February 24, 2017
While heading to a concert in Brooklyn, NY, I had a great conversation with my Uber driver. I mentioned to him that I used to teach kindergarten and now run Barbershop Books. Then he shared with me his struggles trying to teach his four-year-old daughter to write. “What are you trying to teach her?” I asked. “To write her letters, but she keeps going outside the lines.” He and his wife were printing alphabet handwriting printouts for his daughter to trace, but his 4-year-old was having none of that! I shared the following 5 writing tips with my Uber driver to help his daughter write “her letters.”
At four, writing should be about exploration – not drills. Children should have frequent opportunities to use a variety of writing utensils (i.e., pencils, markers, crayons, pens, chalk, paint brushes, their fingers) and a variety of mediums (i.e, paper, fabric, sand). Far too many children associate writing with handwriting or with spelling because those are often the only parts of writing that most adults feel confident about. Writing is about color, individuality, and emotion. In the words of a wise first grader I once taught, “[Great writing] makes a movie in your head.”
1. Ask your daughter to dictate a story to you.
Use a fun, familiar, and immediate experience like a trip to the grocery store, laundromat, grandma’s house, or church. Ask what happen first, next, and last. Don’t wait a week or even a day. Write the story as soon as you get home. When you write her story, dot each letter as shown in the above image. And if you must use a handwriting printout, at least personalize it to go with your child’s story using this website.
2. Model for her how to trace the letters. I realize that apprenticeships are a dying art, but most kids (and adults) need to see something modeled right in front of them before they can do it independently. Take/make the time to show a child a letter is formed and don’t require them to do it immediately. Sometimes, you should allow a child to watch you model something without the expectation that they will do it. Tell them: “I just want you to watch.” In no time flat, they will be asking you to let them try to do. #LessIsMore
3. Repetition is your friend, not your enemy. Most adults don’t learn how to do things from hearing or seeing something once. There is a reason why companies pay millions of dollars every year to make sure you see their products and logos again and again. The movies and videos you watched are packed full of messages! Well, you should think of your modeling as a commercial that will air 5..10…30 times before your child is able to do it. The more fun, funny, and interesting the commercial, the more likely you are to remember it. So, please be boring. No, seriously, use your hands a lot and make funny voices, and get up and move around when you explain.
4. Let her write the letters in the air with her finger.
Some kids have fine-motor issues that make writing with small writing utensils like pencils a real struggle. Imagine if someone forced to use a unicycle to get where you needed to go. You might make it to work (with lots of bumps and bruises). Allowing children to write letters in the air with their finger before they write them down on paper provides another opportunity for adults to model and for children to practice making the shape of each letter.