You'll probably be thrilled the first time your child presents you with a written note, whether it reads "Hape Mofas Day!!" or "im mad! ur meen!" But you may wonder: Is it a problem that his writing is almost illegible or that some letters are backwards?
To express themselves in print, kids have to synthesize a slew of motor and cognitive skills, says Kyle Snow, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Your child needs the dexterity to properly hold a pencil and the precision to create the shape he has in his mind; he also needs to recall what each letter looks and sounds like. As he's learning to write, these are some of the common challenges you can help him overcome.
Writing Woe: Some letters are backwards. If your school-age child forms letters backwards on occasion, don't assume she has dyslexia. Nearly all kids reverse some letters and numbers at first, says Susan Orloff, an occupational therapist and CEO of Children's Special Services in Atlanta. In order for your child to keep similar-looking letters (such as b and d) straight, she needs lots of experience seeing them, which typically happens as she's learning to read. Your child also needs a perceptual skill called visual form constancy, which allows her to retain an image in her mind -- even when she's not looking at it. Usually, kids stop reversing letters by the age of 7, when they've had tons of exposure to the alphabet by reading and when the skill of visual form constancy is fully developed, says Orloff. If your child continues to reverse letters past that age, consult a reading specialist or an occupational therapist.
Expert tip: Suggest a mnemonic device to help your child keep similar-looking letters straight. For b and d, Orloff suggests telling kids to imagine a picture of a bed, where the head of the bed is the b and the foot is the d.
Writing Woe: Your child has an awkward pencil grip. An ineffective grip can cause hand pain and fatigue, and make your child's writing slow and difficult to decipher. Since most kids don't instinctually hold a pencil with the proper grip, they need to be shown exactly where their fingers should be placed. The best way to hold a pencil is with a tripod grip (thumb and forefinger pinching the pencil, which rests on the middle finger) or a quadropod grip (same idea, except both the pointer and middle finger work together to pinch), says Jan Z. Olsen, an occupational therapist and founder of Handwriting Without Tears. Writing requires hand strength and fine motor control, and Olsen has noticed an increase in kids' grip problems in recent years. The popularity of touch-screen technology may be to blame, so be sure to balance it with real hands-on play. For example, you might try old-school games, such as building blocks, pick-up sticks, or painting, to help build your child's dexterity.
Expert tip: Small bits of chalk or crayon are great for helping to demonstrate the correct grip, since kids naturally hold them with their fingertips, says Olsen. While they're not generally necessary, you can also try using pencil grips, such as the Writing CLAW from writingclaw.com, which forces kids to place their fingers in just the right position.
Writing Woe: Your child spells the way he texts. "When kids learn to write, they spell phonetically and assume that one letter makes one sound, so they might use 'F' instead of 'Th' in 'Thank,'?" says Dr. Snow. "They also focus on the primary sounds in a word, which are usually the first and last ones, and often leave out vowels. That's why "Happy Birthday!" may become "Hpe Brfda!" In kindergarten and first grade, many schools support this so-called "invented spelling," and don't insist that students correct their work. Rather than emphasizing getting every letter right, teachers encourage kids to keep practicing. As your child's familiarity with letter sounds and sight words increases, her invented spelling will gradually get replaced with conventional spelling, says Dr. Snow. But if she's way off (for instance, using a D or a B instead of an O), it might indicate a visual issue, a fine motor problem, or even a form of reading disability that needs to be further investigated.
Expert tip: Encourage your child to "stretch" out a word (for example, "b-uurrrrrr-tttthhh-d-aa-y") to stress sounds that are usually unstressed, like vowels, suggests Dr. Snow.
Writing Woe: The words are squashed together. Remembering to put spaces between words is one of the trickiest things for young writers to master. That could be because kids first learn about spacing from reading, not writing, explains Jennifer Jones, a reading specialist and former first-grade teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina. One way teachers introduce this concept through reading is by pointing to each word with a finger, which you can also do at home. This practice not only illustrates what a word is, but what a space is and how they come together to make sentences. Since word spacing is a writing convention rather than a developmental skill, all kids will get it eventually, says Jones, provided that they have enough exposure to print by reading and being read to.
Expert tip: Ask your child to draw a line showing where each word in the sentence should go. Then, have her write out the sentence, placing one word on each drawn line, so that they don't all run together. Or, for a more fun approach, use Cheerios as space-savers.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Parents Magazine.