Writing is a complex cognitive function involving visual, spatial, kinesthetic, and working memory with graphomotor output. This challenging task is taught to young children with the aim of achieving automatic production of the letters of the alphabet. The question has been posed as to which letters should be introduced first.
Some schools teach systematically from A to Z. Grouping letters according to the production method is popular, but there are differences in the way letters are grouped and the order for teaching. There is no scientific evidence to show one writing curriculum is better than others.
Writing has become an overlooked skill in education. Reading has been the major focus of research, with writing not garnering much attention. Many teachers will vigorously defend their chosen writing curriculum, but is there a correct order to teach children to write letters.
Traditional Approaches To Teaching Alphabet Letter Writing
In bygone eras, children were taught to write the alphabet starting with A and proceeding systematically until Z. Capital and lower-case letters were taught at the same time. The phonic sounds of the letters were paired with the visual symbol during teaching.
This approach made logical sense to most teachers and followed the natural order of the alphabet. Since then, the method has been challenged. Many people feel there are better ways to teach by ordering the letters according to formation characteristics.
Teaching Letter Groups According To Manner Of Formation
The most common current approach is to teach the writing of alphabet letters according to the way they are formed. Letters are placed into groups based on their formation. There is, however, quite a bit of disparity on how the letters should be grouped and which group should be taught first.
Griffin states that the writing of letters should be taught in the following groups and order:
- l t i j u y
- r n m h b p
- c o a d g q s f e
- v w z x k
The groups may be given names to differentiate them, such as ladder letters or zig-zag letters. Group 1 is taught first as the letters are similar to pre-writing shapes learned by children. Griffin claims the letters in Group 1 consist of only horizontal and vertical lines.
Group 2 is taught second as they claim that if children can learn to produce these letters without lifting their pencil, it will improve their writing fluency.
Group 3 is taught third as Griffin says children can produce circular shapes and letters but need guidance on where to start.
Group 4 is taught last as these letters contain oblique lines, which are the hardest for children to produce.
The Victorian Government in Australia groups letters differently.
- Anticlockwise letters a c d g q e o f s
- Clockwise letters m n r x z h k p
- The (i) family letters i t l j
- The (u) family letters u y v w b
They believe that this grouping avoids b/d and p/q confusion. They also chose these groupings as it makes producing cursive script easier.
The Happy Handwriter Company uses the following groups:
- Clever Cats c o a d g q
- Bungee Jumpers r n m b hp
- Super Sliders v w x z
- Lucky Left-Overs i l k e s u y j t f
The groups are taught in this order. They claim that beginning with the Clever Cats group builds motor pathways and consolidates starting positions. They state that this grouping with emphasis on starting points helps reduce reversals.
Capitals Or Lowercase – Which One First?
Some schools of thought claim that capitals should be taught first as the letters are made up of horizontal and diagonal lines, making it easier for children. This logic is flawed as more than half the capital letters of the alphabet include shapes other than horizontal and vertical lines.
In British schools, lower case letters are always taught first. It is believed this allows children to develop the flow necessary to write cursive.
An Occupational Therapy Approach To Learning Letter Writing
Developing Hands, written by an occupational therapist, documents that children learn to draw in the following manner;
- Random scribbles produced at one to two years
- Horizontal and vertical lines are produced at two to three years
- Squares are formed when the child is three to four years
- Diagonal lines are the last to be produced at four to five years
Based on this development, their groups for letter formation are:
- Vertical and horizontal lines L I E F H T
- Curved letters C O Q etc
- Diagonal lines A N M etc
In 2018 the American Journal of Occupational Therapy published a review of 9 handwriting curriculums and could not find clear evidence to support one over another. The findings are not unexpected if one considers that children have varied rates of development, skills sets, and learning styles. It would be surprising to find a one-size-fits-all method that would suit every child.
Occupational therapists recommend that the same system is used within a school so that there is continuity in the teaching. Ensuring all the teachers use the same approach should help prevent confusion for learners.
Studies done by occupational therapists show that a great deal of harm is done by teaching children to write letters when they are too young. A neurologically immature child will fail to learn to write the letters adequately.
The consequences are the development of bad habits, a feeling of incompetence, and resistance to learning writing which may extend to reading.
Children are ready to learn writing when they can trace and copy shapes, patterns, and linear figures. They must also be able to recognize, identify, name, and associate letters with their sounds before writing tuition begins.
Should Children Learn To Write With Cursive Or Print?
At one point in education history, a study showed that using cursive allowed children to develop fluency and speed in their writing. Since then, there have been some challenges to the viewpoint.
When children are learning to write, they have different visual and motor development levels, with some having deficits in these areas. Cursive is a much more complex formation of the alphabet letters. This can confuse and place undue pressure on children trying to perfect an already challenging task.
Many countries and schools have shown that children do better if they first learn to print the letters. If necessary or desired, cursive can be taught at a later stage.
There is no conclusive educational evidence to indicate that teaching children to write the letters of the alphabet according to a prescribed order is beneficial.
In an ideal world, children should have an individualized writing curriculum tailored to their learning style and strengths, only beginning once they have attained the necessary underlying skills.