Teaching letter formation
It is essential that children learn to write legibly, fluently and quickly, in daily sessions, alongside phonics. These sessions should be separate from child-initiated contexts, such as role play, where children are writing to communicate meaning. Obviously, handwriting practice must not become a dull chore. Here are a few ideas – some old, some new, and all tried and tested.
The recent online DCSF guidance ‘ Gateway to Writing’ has a very useful section on developing handwriting, including advice on how handwriting practice links into emergent/developmental writing. Please do share your ideas here too!
When is a child ready?
A good rule of thumb is when a child is adding detail to their drawings, for example, eyelashes and clothing details. A child who is drawing people with arms coming out of the head will not benefit from being taught how to form letters. The more a child draws the better, but some children are not as attracted to drawing as others. In general, boys can tend to be less interested than girls. Ideas to encourage boys to draw will be the subject of a future blog.
Children love tracing letter shapes with their index finger on the palm of their hand, and yours! Be inventive, and use anything that makes an interesting, ‘feely’ impact, such as a furry hair roller or toothbrush dipped in water. Trace a letter on a child’s palm with your finger. Can they recognise it? Can they identify it with their eyes closed?
A child’s name is hugely inspiring. Teach first names, surnames, middle names and names of family members.
Buy some medium grade sandpaper sheets. Holding a sheet horizontally, write a child’s first name as large as possible, using a thick black wax crayon. Use a red wax crayon to add a red dot to show the starting point for each letter. Encourage children to trace over the ‘tickly’ letters with their index fingers, talking about the direction of each letter, using your setting’s or school’s agreed ‘patter’ (e.g. ‘down, back up and over’). Let children practise and consolidate copying one, then two, then three letters at a time, and so on, with the aim of writing their whole name(s) from memory.
Encourage children to ‘take a photo’ of a letter shape, using the ‘magic camera in their head’, to help them visualise and write letters from memory. One way to do this is to draw a large letter shape on an A4 sheet of white paper, using a black felt-tipped pen. Add a red dot to show the starting point. Slip the paper inside a clear plastic punched pocket. Encourage a child to write over the letter using a washable felt-tipped pen. Hold up the sheet in front of the child, and ask them to ‘take a photo’ with their ‘magic camera’, and also to trace the letter shape with their finger in the air. Ask them to tell you when they think their ‘camera’ has ‘focused long enough’, so you can take the paper away. Ask the child to close their eyes. Say ‘can you see the photo of the letter shape in your head, that your magic camera took?’ When the child says ‘yes’, ask them to open their eyes and give them a blank piece of paper with a red dot. Ask them to ‘write the letter that you saw’, on the paper.
Letter movement groups
Teach letter formation by referring to the four letter movement groups. These can be called the ‘down letters’, the ‘down-ups’, the ‘roundies’ and the ‘zig-zags’. (See ‘Using shape families’ to teach letter formation – Gateway to Writing). This will help particularly with children’s confusion between ‘b’ and ‘d’. Teach children that ‘b’ is a ‘down up’ letter, and ‘d’ is a ‘roundy’ letter.
To teach ‘b’ as a ‘downup’ letter, let children say ‘happy birthday’ several times and write the pair of letters ‘h’ and ‘b’ over and over, to form a border round birthday cards for family members, soft toy animals, class mascots and puppets etc.
To teach ‘d’ as a ‘roundy’ letter, let children practise writing ‘good dog’ on a card circle. Let children punch a hole through the card, thread ribbon through, and tie it round the neck of a toy dog, saying what brave or kind deed the dog did to be ‘awarded’ the disc!
It greatly helps a child’s pencil control if they can be helped to hold the pencil low down, near the tip. Buy a small fretsaw and saw thick soft pencils in half and sharpen to make two short pencils.
Please do add your ideas here to help children master this essential skill.