Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Handwriting Even a Mother Can't Love

Poor handwriting can have a lifelong negative impact on a child's ability to succeed at school and in his career. In most cases, it is easily avoided with proper instruction.

It's really not an exaggeration to say that our handwriting is a direct reflection of who we are. Illegible, poorly organized written work reflects poorly organized thoughts from a poorly organized brain, and prejudices those who have to read it against the writer. It is a mark of respect and consideration for others to make sure that writing is legible. 

Children who don't have good handwriting and struggle to complete assignments on time don't do as well in school as they could. Unfortunately, there's an epidemic of bad handwriting in this country. There are several reasons for this, but mainly it's because very few people understand how to teach it anymore.

Your child's school has a sacred responsibility to teach its students to be able to write fast enough to keep up with their thoughts while writing neatly and legibly . If they haven't learned how, they will not able to express themselves in writing to the best of their ability, which is the entire point of an academic education. Producing handwritten work is something grammar school children are expected to do all day, every day, and yet fewer and fewer of them are able to do it well.

If your child's handwriting is an issue, but he is performing up to speed in all other aspects of school, chances are very good that he hasn't been properly taught how to write, and that with some instruction and daily practice, he could write very neatly. Don't believe people who tell you that he'll be fine once he hits the upper grades and can use a keyboard. Everyone needs and deserves to have legible handwriting, and almost anyone can learn cursive, which is actually much eas
ier than print for some people, if taught properly.

I recently started working with a little boy whose mother sought me out for some help with his handwriting.  I started, as I usually do, by taking a look at some of his writing samples, and by asking him to write his letters and numbers for me, one by one, so that I could see his habits of letter formation.   There is one correct way to write each letter and number which produces the best combination of legibility and speed.  In print, this means starting every letter from the top and having the hand continuously traveling from top to bottom, left to right. 

Almost every letter that this child wrote for me needed to be relearned.  Most of them were started from the bottom, and many of his letters were formed with extra strokes, which slowed him down considerably.  His lower case R was indistinguishable from a V, his lowercase  N and H were the same, and his Q was a squiggle that Prince might have adopted for his own use.  He mixed up his B's and D's and reversed his J, Z, and several numbers.  All of his letters with round curves, like O, were formed clockwise, which also slowed him down and prevented him from being able to control his strokes.  He indiscriminately mixed up  his capitals and lower case letters.  His letter sizes varied wildly; some were huge and some were tiny.

His writing sample, which was written on a blank piece of construction paper, meandered all over the place.  He didn't have the skills yet to keep his writing neat, and no one had thought to provide him with some structure to help him organize himself.

His grip was quite eccentric as well; he used all five fingers and an extended thumb, which made it very difficult for him to move the pencil in order to form the tops and tails of his letters.

  It was obvious to me that no one had ever shown him what to do; he had had to figure it all out for himself.  He had done the best he could, but it wasn't serving him well at all, and it all had to be relearned correctly in order for him to write legibly. {Ever tried to convince a seven year old boy that he needed to change a well ingrained habit?}  When I pointed this out to his mother, who was sending him to a very expensive private school, she shrugged her shoulders and said that he had learned quite a lot about African dance and organic gardening, but didn't seem to be getting much of a grounding in actual academics.

Call me crazy, but schools that don't teach grammar or spelling,  don't provide formal instruction in handwriting, and don't drill children in the foundational rules of arithmetic are setting up their students to have minimal skills to build on when it's time to move on to the more complicated academic challenges.  How can you learn to factor when you can't multiply?  How can you write a coherent sentence when you don't know the rules of punctuation?  How can you learn to hold a pencil correctly and acquire correct habits of letter formation without a grownup to model it for you and then practice it with you until you get it right?  You wouldn't expect someone to be able to play Bach on the violin without ever having been taught all the underlying skills, like reading music, bowing, fingering, and playing scales, would you?   Handwriting is the same.  Rules need to be learned, and skills need to be rehearsed until they are acquired.  It should not be left to chance.  It's too important to your child's academic success.

If your child is starting kindergarten, ask what the school provides in terms of handwriting instruction.   Did the teachers formally learn how to teach handwriting? Who taught them?  What is the school's handwriting curriculum, and whose method does it use?  {Some methods are really poor pedagogy, with Zaner Bloser and D'Nealian among the two worst, although they are very popular.}  Is there time set aside for handwriting instruction every day?  How does the teacher go about it?

Many schools in New York City use the Handwriting Without Tears method, which is in my opinion by far the best I have ever come across.  But it's not enough to just pass out the books and expect the children to learn good habits of letter formation out of them while they work independently, which is unfortunately what happens most of the time.  The teacher must model the correct way to form the letters a step at a time, have the children follow at their desks, and then they should all practice together so that the teacher can keep an eye on them and make corrections when necessary.  This should be done every single day until the teacher observes that every child has mastered handwriting as an automatic skill.

I have been told by more than one kindergarten teacher that "There is no room in the curriculum to teach handwriting."  These teachers are expecting written work every day from their students, yet they don't teach them how to do it!  And can someone please tell me what on earth is more important at that age than learning how to write?

If you're not satisfied with what the school is doing, what can you do about it?  How can you make sure that your child's school is teaching this critical life skill correctly?

If what your child is producing is not acceptable and/or too slow, you may have to either find a handwriting specialist in your area, or tackle it yourself with the Handwriting Without Tears materials.  Either way, if your child can't write legibly, it's up to you to make sure that he can.

P.S:  Did you know that the essay portion of the SAT's is handwritten?


Regula said...

I absolutely agree with you, Loren!

We learnt handwriting (print) very thouroughly as first graders. It took about half a year until we had all the letters. And there was a lot of practice and training almost every day. Not only letters and words, but also patterns, huge and tiny just to get a feeling.

In second class we learnt the cursive handwriting and practiced all the years through Primary School. I loved these lessons. Sometimes we had do write rhythmically to a beat or music.

Not all the students achieved a nice handwriting, of course.

Unfortunately, there isn't as much time for a proper handwriting these days. Adn a lot ot people think it isn't necessary. And I think it is sad because handwriting is culture. I remember my grandmother's handwriting. It was just beautiful! Like printed by a machine.

Penny Williams said...

My son was not taught to write in Kindergarten either. When he arrived, his K-teacher was appalled he didn't yet know how to write his alphabet. I thought that's what you learn in kindergarten! (He didn't go to preschool.) So they let him flop and flounder and teach himself letters. Then, a year later in a new school (the first was charter), he was diagnosed with ADHD and started OT. They did handwriting without tears with him for a while but I felt he wasn't going to improve much more than the little bit he had in 4 months so they began to work on other things. It was totally a matter of relearning how to form the letters and it wasn't going well. How did it go with your client? Did he re-learn how to form his letters successfully? I am wondering if teaching cursive, a fluid motion, would be easier.
{a mom's view of ADHD}

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