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Handwriting, 4th Grade And Beyond

Handwriting, 4th Grade And Beyond
Marina Scott, MS, OTR/L
September 10, 2019

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Hello, my name is Marina Scott. Thanks so much for joining in. We are going to talk about handwriting, which is one of my favorite subjects. I am going to focus on the fourth grade and beyond. I have been an occupational therapist for close to 20 years, and I find that I get a lot of questions about handwriting and what OT can do. This will cover some ideas and suggestions for that as well as some basics about handwriting. I think this information is good for a lot of people, not just OTs, but teachers and parents. Anyone that works with students or older kids, I hope you enjoy this information, and that you will walk away with some useful tips at the end.

We are going to get started with the learning outcomes. First, I want you to be able to identify typical skills in handwriting for the fourth-grader and beyond. The second is identifying common difficulties in handwriting 4th through 12th grade. Once you are in 12th grade, you move on into college or a job, and whatever habits you have developed, you are probably going to continue those for the rest of your life. This is why I just go until 12th grade. The third learning outcome is to identify ideas and strategies to help children with their writing.

I am going to tell you quickly a little bit more about me before we get started. I have been an occupational therapist for close to 20 years, and I have spent all of that time working with children working in both public and private schools. I have also done some private clinic work and a little bit of telehealth, which is actually a very interesting field if you ask me. I use Skype and see clients from all over the place. We work on occupational therapy that way. I really have a passion for handwriting, and I think it is really important. I think a lot has been lost in these last few years with handwriting. It is one of the biggest questions I get, but sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle.

Handwriting: The Early Years

  • Often the natural development of skills does not match up with the academic demands. This creates a “gap” between what is developmentally appropriate, and what is academically expected. Handwriting included.
  • The decrease in outdoor and fine motor “play” activities have also affected handwriting skills. Kids need these foundational skills to develop good handwriting skills.

We are going to start off by talking about the early years of handwriting to give you a background knowledge of where children should be by the time that they hit fourth grade. We are going to be talking about typically developing children. The above statements are my own opinion. While some people would say they are true statements, others may not agree. The reason why there is no resource cited is that it comes directly from me. Having worked in the field for so many years, I have noticed that it seems that the natural development of skills, especially when it comes to handwriting, does not match up with the academic demands for a lot of kids. There seems to be a gap between what is developmentally appropriate and what is academically expected. This includes handwriting. I find that many children are coming into kindergarten and are having difficulty with writing. The biggest issues I see are writing sentences as this task includes many things outside of just the actual mechanics of handwriting. The progression of handwriting skills to sentence construction is a huge leap and can be difficult for kids that are younger. For example, they are expected to draw a picture and write a sentence about what they did over the weekend. Even if it is only a sentence, that is a huge expectation for a young child.

The other thing that I have noticed is that the decrease in outdoor play has affected fine motor skills. You need good core strength for fine motor control. Handwriting is at the very tip of your fingers, and you need a strong core for that. With outdoor play, all of those things are developed naturally. With the decrease in recess and how much time kids spend outside due to screen time, this has affected handwriting skills. Many children are not able to hold themselves upright, and this also impacts handwriting skills. I think these are two important things to keep in mind, especially when we are talking about handwriting.

Now, we are going to talk about what handwriting looks like in the early years. Again, this is a brief overview so that by the time we start talking about fourth grade, you know what the expectations are. 

  • 10-15 months
    • Scribbles on paper.
  • 2 years
    • Can INITIATE a horizontal, vertical, circular, and curved line.

From 10 to 15 months, usually, kids can scribble on paper. At this age, you are not working on grasp or anything like that. They usually use a fisted grasp or their whole hand on the writing utensil. They are also enthusiastic that a crayon or marker makes a mark on the paper. That is really pretty much it. Around two years old, they can initiate a horizontal or vertical line, and a circular or a curved line. Initiate does not mean that they can draw it. If you make a line, and you are saying, "down, down, down." They can also make a line going down by initiating the movement, but that it might not be exact.

  • 3 years
    • Can COPY straight and curved lines.
  • 4-5 years
    • Can COPY a horizontal and vertical line, a “t”, “O”, SOME letters, numbers, and ATTEMPTING  his/her name.

Around three years old, they can copy a straight or curved line. At four to five years, they can copy both a horizontal and vertical line and some letters and numbers. The reason why I put the word "copy" in all capital letters is that this is four to five years. We are talking about kindergarten. They can do a "t", a circle, some letters, and they are also attempting their name. Again, when we think about the expectations in kindergarten, a lot of times the teacher says, draw a picture and write a few words, while the child is only copying a horizontal and vertical line. Copy means that the teacher says, "Here's my circle now it's your turn. You draw one." Many kids are writers at this age. I am not saying that they are not, but the typical progression of handwriting is that children are able to copy but not necessarily do a lot on their own.

  • 5-7 years
    • COPY a triangle, his/her name, upper, and lowercase letters.
    • Learn how to hold a pencil correctly.
    • Start recognizing and copying the shape of sight words.

At five to seven years old, which is the range of kindergarten to second grade, children are copying a triangle, his/her name, and upper and lower case letters. Again, this is copying not writing without an example. They are also learning how to hold a pencil correctly. Many times, I will get referrals for kids that are in preschool, and the teacher is concerned that they are not holding their pencil the right way. I have even been asked to look at kids who cannot write their name at age three. I have to explain that they are not supposed to be doing that yet, and that is okay. I think that there is a lot of pressure on kids, especially when it comes to handwriting at a young age. They are really just supposed to be learning to recognize and copy the shape of sight words. Words are not really even making complete sense to them as of yet. 

  • 7-9 years
    • Start adding spaces between words, capital letters at the beginning of a sentence, and punctuation at the end of a sentence.

Seven to nine years old is where they are beginning to add spaces between words, capital letters at the beginning of a sentence, and punctuation at the end of the sentence. They are starting to put all of those things together like writing and knowing the mechanics of handwriting.

Handwriting Defined

Cursive is “the matching of a motor program to the formation of a letter and then executing the program.” This includes visualization, memory, visual organization, and accuracy (Learning Without Tears). There are a lot of things going on for kids that are learning how to write. This does not include knowing how to spell or recognizing words. When you put all of that together, it can be pretty challenging for young kids.

There is a research study that came out in 2013 that was done by Handwriting Without Tears, which is now called Learning Without Tears as they have expanded their brand. They found that K-5 classrooms spend 24 to 58% of their time on handwriting-based activities. I wonder how much of the time is actually spent on teaching how to make letters versus how to spell or put them into a sentence.

I have no affiliation at all with Learning Without Tears, but I personally think that it is an excellent way of teaching kids handwriting. They have really expanded their programming. I like it as it focuses on the actual writing, and it is not combined with the letter sounds or recognizing words. It is a kinesthetic and multisensory approach. There are so many activities. They have a free resource that you can download right off of their website (www.lwtears.com), and it is called, Standards for the Production and Presentation of Writing. What I like about it is that it breaks down the expectations for kids grade-by-grade. It also includes keyboarding, which is nice. It starts off in kindergarten and goes all the way through fifth grade.

Interestingly enough, when I was doing my research for this presentation, I realized that the Common Core does not mention handwriting at all. I was shocked. I think part of the reason is that it is not testable. If you go to your own state and look up what the standards are for handwriting. They either do not have any, are very vague, or it says, "Produces legible handwriting." What does that mean? It also does not mention keyboarding until Grade 3.

“Most children achieve printing fluency by the end of second grade and cursive fluency by the end of fourth grade. In fifth grade, children develop their personal style that continues into middle and high school (2014 Handwriting & Keyboarding: Standards for Production & Presentation of Writing)." What about cursive? Cursive is often no longer taught in schools even though there are important skills to get from this form of writing as noted below:

  • It activates important parts of the brain.
  • It helps develop accuracy and speed and fluency.
  • For a student with messy print, cursive is another alternative, and legibility may improve due to all the letters being connected.

I am a huge supporter of cursive. There are a lot of cursive groups out there making sure that cursive is still relevant. It fires different neurons in the brain. It is also important as many documents that you read are written in cursive. I have a lot of kids that struggle with being able to read things, and being able to write it. Writing in cursive can be helpful because a student who might have trouble in printing, might do better with cursive because all the letters are connected together. You can also write a little bit faster. A New York Times article, "The Benefits of Cursive That Goes Beyond Writing," found that students who wrote their SAT essays in cursive were reported to have higher SAT scores. I found that very interesting.

Why do we care about handwriting so much? Many people say that the wave of the future is technological skills like typing, keyboarding, texting. However, handwriting is not a skill that you can skip over. It is a fundamental skill that supports a lot of other things like literacy and reading. You still have to use handwriting in your everyday life for things like filling out an application, signing a check, or making a grocery list. Yes, I know that there is technology for those things, but there is still a vital use for handwriting even in 2019.

There are many articles that talk about handwriting in older students. Some of these are referenced at the end of this presentation. Some articles have also discussed that low-tech ways are better for note-taking (Dynarski, 2017). There was a Harvard Graduate School of Education article that stated that taking notes by hand leads to higher learning and better test scores (Harvard Business Review 2015). Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, is also looking at handwriting and literacy skills. I think this is why Learning Without Tears has expanded their program as they recognized that link. They are now not only teaching you the mechanics of handwriting but now they now have a program called, Building Writers. This links the handwriting to actual literacy skills, which is actually pretty cool. Laura Dinehart, who teaches at Florida International University, is completing research on the link between good handwriting and academic achievement. And finally, there was a 2016 New York Times article, "Why Handwriting is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age.” This discusses why handwriting is still essential in the keyboarding age. It discusses the work being done right now and the links to literacy. There are some more resources for you in the handouts.

4th Grade Expectations

Now, we are going to sort of jump into the heart of the presentation, which is the fourth grade and beyond. Here are some of the things that should be solidified by fourth grade.

  • The grip is established.
  • Letter memory is well established.
  • Some students have developed a handwriting style.
  • Cursive has been or is being taught.

Most kids have a grip established. When somebody says a child has "a poor grip," it is unlikely that it is going to change. While it is certainly something that you could work on, but think about how long these kids had been writers. They have learned how to hold on to their pencil by this time. Letter memories are also well established. They should have no problem recalling how to form letters. Some students have developed a handwriting style, while some students have not. Cursive is usually taught in 3rd or 4th grade. Many places that still teach it starting in third grade and sharpen it up in fourth grade. 

  • Printing fluency is well established.
  • Cursive fluency is established (by the end of 4th grade).
  • Students can easily write a paragraph.
  • Habits (good or bad) are established.

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marina scott

Marina Scott, MS, OTR/L

Marina Scott, MS, OTRL/L, has been an occupational therapist for 17 years. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology and a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. She has spent her career in school districts both private and public, early intervention and private pediatric clinics. She has a daughter, and her hobbies include reading and knitting. 

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