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Emergent Writing

Mom is a silly goose.

Mom is a silly goose.

“My kid writes upside down and backward!” Should you freak out?

Answer: Is your child mid third grade or older? Then yes, be concerned and look into it. Younger than third grade? Don’t sweat it.

My daughter is a classic emergent writer. All of the pictures in this blog post come from the past two weeks. I didn’t help her spell or write anything. The words come from her 5 year-old brain.

Here’s a picture of reverse writing, starting from the bottom and working it’s way up:

I'm sorry for being mean to mom. ???

I’m sorry for being mean to mom. ???


In this card to her uncle, she experiments with punctuation:

Uncle Steve. You are nice.

Uncle Steve. You are nice.


Here she starts writing in the middle of the page, but runs out of room for [with me] so she adds “wis me” at the top.

God is at Grammy day with me.

God is at Grammy day with me.


Here she starts at the top left–yay!– but then decides to go right to left again.

A bee is just right.

A bee is just right.


I wasn’t present when she wrote this one so I’m not 100% sure what it says. It looks like another bottom to top piece.

I want to do bedtime with me.

I want to do bedtime with me.

I’m a certificated, experienced K-4 teacher, and I’m telling you, this is what normal looks like for four and five year olds. So if your child is writing like this too, don’t freak out and think your child has a learning disability.

Luckily, there are lots of ways to help kids move past this stage. The #1 tip is provide lots of opportunities to write. It’s also helpful to focus on three types of writing:

  • Free writing (pictured above)
  • Scaffold writing (with dot letters or tracing)
  • Handwriting practice (worksheets that only focus on proper letter formation)

Handwriting Practice


And Remember! By winter of third grade, if your child is still doing reversed or backwards letters, that is the time to seek evaluation for a possible learning disability. I’ve consulted dozens of teachers on this, and that is the general consensus. By the end of third grade, backwards letters should be gone.


Afterschooling at the beach


Half-day Kindergarten is only 2 hours and 40 minutes in Washington State. So every day after Kindergarten my daughter and I do “Mom School”. (Check out my full plan here.) On Tuesday we took Mom School to the beach.

What flotsam completes the square?

What flotsam completes the square?


Digraph practice. In retrospect we should have made "sh" for shells.

In retrospect we should have made “sh” for shells.


Reading practice. So much more fun in sand!

Reading practice. So much more fun in sand!


One of the great things about sand is that it works on fine motor skills as well as gross muscle work. So even though my daughter wasn’t doing handwriting worksheets, she was still learning. Plus, practicing your a-b-c’s in sand is a whole lot more fun!


Better Handwriting Paper


I love-love-LOVE this new handwriting paper I’m trying out with my five-year-old daughter Jenna. It’s called Smart Start K-1 Story Paper and I bought it from Amazon.

What makes this paper genius is the colored lines. The blue line at the top is the sky, the green line on the bottom is the ground, and the dotted red line is the fence.  While your child is writing you say “Start at the Sky. Pull down to the ground. Lower case letters like the fence.”

Learning how big to make each letter is really complex. At school, teachers need to use the cheapest paper available. But at home I can afford to buy a higher quality paper to make life easier for my child. Enough practice with me in the afternoon, and Jenna will remember “Start at the Sky. Pull down to the ground. Lower case letters like the fence,” when she’s working at school.

My goal is for Jenna to work on handwriting 20 minutes a week. For more ideas for Afterschooling a half-day Kindergartener, please click here. For more ideas about handwriting, check out my Pinterst board.

Teacher Created Resources Smart Start K-1 Story Paper: 100 sheets


Dysgraphia and Guitar

Guitar and Handwriting

Guitar and Handwriting

Last October I was starting to freak out that my seven-year-old might have Dysgraphia.  That’s how bad his handwriting was.  We launched a full-on intervention at home which you can see in my Handwriting Solutions Pinterest board, and poof!  Problem solved!  Bruce doesn’t have great handwriting, but it is now average for a second grader.  He does not have Dysgraphia after all.

The only component to our handwriting campaign that I haven’t blogged about yet is guitar.

I think guitar makes a big difference in handwriting, but I don’t know why.

Is it because of muscle tone?  Or is there something going on at a neurological level?   I have no idea.

Bruce’s guitar teacher told me of his own experience practicing guitar so much in his teens, that he actually became ambidextrous.

To me as a psychology major, that makes me wonder if the brain can be rewired.  Can new synapses be formed?  Can handwriting be healed through music instruction?

If I could wave a magic wand and start dolling out grant money I know exactly what I would want to do.

I’d love to see MRIs of neurotypical kids playing guitar, kids who have dysgraphia playing guitar, and the before and after effects of several months of intense guitar playing.

My final thoughts on handwriting issues and second graders?

Please don’t make them do more and more and more and more worksheets with letter formations.  I don’t care if it’s D’nelian.  I don’t care if it’s Handwriting Without Tears.  Give them a break!

Unless you are absolutely positive that their fingers are as strong as can be, try something else first.  Do art. Do crafts. Pick up an instrument.  Try the fancy paper.  Get some pencil grips.

There are lots of ways to improve handwriting, without practicing handwriting.

That sounds crazy but it isn’t.

Dysgraphia Paper

When you are looking at a second or third grader with poor handwriting you have to consider four possible causes:

  • Is this an issue of effort?
  • Is this an issue of strength?
  • Is this an issue of skill?
  • Is this an issue of brain to hand function?

It’s been about three weeks since I started Afterschooling my son Bruce(7.5) in handwriting.  (See here for more info.)  The teacher in me was a bit freaked out because I was worried he might have Dysgraphia.  That’s how bad things were.  I saw this handwriting sample online of an 8 year old with Dysgraphia, and it looked very familiar.

Now, three weeks later, I’m not so worried, and I’ve got the writing samples to prove it!
Raised Lines Paper Narrow


Day 1 of Callirobics is on the left.  Day 9 is on the right.


You can already see the difference, right?  I can’t wait to see what Bruce’s handwriting looks like on Day 50!

I’m feeling a lot better that this is not a “brain to hand” issue.  That would require professional intervention.  But since we are just talking about effort, skill and strength, I can totally work with him on that at home.


But that doesn’t mean that some of the tools used to help children who do have Dysgraphia, wouldn’t be beneficial.  So two things we are trying out are Mead RediSpace Transitional NoteBook Paper and Raised Lines Paper Narrow.

The Mead RediSpace  paper is really frustrating to use. 


Here’s what my handwriting looked like when I tried it.  My penmanship is usually a lot better than that!  Bruce hates this paper.

But I think it still has value.

You know how the stair machine at the gym is not very fun? It really hurts to be on the stair climber because your muscles are working so hard.  That’s what this paper is like.  It almost made my brain hurt because of all the tick marks.  But those little boxes forced me to remember about finger spaces between words, letter size, etc.  These are things Bruce needs to work on.  So writing a letter to grandma on this paper once a week, is good exercise.


The Raised Lines Paper  is a lot easier on the brain.

I wish I had taken a picture of Bruce’s handwriting on this, but that letter has already been mailed to Grandma.  It was the best penmanship I’ve seen him produce in a long time.  The raised lines gave his brain automatic feedback every time his pencil formed a letter.  I’ve sent some to school with him to use on special projects.

It’s too bad this paper is so expensive!

…Which brings me to my moment of whining.  I wish I had access to this paper when I was a teacher!  I know lots of kids who could have really used it!

Sneaky Handwriting Solutions

We have been doing some major Afterschooling work on Handwriting around here with my son Bruce(7).  When I say “major” I mean six minutes a day of Callirobics, and as many fun fine motor activites as I can drum up.

It took me a while, but I finally found a gender neutral  pot holder making kit.  Bruce loves it!  I need to go buy a refil kit of loops now.

In the meantime, he’s learning to latch hook.  This is a lot harder! 

P.S.  If you haven’t already seen this, here are my thoughts on why pencil grips are like running shoes!

Star Wars Origami

My son Bruce(7) has been working really hard on his handwriting for the past ten days. He’s finished week one of Callirobics, and I’m already seeing a difference.

So today when Jenna(3) and I were at the Edmonds Bookshop, we bought Bruce a present: Star Wars Origami by Chris Alexander.

Bruce has been really into making “Darth Paper” and Yoda puppets recently, so I’m hoping this gift is a hit. Plus, origami works fine motor muscles needed for good penmanship, so really this is another sneaky way to promote better handwriting.

Handwriting Solutions?

The last thing I would want to do on my blog is embarrass either of my children. So I won’t be sharing a second grade handwriting sample from my seven year old son Bruce. But suffice to say, it would be embarrassing.

I know from experience teaching K-4, that in a classroom of 20 there are always at least one or two kids who really struggle with handwriting.

More often than not, they are boys, lefties, or both.

Bingo on both counts!

So this past week I’ve been taking a hard look at Bruce’s handwriting and analyzing the heck out of it. The thing is, even when he is trying really hard, he still can’t write legibly.

That tells me something important: He actually can’t do it.

Could he try harder? Yes. Is that the source of the problem NO.

I want to say that again, because I think it will be helpful for parents of kids who struggle with poor penmanship to hear:

Effort is not the primary source of the problem!

So what is?

Well, it’s not that his teachers haven’t taught handwriting. Montessori kicks butt at teaching handwriting. His first grade public school teacher had him cranking out D’nelian practice sheets every day for a full year.

I think what we’re dealing with is underdeveloped fine motor muscles.

Bruce doesn’t sew. He doesn’t knit. He doesn’t play with play dough anymore. The only fine motor practice he gets is with Legos and Snap Circuits.

So what’s my plan?

Here’s what isn’t my plan:

  • Encouraging him to try harder. (I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work!)
  • Yelling at him to try harder. (Tempting but…no.)
  • More D’nelian. (Why would I do more of what isn’t working?)
  • Play Doug (blech! A little known fact about me is that play dough makes me want to gag.)
  • Handwriting Without Tears (I’m keeping this one on the back-burner.)

Instead I poured over the Beyond Play catalogue. For those of you unfamiliar with Beyond Play, it’s a company that specializes in therapeutic toys for children with special needs. But you should check it out even if your kids are neurotypical because it’s awesome!

I’m planning a 3 pronged attack to the handwriting problem.

  1. DNA Balls. That’s the super cool ball Bruce is squeezing in the picture. We are going to keep one in the car for him to squeeze whenever we drive somewhere.
  2. Fancy Pencil Grips. I’ve ordered a whole variety of them. I’m going to write an I Brake for Moms blog post in the future about why pencil grips are like running shoes.
  3. Callirobics. 5 minutes of non-handwriting practice to music, every day for ten weeks.

I’ve never taught with Callirobics before, so Bruce is my guniea pig. But the cool thing is that it’s not concentrating on letter formation. Callirobics is about “eye-hand coordination, fine motor skills, and self-esteem”. At the end of every lesson kids are encouraged to doodle little faces into the lines of what they have drawn. If you know Bruce, then you know this is perfect for him.

Remember I said I was going to explain why I’m not going automatically with Handwriting Without Tears? That’s why! Bruce has already been hit over the head with letter formation. It’s not working!!! I want to come at this problem from an entirely different angle.  I also want him to have fun.

So ask me in January how this plan works out. I’ll share some before and after writing samples in the future.

Really Nice Chirography

Here’s a letter that my son Bruce(6.5) wrote this weekend that I will not be mailing to my sister-in-law who is 9 months pregnant! It’s too bad he included that sentence about her looking funny (because she was so pregnant), because otherwise this is pretty good handwriting for Bruce considering that chirography has never been his strong suit.

For her part, my daughter Jenna(2.5) has started writing “O” and “I” on any writing surface she can find; writing paper, Magna Doodle, wallpaper, closet door, leather couch… you name it! We have to be very careful that all of the pens, pencils, and crayons are up high. This is really hard to do with an older brother in the house.

Another interesting thing to note (which you can see in this picture), is that Jenna is very clearly left-handed like her brother. My husband and I both find this interesting because we are each right handed. I’m not sure developmentally when hand dominance is supposed to be settled, but we have been watching Jenna for a long time now, and are 100% sure that she is a leftie.

D’Nealian Handwriting Makes a Difference

When I taught Kindergarten, first, third and fourth grade I was an awesome handwriting teacher! I’d do a kinesthetic lesson, put on some classical music, and turn the kids loose on their Handwriting Without Tears books. I was always a champion of teaching cursive, even if it meant pleading the case for cursive with parents and other teachers.

But as the mom to Bruce(6), I have basically been a failure at teaching handwriting. It has always been a battle ground issue between the two of us, and so I have never pushed handwriting practice at home. His Montessori preschool teachers made a lot of headway with Bruce, and now his first grade public school teacher is teaching him the D’nealian script. Actually, although the term “D’nealian” is being used, the actual practice sheets I am seeing coming home from school look like they might be from the Evan Moore modern manuscript book. That is probably a lot cheaper for the school to purchase.

Bruce has been doing a ton of handwriting at school each day, and I am already noticing a huge difference. Here is a sample from his Houghton Mifflin Math Expressions work from today:

Compare that to this sample of his writing from just two weeks ago:

That’s a pretty amazing jump in skills in just two weeks! I am very impressed with how Bruce’s first grade teacher has motivated him to improve his handwriting skills, and given him the time in which to do so. My husband and I are both so thankful that we live in a good school district where teachers like this abound.