Making handwriting easier

Handwriting is a complex skill, but there are tips which make learning it easier.  One of the most helpful things you can do, as a teacher or parent, is to teach letters in their formation groups.  By formation groups I mean letters that are made with similar stroke pattern.  For example, ‘r’, ‘n’, and ‘m’ all start in the same way.  In this post I will cover:

  • What the formation families are

  • The benefits of teaching letter formation family groups

  • Why letter formation families are superior

mother and child writing

Making handwriting easier

Handwriting is a complex skill, but there are tips which make learning it easier.  One of the most helpful things you can do, as a teacher or parent, is to teach letters in their formation groups.  By formation groups I mean letters that are made with similar stroke pattern.  For example, ‘r’, ‘n’, and ‘m’ all start in the same way.  In this post I will cover:

  • What the formation families are

  • The benefits of teaching letter formation family groups

  • Why letter formation families are superior

Printing vs Joined

In this post I will be explaining how to teach printing to children learning to write for the first time.  I highly recommend teaching printing first for children who are under the age of seven.  This is because not all children under the age of six are not developmentally ready to for joined writing.  To be successful with joining, children need to be competent with diagonal lines.  They also need to have the pencil control required for the multiple direction changes.  I explore printing vs joined writing further in this post: Teaching handwriting to children –  what every teacher must know.

What are the letter formation families?

The letter formation families, group letters in to motor patterns.  So, as you can see in the picture below ‘o’ ‘a’ ‘d’ ‘g’ and ‘q’ group with ‘c’.  Each of these letters starts on the right, goes around to the left, and joins back up.  There is a change at the end, but the start is the same.

letter formation groups outlined above in text

Describe the movement when teaching letter formation families

Programmes will use the different terms like ‘ladder’ letters and ‘zig-zag’ letters to separate the two.  I prefer to use terms that explain the movement the child’s pencil needs to make.  This is particularly helpful for children with dyspraxia or speech, language and communication difficulties as it is more concrete.  It gives them a prompt that links to the movement they need to make.  The four rules I use when teaching the letter formation families are:

GriffinOT is developing a letter learning programme, with songs which will reinforce these rules.  We will be looking for schools to test the programme in September 2021.  Please join our email community or Facebook page if you’re interested in testing as we will announce updates there.

Teaching ‘printing first’ and ‘letters in their letter formation families’ supports all children.  It is particularly helpful for students with motor skill delays or dyspraxia.

The benefit of teaching letter formation families

There are three benefits to teaching handwriting in letters formation family groups.  They are:

Problems with teaching in different orders

Phonics vs letter formation groups

I understand why schools teach writing alongside phonics. It makes sense from a lesson planning perspective. Focus on the one letter all week in writing and phonics. However, this is counter intuitive to a motor learning and also developmental readiness perspective because ‘s’ is one of the hardest letters to learn. Also, the letters in ‘satpin’ do not follow the same motor pattern. This makes them harder to learn, especially for children who have motor or perceptual skill delays.

Alphabetical order vs letter formation groups

Another common approach is to teach in alphabetical order.  Again, I understand why this seems like a helpful approach.  However, it encounters the same problem as phonics groups.  There is reduced consistency and harder letters are taught at the start.

Succeeding with handwriting

Tommy’s school had a cursive first approach.  After his first year, he hated handwriting and was refusing to write at home.  By taking a step back, and starting with ‘l’ and ‘i’, Tommy started to feel successful.  He could write those letters!  And, he could now write a word ‘ill’.  After adding ‘t’, he could write two more words, ‘it’ and ’till’. With that confidence he was prepared to try more letters.  By the end of the term he could write half of his alphabet.  He found the letter formation families and rules a much easier way to learn handwriting.

Four more reasons letter formation families are superior – in case you’re not convinced yet!

Motor learning principles – teaching skills

Writing is a motor skill which needs to be practiced. When coaches teach motor skills, for example tennis or swimming, similar movements are practiced together. The easier movements are taught first and then they are built on. A tennis coach would never teach a back hand first, in the same way that butterfly would never be the first stroke taught in swimming.

In some schools, this principle is lost when it comes to handwriting. Letters are taught in phonic groups rather than formation groups. What this means is that ‘s’ is taught first. ‘S’ is a highly complicated letter, especially if you add on cursive joins. It is the equivalent of starting with a back hand or butterfly. It’s certainly not going to give confidence to a reluctant writer. The letter ‘l’ on the other hand can be drawn by most three year olds. It’s a much better letter to start with!

It’s easier to learn the same letter formation movements together!

It is much easier to learn similar motor movements at the same time. Learning letters in letter families, see picture, can be easier for many children as they can practice the same motor pattern every time. For example, practicing ‘c,’ ‘o,’ ‘a, and ‘d’ together reinforces the same pattern each time. However, practicing ‘s,’ ‘a,’ ‘t,’ and ‘p’ does not allow for reinforcement of any pattern.

Starting with one of the hardest letters of the alphabet, ‘s,’ can also be demotivating for children who find handwriting more difficult. Whereas, starting with the letters ‘l’ and ‘t’ means that most children in a reception class can experience success. This will help to build their handwriting confidence.

Correct letter formations from the beginning

In my experience, children with handwriting difficulties typically have poor letter formations.  They often start letters in the wrong place.  Their letters often include ‘add ons’.  So, they might start ‘n’ from the bottom, draw the shape, they add the side at the end.  And, reversals are common.

Teaching in formation groups, with directional prompts relating to the movement, gives these children the correct patterns at the start.  It gives them a clear rule and structure.  And, it takes away the need for them to think about how to plan their pencil movements.

Handwriting fluency

Learning the correct formations right from the start, leads to improved fluency later on.  If children write with ‘add-ons’ or start their letters in the wrong place, they end the letter in the wrong place.  This means they make additional hand movements and their printing is not fluent.

If they add the side onto ‘n’ and ‘m’ after drawing the shape, they finish on the left.  Then, they have to move across to the right to write the next letter.  If they made those letters correctly they would end on the right and just continue to the next letter.

When children have poor letter formations, often they can’t join letters correctly.  For example, when ‘n’ is drawn as a bump without a correct side, it often looks like a random bump in joined up writing.  This makes the writing difficult to decipher.  When printed letters are learnt correctly, children have their pencil in the correct position to add entrances and exits.  They have also practiced the formations correctly, so don’t lose part of the letter when adding the joins.

Make it easier for your children – teach in letter formation families

At the end of the day, when you teach in letter formation families, you make it easier for children to learn their letters.  I can’t count the number of times a child has told me they ‘can’t write’ and I have asked them to write an ‘l’.  This they can do successfully and it’s a springboard to write more.

Teaching formation groups also reinforces motor patterns, which makes it easier for the brain to learn the shapes.  It also helps with reversals and writing fluency.   Whilst it may add to your planning, please give it a try.  And, I’d love to hear about your successes!

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