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Did you know that January 23rd is National Handwriting Day? Despite the prevalence of technology in schools today, handwriting is still an important skill that children use on a daily basis both at school and at home.

Many children struggle with their hands tiring before completing assignments, as well as making their handwriting legible. One tool we use here at Bothell Pediatric & Hand Therapy is a curriculum called “Handwriting Without Tears.”

“Handwriting Without Tears” (HWT) is a handwriting curriculum that was originally developed for use in the classroom by Jan Z. Olsen (an Occupational Therapist) for Pre-K to 5th grade. We use several of the strategies within HWT here at the clinic to help support children’s growth and development in fine motor skills.

HWT is especially appropriate for use during occupational therapy as it takes a multi-sensory approach to learning letter formation. Two of these strategies include building letters with wooden pieces and play dough (which has the added benefit of developing a child’s hand strength by rolling out the pieces) on a visual background.

Another effective strategy that is included is tracing and writing letters on a slate board, which provides additional tactile input by pulling chalk along the surface. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about this approach.

Why doesn’t Handwriting Without Tears start with A?

If you are familiar at with the HWT curriculum you have probably noticed that it does not start with the letter “A,” but with the letter “F.” The reasoning for this falls under the developmental process of fine motor skills.

Typically, children are able to draw straight lines before diagonals and curves, so to follow this process, HWT orders the letters in increasing complexity (straight lines for letters such as E &F before diagonals or curves in letters such as N & R). 

HWT also groups letters together based on the movements needed, such as letters that all start in the top left (such as “F” & “M”) before letters that start in the middle (such as “A” and “T”). HWT also has children begin with capital letters before moving on to lower case letters which are more complex.

All capitals begin by sitting on top of the line and are approximately the same size, in contrast to lower case letters which are more inconsistent in heir placement on the line and have varying sizes.

What’s with the double lines?

To further assist children in the development of their writing skills, HWT workbooks provide a number of visual cues to assist in the sizing of letters. While working on capitals, the HWT worksheets have gray squares, similar to the slate boards mentioned earlier. All capitals and numbers fit within this gray square, providing a clear amount of space to be filled.

Once students move on to lower case letters, HWT moves from using uniform gray boxes to utilizing double lines. The developers of HWT have found that the double lines create clean, uncomplicated workbook pages, provide a clear definition between tall and short letters (such as h vs. a) and allow a child to transition easily to other types of lined paper.

In addition to these visual cues, HWT also utilizes consistent wording when describing how to form letters. This includes terms such as “start at the top,” “dive below the line,” “magic c” and “bump the line.”

Why is a tripod grasp important in handwriting?

Before the writing begins, a few foundations must be established. Similar to adults, children benefit from good ergonomics. Finding the right chair to allow children to have their feet flat on the floor will provide a stable base of support to work from. 

Once a good working posture is assumed, HWT promotes the additional step of rotating the child’s work page to have the line they are writing on follow the natural arc of their arm as they pull it across the page.

The last foundational step is how a child holds their pencil. HWT, as well as most other curriculums, promote the use of a tripod grasp.  This means the a child is holding their pencil with the fingertips of their thumb, index and middle finger, with an open “O” space formed by the thumb and index finger. This grip assists with handwriting as it allows for fluid and dynamic movement down at the fingertips, decreasing wrist and arm motions which can lead to fatigue.

It is important to recognize however, that this is not the only functional grasp. Many children grasp the pencil with four fingers, or hold the pencil between their index and middle finger.  Both of these variations can be functional and effective; the key factor is whether movement of the pencil is coming from the fingertips or the wrist.

So what does this all boil down to?

Writing can be a difficult skill for many children to implement. But with support from a skilled occupational therapist, programs like HWT, and the achievement of other skills (such as grip and core strength), it can become a more functional and natural task for your child. 



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