend, that kids will continue to learn cursive.
Writer and educator Anne G. Faigen is the author of several young adult and mystery novels and a former high school English teacher in the suburban Pittsburgh area.
I started to write my blog this week about why there are so many students in middle and upper school who cannot write legibly. I was going to place the blame on lack of instruction, too little practice, or poor pencil grip. Lack of instruction is a problem since most elementary schools do not devote the same amount of time teaching handwriting as they once did. Too little practice is also a problem, since there are fewer times when we need to write by hand these days. Even if a student could once write legibly, they forget how when they don’t use it enough. It turns out though that poor pencil grip is probably not the cause of poor handwriting!
I read some of the latest research on pencil grip and found that most experts agree that how a person holds his pencil is generally not the cause of illegible handwriting. If a student in middle or upper school is comfortable when writing but cannot write legibly, the focus of instruction should be on letter formation. Once students know the proper form for each letter (both lower and upper case) and can reproduce it without much thought, the focus then should be on increasing speed.
On the other hand, if a student is uncomfortable when writing by hand, the pencil grip should be explored. There are four basic grips that have been shown by research to be efficient and produce legible handwriting. Most people choose one of these four grips. Even if they choose something more unusual, it is OK as long as they can write legibly and their hand does not hurt as they write.
During summer is a great time to practice handwriting skills. It takes a lot of practice to get to an automatic level with handwriting, but it is worth the effort. There is research to suggest that people remember more of what they write by hand as opposed to what they type on a computer. I believe there is a strong case for encouraging most students to write notes by hand. For this to be possible, they need to be able to write legibly and quickly. The time spent practicing this summer might pay off with better grades in classes where students take notes by hand.
A friend of mine asked me, “I’ve got three more weeks of summer left before the kids go back to school. Is there anything I can do that will help Emily do better this year?” My response was, “Teach her how to touch type!”
Three weeks of daily practice—even 15-20 minutes a day—is enough time to learn where the letters are, begin typing without looking at the keys, and maybe even to type faster than she can write by hand.
Years ago, I did an informal study to figure out how fast most students can write by hand. I worked with students in a one-to-one setting. I got them to first copy a paragraph that I had written. Then I had them compose a paragraph on their own. In that “study” students handwrote about 13 words per minute. I decided an appropriate goal for beginning typists should be 20 words per minute.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you take this project on with your child:
The goal should be to type 20 words per minute without looking at the keys.
Posture is important. If your child is small, make sure to put something under his feet to keep him comfortable. He should sit high enough so that his elbows are at approximately a 90-degree angle as he types. At school, I stack two chairs together when needed and put books under kids’ feet.
Students should use the correct fingers on the keys. This should become their personal goal regardless of what they are doing at the computer.
Typing games are okay to use if your child is dedicated to using the correct fingers. My experience is that most children won’t do this. In my keyboarding classes I do not allow the games until I am sure they will not “unlearn” everything by doing whatever they need to do to win the game.
Little hands need little keyboards. Netbooks are ideal for students with small hands because their keyboards tend to be more compact. There are also keyboards for small hands available for purchase. These keyboards connect through the USB port just like a larger-size keyboard. (Search “keyboards for little hands” on your favorite search engine to find a selection.)
There are many typing tutor websites and plenty of software on the market. I found this typing tutorial to be useful and it is completely free. It also does not require you to download software to your computer!
My idea is that the home row approach most often used really doesn’t make much sense to children. Whoever hears “a s d f j k l ;” in their daily life? Since older kids know the alphabet already I teach the keys in alphabetical order. This requires you to be involved in the lesson, however, because typing tutor software and websites always follow the home row order.
Learning to keyboard correctly is important these days. Almost everyone needs to use a computer for personal and professional reasons. If you use the correct fingers on the keys you will make fewer mistakes and type much faster than if you use a “hunt and peck” method. (My students call it the “search and kill” method.)
Good luck teaching keyboarding! Hopefully, your child can practice typing for a while in the morning and spend the rest of the day swimming and having fun. School will start soon enough. Proper keyboarding skills will help make homework go a little faster once school gets rolling again.