Category Archives: Handwriting

Kids who retain primitive reflexes can have reading, writing problems

Babies are born with primitive reflexes—automatic physical responses that increase their chances of being born properly and of surviving infancy.  These same primitive reflexes, if they persist beyond the first few months of life, can indicate poor physical functioning in the toddler, and reading and handwriting problems for the young child.

Some common primitive reflexes include:

Moro Reflex (or startle reflex):  This reflex has three parts.  First, the baby rapidly extends his arms.  Then, just as rapidly, he pulls his arms close to his trunk.  Lastly, he cries.  When a baby feels he is falling or losing his balance, he displays this reflex.  It is the baby’s way of showing fear.  The Moro reflex shows for the first four months of life and then subsides.  If it persists beyond four or five months, the child may show sensory processing problems, anxiety, balance and coordination difficulties, poor muscle tone, motion sickness and poor impulse control.

ATNR:  The asymmetrical tonic neck reflex shows when a new baby moves her head from one side to another.  If her head turns to one side, her arm and leg on that side extend into a straight position while her arm and leg on the opposite side bend.  The ATNR reflex is sometimes called the fencing reflex because the baby takes the same pose as a fencer.  This reflex develops before birth and helps the baby navigate through the birth canal.  Usually it disappears by six months, but if it continues, it could show as several problems.

  • Handwriting can be difficult because each time the child turns her head, the hand on that side will want to straighten and the grip on the pencil will loosen. Children compensate by holding their pencils tightly, causing stress in the hand.  They focus on the physical process of holding a pencil rather than on the ideas they are writing.  The handwriting might slope every which way.
  • Reading can be difficult because of eye tracking problems. Instead of moving smoothly across a page of text, the eyes jump.  The child might lose her place and lose comprehension.
  • Mixed laterality can show as a child not developing a dominant hand for writing, holding utensils and catching a ball, and not developing a dominant foot for kicking, walking and running. The brain is more efficient if one side dominates.  Otherwise both sides compete for dominance.  Poor coordination can result.

STNR:  The symmetrical tonic neck reflex shows between six and eight months of age.  When a child is on his tummy, this reflex allows the child to straighten his arms and bend his legs in order to crawl.  This reflex is needed for crawling and for developing hand-eye coordination.  As the child grows, the STNR reflex allows the child to read without losing his place and to follow his hand with his eyes while writing.

TLR:  The tonic labyrinthine reflex causes the baby’s arms and legs to extend when the baby’s head turns up, and causes the arms and legs to fold when the head bends down.  This reflex helps a baby to crawl.  Children with poor posture, or who walk on their toes, or who have trouble playing with a ball may have this reflex persisting long after four months of age.  If it persists it can also interfere with speaking because the tongue wants to extend.

Spinal Galant Reflex:  When an infant’s skin is stroked on the side of her back, she will tend to move toward the stroked side.  This helps during birth but usually disappears by nine months.  If not, problems could include an inability to sit still; a dislike of tight clothing, especially around the waist; bed wetting; and poor short term memory, making reading comprehension difficult.

Did the Common Core eliminate handwriting as a skill kids need to learn? I can’t believe it!

The Common Core requires legible manuscript (printing) in kindergarten and first grade, but after that there are no standards relating to handwriting. 3rd grade student writing

In fourth grade, the Common Core requires students to be able to keyboard or type a full page at one sitting.  Learning cursive writing is not required.

However, the Common Core developers have encouraged individual states and school districts to modify the standards as appropriate for their populations. Some states have included handwriting. In California, kids need to learn printing in second grade and cursive in third and fourth grade. Massachusetts requires legible handwriting of any kind in fourth grade. Private schools, which may or may not follow the Common Core, usually include handwriting as a necessary skill.

Does your state require children to practice handwriting? You can find out by going to your state’s department of education and searching for the state-required curriculum. You may find that your state has adopted the Common Core as a whole, without modification, in which case handwriting will not be taught after first grade.

But that does not mean you can’t augment your child’s learning. Teacher supply stores sell booklets on how to write in cursive. Or you can go online to buy such materials.

There is good reason to do so. Handwriting (as opposed to writing with a keyboard)

  • Develops dexterity in fingers
  • Improves hand / eye coordination
  • Activates many parts of the brain not used when keyboarding
  • Encourages children to write longer passages, and
  • Improves letter recognition.

Another reason to learn cursive is to be able to read letters and documents of the past. I have many letters from my aunt—written in cursive. I have a letter and post cards sent home from Europe by my father during World War II—written in cursive. I have copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—written in cursive.

Like much of the Common Core, the reduction in emphasis on handwriting is controversial.

How to use spelling tests to reinforce CVC words

Years ago, I would cut  pictures of CVC words from various sources, paste them on index cards, sort them by vowel sound.  Then I would use them as spelling tests for beginning readers. (Now Mrs. A draws the pictures, including those below.)  This low-tech approach still works great with beginning readers and spellers.

Six drawings of short A CVC words

These drawings are samples of a packet of 12 pages of CVC drawings that can be downloaded for a small fee.  Click on the pictures for more information.  

Why use pictures for the spelling test instead of just dictating the words?

  • When the child is in charge of the pile of pictures, she can spell at her own pace, jotting down words she knows quickly and slowing down for words she is unsure of or for words she writes incorrectly and needs to repair.
  • Young children are people in motion, so the more parts of their bodies they can use to learn, the better. Taking off the rubber band, shuffling the cards, flipping them into a second pile as they are used and rubber-banding them again are fun.  Making learning fun is so important for children of any age, but especially for preschoolers.
  • Some children delight in erasing and will write a word incorrectly just so they can erase it. Spelling is a new experience for them, but it can take time, time when a tutor or mother might grow impatient. But since the child is working independently, the process can take as long as the child wants.
  • While the child is working independently, I can observe where she might need more help or prepare the next lesson, a better use of my time than dictating.
  • ESL students who might be shy about moving at a slow pace gain privacy by controlling the time it takes to complete the test.

One time I gave a preK student a short A test which he finished with pride—his first spelling test! When he found out I had more cards—more tests—he begged me to let him take the cards home and use them for the next week.  His mother later told me that  he took the spelling tests every day. What an eager learner!

Help your child make bookmarks to encourage reading

Are you looking for an activity to do with your child that will promote reading?  How about making bookmarks together?

Bookmark cut from a gift card.Bookmarks are usually long rectangles, about two inches by eight inches.  Traditionally they are made from card stock, available at your office supply store.  But you can also cut up file folders or those plastic covers of three-ring binders.  Notebook or computer paper works well too if you later reinforce it with clear tape or laminating.

What kinds of bookmarks can you make?  How about these?

  • A small picture of your child with her name and the date in her own handwriting. With a hole punch, put a hole at the top or bottom and attach a ribbon.
  • A drawing your child has made. He could do a large drawing and then cut it apart and paste parts to form a bookmark.
  • Tiny flowers from the garden taped to the bookmark. If they are laminated, they will last for years.
  • A list of words your child can read, or a list of books your child has read. Include the date so the child can appreciate her progress.
  • A drawing of her favorite book character downloaded from the internet.
  • A timeline of the child’s life.
  • The ABC’s in the child’s handwriting with the date, of course.
  • The child’s name in her own handwriting.

The child will be thrilled to use her hand-crafted bookmarks when reading her own books, whether she needs the bookmarks or not.  Or she can give them as gifts to Mom and Dad, grandparents, teachers and friends.  Inside a gift book, a bookmark makes a fine birthday present for another child.  Bookmarks can be saved for the future too, when they will become treasured artifacts from the child’s past.

Can writing make my child a better reader?

Yes.  The skills are entwined and reinforce one another if taught together.

  • Brain research shows that the more modes of learning which we use, the more apt we are to remember.  Children who are learning how to recognize a letter shape, or to distinguish between two similar letter shapes, will reinforce reading these shapes if they write the letters as well.
  • Children with poor reading skills often have poor handwriting skills. Yet practice at handwriting (drawing letters with their fingers, forming the shape of letters with their bodies, tracing letter strokes and patterns,  or giving directions to another person on how to write a letter) can improve not only writing skills but reading skills.
  • If a young child likes a certain genre, say fairy tales, and attempts to write one (even just a few sentences), she may encounter problems—how to begin, sequencing, spelling, or how to describe the frog’s voice.  The next time she reads a fairy tale, or has one read to her, she will be more aware of the way another author handled the same problems.  Her reading comprehension will develop in more sophisticated ways than if she had not written her own fairy tale.
  • Sounding out letters and then assembling groups of letters into words is one of the first steps of reading.  Many methods from flash cards to letter tiles help children grasp the connection between letters and sounds, but one of the best methods is writing.  The child wonders about the spelling of a word and sounds it out before writing it down, sometimes erasing, until he is satisfied.
  • Kindergarteners might not be ableGirl reading "inventive" writing of younger sister. to read many words, but if they know their letter sounds, they can write any word they can think of using phonetic spelling.  Then they can read their passage back.  With adult help, they can understand that stories, emails and even books are within their grasp both as writers and as readers.
  • The phrase “reading and writing” puts the reading first, but research in the past thirty years has shown that writing comes first for most children.  The old philosophic idea of a child being an empty vessel who needs to be filled up with knowledge (often from reading) has been shown not to be true.  Children are vessels bursting with ideas, longing for an audience to share them with, sometimes through writing.  –Mrs. K

When my son was in kindergarten, phonetic spelling was called inventive writing.  I loved it since I could read his thoughts even in kindergarten.  But many parents didn’t like it.  They claimed that their children would never learn to spell words correctly.  That has been an ongoing criticism which young adults now blame for their not being able to spell well.  However, with spell-check, this is becoming a moot point.  –Mrs. A

Is there a right way to hold a pencil? My four-year-old holds it so strangely. Should I encourage her to change?

Yes, there is a right way to hold a pencil, if by right you mean a way to eliminate fatigue, cramping and pain.  Four-years-old is not too young to form a good habit or to break a bad one.  But should you force your child to change?  It depends.

young girl with pencil in mouth

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Go online and search for how to hold a pencil correctly.  You will find numerous websites promoting the tripod position as the best.  The writer grips the pencil with the thumb, index finger and middle finger, letting the ring finger and pinky either point to the body or curl into the palm of the hand.  Sometimes holding a half tissue with those two fingers helps keep them in the correct position.  The pencil rests on the middle finger, between the knuckle and the nail.  The tips of the index finger and thumb hold the pencil in place.

All five fingers should be flexed slightly.  The index finger knuckle above the nail should bulge slightly out, not in.  The thumb should form a straight line with the lower arm, and the pinky and heel of the hand should slide over the paper without pressure.  The paper’s lower left corner should face the center of the body for right handed-people (lower right corner for left-handed writers).  If possible, the whole arm up to the elbow should rest on the writing surface.  The more of the arm that hangs off, the quicker fatigue will set in no matter how a pencil is held.

If you notice that your child is writing with dark, heavy strokes, he is probably bearing down too heavily on his pencil.  This can become a habit leading to fatigue.  One way to solve it is to replace his number 2 pencil with a number 1 pencil with softer lead.

Child writing with right hand.

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Many pencil grips can be purchased which encourage holding the pencil in the tripod position.  They do not guarantee success, but if you monitor your child’s grip, they can help during the transition.  Kids usually like to use these fun gadgets, but it is possible to use them and still hold the pencil awkwardly.  So be prepared to watch and interfere if the child reverts.

It feels “funny” to change how to hold a pencil, so be prepared for resistance.  At first you might limit to five minutes practice writing the new way.  Put the timer on the table so the child can predict the end of the session.  Or play a game the child likes—say Tick, tack, toe—and ask the child to hold the pencil the new way for the length of the game.  If the child likes the game, she might persist longer.

Surgeons hold a scalpel in the tripod position.  If your child hopes to become a doctor, you could use this “carrot” to get her to change to the tripod position.

Do you need to change your child’s grip?  If the child is complaining about writing because of hand pain, then probably you should try to change the grip.  My mother forced me to change my grip when I was in first grade because my hand cramped so quickly.  I hated writing the new way.  For many weeks homework time was a time of tears for me.  Yet I am grateful she persisted because within a month I could tell that my hand didn’t hurt with the new way of holding my pencil.  I switched over.

Another thing to think about is who is likely to see your child’s pen grip in the future, and how will those people judge your child because of it.  Rightly or wrongly, we are judged by first impressions—our clothes, our grammar or our grooming.  An awkward pen grip might seem silly or unprofessional by someone your child is trying to impress.

Under the new Common Core Curriculum to go into effect in 2014 in most states, handwriting will not be emphasized to leave time for other learning activities.

If your child balks unbearably, changing the hand grip might not be worth the fight.  Is the child’s lettering legible?  If it is, perhaps you should ease off and focus on the outcome, not the method.  Today’s children will be “writing” with electronic equipment, not pencils, most of their lives.

How about you?  Has your child’s pencil grip been a problem?  Have you been able to change it?  Or did you decide it wasn’t important?  We welcome your comments.