Key Features of Good Handwriting Instruction

Last week I wrote about the importance of handwriting instruction, even in our increasingly digital age.  Today I want to review some key elements of good handwriting instruction.

One of the most fundamental and important aspects of helping people learn is to help them analyze their experiences.  That means helping them take apart something compound and perhaps complex so that they can see the parts and how the parts combine to form the whole.  With regard to handwriting, this means helping students understand the particular strokes involved in forming each letter.  The best way to help students do that is to give them short directions specifying how to move their pencil step-by-step, including a simple way to indicate where to start when forming a given letter.   Thus, for example, in ABeCeDarian, teachers give the following directions to write /m/:  "Start at the dot. Fall down to the line, bounce up and over, fall down, bounce up and over, fall down.”

Another important pedagogical aspect of providing such clear instructions is that it helps the child with motor planning and helps build the habit of “self-talk” that is essential for building up skills at self-monitoring and self-correcting.  A nice trick that I learned years ago is to encourage young children to speak the letter-formation directions out loud directly to the tip of their pencil so that it knew what to do.  This technique makes the handwriting practice a great deal more enjoyable for the children and also helps them feel themselves more in control of what is going on.

Many handwriting programs, especially the inexpensive workbooks one finds readily in book stores, provide the letter formation directions in the form of numbered arrows superimposed over an already formed letter.  I suspect that most children find these lines more confusing than helpful.  Also, unlike directions that are provided verbally, they cannot be rehearsed and internalized as easily and are more difficult to use for planning letters made without the benefit of the arrows.

There is also a wide variety of additional rules available to help guide the writing.  A bottom rule, that is, a line on which to rest the bottoms of the letters, is essential.  I also like a mid-line that shows the correct height of the “short” letters such as a, c, e, and the short parts of letters such as b, d, and h.  I think the midline is extremely useful for beginners.  Many programs also provide a top line and some also provide a descender line, often in red, that indicates the boundary for letters such as g and y that have parts that descend below the base of the letters.  These probably don’t hurt, but I don’t know that they are necessary for most students.

It is most efficient to teach students from the very beginning to associate a sound with a letter.  This practice will reduce the time it takes for students to learn basic letter sounds and will reinforce the general connection between letters and sounds.  Letter sounds are much superior in this work than letter names, because letter sounds can be used directly both to read and spell words.  So it is ideal to incorporate handwriting instruction as a part of beginning reading and spelling instruction.

Some programs incorporate a technique known as “sky-writing” into the instruction.  This involves having the student extend her arm with her pointer finger also extended and then tracing letters in the air.  The muscles involved in this activity are very different from the muscles involved in writing the letters with a pencil, so I doubt how much this practice actually helps students improve their writing with a pencil.  Furthermore, because the letters are traced in the air and are hence invisible, it is harder for the student to evaluate whether he has done a good job or not.  Nonetheless, if you are working with young students who need to move around, this might be an option to incorporate some more physical activity in a lesson.

Much better, especially for very young students, is to have students trace in a salt-tray or similar contraption that will allow them to make a visible mark and receive some tactile stimulation as well without using a pencil or marker or chalk.  There are many variations and lots of information about these on the internet.

So, in summary, here are the key things to look for in handwriting instruction:

  • simple and clear verbal directions for stroke formation
  • a simple mark to indicate where to start each letter
  • writing paper or boards with a baseline and a midline
  • teaching letter-sounds in conjunction with letter-formation

Until next time,

Happy Teaching!