The lines and curves of my 4-year-old's letters extend haphazardly into each other. Some are backward. Others lie on their side as if they've been pushed over by a schoolyard bully. He still has a few years before writing will come naturally to him, but like many kids his age, he's beginning to tackle the skills of penmanship.
Kids usually first attempt writing during the preschool years. Their vocab expands dramatically at this age, and they begin to understand that symbols, including letters and numbers, have meaning, says Susan Neuman, Ph.D., coauthor of Nurturing Knowledge. They see Mom and Dad scribbling away at a note or a shopping list and want to do the same, which is why you may catch your kid penning his own nonsensical memos full of zigzags, circles, and other almost-letter shapes.
But teaching your child to write isn't as easy as putting a pencil in his hand and showing him the alphabet. Before he can print his name legibly, he'll need practice in multiple areas. Luckily, it's easy to teach these lessons at home.
Lauren Stern, a pediatric occupational therapist and handwriting specialist in New York City, provides tips on teaching your child to write letters of the alphabet.
Advice to help your child learn to recognize letters and write them properly.
The small hand muscles needed for writing aren't well formed in 3- and 4-year-olds. But scribbling and coloring (something your child probably already enjoys doing) provide an intense workout that will help her strengthen up. Encourage her to draw as often as possible by stocking her craft bin with paper and a variety of writing tools, such as crayons, chalk, and markers. In addition, tasks like cutting with scissors and manipulating blocks, trains, Play-Doh, and other small playthings will provide great opportunities to build hand strength, says Jennifer Hallissy, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of The Write Start.
A fun exercise to help your child strengthen her hand muscles and learn how to form letters.
Your child's first grasp on a pencil will probably be a tightly closed fist. Encourage a good grip by offering him a small, broken crayon or a golf pencil to practice letters with instead. "He will instinctively hold it with his fingertips, which will reinforce a more mature grip," explains Hallissy.
Experts recommend pinching the pencil between the thumb and index finger and resting it on the side of the middle finger, but it's okay if your child holds the pencil with all three fingers. And if he's left-handed, he'll face a special challenge, since his hand will cover his marks as he writes, says Hallissy. "Lefties should pinch their pencil slightly higher up on the shaft (about 1? inches from the tip) and position their paper slightly to the left instead of directly in front of their body."
Tips and tricks to help your child hold a crayon or pencil the right way.
Some kids are still learning to hold down a piece of paper with one hand while writing with the other. Using an easel can eliminate this problem and also help improve overall technique. Or put a three-ring binder on your kid's desktop and place her paper on top of that so she has a slight slope when she writes. A slanted surface requires children to extend their wrist so they properly support and move the pencil, explains Cheryl Bregman, an occupational therapist and pediatric handwriting specialist in Rockville, Maryland.
Give your beginning writer loads of alphabet inspiration so he can memorize the shapes. Stock up on letter magnets and puzzles and use shaving cream to spray letters on the wall during bathtime. As you play, highlight the small differences between easily confused characters, like B and P, and M and W. Letter recognition doesn't always translate into letter writing. "Kids see the whole form, not the specific parts, so a 4-year-old might write the letter E with six arms instead of three," says Jane Gibson, a pre-K teacher in North Hanover Township, New Jersey. Show the right strokes with a letter clue game. Say, "I'm thinking of a letter and I'm going to write it for you, but only one part at a time." Draw the first line of your letter, then discuss your child's best guess before adding the next line.
Your child probably already recognizes her name, since she sees it everywhere: on her coat tag, her bedroom door, and her cubby at school. When you teach her how to write it, don't have her trace your letters because kids tend to focus on following the lines rather than learning the movements and pat-terns of the letters. Instead, write out her name and have her copy it underneath. Choose fun activities to give her practice, such as signing Valentine's Day cards or writing her moniker on sticky name tags.
When it comes to letter construction, there's no wrong way at this point. She'll learn the mechanics once she's in school, so don't sweat the small stuff. Instead, show how exciting writing can be so she sees it as a fun activity, not as a chore.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Parents magazine.