What Happens When Adults Don’t Teach Handwriting


This is not a post about the developing world, where getting a full meal supersedes writing a full sentence.

It is about allowing errors to go ignored because a child “tried their best, and we don’t want them to get discouraged”.

Handwriting is not intuitive.  Walking appears to be a skill that we are programmed to perform, from reflex integration to visual and orthopedic development.

This is not true for handwriting.  Efficient and consistent stroke sequence and control is developed from seeing another talented human execute this skill, practicing it, and building automaticity.  I could write my name in the dark, and it would be marginally readable, with letters somewhat on a line.  I have spent so many decades writing it that the action is almost automatic.  That also is how I can type this without looking at the keyboard (much).

Until I was trained to teach handwriting, I had no more of an idea about teaching techniques than the average parent, or the average preschool teacher. Being an occupational therapist did not prepare me as much as you might think.  Nor are teachers as well-prepared as they were 50 years ago.  Teaching training isn’t focusing on this skill  any longer.  Common core and emotional intelligence are a much bigger focus of a student teacher’s curriculum.  That is why they use worksheets and independent work stations.  When you do not know the methods that quickly turn kids into writers, you go with what you know to be fun, or what you guess are foundational skills, or what your supervisor says to use.

The sequence of learning to write independently is simple:

  1. The adult demonstrates, and the child observes, listens, and traces with their fingers or with a writing utensil.
  2. The child observes a pre-written sample and copies the sample.
  3. The child spontaneously writes without demonstration or a sample.

When step #1 is missing, you get some familiar errors.  One error is “drawing” a letter or number.  This is how I would write a Chinese character without any instruction.  Anyone over the age of 6 from China would laugh at my disaster of a character.  I would guess at the stroke formation and sequence, mostly based on any shape I can recognize and execute.

You see that commonly when a 4 year-old is asked to write the letter “a”.  It ends up as a circle with a diagonal stick on the right-hand side.  There is no writing style in which that is the correct stroke pattern, but everyone says “Aw, he really tried”.  Yes, he did.  He tried to figure it out without you, and now he has a habit we need to break, because no one taught him the correct formation.

PLEASE make this school year more successful!  If you don’t know how to teach handwriting, go the HWTears.com and take their courses.  You don’t need to use their amazing materials, but you will want to.  At least you will not create another class of kids who struggle with writing…..

Want to read more about handwriting?  Read   Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser   and  The Two Important Handwriting Teaching Strategies For Lefties That Everyone Forgets


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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