Tracing letters has long been the norm in primary and preschool classrooms. Children learn to write by tracing their names, letters, and even numbers. This is not necessarily the best way to learn to write. Letters have different shapes and hand positions for creating readable graphemes. A grapheme is simply the letter representation of a sound or cluster of sounds.
Handwriting can be practiced by tracing letters; however, tracing mazes and shapes are better suited to practice handwriting. Tracing should be used as part of a wider spectrum of activities and resources. Activities that develop fine and gross motor skills will all help students develop handwriting skills.
Fine Motor and Gross Motor Skills and Handwriting
Children with fine motor skill challenges will often find writing and coloring difficult. Tracing letters can be incredibly difficult for these students. These students sometimes simply need to strengthen the muscles in their hands or fingers. For other students, they need to learn how to control those muscle movements. Begin with muscle function before ever considering a paper and pencil.
While handwriting practice is a fine motor skill, it is often beneficial to begin with a gross motor activity. Acting out writing letters by making large, exaggerated movements can help young learners to understand each of the components used in making the letter. Air writing a ”q ”can help children learn the placement of curves and lines. Using playdoh, or plasticine can help make it interactive, fun and educational.
While it may seem simple, good posture is critical to handwriting skills. Poor posture can increase fatigue, and people tend to be sloppier if they are not sitting upright or trying to maintain good posture. It can also help make hand and arm placement more comfortable.
Although we think this is just acquired, you can actually, demonstrate and encourage this at home and in school to make sure children are starting with the best practices and don’t have to ”unlearn” bad habits later.
Reading Goes with Writing, Not Before
Some educators used to think that students had to learn to read before they could learn to write, but experts have challenged this thinking. Reading and writing should come together rather than separately.
The more of a connection students have between graphemes and phonemes, the more they are ready to be fluent readers and writers. It allows them to see the connection to the words they are practicing hand writing and the stories they listen to or read.
Poor Letter Formation
Tracing letters to encourage handwriting practice may seem like it would encourage good letter formation. On the contrary, it can hinder that formation. Children will be more interested in following lines or staying in a path that they will often make unnecessary strokes or begin from inappropriate points. Tracing is not helping children learn to write when this happens. It is improving their coloring skills.
That is not to say tracing in general is bad, if it is developed to show starting points and the flow of letters, or patterns like the mazes we mentioned above it can be useful. In fact we have cursive tracing sets on the site here.
How Do I Teach Handwriting?
You might be thinking that if I won’t let you teach tracing, teaching handwriting will be impossible. This notion couldn’t be further from the truth; there are dozens of things you can do to teach handwriting without tracing letters. Below we have highlighted some handwriting practice activities.
Handwriting Practice Trace Mazes
Wait! I said not to teach tracing letters, but now I am saying to trace mazes. There is a critical difference here. Mazes are meant for staying inside the lines. They can be picked up and started in a variety of places or ways. However, the curves, lines, or spacing can also help students begin to develop much-needed writing skills.
Build a Letter
Use small trinkets such as buttons, glass stones, craft yarn balls, or pebbles to create the letters. You can use your old tracing sheets for this. Your children will begin to see how to form the letter, not just what it should look like written. However, as your child begins to see how letters take shape, take the tracing paper away. Have them use the same materials to build without the tray.
Allow students to use their fingers to draw short words on the backs of their friends. The friend cannot see the hand movement and will have to rely on the letter’s structure. This means the “writer” has to write very carefully. For young students just starting out, two or three-letter words should be sufficient. Let your students take turns. You could even keep score. How many letters did you get on the first try, second try, and third or more?
There’s an App for Hand Writing Practice.
Yes, just like everything else, there is an app for teaching handwriting. In fact there are many apps for cursive and handwriting practice. I caution you against relying heavily on these apps because students writing on phones and devices often struggle with realistic movements as screens do not always behave as we expect.
Most kids love to play outside. If possible, take a bucket of sidewalk chalk outside. For handwriting practice draw a large letter in the center and encourage your students to make a smaller version like your letter. Make it large enough several children can do it at once. Move to another place or use a little water on hot days and “erase” the chalk with a scrubber.
Shaving Cream, Whipped Cream, or Pudding
Don’t be afraid to get messy. If you are afraid your children will eat any “creamy” substance put in front of them, encourage them to play with their food and create a pudding or whipped cream surface. Let your students draw in their food with their fingers. If you aren’t afraid, shaving cream can often do wonders for a stained table. The soap in it will sometimes clean the surface. Check with the school and parents before using anything that could have potential allergens.
If you like the idea of drawing with fingers but are not too fond of the mess from above, you can make a sensory bag using a gel. Colored hair gel or gel with food coloring are popular choices, as Understood explains. Put just a little in the bag and remove the air when sealing. Allow children to draw using their finger or a rounded stylus or pencil eraser.
Stop Writing Letters
Okay, you are probably starting to think we are losing it. How does not writing help writing? We didn’t say put down your pencils. Writing depends on fine motor skills, as we have already noted. Drawing and coloring help students practice these skills. Allow your students to take a little time to draw and practice doodling shapes and lines. This will improve their writing skills.
Children will often focus on perfection. However, handwriting is not mastered from the first try. Help your students learn to move on by encouraging them to mark it out and move on. Once the legibility is achieved, erasing can be introduced if you want. Progress is important—not perfection.
Get a Grip for handwriting practice.
Practice pencil gripping whether writing that day or not. Students need to maintain a good grip to avoid cramping and to provide control over the instrument. Multiple grips can be used, but your students must be able to hold one that is conducive to writing.
There are many reasons that tracing does not work. It doesn’t encourage proper letter formation or connection to the letter. It becomes more of a task to connect parts than to write a letter. Getting your students writing does not have to involve pencils and paper at all. A friend’s back or hand, a plastic bag, or even a sensory table can be used to promote handwriting. On the playground, encourage students to use sticks and dirt to practice drawing lines or letters. Learning can take place anywhere—a classroom desk or table, cafeteria tray, or playground dirt. Keep encouraging your students to practice their writing skills and not get upset if they mess up. Mistakes are how we learn and a part of life. Good grips, posture, fine motor, and gross motor skills are all vital in learning to write. Have fun with it.