A standard expectation in education is that young students learn how to write legible well-formed letters. Research shows that handwriting is a foundational skill that can influence students’ reading, writing, language use, and critical thinking (Saperstein Associates 2012). It has an important role in brain development, is necessary alongside technology in the classroom, and promotes success in other academic subjects. Handwriting provides children with the opportunity to create internal models for the symbol system necessary to succeed in academic disciplines (Dinehart 2013).
Research also demonstrates that children learn best by engaging in hands-on, active learning that incorporates the five senses (known as multi-sensory learning), therefore there we should provide plenty of opportunities for hands-on, multi-sensory learning when practicing handwriting (this includes letter and number formation).
Another study, conducted by Kast, Meyer, Vogeli, Gross, and Jancke (2007), found that targeting multiple senses during a writing training program helped students with and without developmental dyslexia to improve writing skills. Multisensory instruction can also help children become more invested in the classroom. Results of a study by Molenda and Bhavangri (2009) stated that students become emotionally involved in multi-sensory activities in the classroom.
Here are ten multi-sensory/hands-on approaches to help children develop handwriting skills and address problems such as illegible letters/numbers, inconsistency in letter/number size, and letter/number reversals.
1. Surface Tracing
Show your child a letter and ask him/her to pay attention to how it is formed/shaped. Then ask your child to try to trace it from memory on a table, door, window etc. You can also trace a letter on any surface and have your child guess what it is. Use a large surface or small surface. Write large or small letters. If your child is really struggling to trace or guess the letters, have her put her hand on yours while you trace the letter or put your hand on hers while you guide her to trace the letter.
You can even trace the letter on your child’s hand and have her guess it and ask her to trace a letter on yours and have you guess it.
Research demonstrates that having children attempt to write/draw letters from memory is an effective strategy when trying to teach or trying to improve letter formation.
2. Stencil – Write the letters/numbers in stencils to naturally practice correct formation
3. Ask you child to trace letters/numbers with arrows cues on a piece of paper or a dry erase board. Once they have the hang of that (may take several sessions), ask them to trace without arrow cues.
You can get dozens of free worksheets, with and without arrow cues, that you can print out, by doing a search in Google Images for Handwriting Worksheets.
You can also purchase a handwriting workbook such as Lots and Lots of Letter Tracing
or a dry-erase book where your child can erase and rewrite the letters/numbers as many times as he/she wants.
3. Look at the letter and then write it on paper/dry-erase board from memory
Remember that young children don’t have the same motor/hand control as older children (some older children with special needs also struggle with hand/motor control) so using wide-lined paper to give them more space to make their letters/numbers is beneficial.
Young children (small hands) may also benefit from shorter/child-size pens/pencils.
4. Use the Wet-Dry-Try Method
The Wet-Dry-Try method is a component of the Handwriting Without Tears Program, a research-based handwriting intervention program. How does the Wet-Dry-Try method work? First the adult writes the letter on a chalkboard. Next the child uses a sponge and then their finger to go over the letter to make a nice wet version of the letter. Then the child lets the letter dry and traces over the letter with chalk. See detailed instructions below.
6. Write letters/numbers in sand or shaving cream.
7. Talk about letter formation. For example, describe what a letter looks like-“a B has a straight line and two curves coming out to the right, a C looks like a crescent moon, an E looks like a comb with some missing teeth, a V is two slanted lines that meet at the bottom, etc. Describe it to your child and have your child describe it to you. Talk about letter formation while you look at, write, or trace a letter.
8. Use mnemonic devices for b/d reversals. Mnemonic devices are research-based techniques a person can use to help them improve their ability to remember something. Here are some examples of mnemonic devices for b/d reversals.
9. Write letters in clay with the point or back end of a pencil/pen or other carving tool. This will allow your child to feel resistance when writing which is helpful for feeling letter formation and building hand strength. Your child can look as they write or look (only if needed) and they try to write from memory.
10. Incorporate music and movement into learning
Research demonstrates that music enhances learning and a component of multi-sensory learning (discussed above) often includes kenisthetic learning (learning that takes place by the student carrying out physical activities).
Check out these motivated students doing a Handwriting Without Tears dance that reminds them that when they write, they always start their letters at the top.
Here is a fun song that has the letters of the alphabet singing, dancing, and waving!
Keep in Mind
Keep practice sessions short (2 to 10 minutes for younger children or children who get easily frustrated and 10 to 15 minutes for older children or children who can work for longer periods without frustration), unless the child is eager to keep going.
For suggestions on ways to encourage children to complete tasks or assignments they do not want to do, read 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion and How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior.
Remember to always stay calm when working with a child or student, even if you think they should be getting something that they are not getting. If you get frustrated with them, they may start to feel anxious, angry, inferior, stupid, etc. which will lead to a less productive learning session.
Want to know if the strategies recommended in this article are working? Ask your child to write the alphabet and the numbers 1 – 10. Check how many letters have the correct form, positioning, and are clearly recognizable. Implement the strategies in this article two to five times weekly. At the end of a chosen time period (let’s say 10 weeks) reassess your child’s ability to correctly write 26 letters of the alphabet and numbers 1 – 10.
If you see improvement, you know the interventions are working. It is important for children to work on mastering one letter before moving on to the next. Mastery means they can correctly write the letter on a piece of paper from memory.
Studies estimate that between 10 to 30 percent of elementary school children struggle with handwriting (Karlsdottir and Stephansson 2002, as cited in Feder and Majnemer 2007). If you are concerned that your child is struggling with handwriting, talk to your child’s school to find out if they share the same concern. If you are still unsure you can check with your child’s doctor or review handwriting milestones and guidelines such as the ones at North Shore Pediatric Therapy which indicate that by six years old children typically should be able to copy or write their name and be able to write the alphabet without omitting letters. Children should also be able to write the alphabet in uppercase and lowercase letters without switching forms throughout. By seven years old children should no longer reverse the letters of the alphabet while writing (example: ‘b’ versus ‘d’). They should also use appropriate capital letters and punctuation to write complete sentences.
If your child is significantly struggling with letter formation, handwriting, or acquiring other academic skills, despite consistent practice and guidance, inform your child’s school and/or doctor. They should be able to refer you to the appropriate professionals to determine what might be interfering with your child’s progress and what additional strategies might help. An occupational therapist can assess posture, pencil grip, visual perception, hand-strength, etc. (all important skills for writing development) and work with your child to address specific areas of need. Occupational therapists can be found your child’s schools or your community. Contact your child’s school, county, or insurance provider for more information on occupational therapists.
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them.