Teaching Handwriting In Three Simple Stages

Parents and teachers are consistently surprised that there is a natural developmental progression in between scribbling and being a completely independent writer.  Knowing the three stages of handwriting makes any writing lesson less frustrating for teachers as well as kids.  Building skills rather than doing drills just works better!

Stage One:  An adult demonstrates how to write a letter.  Using simple terminology helps as well, but the key is that a child can watch an adult move their pencil or crayon in a specific sequence.  Why is this important?  Strong visual and verbal cues support developing a motor plan and a memory of that letter.  A child sees the correct grip and sees exactly where to start and stop, how to curve or how long a line should be.  Do not skip this step! Adults do not have to write on a child’s paper.  They can write on their own paper, placed directly above the child’s paper.  I like the paper strips from Handwriting Without Tears since they are pre-cut, sturdy thick papers, available with a bold baseline and with/without lines.

Stage Two:  The child copies a sample letter.  Why is this important?  Recognition of letters is an easier skill than rote recall (the ability to answer”show me the A”  versus “What letter is this?”).  Having a model to copy while writing is very helpful.  The Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) people place the letter or the word intermittently on their practice pages so that beginning writers see the sample right next to the space where they are writing.  No searching for the sample at the top of the page or the beginning of the line.  Bonus:  Lefties will not have to move their writing hand to see a sample.  HWT is very left-friendly!

Stage Three:  Independent writing without demonstration or a model.  This is often the stage that teachers jump to, very quickly in my opinion.  A child who can’t recall the letter, then given a baseline and told to write their name on the line, is probably not ready to be an independent writer.  That child will come up with honest errors that can become bad habits if this goes on day after day in preschool.  This stage requires that a child has full recall, not just recognition of letters, and requires that she knows the start and sequence to form a letter.

So many children that I see for private consultations have come up with their own methods of forming letters.  I wonder if these kids ever got the chance to watch an adult make a letter more than once, let alone practice that first stage of demonstration.  If a child is given a worksheet and only told what to do, they did not get instruction in the first stage of handwriting.   They have been cheated of the foundations of handwriting.

Remember:  Handwriting is used continually throughout the school years. Keyboarding never has replaced handwriting at any level of education.  Children will gradually use more technology, but they will always need to be able to write in every grade.  Always.  Right through high school.  There have been studies on the benefits of handwriting over keyboarding for long-term comprehension (really understanding a concept, not rote recall) that suggest that handwriting notes “old-school” is the way to go.

Successful young writers are able to focus on developing their grammar, content and personal expression, not erasing illegible writing.  They can finish their homework faster.  Slow or sloppy writers avoid homework even when they know all the answers, and learn to shorten their written expression.

Start out with great habits and solid skills, and writing is a joy, not a chore!


By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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