With my children tucked into bed and a mountain of laundry to fold, I turned on the television. After flipping through several channels, I settled on a reality show featuring a homeschooling family. As I matched socks, I watched a four-year-old girl dissolve into tears as she tried to write the letter E. “It’s too hard!” she cried. “I can’t do it!” The scene unfolding on the flat screen was all too familiar.

A few weeks prior I had opened my e-mail to see a message from a friend and fellow mom of preschoolers. “Help!” she wrote. “Homeschooling is way harder than I thought! I tried to teach my daughter to write a few letters, but we both ended up in tears. I don’t think I can homeschool. I can’t even teach my daughter to write her own name!”

A couple years earlier my oldest son had hung his head, tears dropping onto his worksheet. “I don’t like the letter S! I can’t do it!” I had reassured my son that he could write letters, and to try again, just like the other moms had encouraged their daughters. But inwardly I felt like a failure, and so did my five-year-old boy. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my son’s struggle to write was only natural, and in line with his current stage of motor development. In a way, my son was right; he couldn’t make that S. He wasn’t physically ready to write with a pencil.

With our dual roles of parents and teachers, it is key that we understand the four patterns of motor development:

1) Cephalocaudal – Development progresses from head to toe, progressing downward. For example, an infant first can control their head and neck before they develop muscle control in their shoulders and then arms.

2) Proximal-distal – Development progresses from the trunk outward, so sitting precedes throwing a ball.

3) Gross to fine motor – Large muscle control precedes small muscle control, so children can throw a ball before they can draw a picture.

4) Mass to specific – The ability to isolate muscles for movement is a gradual process.

When we examine these principles, we see that a child’s ability to use their fingers independently is one of the last stages of muscle development. It is no wonder that preschoolers attempting to write letters often end up in tears!

Researchers have determined there is a natural progression in the pencil grasp that is directly associated to the development of fine motor skills. It is generally agreed upon that it is detrimental to have a child attempt to hold a pencil with three fingers before they’re developmentally ready, as a poor pencil grasp is substantially hard to unlearn. Here are a few illustrations to help you evaluate your child’s hand function:

Fisted Grasp

Fisted Grasp, Ages 1-2
Movement comes from gross motor skills (i.e. the shoulder). This grasp does not allow for small, isolated strokes.

Pronated Grasp

Pronated Grasp, Ages 2-3
Palm is facing down. Most movement is from gross motor action (i.e. the elbow), but control is moving closer to the fingers.

Learning-Letters-Without-Writing-3

 

Static Quadripod/Tripod Grasp, Ages 3 1/2 – 4 1/2
Most movement has moved to the whole hand, with fingers moving in unison. It is termed ‘static’ because the small muscles of the fingers are not generally responsible for controlling the movement. Movement is initiated from the wrist.

 

 

Dynamic Quadripid Tripod Grasp

 

Dynamic Tripod Grasp, Ages 4 1/2 – 6
The most efficient grip, it involves the thumb, index and middle fingers controlling pencil movement. The arm and wrist are used to maintain position, and the hand is in optimal position to produce smooth movements.

Until a child can easily maintain the Dynamic Tripod Grasp, writing with a utensil is difficult, inefficient, and frustrating. The question is, how then, if a child’s fine motor skills are still developing, can we teach them letters? The solution is to put a child’s large motor muscles to use.

Research shows that when the body moves, the brain remembers. Allow your child to put their natural wiggles to good use as a memory enhancement. One of the easiest ways to do this is to teach your child a letter and its associated phoneme (sound) with a hand motion. For example, rub your belly and say “Mmm” when you hold up a flashcard of the letter M. When you display the letter V, say “Vvv” and pretend to vacuum.

During the school year, if you visit our home, you’ll find several feet of masking tape on our foyer floor, marking out the shape of the letter of the week. I do this so that before my children are even ready to hold a pencil they can become familiar with a letter’s shape. We walk, hop, tip-toe and scoot along the large letter shape, all the while saying the letter’s sound. We’ll also walk baby dolls and stuffed animals or drive toy cars along the outline of the letter. Of course, cars that drive on the letter S do not say “Vroom!”, as they can only say “Sss!”

Another way I familiarize my children with letter shapes is by printing from the computer full-page sized letters. I have the kids glue things like macaroni, dried beans, cereal, yarn, etc., to the letter printed on the page. I keep the pages in a three-ring binder so that later we can trace the letters with our fingers and feel the shape. You can add another sensory level of learning by sprinkling spices or Jello powder over glue on a letter shape, or even finger painting with chocolate syrup. Later, when traced, these mediums will release a scent. My preschoolers think it is fun to be able to smell a letter.

Once your children are notably familiar with the shape of a letter, you can put a granular substance, such as sand, salt, sugar, or cornmeal, in a shallow pan. Using the index finger of their dominant hand, children can practice writing letters in the pan. Along these same lines, a quart-sized freezer bag filled with dish soap or hair gel creates a fun writing pad for practicing letter shapes with your index finger.

These are just a few ideas that have helped eliminate tears of frustration as we learn to write letters in our homeschool preschool. I hope they will assist you in turning those little cries of, “It’s too hard!” into “Hey! Look what I can do!”

This article was originally featured in the Autumn 2014 issue of the CHOIS Connection Magazine. You can access a full online edition of the magazine by clicking here