My Simple Preschool: Handwriting

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If Phonics and Reading are my favorite subjects, then Handwriting is my least favorite. I have come to the conclusion that handwriting is rarely fun for either teacher or student! Sure, there are ways to reduce the pain, but in the end… it’s just not fun. It’s more work than any other scholarly subject, and there’s no way around that.
Because of that, I keep handwriting lessons short and sweet. Very short, and as sweet as possible.

And I teach cursive first. 

“Say what?” I hear you ask. Yep. Cursive first!

The Philosophy

Think about it for a second: what on earth is the point of teaching manuscript, if, 3 years later, you’re going to force the child through an agonizing process to learn how to write all over again, completely frustrating the child to no end and, furthermore, totally undoing all your hard work teaching him or her to write in the first place. I’m a simple girl, and that just doesn’t make sense to me.

When my kids were babies, I loved the book “The Baby Whisperer”, and in that book, the author repeats a phrase quite often that goes like this: “Start as you mean to go on.” This is such wise advice with lots of applications, and it fits perfectly with the whole handwriting situation. If you want your child to know how to write cursive, well then, start with cursive

But”, I hear you ask, “BUT! Isn’t there a good reason for teaching manuscript in the first place?” 

The short answer: No. 

The long answer: Until the 1930’s, children in the United States were always taught cursive from the get-go. Manuscript was not even considered because people didn’t write in manuscript; they wrote in cursive. Why try to teach a child to write in a way that nobody else wrote? In the thirties, the “whole-word” or “whole-language” method of reading instruction (otherwise known as sight reading) swept through the nation and among its casualties was the cursive method of handwriting. The thinking went something like this: children will confuse cursive letters with the printed letters in their reading books, and will delay their reading instruction.

It seems like a valid point, doesn’t it? Not really. Children had no problems differentiating between printed and cursive letters for hundreds of years prior to 1930, and they still don’t have any problems. There are no studies – that I am aware of – that were used to prove that learning printed letters for reading and cursive letters for writing ever hindered a child’s ability to read or write. It was just a guess based on faulty logic, and unfortunately, generations of children have been forced to struggle through the process of learning not only one, but TWO, systems of writing.

Furthermore, it’s actually easier for children to write in cursive than it is for them to write in the “ball-and-stick” format. This was proven to me over the course of many years as I banged my head in frustration attempting to teach children to begin forming their letters from the top, and, for goodness’ sakes, to PICK UP YOUR PENCIL before you form the next line!!! Oh yes, I remember that frustration quite well!

See, for children, their natural tendency is to begin a stroke from the bottom,which is where the majority of cursive letters begin. Their other natural tendency is to keep the pencil on the paper to create one continuous stroke until the letter is done, which, again, is how cursive letters are formed. The “ball and stick” or manuscript method requires children to begin strokes at the top and to lift up the pencil between each stroke in order to form neat letters, which feels completely unnatural to the child. Also, consider what kind of strokes a toddler makes when they first pick up a pencil or pen: scribbly lines and loops that closely resemble cursive writing. It just comes more naturally to the hand.

My frustrating years of teaching handwriting with the ball and stick method only intensified my determination to teach my own child cursive first. Mind you, it’s still not easy, as I have already established. It’s a fine motor skill that takes years to develop, so in the beginning, it’s essential to go very slowly and make sure your expectations are reachable. 

The Process

We don’t yet use a curriculum for handwriting, mostly because the ones that teach cursive are few and far between, but we do use a few tools, and we are working systematically through the process, beginning from the easiest point possible.

Our handwriting training began when he was a toddler, and I gave him plenty of opportunities to use crayons and pencils without instruction on my part. Just getting used to holding a pen or crayon is part of the process, and sometimes you have to make sure it happens.

When we started doing official “preschool” work at the age of 3, we stuck to lines and never even once tried letters. I found tons of printable worksheets online that contained tracing lines (straight ones, squiggly ones, angular ones, all kinds of lines!) for pre-schoolers to practice their writing skills. At this point, I still didn’t worry too much about the proper position for holding the pencil, because frankly, holding the pencil properly was too difficult for him. If he did hold it properly, he couldn’t write very well anyway, so I never enforced a proper hand position at that age.

We also did letter-forming exercises without a pencil. There are a lot of ways you can do this:

  • Felt letters – trace them with the fingers
  • Sand or Salt box – fill a box with salt or sand and trace letters in the sand/salt with the fingers
  • Ketchup bag – fill a zippered plastic bag with ketchup and seal it well, making sure air is removed, then trace letters on the outside of the bag, pushing through the ketchup so the letter will show clear
  • Sandpaper letters – same idea as the felt letters, but with sandpaper.

In K4, our handwriting instruction has become more intentional, but it’s still moving very slowly. Here’s the process we’re following:

  1. Begin with elements of cursive: loops, swirls, circles, etc.
  2. Begin on a whiteboard, chalkboard, or paper without lines. Just practice making loops, swirls, and circles.
  3. Use large lined paper, with at least an inch of space for children to write the letters. At this point, begin giving them a frame of reference regarding size and proportion. Letters begin on the bottom line and either stretch up to the dotted line or all the way to the top line.
  4. Almost all handwriting at this point is done by tracing, with the opportunity for the child to practice their own samples once or twice after completing the tracing.
  5. Keep practicing the elements, and introduce some of them as letters: a tall skinny loop is “l”, a circle is “o”.
  6. Keep tracing! Introduce all the letters.
  7. Keep tracing, but increase the opportunities for the child to draw their own samples.
  8. Reduce the line size as the child gains confidence.
  9. Practice, practice, practice some more.

Since I’m not  using a curriculum, I just write the letters myself and have my Certain Little Someone trace over them with his pencil. Sometimes I will start the letter (or part of a letter, like a loop) and have him finish it by himself. At every lesson, I give him an opportunity to write his own letters, but he gets frustrated easily by his inability, so I don’t push it. He will learn to write soon enough!

Resources

When it comes right down to it, all you need to teach handwriting is a pencil and a piece of paper. But these other supplies (and even curriculums) will come in handy:

  • Line Tracing Worksheets
  • Dry-Erase Ruled Sentence Strips
  • Dry-Erase Ruled Writing Board
  • Paper Ruled Sentence Strips
  • Handwriting Tablet
  • Ticonderoga Beginner Pencils
  • A Beka Writing with Phonics Cursive – A Beka is one of the few major curriculums that offer a cursive-first program.
  • Cursive First – I actually just discovered this one, and it looks both affordable and effective.