Let’s Learn to Write!
A Simple Guide to Handwriting Instruction
In February of 2020, I had the opportunity to attend a Handwriting Without Tears workshop in Manhattan. It was a reminder not only of how important handwriting instruction is but also of the appropriate techniques needed to provide effective handwriting instruction. The most memorable lesson shared at this workshop was this: We need to be teaching handwriting every day. With that in mind, I would like to share with you what I learned so that families have the opportunity to participate in consistent handwriting instruction at home.
It’s easy to think that handwriting is a less important skill in our current technology-filled world than it was for past generations. This is far from the truth. It is a vital skill that your children will use every day for the rest of their lives. It may seem overwhelming at first, especially with emerging writers, but it all begins with proper instruction.
It is important to take handwriting instruction one step at a time, starting with pencil grip. I have found it useful to demonstrate the proper way to pick up a pencil before my students ever touch theirs. “Watch me first” can be a very powerful phrase. Don’t be afraid to practice this seemingly simple skill for as long as it takes. It can even be made into a game. Have the student pick up the pencil, then put down the pencil, then pick up the pencil, then put down the pencil—however many times it takes to make this a familiar and comfortable action. I like to use the words “quack quack fingers” when discussing pencil grip. Go ahead and try it now. Turn your dominant hand into a duck’s bill and then try to pick up a writing utensil. This is just way one to reinforce proper grip while making it fun for your child.
Paper position is also an important factor when teaching a child proper handwriting. One’s paper should always be slightly tilted on the table in front of them. For right-handed writers, the paper should be tilted with its left corner higher. For left-handed writers, the paper should be tilted with the right corner higher.
Traditionally, handwriting paper has consisted of two solid lines with a dotted line in between. This helps students differentiate between short letters (a,c, e, n), tall letters (t, l, R, h), and descending letters (p, q, y, j). The experts at Handwriting Without Tears have come to the conclusion that this paper can be too busy and distracting for some children, so they have designed a new model. This model consists of just two solid lines. Every letter should rest on the bottom line. Descending letters extend below the bottom line, tall letters extend above the top line, and short letters end where they meet the top line. Some children work better with this new two-lined paper while some work better with the traditional three-lined paper. It may take some trial and error to see which paper works best for your child.
The last topic I want to touch on is letter formation. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “Who cares how they form the letters as long as they look correct?”. This logic can prove harmful when a child needs to write at a faster pace.
It is important that all letters begin at the top left. Starting there and using phrases like “big line,” “little line,” “big curve,” “little curve,” and “frog jump” can help make letter formation into a fun game! For example, if I tell a student to give me a big line, they’ll know to start at the top left and bring the line down. Then, when I tell them to frog jump, they’ll pick the pencil up off the paper and move it back to the top left. After telling them to give me a little curve, they can tell me what letter they wrote: a capitol P! You can form every letter of the alphabet using this terminology. What does big line, frog jump, big curve make? A capitol D! After playing this game with your child a few times, they should start using correct letter formation without even thinking about it.
This is just scratching the surface of everything I learned about proper handwriting instruction, but it’s a great place to start. As students become experts in writing print, they can move on to learning cursive, which will give them important skills needed to increase their writing speed. This may seem like a lot to think about, but when you take it one skill at a time, handwriting instruction can be an enjoyable learning experience for children and adults alike! You can visit Handwriting without Tears’ website to learn more.