Now they're ready to write...
In most European countries, children are not expected to start formal handwriting with a pencil until they are six years old (or the countries that do best in international comparisons scores in Literacy, until they are 7). So, when are children ready to learn letter formation? This has been a much-debated topic and rightly so! On many occasions, I witnessed children become overloaded with the demands to develop these essential skills earlier and earlier at an ever-increasing pace. Do we risk children missing out on less 'essential' age-appropriate experiences in an attempt to spend more time getting children writing earlier?
In an effort to make sure I scaffold children properly as they develop the correct foundations for writing, I take a more 'timeframed' approach making sure that no essential skill is left undeveloped before leaping into the complex task of letter formation. These skills include:
A Typical Handwriting Lesson
Note: These are standards I have for specific handwriting lessons which I start in late January, February. I have different standards for legibility depending on the purpose of writing; for example, in taking notes, "messy" handwriting is entirely acceptable as long as children can easily read their own writing. If I am doing a writing lesson where the focus is on the content I am not as fussy, with good practice, they will start to apply their new writing skills to all their writing activities. In handwriting lessons, I expect children to aim for perfection. I follow the same lesson routine shown below. I focus on two letters a week from when I start formal handwriting lessons. I do two alternative lessons for each letter, so that's four altogether over the week.
It is essential to be consistent in each handwriting lesson. Repetition and routine are what makes these lessons work well.
Day 1 - Introducing a new letter
The children will already know the sound this letter makes and its appearance. They will be forming it for the first time.
1) I do: (10 mins) It works well to start a lesson with a quick phonological awareness intro:
2) We do: (15 mins) We will do a quick handwriting warm-up. The first video below is slightly more manageable. The second video is trickier and suitable to after Christmas in Junior Infants and beyond.
Together we will practice writing the letter of the day using one of the activities below. As we scribe the letter together using the correct language, the children critically evaluate the writing process so they can become familiar with common mistakes and problem solve together by discussing what might be difficult. Focus on lots of large motor pattern during this group work by using the entire arm during the movement.
Paired or group activities can include:
All of these playful writing activities can be explored during their Aistear playtime if they choose to. For some of these group tasks, every child might not get a turn but assure them that they can get a go during Aistear time.
3) You do: (10/15mins) I have workbooks for this activity because I have to, idealy a blank page would work just as well. The focus group who I know will need guidance work with me, but I do try to get around everyone. The children are expected to try their best and identify their best letters (they get a stamp from me on the best letter). You will be guiding children and correcting when necessary. Watch for the children who are really good a disguising incorrect letter formation. Children start by tracing the letter, followed by a few on their own. Have weaker children complete less work but expect what they do complete to show good effort. If you don't use tracing letters for this activity, a larger rainbow letter page would be perfect for today's lesson. I like this book because it uses the Jolly Phonics flick (and order if you start writing earlier in the year) It also has some phonological awareness activities, oral language lessons at the back and plenty of pre-writing activities for the early days. But most importantly, it doesn't have rows and rows of tracing letters. The children can focus on quality over quantity.
Plenary: (5 mins) To finish off the lesson the children could identify what they found difficult about this letter if anything, you could address these difficulties at the beginning of tomorrow's lesson.
Day 2 - Best practice writing - I expect perfection!
Writing on lines: When I start formal letter formation in February, the children will have the essential skills to begin writing with confidence, on widely-spaced lines, following the many intricate formation patterns and rules. If you introduce writing letters on lines too early, you may find they focus more on keeping their letters on the line instead forming them correctly, or the reverse. If letters are floating off the line then it's probably a case that they're not ready for them. I rule my own copies as I haven't yet found a copy with lines spaced enough for infants. It is just a standard news copy. The red and blue lines are the same colour pattern as the senior infant writing copy they will use next year.
Junior Infant lines
Senior Infants lines
1) I Do (10 mins) - Spot the letter on the alphabet. I show an example of a student's work from yesterday that models both perfect formation and mistakes (children don't mind discussing where the went wrong because they know from day one in my class that mistakes are a fundamental part of the learning process). I get teacher's best writing copy up on the visualizer (or smart board). I say:
2) We Do (5 mins) - For today's lesson I ask one or two children to come up to the board to have a turn writing the letter on a lined copy/smart board. I make a lot of reference to the correct letter size, how we can use the lines as guidance and how we should think ahead before we start making a mark on the page. The rest of the children watch or have a go with their invisible magic pen.
3) You Do (15/20 mins) - In their best writing copies they do a row of their BEST 5-10 letters. When the children go off to work on their independent handwriting writing practice the teacher must move around the class all the time, this is the hard part for you because you are desperately trying to get around to everyone. You will be guiding children and correcting when necessary. For some children it is important to use teacher's hand over child's hand to practice the correct formation. Watch for the children who are really good a disguising incorrect letter formation. This is one lesson where I rub out and rub out, I teach children to be self-critical (obviously be sensitive to children whose best work might be below average). Before long the children will be identifying when they can do better. I expect perfection in today's lesson and the children know it. Remember, the focus here is on letter formation foremost. The lines are a guide for the children to become aware of tall and short letters, and letters with a tail which is a very important part of correct formation. Uniformity is another skill being taught but this will improve with time.
The letter 't' is a funny little fella... he's not quite tall and he's not quite small, he's somewhere in the middle. I say this to the children and they learn to stop in the middle of the red and blue lines.
Plenary (5 mins) - Have the children walk around and look at each other's work. Discuss what people did well and ask anyone to identify where they could have done better (two stars and a wish). Ask anyone if they would like to practice during their Aistear play, they'll only be too delighted to.
See how this works...
This time frame and lesson routine has worked really well for me. Below is an example of how their writing shows consistency across the whole class. This written work was completed only 12 weeks after starting to write letters formally for the first time. All bar one child (who had underlying issues) were able to complete the writing to almost the exact same standard.
Because the children spent so much time on phonological awareness in the first half of the year, blending and segmenting words orally and aurally is now a well-practiced skill. They have a very fluent ear. The result is they are very quick to link this new visual representation of the sounds they know so well. They start to scribe words clearly, letters well formed in their own playful writing that shows their understanding of the spelling rules I have been teaching them.
Sometimes I will incorporate a handwriting lesson into our topics where I expect the children to show the correct letter formation I have taught them.
See how we have improved...
It is important for the children to be aware of how their hard work is showing results. I have the children compare their writing to previous work and they discuss how they have improved. This is a particularly important activity for the children who might be a little weaker. Even a small improvement gives value to a child's hard work and most importantly it gives them confidence and encouragement and it simply makes them feel good!
The procedure writing below was completed 8 weeks apart.
Finding the time for daily writing lessons
In sept – Jan I allow the bulk of daily allocated time to phonological awareness, now I begin to put the bulk of time into my hand writing. It is crucial that children are taught to form letters correctly during discrete handwriting lessons, it is a skill that doesn’t just develop, it needs to be taught explicitly. I swap the morning phonological awareness activities for a Handwriting lesson four mornings a week, it is the best part of the day to do this focused work. I follow a different order for my letters according to how they are formed. I do 'o' at the end of the curly c's because if you do it before 'a' some children start to hook their a. I prefer to teach the c first followed by the 'a'. I say, "start below the blue line, go up and around (for the c), continue straight up for the 'a', back down and gentle flick.
I have found it better to work with the most difficult letters first because as the year moves on they will begin to write letters you haven’t formally taught, so let it be the easy ones or less common letters.
Correct siting and posture
- Posture, chair pulled in, feet on the floor.
- Pencil grip
- Page, have the page at a tilt. Corner to tummy (mark the table with tape if you need to have a reminder) one hand on the page to keep it steady and the other holding the pencil.
Research suggests tracing is not the most efficient way for the brain to process the formation of a letter, often children are focusing more on moving the pencil around the dotted lines. They will learn much more by repeated rainbow letter writing or drawing the letter on their own 5 times compared to tracing it 15 times. Quality over quantity is more important! So, this year I intend to include one rainbow letter at the top of the page in their best writing copy.
I only use lines because the children are ready for them. If you start letter handwriting earlier in the year I suggest you keep it sensory by following some of the group activities suggested above in day 1. If you do want to do written practice use blank pages in the early days.
In an ideal education system, we would be able to pitch our writing lessons to meet the exact needs of each individual child. But with most teachers alone in a classroom of 30+ children, this is not always possible. So, we do our best to challenge the more able and support the children who need more time. Here are some challenges that came to my attention from readers who got in touch with me.
Cursive v’s Print
Someone mentioned to me recently that the new writing curriculum will require all children to write using cursive letter formation from the start. Cursive writing helps children to spell with more ease and is less tiring on the hand muscles. I think it would be great if all children learnt it from the beginning of formal handwriting instruction, but I haven’t read the research on it so I can’t comment on which is better for infants but I would imagine that if we are to follow a cursive curriculum, it is more important than ever to have the foundations of pre-writing skills set in place before we attempt to teach letter formation. I use the Sassoon Infant font which is what the Jolly Phonics program use, it has the flick after each word so they progress to cursive as they grow. But it is important that you model whatever print you teach in all lessons and displays in the infant years.
It is fairly easy to assess and group children when it comes to handwriting development. By grouping children for discrete hand writing lessons, you will be able to focus on the children who need your help the most. You can find many assessment methods suitable for use during your writing lessons here.
Putting all those letters to work! When the children start to build confidence writing letters it’s time to put those skills to work. Dictation is when the teacher calls out a letter, word or sentence for the children to scribe. It is an invaluable way to develop spelling and reading using all the phonic and writing skills they have learnt and putting them to work.
Underlying conditions to be aware of...
There are many ways in which a child can be supported to improve handwriting issues with various intervention strategies. But using a keyboard may be the best option for some older children. Below are some underlying issues that may be the reason a child is struggling with writing.
Hand/eye dominance: mixed dominant can cause difficulty over uniformed dominance
Dysgraphia (specifically, trouble with handwriting)
Visual processing issues
Undoing Bad Habits
Occasionally you may have a class that have come to you in senior infants or above who do not have the correct letter formation learnt. They have picked up a lot of bad habits which are very difficult to change. Sometimes children manage fine but sometimes they need to be re-taught.
What I don’t teach until the end of Junior Infants
Capital letters: are first taught when discussing their function for example using a capital letter when writing a name, place or at the beginning of a sentence. I do not encourage children to be taught capital letters before lowercase, often this is done because the straight lines in capital letters are easier to draw. 95% of words are made up of lower case letters so that is what I teach first. I also feel it is never right to teach incorrect punctuation. *Correct formation of lowercase letters require that the pencil is not lifted from the page during formation, as this is not the case for uppercase letter formation, it can be conflicting and confusing for children are taught capital letters first or simultaneously to lowercase.
Names: I do not teach the children how to write their names until well into the second half of the year, after I have taught correct formation of most of the lowercase letters. WHAT! I hear you say… the reason for this is… how do you expect a child to form the letters correctly if you have not taught them how, instead what they might end up doing is picking up lots of bad habits that will be very difficult to undo. Taking into account that most of teachers will have 30+ little people in their class, it would probably require you teaching every letter of the alphabet individually, if you were to teach each child the correct formation of their name letters. Instead, I allow the children to become aware of the symbols in their name and they get to use plasticine or play-doh to visualize the shape and size of the letters, but they do not focus on the actually scribing of the letters with pencils until I have taught them how. By the end of Junior Infants, all of the children will write their name, forming letters correctly. Of course, you will get plenty of children who want to write their name, most likely in capital letters. I absolutely encourage this and I just remark “oh isn’t that lovely…” and point out how the capital letters compare to the correct lower case letter their name tags. I might send them to the plasticine names activity during stations or Aistear. Ask yourself why you need the children to be able to write their names the minute they arrive at school? Is it so they can write it on the worksheets? If so consider using copies instead of sheets, or having the children stick the sheets into their copies or scrapes books. For the sheets, you do use you could set up little cubby holes where the children can stick their sheet work, or even better if you have the wall space you could display their work sheets while collecting them together at the same time. But I completely understand that many teachers mightn't like this idea, so do what suits you best.
Note to Parents
Children need support at home. The best thing you can do for children is to encourage them to colour and draw. Don’t worry about teaching them to write letters before then go to school. Don’t teach your child to write their name in capital letters, this is so common. Even my own husband sat down to do this but I caught him just in time! Lol. I understand that parents do this, probably thinking that the straight lines are easier to draw and easier to visualize. But trust me it’s a really difficult habit to undo. As a teacher, I would much prefer parents to focus on exposing their children to lots of drawing and colouring materials and activities that work on those fine motor muscles like cutting and sticking. And as they develop you can encourage correct pencil grip. Keep in touch with your child's teacher and make sure you are reinforcing what she teaches when the time comes for letter formation. If you do have concerns that your child is having difficulty with their handwriting what should I do?
There are a number of things which you think about without distressing your child:
I hope you enjoyed this post and will be able to bring something back to your own classroom. I love to hear your thoughts on this post and share what works in your classroom in the comments section below. Subscribe to Infant Education Blog here and follow me on Facebook for more playful teaching ideas.
Thanks for reading,
The Language of Handwriting - NCCA