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Instead of Curriculum: Handwriting Practice

Handwriting practice: What to use instead of curriculumAs regular readers know, I’m a big advocate of using accessible learning methods instead of curriculum. For some homeschoolers, this is in addition to their regular curriculum, and for others it’s truly instead of any packaged formal curriculum.

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I’m used to hearing that you can’t learn math this way — that’s a common chorus among homeschoolers — but I was in a recent conversation with a homeschool mom who was all for the “instead-of-curriculum” approach except for handwriting. And by handwriting, she meant printing–learning to print.

“They just have to practice their printing in a workbook, and they hate it,” she told me of her five year olds. Now this is from a mom who was using the library to supply reading material, doing experiments and nature study for science, family math problems for arithmetic, and field trips for social studies.

However, she was stuck on the hated workbooks for her twins to practice writing simple words and letters.

Besides the fact that her kids might benefit from a delay in formal academic instruction, this concerned mom’s kids might also benefit from less formulaic approaches to practicing their printing, especially since they had already come to hate the tedium of the workbooks and now associated that tedium with creating the written word.

She was surprised when I said that many homeschooled kids don’t use workbooks to learn or practice printing, or that workbooks make up only a small part of their learning to print.

“But how do you know they’re practicing everything and forming letters correctly if you don’t stick to a curriculum?” she asked me.

It’s easy enough to keep a copy of the manuscript alphabet on the fridge and on the table where you gather to homeschool. There are approximately a zillion downloads of the printed ABCs online, or you can visit a teacher store to get a poster or cards with the ABCs on them that you can display where you homeschool. There are ABC place mats you can leave on the table. For a few years running, I kept a heavy-duty laminated copy of the ABCs, handwritten manuscript style, in my homeschool tote bag that went with us on our outings.

Any of these provide the model, the reference point, that your children need to be able to see the letters, learn to recognize them, and copy them. It’s definitely important for them to have this information, and you can also read about correct letter formation so you can observe and guide their efforts.

It’s also important for children to see adults using handwriting, which inspires children to mimic that adult behavior.

Given good references for forming letters and good examples of adults who actually write on paper, kids then benefit from opportunities to practice.

What, then, are some good opportunities for non-workbook handwriting practice?

  • Thank you letters. Kids who can only copy the letters for “Thank you” along with a drawing of a gift received or a few additional lines written by Mom nonetheless have the experience of communicating something important in writing. Send the kid-written thank yous on to grandparents and friends, encouraging older children to add a few more lines as they mature.
  • Calendar making. January is a great time of year for a project I’ve previously describe here at TheHomeSchoolMom, creating a calendar.  This is a warm and wonderful opportunity for “copy work” that seems to serve a real purpose and is displayed prominently when it is complete, thus cementing the importance of the writing that went into it.
  • Special occasion cards. Encourage kids to make greeting cards for holidays and birthdays. Again, the youngest in the family may only be able to eek out an imperfect “Happy Birthday,” but when it is decorated and placed in the mailbox or left by Dad’s dinner plate, there is a lot of satisfaction in having worked to form those letters.
  • Filling out forms. When you need to fill out a warranty card, contest entry form, a cereal box prize redemption form, or a sign-up sheet for Cub Scouts, let the child who is connected to the activity complete the form. It helps to make an extra copy of the blank form in case he or she runs into real problems when this is a new task. It’s surprising how fitting the letters into the blocks of a “real” form creates focus in many children. An added bonus is that this task often helps children with learning their street address, phone number, and zip code, as well as how to write dates in varying formats. It’s a great introduction to the written administratrivia of life!
  •  Making books. Have your kids make their own books. They can tell you a story which you write down, and they can copy the words onto their own pages, or they might draw pictures and add their own words with help from you. “Bind” the books with staples or yarn, and make the homemade books part of your read aloud sessions — just like real books.
  • Lists. My kids learned that I had a short memory, and if they were thinking of things they wanted to do or needed from the store for a project, they best write them down. They also wrote out Christmas lists, lists of questions they wanted to explore, and lists of user names and passwords for their favorite computer programs and websites. Their lists grew in complexity and competence as they grew. I have always kept paper, pencils, and pens at the ready for impromptu list-making.
  • Writing without paper. Very young children, as well as their older brothers and sisters, will enjoy introductions to handwriting that are tactile and a bit messy. Spray some shaving cream directly on the kitchen table (if it has the kind of finish that can tolerate it — if not, put the shaving cream on a cookie sheet), and let everyone have a go at writing in the shaving cream with an index finger. Provide a shallow pan of rice or sand for tracing letters. True, this is not exactly handwriting and more of an introduction to letter recognition and letter making, but it can also be an early bridge between the two, as older children will want to write their names or specific words. For children who are frustrated by holding a pencil, this can be a satisfying work-around, as they learn they can put their minds to forming the letters without the complication of holding a writing implement. While holding a pencil will eventually be mastered, their ability to act on a letter, to make it come into being even without a pencil, will be powerful.
  • Sidewalk chalk. My kids created complicated street lanes on which to ride their Big Wheels and bikes, and it never failed that there was a lot of signage. STOP signs were prevalent of course, but there were also EXIT signs and menus at pretend restaurants and real lemonade stands. It took me considerable restraint to leave them alone long enough for this kind of thing to develop sometimes, but I was often rewarded by the patience I’d summoned. Handwritten text sprouted on our sidewalks in fat chalk markings.
  • Apps. There are learning-to-write instructional apps available for tablets, such as Writing Wizard for iPad and ABCs Handwriting for Android. The tablets’ apps for writing with a stylus (intended for adults) are also great practice surfaces, even without an instructional aspect.
  • Wipe-off markers. My kids enjoyed the feel of using wipe-off markers on white boards, and we later discovered that we could also practice printing with special wipe-off markers on windows and mirrors. The danger here, of course, is the toddler who emulates the process with a permanent marker directly on the wall. If that’s not a concern at your house, you might find that allowing a child to practice printing on the window by the kitchen table creates a real boon in his or her interest in writing. The ability to make letters much larger than paper allows can provide a transition for kids who find printing small letters to be too intricate for their skill level. Plus, there is something of the seems-to-be-forbidden in marking up the window, and creating a very public message there can be inspirational! (Please research your markers carefully, and test a small area before turning the kids loose).
  • Timelines. Kids who are interested in history can be engaged in handwriting by labeling a historical time line with pictures and the printed names of important people or events. The time line can be displayed and added to as studies progress. Simple “labeling” is a manageable amount of handwriting for many kids who are at the learning-to-write stage, and because it’s cross-curricular, it’s a great way to get them involved in using handwriting in other subject areas rather than in its own abstract realm.
  • Summaries or scenes. Have kids draw a picture of a story as they listen to you read it aloud. After the story, have them print a sentence (or more for older kids) below the picture that summarizes the story or describes the scene they have drawn.
  • Journals. Each day, everyone writes or draws (or both) in a personal journal. This is an important time for you to model hand writing. Very  young children may need you to write out all or part of a single sentence they want to include in their journal.
  • Notebooks and lapbooks. If you use a notebook or lapbook approach to studying a social studies or science topic, your child will have the opportunity to get in some cross-curricular writing practice as he or she creates labels and diagrams and writes sentences or passages about a topic. TheHomeSchoolMom has notebooking and lapbooking resources and links to get you started.

Of course I should mention — workbooks and curriculum for handwriting can really be effective as well. Some kids really like to work in workbooks, and others will do them willingly if not with exuberance. There are varying approaches in handwriting curricula and workbooks that involve different styles of writing, such as Getty Dubay Italics, Zaner-Bloser Manuscript, or D’Nealian Cursive.

Learn More...

If authentic engagement represents your homeschool philosophy, read more about how to engage your children in these posts from our contributor Living Education by Oak Meadow covering topics like nature-based learning, creativity, handwriting, homeschooling multiple grades, authentic engagement, and more.

Living Education posts »

Some handwriting programs include drawing or narrative aspects that add interest for children. Here at TheHomeSchoolMom you can find many reviews and articles about handwriting resources.

Still, it helps to know that there are many avenues for practicing handwriting that can be integrated into daily living. If writing workbooks don’t interest you or your child, or if they are having a negative impact on developing skills or attitude about communicating through writing, consider making other practice opportunities available.

Make handwriting fresh, fun, and a matter of fact part of living.

Jeanne Faulconer

A popular speaker at homeschooling conferences, business groups, and parents’ groups, Jeanne Potts Faulconer has homeschooled her three sons in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia. She is a former college faculty member, former editor and book reviewer for Home Education Magazine, a long-time editor for VaHomeschoolers Voice, and a recent news correspondent for WCVE, an NPR-member station. Jeanne teaches writing and literature for her youngest son’s homeschool co-op, and she is a student of how learning works – at home, in the music room, in small groups, in the college classroom, on the soccer field, and in the car to and from practice. Holding her Master of Arts degree in Communication, Jeanne conducts portfolio evaluations for Virginia homeschoolers for evidence of progress. To read more of Jeanne’s writing, inquire about a homeschool evaluation, or ask her to speak to your group, see her blog, Engaged Homeschooling.

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