Friday, February 27, 2015

Getting It Down on Paper

Although computers are permeating the classroom, most school children still have to pick up a pencil and write. In fact most have to write everyday. Young students have to write numbers, spelling words, workbook answers, etc. They have to write during tests which are created to prove a child’s knowledge about a specific subject. But what if your child is not demonstrating what they know because they are having trouble getting it down on the paper?

There are various arguments about teaching manuscript (printing), cursive, or keyboarding to a child. This post is limited to helping your child in his or her current situation. Dysgraphia is considered a learning difference (LD) which affects a person's handwriting ability and fine motor skills. The Learning Disability Association of America lists several signs of dysgraphia.

Many first and second graders do not have dysgraphia but do have difficulty with handwriting.  
One reason may be poor fine motor skills.
"Fine motor skills are small movements -- such as picking up small ovjects and holding a spoon -- that use the small muscles of the fingers, toes, wrists, lips, and tongue."

Children refine their fine motor skills by picking up and sorting tiny objects, threading beads, coloring between the lines with crayons, building with tiny blocks, or doing other activities that strengthen small muscles and improve eye-hand coordination.

American children often are expected to write without much practice on how to control a pencil. Unfortunately, the  abundance of electronic device play may give a child carpal tunnel syndrome before he learns to correctly hold  a pencil. And speaking of holding a pencil, children who are writing in school need to work at holding  a pencil correctly before 2nd grade. I often joke with children to let their pencil breathe. A tight grasp creates stiff hands and tired writers.

If your child seems at ease with a pencil the next check is letter formation. First, make sure your child knows how every letter and number is written. Some children start the letters in a way that forces them to trace around them several times. Other children get confused when writing a seldom used letter such as a “V”. Reversals are not uncommon with children up to second grade.

Another area that may create problems is the paper used for early printing. You know the type with blue, red, and dashed lines. That paper was adopted to help a child know where and how big to write a letter. The problem is the number of lines on the paper may make it difficult for a child with figure-ground problems to figure out where to put the letter. "Visual figure-ground discrimination issues: Kids with this type may not be be able to pull out a shape or character from its background."

Some hints to help your child with writing:

  • Explain to the young child that seeing things from a different angle usually does not change its name. Demonstrate with a toy that it doesn’t change names if we see it upside down, from the back, from the front etc. Explain that letters are different. Demonstrate how you can turn a lower case d around and make a p, q or b. Plastic letters are good for this demo. Say it is very important to know that a letter is that letter only when it looks like this. It cannot be turned around and stay the same letter. This link has some explanations on confusion with letters.
  • Put a small alphabet and a number strip on your child’s notebook so she can refer to it in class.
  • Help your child learn the shape of letter by having them write with a finger in shaving cream, sand, or on rough paper.  
  • Get large tablets of newsprint. Write the letters as big as possible and then have your child fill in the letter with smaller versions of the large letter. Let your child practice making large, small, tiny, and very fancy letters or short words.
  • After a child practices writing a letter or a word a few times on the newsprint have them close their eyes and write. Kids think this is great fun and usually are delighted at the results. One interesting outcome is that there are a few children who write better with their eyes closed.
  • Have your child copy a sentence you have written. If he has a difficult time with word separation draw a line with a highlighter or crayon between each word.
  • In the early grades find out how tests are given.  If spelling words must be written, have your child practice writing them - not just spelling them out loud. If math facts must be written, don’t just work with flash cards.

The above activities above should be brief and fun. Children still learning to write should not be overwhelmed with extensive written homework. Any extensive writing at home for a first or second grader should be split up with a few stretches or breaks.

With practice most children find writing easier. There is nothing more frustrating to a child than to feel stupid because he knows an answer, but gets it marked wrong because he can’t write it down on paper correctly or fast enough.

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