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Get a Grip on Handwriting
By: Katrina Erickson

Good pencil grip and handwriting are foundation skills that all children must develop to succeed in school. In the elementary years, handwriting is the means by which children communicate their written thoughts. Journals, worksheets, spelling tests, workbooks, math assignmentsóthese all require handwriting. Despite the use of computers and keyboarding in classrooms, children need fluent, legible handwriting. Thatís because good penmanship skills enable children to express themselves confidently and focus on content rather than the mechanics of writing. Furthermore, good handwriting is an easy victory that all children can achieve.

Not only is handwriting essential in the lower grades, but the demand for handwriting actually increases as children move up in grade level.

How can you help children grasp the fundamentals of writing? Focus on grip and motor skills. Here are some strategies for engaging students in the classroom and helping them make handwriting an automatic, enjoyable, and rewarding skill.

Warm-Up & Focus
Sitting for any length of time causes mental and physical capacities to become sluggish, so a good warm-up is important. Encourage students to stretch and move before writing assignments and handwriting instruction. For best results, play some music and have students march, tap, and move their arms around to a rhythm for about one minute. They will benefit from the change in pace, sitting with better posture, and becoming more alert and ready to learn.

Strength & Motor Skills
Before children ever pick up a pencil, they need to develop hand strength and coordination, balance, and finger dexterity. Here are some exercises to help students prepare for paper and pencil.

Play with dough
Building letters with dough strengthen hands and develops necessary motor skills. Children can squeeze, pinch, roll, and create letters and numbers from dough. The dough provides a natural resistance to strengthen the small muscles of the hand, and children enjoy the playful nature of learning.

Do finger plays.
Combine music with finger plays to encourage proper pencil grip and finger dexterity.

Color with crayons
Good crayon grip leads to good pencil grip. Furthermore, crayons provide a fun, inviting way for students to build finger dexterity and motor skills. Small or broken bits of crayons that fit comfortably in small hands are ideal.

Handwriting Mastery
Handwriting instruction is most effective when it encompasses correct posture, grip, and position. Itís also important for children to use appropriately sized tools that facilitate a mature tripod grip and fine motor control.

Demonstrate good grip
Good pencil grip doesnít develop naturally. It occurs through consistent, effective, and active teaching as well as proper demonstration. Children must be shown how to hold a pencil or crayon correctly. Take the time to demonstrate the correct grip. Explain how each finger helps hold a pencil, and guide children in positioning their fingers properly for good grip.

Use the right tools
Shorter pencils are easier to hold and move. Itís difficult for adults to write with large heavy novelty pens or pencils. Itís the same for children trying to write with adult-size pencils, which tire their hands quickly. Use golf-size pencils or broken pieces of chalk or crayon to encourage proper grip.

Take a multi-sensory approach
Get children thinking about letter parts and proper formation skills. Use hands-on teaching strategies and manipulatives to make learning fun and effective. Here are some dynamic strategies for the classroom:

1. Mystery letter games
Describe a letter using child-friendly language and ask children to identify the correct letter. (For example, for letter L say, ďIím a capital letter. I start at the top, big line down and little line across the bottom.Ē) This game also works well with numbers. Before you begin, remember to tell the students if you are describing a capital letter, a lowercase letter, or a number.

2. Chalkboard exercises
Use a slate chalkboard or dry-erase board to model letters. Have students do trace and erase exercises before switching to workbook practice. Students can use their fingers or small pieces of wet sponge to trace/erase letters and numbers. Guide them in correct starting and formation habits.

3. Sign-in activity
Prepare a blackboard with a wide stop line near the bottom. Print an A high, but within childrenís reach. Use consistent language as you demonstrate (A = big line, big line, and little line). Have students whose names begin with A come to the board and draw a line from the A straight down to the bottom line. Repeat for each letter. This activity teaches top-to-bottom letter formation, stopping on a line, left-to-right sequencing, chalk grip, and more.

4. Music and movement
Use an instructional music CD, such as Rock, Rap, Tap & Learn, to teach students an array of language arts concepts and motor skills. The singing, stomping, clapping, and letter/number activities teach body awareness; color, number, letter, and sentence concepts; verse; memory skills; and much more. Such activities energize active young learners and prepare them to write.

These are just a few of the multi-sensory exercises that make for memorable grip and handwriting instruction. You can also try air writing, using different voices to demonstrate letter formation, building capitals with wood pieces, and more. When students can trace letters in the air, build or stamp letters, or sing songs, they get so excited that they lose track of time. They are fully engaged in learning.

A variety of targeted sensory techniques can meet the needs of all types of learners.
Thatís because handwriting is a physical activity that uses both mental and motor skills. Hands-on, playful learning is the natural and easy way to develop good pencil grip, focus, posture, confidence, and other skills necessary for handwriting mastery.

Ultimately, good handwriting is the key to comfort and confidence in communication and successful lifelong learning.

Katrina Erickson, OTR, has more than 16 years of pediatric experience providing services to children in acute care settings, private clinics, and within the educational setting. Her extensive experience using the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum includes private clinic practice, school based intervention, and private tutoring services, www.hwtears.com.

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