Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Making Handwriting an Automatic Skill

In my last post, I talked about some of the reasons why a child who is bright and articulate can't commit his thoughts to paper in a way that reflects his true abilities.  Today  we'll look at ways to work with children to make writing completely automatic so that that their minds and bodies are free to think more deeply and write more fluently.

 The more completely automatic the child's knowledge of letter formation, the more his mind is able to think about what he wants to say, instead of being stuck in the mechanics of how to write it down.  If your child is still thinking to himself, "Which way does the hook turn on the J?  How do I remember which one is b and which is d?  How does that Q go again?" He's not going to be able to let his thoughts flow through his fingers and onto the paper.  He has to attend instead to the problem of  just getting those marks down, and there is little room left in there for creativity. 

 This is even more the case if he has a dysfunctional pencil grasp and has a difficult time controlling the pencil successfully or suffers hand pain after writing for more than a few moments.

Unfortunately, most schools don't teach the mechanics of handwriting these days.  Teachers are not taught how to teach handwriting during their training, and I have had more than one teacher, who required that their children write every day, tell me that there was no room in the curriculum to teach handwriting!  

What happens instead these days is that the teachers pass out the workbooks and the children are expected to fill them out on their own and then turn them in. 

As no one is actively modeling and monitoring how the child is writing, he will most likely come up with some eccentric habits in how he forms letters.  Generally what I see in the clinic is that the child starts many of his  letters from the bottom, he takes several strokes to write a letter that just requires one or two, he mixes up capitals and lower case, he can't remember which of the lower case letters are taller and so will make an l the same size as an i, or an h the same size as an n.   He will have to stop and think about how to write some of the less common letters, and in which direction to turn the asymmetrical ones like J and P.  He will have a hard time leaving enough space in between the words.   He will ignore the lines on the writing paper and his words and numbers will float all over the place with very little organization.

If the child writes very slowly, concentrating on the act of writing instead of thinking about what he wants to say, he can keep his work legible, but when he starts to speed up, it all falls apart.

The only solution to this is to reteach the child the alphabet, emphasizing correct habits of placement, spacing and letter formation.  This means starting every letter and number from the top; making capitals, numbers and tall letters all the same height; writing letters with tails that go below the line, etc.

  The only way to reteach the child to write correctly is to drill, drill, drill.  Like learning to play a musical instrument, the only way to improve is to practice every day.  Short, mindful sessions are the key.  Especially for a very young child, practice sessions should not exceed five minutes.   Always precede the session with some movement {jumping jacks, a jog around the block, a trip to the park, a spin in an office chair} and a drink of water.  This will help the child focus.  So will a lollypop or a piece of gum.

If you are undertaking this at home, buy yourself some Handwriting Without Tears materials {instruction books, handwriting texts, slate, and double lined paper} and follow the instructions.  It's all there for you.

 If you live in an area with a good selection of pediatric occupational therapists, you may want to hire someone to work with your child.  Make sure that the therapist has taken the HWT training and shows you how to practice with your child at home in between sessions.

Make sure the child is sitting at a table where there is good lighting, he can sit with his feet flat on the floor, and the table is low enough so that there is free movement for his arms.  He may do better with a slant board.

I suggest starting with the capital letters and going on from there only after the child has mastered them completely. I won't go into the specifics of how I teach each letter because it's all laid out in the Handwriting Without Tears books.  Just follow the instructions.

When you see that he can write the capital letters of the alphabet automatically, with no hesitation or mistakes,  starting all of the letters at the top, have him copy some words that you have written and see if he is still hesitating before writing or starting some letters from the bottom.  If he is, he needs to drill further.   It is still not completely automatic.   Drop him back to just writing the alphabet.

 When he is able to copy the words you have written with no hesitation or mistakes, try spelling some three and four letter words for him and see how he does.  If he is still struggling, drop him back to copying words you have written and try again in a day or two.

It's easier to wait until all of the capitals are mastered before you move on to lower case.  The capitals are all the same size and all start at the top, which is less confusing.  {Two lower case letters, d and e, start from the middle.}

You can be creative in teaching the letters.  Have him write them by dragging a forefinger through shaving cream, confectioner's sugar, hair gel, chocolate pudding, etc.  Roll them in  Play-Do.  Buy a pack of foam letters and float them in the bathtub.  I strongly recommend the Handwriting Without Tears wooden pieces for preschoolers.

When he can write the words you spell with no mistakes,  have him write words that you dictate without spelling them.  When he is successful at that,  try writing a little story together and have him record what you both say.  Or you can play a game of Hangman or Mad Libs.   And thank goodness for Harry Potter  -- most of the older children I treat will happily write Harry Potter words for hours.  One little girl loved to write Harry Potter fan fic with me; we would spin endless silly yarns about Hagrid losing control of his Blast Ended Skrewts and all of the havoc they would create in the forest around Hogwarts, or we would make up stories about Tom Riddle and James Potter as schoolboys.  She learned to write as fast as she could think in short order.

If your seven or eight year old is struggling with print, you may want to switch him to cursive.  Many children do much, much better with cursive than they do with print, since the "flow" of cursive suits their hands and eyes better.   Handwriting Without Tears also has has a first rate cursive program.   It uses vertical cursive, which is much easier to write and read, there are no superfluous loops or ornamentations, which makes it easier to learn, and all of the connections are carefully taught.

If your child has trouble holding a pencil, I recommend making sure that he does craft activities and plays with toys that emphasize pinch between the thumb and forefinger.  Lite Bright, Operation, Jenga, and pop beads are good.  So are beading activities, weaving potholders on a little loom, leather lacing, and sewing.  Get rid of big markers and fat crayons and only have small nubs of chalk and bits of crayon, which will force the fingers to hold them in a strong pinch.

Or check out these adaptive grips.  {I don't require a child to change his grip unless I see that he really can't control the pencil very well, or he complains of hand pain.}

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