“I consider writing as a fine art. We kill it by imposing the alphabet on little children and making it the beginning of learning.”- Mahatma Gandhi.
I believe that writing should be learnt naturally and not forced onto young children; many schools are following this science and treat writing as a natural process. This article is for those that are forced to still follow the teaching of formal writing skills to young children maybe because of the ‘pressure’ from primary school. In India our primary, secondary and higher secondary school curriculum has gone through many drastic and sometime path breaking changes for the benefit of children but the preprimary curriculum is still shackled in age old redundant traditional senseless practices! The reason these practices still prevail, to some extent is because we call it Pre School or preprimary instead of kindergarten or early childhood education. When we call it preschool the focus is on making it a preparatory for primary school and that is exactly what is happening, instead of focusing on brain research or theory of child development schools are forcing learning skills in kindergarteners that are not age appropriate. Whatever the reason, it is time we took responsibility for the fact that early childhood centers very rarely train teachers in understanding the reason, science and research of how to nurture/develop a particular skill in young children.
What is writing?
Handwriting is a complex skill that involves a wide range of cognitive, linguistic and perceptual-motor abilities. It is the way we record our thoughts on paper, using a generally understood system of symbols.
Is writing an essential skill like reading, spelling, and math?
Yes, like reading, spelling, and math, writing is a skill that has to be taught in school. The time taken to help the children learn to write fluently and quickly is well spent, since writing is required in every school subject. Children cannot simply ‘pick up’ the writing skill by themselves. Even with effective teaching, it is a skill that takes time to perfect.
Why is sight vocabulary important for writing?
To write is to form symbols representing letters or words with pen, pencil, and brush etc. on any surface and especially paper. Hence, recognizing that symbols stand for something is the first step towards writing readiness. For e.g.: a child looks at a picture of a cat and is able to say ‘cat’. Now if the same picture also has the word written under it then the child will over a period of time able to recognize the word and read it
Some essential points related to writing and reading, what is happening in schools and what should be:
- Is there any research that talks about what is the appropriate age for writing? Child development is the best research to guide educationists and child development says that growth in children happens cephalo-caudal and proximo-distal which simply means head to toes and torso outwards to your fingers, so our fingers are the last to develop, so writing should be the last skill to focus on! Writing should be taught to kids only at age 4 or 5! Till then give them writing implements and let them explore and they may even start forming letters , shapes , forms on their own, but controlled writing should not be taught before age 4!
- Readiness skills are extremely important to develop fine motor, eye hand co-ordination so at age 2 and 3 more of such activities should be given to children, most children in primary school complain of ‘hand paining’ or inability to copy from the blackboard, this is because the two main skills of fine motor and eye hand are not suitably developed. Activities like catching a ball, (develops hand grip and eye hand co-ordination) parachute play, (develops all the write muscles namely wrist, forearm, elbows and shoulders) scissoring (develops the three main fingers used to grip a pencil) should be done before you give a pencil to a child.
- Writing develops in a systematic manner and yes, children learn reading and writing simultaneously, and maximum that children read is in print, but at that time we are asking them to join letters while writing, so confusion reins supreme in both reading and writing.
- Should capital letters be taught first or small letters? Small letters should be taught first because children learn to read first and all reading is in small letters also in a sentence you use more than 90% small letters. Another reason is that when you teach them capital letters first then they learn to write words in all capital and then they have to learn to unlearn and write the correct manner, this again takes them backwards on the learning curve.
- Many schools teach the writing patterns first and then move on to writing letters that are of the same pattern like all letters with curves together, lines together etc., that is fine for letters because the only place children need to know the alphabet in the correct order is when referring to the dictionary! But doing the same for numbers is not good, as some schools teach 1,4,7,9 first and then the numbers with curves, this is completely incorrect as in numbers you need to know what comes before and after so you are actually confusing children with this method.
- Are 4 lines important? Oh, the monsters called red and blue lines! Ultimate goal of writing is to see that the child is able to write on a ‘single line format’. In most schools now the preference is given to using three line books instead of four lines as the transition from three lines to single lines is easier rather than from four lines to single line for the following reasons
a) In single line the child has to use one line after the other and hence when the child is trained on a 3-line page, only the dotted middle line disappears, no unlearning and no major change.
b) It also helps them understand that the small letters are half the size of the capital letters
c) Where as in the red and blue line, there are four lines and ultimate goal for the child is to write on single line, so when he writes a capital G and a small g on a four line he needs to use all four lines, so which of the four lines disappear when he moves to single one? Very confusing as all four lines are required to write so children go through a tough process of learning and unlearning. (try out this example and you will experience the trauma that they go through when changing from 4 line to 3 lines)
“Children should be taught to read before they learn to write.”- Mahatma Gandhi.
Writing is a researched systematic skill and teachers who teach foundational writing have to be trained in it. Knowing what to teach, how to teach and understanding the development of the child’s brain (D.A.P – Developmentally Appropriate Practice) all influence instructional practices for the young child. Lack of understanding the developmental milestones while developing the child’s fine motor skills for writing may end up developing more negative emotions than positive emotions towards the art of writing in our child thus affecting his/her brain development.
Understanding the process of writing development in young children:
Handwriting as a perceptual skill
· Every action we perform involves the senses and interpretation of the information they supply. Even the simplest act of picking up an object from the floor, for example, requires guidance from vision and knowledge of where our limbs are in space.
· Handwriting is a skill which involves very fine spatial judgment and good control of the body parts e.g. to join the letters d and a, a child must be able to 'see' the difference between them so that they can plan the movements required.
· Similarly, it is difficult to help a child correct irregular slope if he/she cannot perceive the problem to be solved.
· Linking sound to visual representation is another perceptual requirement if writing is to be linked to other aspects of literacy.
Handwriting as a cognitive skill
· Handwriting is rather different from other movement skills in that it is language-based and involves learning rules specific to our language system. For example, we write from left to right, the main bodies of our letters sit on a line, and we use spaces to separate one word from the next.
· In contrast, Chinese is usually written from right to left and there are no spaces between words.
· All children enjoy learning about other cultures and for some, comparing writing systems may be a way of helping them to remember our rules better.
Handwriting as a movement or motor skill
· Most children learn many motor skills without any instruction.
· By the time they reach school age, they can run and jump, feed and dress themselves, and speak fluently - speech involves many intricate movements. In contrast, the ability to write comes later and does not develop spontaneously.
· Consequently, it is really important to teach the basic movements as early as possible.
Variations in learning speed
· Children vary in the speed at which they learn to write.
Some have very little difficulty from the beginning and may be using good joined handwriting while they are still in infant school. Others need much more practice and take longer to learn to write fluently.
Some have very little difficulty from the beginning and may be using good joined handwriting while they are still in infant school. Others need much more practice and take longer to learn to write fluently.
· Whatever the speed of learning, however, once a motor 'habit' (correct or incorrect) has been established, it can be very difficult to alter.
· Preventing difficulties from arising by ensuring correct initial teaching is much easier than trying to put things right later.
When should writing be taught?
There is no fixed age to teach writing to children, because a child has to be physically and psychologically ready for writing. Hence, writing readiness activities are very important because it is very essential that the muscles of the finger, thumb, and wrist (fine motor skills) are properly developed before we ask the child to do any activity or make him/her hold a writing tool.
The concept of readiness:
Both physiological and psychological developments are necessary for the child to be ready for any activity – this is termed as ‘readiness’. This is a very difficult concept to define. An experienced teacher can have a clear vision that a child is not quite ready to learn to form letters. There are many possible reasons for this, e.g. the child may be generally delayed in the area of language and literacy or lack the physical coordination to hold and control a writing implement. A less experienced teacher making this kind of judgment about a child may be difficult and schools need to discuss and offer some guidance, e.g. a very simple rule of thumb is that a child who cannot draw a circle, a vertical and/or a horizontal line that is recognizable is unlikely to manage the more complex shapes that make up letters.
General readiness activities for fine motor development
For Age group: 3 to 4 years activities like: Catching a ball, Play doh, Block printing, Lacing beads, Dabbing, Finger rhymes, Snapping fingers, Paper sticking activities, Thumb or finger printing, Sand play: making wet balls of sand, Using telephone with old fashioned dials, Dropping water with dropper, Jigsaw puzzle, Buttoning, Paper crumpling, Scissoring etc.
For age group: 4 to 6 years activities like: Washing toys, Parachute play, Tweezers, Scissoring , Opening and closing lids of jars, Paper twisting, Paper sticking, Collage work, Spray painting, Paper folding, Cutting paper activities. The two activities that are important before the children start colouring within a given boundary are ‘doodling’ and ‘scribbling’.
“Good handwriting is a necessary part of education. I am now of the opinion that children should first be taught the art of drawing before learning how to write. Let the child learn his letters by observation as he does different objects, such as flowers, birds, etc., and let him learn handwriting only after he has learnt to ‘draw’ objects first teach a child to draw straight lines, curves, triangles, figures of birds, flowers and leaves as that would help the child to draw and not to ‘scrawl’ the alphabet”- Mahatma Gandhi.
The first 4 friends that help children write well, they are called Scribbling, Doodling, Drawing, and And Colouring. (Read my blog on why is it wrong to buy a colouring book for your 2- 3 year old…)
Before a writing tool is introduced, teacher to understand the palmer grip and pincer grip and give activities accordingly. Which implement is the most appropriate for a kindergartner to begin their journey of writing? It’s firstly the crayon, then the scissors, and finally a pencil. By selecting the right kind of writing implement a teacher and a parent can foster healthy writing habits in children and make them love writing.
Crayon: Why a crayon?
· Small muscle exercise stimulates brain growth.
· Crayons help the children to exercise their finger muscles, especially those fingers that are used for holding a pencil.
· Very young children should not be given a pencil to hold, as their small fingers cannot hold it comfortably, so they should first be given thick crayon that is comfortable.
· Once the children are comfortable holding crayons, they will automatically hold a pencil comfortably.
While selecting crayons:
· For toddlers select those that are thick and fit in the palm because that is the first instinctive way a child will hold a crayon.
· Crayons should be such that they do not break easily, as this can be frustrating for the child.
· Children tend to put everything in their mouth and may even bite it and swallow – so always select crayons made from food grade colours and avoid those made from textile dyes-as these are dangerous for children when swallowed.
· The wrapper of the crayon should be of the same colour as the tip of the crayon as this helps the child select the colour all by himself and hence develops confidence.
· A crayon box is usually labeled with the child name but what about crayons, as these can get easily mixed with the other children crayons so try and find those that have the facility to write the child name on each crayon.
· After a child has done colouring it should not stain the other pages.
· While colouring the child should be able to get an even flow and not a patchy print.
· Teacher and a parent should always select a crayon that is 3 sided so that it automatically teaches the child the right way to hold the crayon and this will in future will help him in holding a pencil.
Why a scissors?
· The ‘thumb’, the ‘forefinger’ and the ‘middle finger’ together help the child hold a pair of scissors.
· The same three fingers that help the child in holding a pencil are used in a scissor and hence cutting with a scissor is a good finger exercise. It makes the fingers stronger and relaxed.
· When a child learns to cut on a line – it improves ‘eye-hand co-ordination’ skills. So, by using a scissor a child will be able to hold the pencil comfortably and will hence have a relaxed and smooth flow and enjoy writing.
While selecting scissors:
It is very important to give cutting with scissors as a pre-writing activity as the same three fingers that are used in holding a pencil are used for holding the scissor and hence this helps develops them.
· Both the finger holes should be of the same size as this teaches them to give the right pressure.
· It should be sharp enough for cutting and blunt enough not to hurt the child.
· Try rubbing the blades on your palms to check if they hurt.
While choosing a pencil:
· A pencil should have a ridged body as this helps a child’s fingers rest comfortably.3 sided pencils are the best for grip and control.
· If a child is finding it difficult to hold a pencil correctly, help him/her by putting a little soft clay on the pencil and gently press the child’s fingers into the correct position for writing. Check that the pencil only rests on the middle finger and not gripped to tightly.
· Check the centering of the lead-it should be exactly in the center or else the pencil point will keep breaking while writing and this can be very frustrating for the child.
Before introducing writing of letters, teacher to also observe the below mentioned points in children and draw an overall conclusion on whether a child is ready to write:
· A child learns to appreciate the writing tools such as crayons, brushes, pencils, and scissors.
· Is able to form simple shapes like circles, lines, and boxes.
· Develops a hand preference.
· Exhibits certain physical abilities like small and large muscle co-ordination, eye-coordination, is able to sit and concentrate.
· Has developed wrist dexterity that is essential for proper flow and movement.
· Shows visual and auditory discrimination.
· Is able to find out likeness and differences in sizes, shapes, objects, and sounds.
· Is able to follow left and right direction while looking at pictures.
· Is able to follow instructions like big, small, left, right, up and down etc.
After identifying the above a teacher should observe if a child has sufficient pencil control/coordination to begin to form letters.
· Horizontal lines left-to-right, both straight and wavy.
· Straight scribble
· Round and round scribble
· A diagonal cross
· A horizontal / vertical cross
· An anti-clockwise circle
· A clockwise circle
· A vertical line in a downward direction
· A vertical line in an upward direction
For a child to start writing with a pencil:
• left and right preference should be in place
• How to hold a pencil-pincer- three digit grip
• Copy simple shapes
• Be able to draw small and big
• Progression from left to right
• Do writing patterns
• Control grip and pressure
• Is interested in writing
• Has attention span
In doing any activity with a writing implement, help children focus on the Tripod grip
1. Tall finger (side)
2. Thumb (pad)
3. Pointing finger (tip)
All fingers to be slightly bent
Also look out for children holding the implement incorrectly like:
1. Pressure on the pointer figure
2. All fingers pulled into a fist
Teaching the basics of handwriting
It is important for everyone, teachers, children, and parents, to be familiar with the vocabulary of handwriting and to use the same words.
Vocabulary of handwriting:
Capital or uppercase letters/small or lower case letters
Teachers need to decide which terminology they will use with their pupils:
· Capital or upper case letters or
· Small or lower case letters
The terminology chosen collectively by the teachers has to be consistent for all the classes. So, when a child graduates from one class to the other, the new teacher is referring to the same terminology.
The base line
· It is the continuous line upon which the main bodies of all letters rest.
Ascenders and descenders
· These are the correct terms for what children often call the sticks and tails of the letters.
· The teachers need to decide which terms they will use and be consistent.
· A few teachers think that 'sticks and tails' is more accessible for young children.
· The important thing is that teacher and children all use the same words and understand what they mean.
· Letters with ascenders – b, d, h, k, l, and t.
· Letters with descenders – g, j, p, q, y, z.
· Letters with both ascenders and descenders – f.
· The letters without ascenders or descenders such as a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w and x are the ‘x-height’ letters.
· Letter bodies are the parts of the letters which are neither ascenders nor descenders e.g. the rounded parts of b, d, and a and the 'arches' of m and n. Up and down, left and right
· Teachers of young children will need to check whether their children understand the concepts of 'up' and 'down' as it is used when a child is writing with pencil on a paper.
· Rather than using the words 'left' and 'right' when giving instructions to young children teachers may find that providing a reference point, e.g. 'towards the window or 'towards the bookshelf' is more helpful at first.
(the above are excerpts from the document, “Developing a handwriting policy for your school” by the Handwriting Association of U.K.)
Cursive or joined up – the heated debate! Marion Richardson font may be the solution.
What is an Entry and exit stroke?
· The beginning of every letter from the base line; is called an entry stroke.
· Most schools teach their children not to finish their letters by stopping short at the base line but to finish with a final 'flick' in a forward direction - preparatory to joining to the next letter. This is called an exit stroke.
· For this many schools use cursive handwriting, but cursive during the early years is too difficult for young children.
Cursive actually needs to be done away from kindergartens as children are too young to understand the complex curves and loops used. It would be like making children hop and run before they learn to crawl and walk! Print is always better in kindergarten as reading and writing go hand in hand and since reading is in all print, writing too should be in all print.
As children learn to write the emphasis is also on teaching them to be precise, neat and increase speed of writing and since cursive is not good so the dilemma for schools was what to use with young kids. Marion Richardson a school inspector in UK understood this and created the Marion Richardson font which is a form of print but all letters have a ‘handle’ at the beginning or end of the letter (entry and exit stroke) to easily ‘hold hands’ with the next letter. This helps kids understand spacing, line format and helps them keep their writing neat and increase speed.
Should letters be taught in the ABC sequence?
· The only place that children will need to know the ABC in the right order is when referring to a dictionary, so when teaching writing to children, it helps if same flow letters are taught together.
· It is not so hard to teach the letters with correct formation if, instead of teaching each letter individually, they are taught in groups, teaching the letters which are formed with a similar movement together.
· Teaching the letters in movement groups cuts down the learning load and provides for reinforcement of basic movement patterns.
The same concept cannot be used for numbers. Because if you teach kids to write 1, 4, 7 then you are focusing on correct writing but the math concept will suffer as a child will be weak in what comes after!
Children with difficulties
· There are some children who learn to write legibly but will have disabilities that preclude them from writing at speed (e.g. children with cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy).
· This is where coordination is needed with a special educator so that special provision can be made for this group.
Advice on left-handed pupils- Some guidelines for dealing with left-handed pupils.
· Left-handed pupils do not always find handwriting difficult but there is no doubt that our left-to-right writing system is 'the wrong way round' for them and this may need some consideration by teachers, e.g. during demonstrations of how to form letters.
· Also, if the teacher needs to guide the hand of a left-handed pupil then he/she should also use the left hand.
· Teachers might be reminded that left-handers should either sit next to each other or on the left of a right-hander, so that elbows do not clash.
Assessment of handwriting
While ‘correcting’ children’s writing work it is a common question asked by teachers, Should the focus and stress be on neatness or form while teaching writing? The two changes I would suggest here is first stop using a red pen to ‘correct’ children’s work and second don’t ‘correct’ their work instead guide them and support them. Why to do away with the red pen? A study conducted by researchers from the University of Colorado showed that students think they have been assessed more harshly when their work is assessed in red ink compared to colours like blue. Researchers said this is because red is connected to danger, anger, caution etc.
While assessing the child, the teacher should keep in mind what the child 'knows' about handwriting (the cognitive component) and what he or she can 'do' (the movement or motor component). All assessments should include an evaluation of:
Letter formation and joining – This is the most important thing to observe for a teacher. Teacher should note how the child forms each letter and when appropriate how he/she executes particular joins.
Letter shape - Letters can be formed using the correct sequence of movements but still be misshapen.
Letter Size - Consistency of size is most important but overall size (too big or too small) and relative size is also relevant (e.g. ascenders or descenders too short).
Slant/Slope- Inconsistency of slant is most problematic (in particular, ascenders and descenders need to be parallel) but extremes of slope in either direction can make writing hard to read.
Alignment - Letters may be correctly formed but if the relevant components do not rest on the base line, reading can be difficult (e.g. letters like p and g, which have descenders, may stand up on their 'tails').
Spacing - This should include spacing between words and spacing of letters within words.
In addition, the assessor should observe:
Posture – How the child sits at the desk.
Pen grip - How the child holds the pen
Paper position - How the child positions the paper (different for the right and left-hander).
Pressure and fluency - Is the pressure noticeably too hard or too soft? Is the grip tense or too slack?
Speed - The assessment of speed of writing is not appropriate in young children but becomes progressively more important as children get older.
(Above are excerpts from the book “Developing a handwriting policy for your school” by the Handwriting Association of U.K.)
Some points to think about red and blue lines (the 4 line books)
Are 4 lines important? Here are some points in favor of 3 lines to replace 4 lines (red
and blue lines)
· Ultimate goal of writing is to see that the child is able to write on a ‘single line format.’
· In most schools now the preference is given to using three line books instead of four lines as the transition from three lines to single lines is easier rather than from four lines to single line for the following reasons
· In single line the child has to use one line after the other and hence when the child is trained on a 3-line page, only the dotted middle line disappears, no unlearning and no major change.
· It also helps them understand that the small letters are half the size of the capital letters
· Where as in the red and blue line, there are four lines and ultimate goal for the child is to write on single line, so when he writes a capital g and a small g on a four line he needs to use all four lines, so which of the four lines disappear when he moves to single one? Very confusing as all four lines are required to write so children go through a tough process of learning and unlearning. (try out this example and you will experience the trauma that they go through when changing from 4 line to 3 lines)
It is important to have a proper smooth transition for the child from kindergarten to primary school (standard one)-
· Children must experience the same books, lines and fonts.
· As it has to be a continution not a relearning and unlearning.
· Transition should happen in the Sr. Kg so workbooks, narrow lines are all to be introduced.
· In the first 6 months where reading and writing are concerned - take it forward.
Let us not stress out our children. Let writing and learning be fun and education a pleasurable goal.
· Developing a handwriting policy for your school” by the Handwriting Association of U.K.
· The secret of childhood, Maria Montessori.
· Montessori read and write, a parent’s guide to literacy for children, Lynne Lawrence.
· Developmental milestones of young children, Redleaf Press.
· Essential kindergarten assessments for reading, writing and Math, Scholastic.