HANDWRITING: a target skill for late summer (or anytime) / by Laura Kett

For many, summer vacation is about the break from “seat work” – but this break also provides us with s great opportunities for development! Recently, I heard that Shari Lewis of Lamb Chop fame developed her wide variety of skills by focusing on learning one skill during each summer vacation.  I know some wise parents who follow a similar approach with their children’s summer vacations.  We had one neighborhood boy who had numerous challenges.  One summer, his parents decided he should learn how to ride a bike.  He spent his summer riding happily around the neighborhood.  A great life skill! 

Many children attend sports camps in the summer. But maybe your child needs a more relaxed approach to building their basic gross-motor skills - like spending time riding a two-wheeler, bouncing a ball on the driveway, kicking a ball around the yard, or just building confidence on the playground without competing with 150 kids for the equipment. 

Summer can also a great time to work on handwriting skills (okay, I hear that little groan) – including catching up on improving the formulation of letters as well as the fluidity or pace of writing.  When your child has great things to write and say but their peers, teachers, and others find reading their writing challenging, they may get frustrated and just “give up.”  A great deal of writing is expected in school, with the pace and amount of writing increasing rapidly beginning already in first grade.  Why not use the time that summer allows to work on building confidence and foundational handwriting skills in a fun, no-stress environment? Even though most of this summer has slipped past, anytime is the right time to work on handwriting skills!

Here are some ideas for young writers:

1-      Play!  Many fine-motor activities are good warm-ups for writing activities.  Ideas include:  playdough play, writing and drawing with sidewalk chalk, sticker play, stamping, tiny wind-up toys, small building blocks, Legos.

2-      Form letters using materials with different sensory properties.  Ideas include:  playdough “snakes,” Wikki Sticks, sticks from the yard, pencil or stick tracing on a slab of clay, finger tracing in sand or salt in a tray. (Provide a model as needed.)

3-      Write letters and numbers.  When you get to this step, it can still be fun!  A couple ideas include: playing tic-tac-toe using letters or numbers; writing the letter in the air first; tracing letters with eyes closed; using a variety of media to write with (paint, vibrating pens, markers, sparkly crayons) and to write on (dark paper with white crayons, strips of paper, colored 3x5’s or papers decorated with stickers). All of these pave the way for motor memory and automaticity of letter formation.  For an app to help with motor and visual memory, try Letter School

4-      Put everything together in a “writing suitcase” or another special box.

Here are some ideas for your older writers:

1-      Try some fine-motor activities as a warm-up.  Ideas include:  Legos, clay play, drawing step-by-step, painting.

2-      Writing practice – not drills!  Ideas include: playing games such as Mad Libs; making lists for shopping or places they would like to visit; writing postcards or letters to relatives or friends (I know – old-fashioned!).

3-      Writing.  Older students should do a writing sample to ensure you are focusing on the letters or numbers that are a challenge.  When reviewing the writing, don’t assume that they know what “messy” is – instead have your children learn to self-critique by looking at formation, spacing, and letter placement one at a time!  The goal is not to have perfect handwriting, but to produce legible handwriting.  Practicing letters is not helpful if the child is repeating mistakes!  This is a time to build skills and confidence on the basics so they can then spend energy on content.

4-      Keyboarding.  If you have a child who is finishing 3rd grade and struggles with handwriting legibility, find a good keyboarding program now (such as Mavis Beacon).  Instead of searching their keyboard for letters when they are trying to produce writing in school, they can concentrate on their creative content! (If they are younger than 3rd grade, there are some more fun-based programs like Sponge Bob, but focus should be on handwriting.)

For a skill like handwriting, designate 20 minutes a day for maybe 3 or 4 days a week.  Include in that time the fine-motor preparation activities for the “writing.”  Use a powerful reward if necessary, but do everything you can to make it fun!  And if your child has a lot of writing homework, make sure you give time for "brain breaks" and "eye breaks" -- stand, stretch, breath!

I occasionally brush up on my handwriting and find it calming.  I am now using a cursive workbook for which uses the Italic Handwriting style.  There are so many ways to go!  If you have questions, please contact me.  We could even do a one-on-one or small group session.

Here are some websites with useful ideas especially for using a variety of lined paper and making your own worksheets:  Writing wizardDonna Young. For complete handwriting programs here are two I recommend:  Getty-Dubay Italic Handwriting Handwriting success and Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting.  These are both beautiful and give consideration to warm-ups, print and ease into cursive without teaching a whole new way of writing.

Need more convincing of the importance of handwriting?  Check out this article in the New York Times or these findings from an Educational Summit regarding handwriting research.