Over the many years that I have been a teacher families have asked a few common questions about early reading and writing issues they are seeing in their child. Here are a few of them and the answers I have provided. I hope this is helpful for all! – Ellen Booth Church
Trouble with Grasping Pencils and Crayons
It is not unusual for children to have difficulty gripping a pencil or crayon in Preschool and early Kindergarten. Certainly this is not a skill that was used on a daily basis before going off to school. Just like any muscle it needs experience and practice to strengthen. The best thing you can do with your child is to provide FUN activities that will involve him using his hands… but they don’t need to start with a pencil! In fact it is best to start with other things and work towards handwriting practice.
For example, nontoxic clay or dough is a great choice and it is fun to use. Set your child up with a lump of clay on a plastic tray (to confine the mess) and encourage him to squeeze, pound, roll, rip and shape the clay. All these actions will strengthen his hand muscles. Create a clay museum in his room to show off his creations. You can also consider getting the type of clay that can be baked to “finish” the sculptures. These make great gifts for family and friends!
You can help your child build his hand muscles even while he is watching TV with you. Pass a soft squeezable ball or toy to your child for him to squish and squash as he is watching. These balls and toys are popular as stress reducing “toys” for adults too!
You can also take the hand strengthening outside. Provide some soft wood, large headed nails and a small hammer for your child to practice hammering…with your guidance and watchful eye. Gripping the hammer will help him build his pencil grasp.
Consider providing fat crayons and markers for drawing on large sheets of paper…. not coloring books. The problem with coloring books is that your child may feel frustrated by the small spaces to color in and will tense his hand and arm. While you want him to strengthen the muscle…you also want him to feel comfortable with using it! Large papers (even newspaper) allow him to make smooth flowing lines that are more natural and are a step towards cursive writing. When he feels comfortable with making marks and lines freely he can then easily translate this into printing letters.
By the way, it is not unusual for children to switch hands at this age. If your child has not clearly chosen a particular hand to use, do not make the decision for him. Encourage him to explore BOTH hands using some of the fun and freedom of the above activities. Eventually he will settle on one hand.
The Issue of Letter Reversals:
In the early childhood years it is not unusual for children to reverse images and letters. Often children can draw quite beautiful and well-formed images and letters that are either upside down or reversed like a mirror image. Most children grow out of this phase during the five and six year old years.
Reversals of this type are not something to be alarmed about unless they persist above six years of age. It can be a visual maturity and integration issue. The best thing to do is to stay supportive of your child’s drawings without criticism.
The right mix in this situation is to keep a watchful eye while allowing your child the creativity he needs to feel free to express herself in drawings. I am actually a prime example of this type of child. I drew pictures upside down and wrote letters as if they were in the mirror at 3 and 4. In fact when my mom would turn the paper over I would write the letters the “right” way as if they were coming through the paper! By kindergarten it all went away and although I did have some visual problems learning to read later on I did go on to learn how to read and write. Now I am a professor and author! Young children have the gift of time. This is the time to mature and grow, to experiment with a developing “view” of the world, and to learn. Allow your child this gift as you nurture his creativity with a loving and watchful eye for any future issues.
Recognizing Challenging Letters
It is quite normal for children who are in the three, four and five year old stage to have trouble recognizing and writing alphabet letters. In fact, it is only in recent years that children were asked to recognize letters this young. Traditionally alphabet work has been the domain of Kindergarten and First Grade. Children were not expected to know them before exploring them in the first year of what they call… “big school”. Some schools are now expecting children to learn letters sooner but these expectations do not reflect the abilities of children at this developmental stage. The problem is that children can get turned off to reading if they are pushed to perform too early. Studies are showing that earlier is not better in terms of learning these skills. For an excellent article on this topic please click on the link below for an article by Rae Pica. As she says, “development is not something that can be accelerated.”
Children in the early years of development may not even be interested in letters yet…. and that is really okay. Reading and writing takes good visual, auditory and small motor (hand) skills. During the four year old year children are building these “muscles” they need to read and write. Some children just naturally read early but this is not the norm. Many children at four may not be mature enough to see the difference between a B and a D or to hear the difference either. Of course, if they can’t see the difference between the letters they will have a hard time writing them too. But these same children later in the five year old year may be ready to learn the letters without struggle or confusion. It is best to PLAY with letters and sounds at this stage so that your child does not see them as hard work. All your play will pay off when his skills mature in the next years.
It is important to clarify what are appropriate expectations for 4 year olds with regard to learning letters, alphabet, etc. Children are usually first interested in the letters of their name. Often these are the letters children learn to read and write in the 4 year old year. At this stage of development 4’s will begin to notice letters on signs and in books. You may notice that your child recognizes STOP on a sign or sees a letter from his name in a sign or book. These are appropriate ways children learn not only the letters but also the practical usefulness of letters. Four year olds can learn to listen for sounds of letters in songs, games and books. Rhyming is very interesting for four year olds…particularly with nonsense words and sounds. Writing at this stage is experimenting with LARGE movements on big pieces of paper and writing implements. At this stage they are learning the “feel” of the letters more than the perfect reproduction.
If you focus on activities that PLAY with letter sounds, recognition and rhymes you will be providing the ground work for the next years when your child will be learning to WORK with letters. Go on a letter hunt around the house or the neighborhood. Write letters in finger-paint. Make up nonsense rhymes with family names by changing the first letter. (Mom can become Bom, Com, Dom, Lom, Rom, Tom and so on.)
And the BEST alphabet preparedness activity you can do is to read books…lots and lots of books. Look for familiar letters. Notice words that are similar in their beginning or ending sound. As you read your child will be making the connection between the printed letters and the spoken word.
BUT, do not worry if he doesn’t seem interested or doesn’t learn any more letters for the time being. There is plenty of time to learn these skills in the next few years. Enjoy the fun of learning through play before the hard work of learning hits!