Thursday, December 19, 2013

Teaching the Alphabet

My little boy is in kindergarten.  He's sitting beside me looking at a dinosaur alphabet picture book.  He loves the pictures.  Teaching a child how to write their letters sound like a very simple thing, but I've discovered over the years that it isn't.  Especially if you have children who track from down to up and right to left instead of up to down and left to right!  All three of my children have found their own ways of writing some of their letters.  My oldest daughter is now in fifth grade and continues to write some of the letters the way she taught herself--not the conventional way.  My middle daughter has followed the same pattern.  And now my son...  Well, I began thinking about my middle daughter and youngest son this past summer.  I came to a few conclusions with the help of fellow classroom and homeschooling teachers.

Conclusion #1:  Children have learning differences.  Not all children's brains are wired the same way.  When I observe my children, they naturally write their letters from bottom to top.  My son is left handed and he naturally tracks from left to right.  These observations got me thinking...

Conclusion #2:  We often look at how children write and require that they all write their letters a certain way.  As I read many blogs and discussions, I began to realize that the general tone was very negative about the differences in how children write.  It was as if something was "wrong" with these children.  Is there anything "wrong" with my children?  Every bone in my body says, "no".  God made them the way they are.  He wired their brains.  Are they different?  Yes.  I need to remember not to fall into that trap of thinking something's wrong with my bottom to top writers and instead find ways to help them them cope with this difference.

The reason handwriting programs teach children to write from top to bottom is that it is quicker and because it helps children easily transition into writing in cursive.  Speed is really the advantage to the system of how we print our letters.

Conclusion #3:  It is helpful to teach children to write top to bottom, but if they don't, it's not the end of the world.  Try rhymes and gross motor handwriting practice.  Help children grow in their fine motor control through drawing and tracing exercises.  If their brains won't reset to write top to bottom, improved fine motor control will help them write faster.

One of the tools you could use is a book like Crazy Town Upside Down by
Vanessa Rouse.  She is a former special education teacher.  I emailed back and forth with her a bit as I was processing my observations of my children and their handwriting.  All three of my children have different levels of mixed dominance, though only my son is left handed.  All three track letters from bottom to top when writing--and have from the beginning.  Not all letters, but many.  They naturally make their o's opposite the way I always have.  These conclusions are mine that I've drawn.  They aren't scientific.  I have no list of research other than anecdotal evidence from several teachers, including myself, to draw on.  And books and the internet...  I read what I could find about being left handed and handwriting.

In any case, Crazy Town is a fun book that I've been using with my five year old son this school year to help him learn how to write his lowercase letters. It's been easy for him to make capital letters, but the lower case are much harder for him (as they are for most children because of the curves and the fine motor skills that are required).  For each letter, Ms. Rouse has a fun illustration and rhyme to help kids remember how to write their lowercase letters.  Use the book to first introduce the letters when children are two, three, and four.  Trace the letters in the book with a finger.  With my son, I have a table top chalkboard easel that I set up.  He stands and traces the letter as we recite the rhyme and simplify it down to just a few words to remember.  I use the whole easel to write a large letter because one teacher explained to me that it's easier for boys to learn handwriting as a gross motor skill first and then as a fine motor skill.  My son uses his whole arm in writing the letters on the easel.

I need to rabbit trail here because something happened as I began writing this review-- I realized that my son had stopped writing his own words over the past month or two.  I still remember when he handed me a paper at age 4 with a sentence on it.  It had a period and a mixture of capital and lower case letters.  All the words were spelled incorrectly, but they were spelled phonetically.  He understood that he needed to break words apart into their sounds and then write down the letters for those sounds.  But, his reading skills have developed so quickly this fall, that he has made the connection that words are spelled a certain way before he was able to write the sounds down the way he wants to.  And my little boy is a perfectionist--like many children.  He wants to do things right.  So, he won't write since he realizes that he doesn't know how!  So, I need to regroup.

But, I've seen this before...  children can shut down for lots of reasons.  But, the biggest one I've seen in my children is the belief that they "can't" do it.  Which really means that they can't do it "right".  

So, I started out this week differently than the past few weeks.  I knew it was crucial for him to start writing again.  Monday found me leaving blanks at the ends of sentences for him to write a word in.  Tuesday found me giving him robot notecards my son so he could write a note--in his own letters to a friend.  I use Great Source's Kindergarten Writing Curriculum which aims to help children understand the purposes for our writing.  On Wednesday, I told him he can write in capitals and lowercase letters whenever he wants.  I just need to get him writing!  As his lowercase penmanship improves, I know he'll be able to start writing these letters instead of the capitals (which are mostly straight lines or big curves (not many little ones).  

I'm going to keep pressing on using Crazy Town And The Writing Spot.  That's the hardest part about being a teacher.  You need to pick a course and follow it for a long time before you'll see results.  But, you also need to pay attention to the signs that tell you to turn or switch lanes.  I've learned a lot from teaching Eli this fall.  And I'm thankful for what he's teaching me.

Final note... Ms. Rouse sent me Crazy Town and the accompanying workbook for review.  I only use the book along with my chalkboard.  The workbook is nice, but here's my recommendation on what to do with it.  Separate the pages and laminate them.  As you're reading from the book, have your child trace the letter on the page.  Your child could also then use a dry erase pen and practice the letters on these sheets over and over.  For more information about her book, you can look up her website here:  Her books are available on Amazon.

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of Crazy Town Upside Down from Ms. Rouse for review.  

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