Are you looking for information about how to teach handwriting to your preschool, pre-k, or kindergarten students? Then you’re in the right place! There are many “great debates” in the field of early childhood and handwriting is right up there at the very top of the list. Here you’ll find information about handwriting that is aligned with developmentally appropriate practices for teaching young children.
How to Teach Handwriting Skills in Preschool
When deciding on the handwriting approach you will take in your classroom, it’s best to carefully examine the policies of your school, program, or district first before making any decisions.
The foundation of all good handwriting begins with the following skills:
- Pencil Grasp
- Proper Letter Formation (top to bottom)
Therefore, it only makes sense to focus our efforts on these two skills when introducing young children to handwriting.
Introducing the right skill at the right time
Did you know that there are certain steps to follow when it comes to introducing young children to handwriting? Some adults may unknowingly begin their handwriting instruction using lined paper. However, your students will be more successful with handwriting when they’re introduced to these skills in the proper order. Each of your students makes progress with handwriting at a different rate, based on the strength of their fine motor skills.
What are Fine Motor Skills?
Fine motor skills refer to the small muscles in the hands that are most often used for writing, grasping small objects, fastening clothing, and more.
Children in Preschool and Pre-K benefit from daily experiences that support the development of fine motor skills in their hands and fingers. Your students should have strength and dexterity in their hands and fingers before they’re expected to hold a pencil or even begin formal handwriting on paper.
You can help your students strengthen these muscles in the classroom by providing fun, engaging, and developmentally appropriate activities on a daily basis. These activities will also support the development of appropriate pencil grasps when your children are ready.
Handwriting Precursors: Fine Motor Exercises
The following activities will help your students develop the muscles in their hands that are necessary to grasp a pencil properly. These fine motor activities can be embedded into your daily classroom routines or center time.
- Use a plant sprayer to spray water on plants or “Monster melt”…….draw monster pictures with a marker and then spray them with water.
- Child-safe tweezers or tongs: encourage children to pick up small marshmallows or pom-poms and place in empty ice cube trays for counting games.
- Spring loaded clothespins: encourage children to clip clothes or pictures on a line.
- Child-sized paper punches that make different shapes.
- Cheerios, Fruit Loops, or macaroni and encourage children to lace them on string or yarn.
- Small tops to spin.
- Spread cards, coins, or buttons on the floor and encourage students to turn them over.
- Manual eggbeater and a pan of water- add dishsoap for extra fun.
- Mix food coloring and water and use eyedroppers to decorate flattened coffee filters.
- Insert feathers or golf tees into play dough.
- Play with finger puppets.
- Sing chants and fingerplays that encourage the use of the fingers such as 5 Little Pumpkins, 5 Green and Speckled Frogs etc.
- Small pieces of chalk or broken crayons for children to write or draw with.
- Old greeting cards for students to cut, the thick paper provides the resistance they need to be more successful.
- Spread cornmeal in a shallow pie pan and encourage students to use their fingers to draw in it.
- Place clear hair gel and food coloring in a sandwich bag. Force all the air out of the bag and seal tightly with packing tape or duct tape. Place the bag on a flat surface and encourage children to use their index fingers to write on the bag.
Handwriting: Pencil Grasp
The way a child holds a pencil is called a pencil grasp. Pictured above is a child using the correct tripod grasp. The tripod grasp requires the thumb, index, and middle fingers to work together, this is also referred to as the pincer grasp.
When using a tripod grasp, the fingers of the hand should move with the writing utensil without using their entire arm. The tripod grasp is considered to be the most efficient because it allows the greatest amount of finger movement and control over the writing tool; it is the least fatiguing method for the muscles in the arm and hand.
Many young children hold their writing tools in a closed fist grasp. When using this grasp the child moves the writing tool by moving their shoulder and entire arm. The improper fist grasp requires extra effort, which causes fatigue in the arm and hand. A child who uses a closed fist grasp will tire easily and struggle with writing.
When you see your students holding their pencils and crayons in a fist grasp, it indicates that they are lacking fine motor skills. Instead of forcing them into a tripod grasp or providing them with worksheets, intentionally embed fine motor development opportunities into your daily routine to help them develop the muscles in their hands.
By the age of 2 or 3, many young children will have already selected a dominant writing hand, if they have been given plenty of opportunities for fine motor development at home. However, you may notice some students who have not yet developed hand dominance in preschool.
When you encounter students in your classroom who have not yet selected hand dominance it is crucial that you provide them with plenty of fine motor exercises in the classroom. The more they exercise their fine motor skills the more quickly their hand dominance will begin to emerge.
The most important thing about working with preschoolers who don’t have hand dominance is to not force them into selecting a particular hand. Forcing children into hand dominance will make learning more difficult for them as they will always have to “translate” what they are writing to the other hand.
Proper Letter Formation
When we refer to proper letter formation we’re referring to starting letter strokes at the top of the paper. All letters should start at the top and go down. The reason for this is because it is much easier to roll a boulder down a hill than it is to push it up, in other words, it is easier to write when you start at the top. When you write from the top down you can write more quickly than starting from the bottom up.
Research has shown that students in later grades with incorrect letter formation take twice as long to finish assignments and tests that require writing. Also, since it requires more effort to constantly push the pencil upwards, the muscles in the fingers and hand will become fatigued, slowing the writing process down even further. Hand fatigue can result in negative attitudes about writing.
So how do you teach young children to form their letters properly? Proper stroke directionality is developed with consistent teacher modeling. When working with young children, proper stroke formation can be addressed during the following times:
Encouraging Reluctant Writers
When learning something new, young children can easily become frustrated, refuse to do the task, or put forth minimal effort – especially when feeling forced to practice. Therefore, it is important when introducing preschoolers to writing we encourage and support them as much as possible and present writing in fun and meaningful ways.
Tools for Developing Strong Fine Motor Skills
- Handy Scoopers
- Gator Grabber Tweezers
- Wind-Up Toys
- Triangular Crayons
- Triangular Pencils
- Twisty Droppers
- Lacing Beads
- Loop Scissors
What About Worksheets?
You may be wondering where those popular handwriting worksheets fit into the handwriting picture. From a developmentally appropriate standpoint, worksheets don’t fit in at all. Remember, the two most important aspects of handwriting for young children are proper letter formation and pencil grasp. Most handwriting worksheets focus on repetitive writing of letters on lines, which is neither engaging or appropriate for any young child.
What About Lined Paper?
In addition to the reasons stated above, most worksheets require children to write on lines, which requires another skill set, that of visual acuity. Just as in the hands, the muscles in the eyes of many young children are not yet fully developed. Imagine being asked to write on a line when you can’t even hold a pencil or track print with your eyes, this can become a source of great frustration for young children.
Often, when we ask young children to write on the lines they become more focused on the lines and less on the letter formation and pencil grasp. This can cause them to be unsuccessful at all three tasks, which then creates a negative attitude about writing.
Teaching handwriting is important, but it’s only one small piece of the puzzle. If you really want to be the best teacher you can be, the best place to learn more about current best teaching practices and get the support you need is in the Teaching Trailblazers. We have many printable lessons and on-demand video trainings to help you become the best teacher you can be! If you want to get on the waiting list for the Teaching Trailblazers, do it soon so you don’t miss the next open enrollment period!