Immediately, you might have noticed something wrong with my title. Handwriting isn’t really recommended during the early years, according to Charlotte Mason. Since the “sit down and write” type of work starts at the age of six, using her philosophy, Charlotte Mason handwriting isn’t a thing until our little cherubs have exited their early years.
Education during these years is also very child-driven, and few mothers I know are willing to squelch a child’s natural desire to learn. Or wrestle a purple crayon out of the hand of a five-year-old who desperately wants to write letters. Speaking from experience.
In our home, there’s a very eager-to-learn child who started to write letters all on her own, just for fun, over a year ago. If I don’t give her any direction, she will get in the habit of forming letters incorrectly. When we are ready for formal lessons, we’ll have to spend time correcting these habits that I just let happen because I don’t want to start formal lessons yet. So, for the sake of good habits, I’m going to help my five-year-old form her letters correctly. Using several of Charlotte Mason’s passages about writing, I’ve decided how I’ll approach early years handwriting.
The Danger of Forming Letter Incorrectly
The problem with being completely hands-off with our eager-to-learn children during these early years is that they may soon believe that their letter formation is right.
…he is set to do a copy of strokes, and is allowed to show a slate full of all sorts of slopes and all sorts of intervals; his moral sense is vitiated, his eye is injured. Set him six strokes to copy; let him, not bring a slate full, but six perfect strokes, at regular distances and at regular slopes. If he produces a faulty pair, get him to point out the fault, and persevere until he has produced his task; if he does not do it today, let him go on tomorrow and the next day, and when the six perfect strokes appear, let it be an occasion of triumph.” Home Education, page 160
While Charlotte Mason is specifically talking about writing during formal lessons here, I don’t see why his “moral sense” would not be “vitiated” or “his eye injured” just because he is writing voluntarily before the age of six. The longer letters are formed incorrectly, the longer it will take to help a child form them correctly.
There is a right way to form letters. Most letters begin at the top, and if there are loops, a counter-clockwise direction. As a teacher, I noticed that many children with messy handwriting formed their letters from the bottom to top, or made their loops backward. When your child is beginning to form letters out of their own interest, help them by explaining which strokes to make first. Here are some early years handwriting printables for you to see how to form each letter correctly. I don’t recommend using these pages with your young child, but they are helpful for reference 🙂
Gross Motor “Hand” Writing
A gentle, playful way to teach correct letter formation during the early years is through gross motor letter forming. This approach uses the muscles of the entire arm and not just the fingers, which is fun and appropriate for young children, who don’t have fully developed fine motor skills yet. Charlotte Mason recommended a tray full of sand:
A tray of sand is useful at this stage. The child draws his finger boldly through the sand, and then puts a back to his D; and behold, his first essay in making a straight line and a curve. But the devices for making the learning of the ‘A B C‘ interesting are endless.” Home Education, page 201
Since the devices are endless, here are a few more ideas:
- Using a spray bottle to spray letters on the sidewalk
- Marking letters in rolled out Play-Doh
- Fill a gallon zipper bag with tempera paint, seal it, reinforce it with tape, and let your child write letters on the bag (this is also fun for my baby, who doesn’t get to paint with his big siblings yet!)
- Use loose pieces to make alphabet letters (we made nature letters once, all Miss H’s idea! You could also use stones, marbles, rocks, macaroni noodles, etc.)
- A big piece of chalk, either on a chalkboard or on the sidewalk (this is helpful because it’s easy to erase if the letters are formed incorrectly)
- Paint and a paint brush
DIY Sand Tray
I used affiliate links here to share some sand tray options with you. There are several Melissa and Doug sets that come in pretty wooden trays. We have this stamp set and this this bead set, and we’ve upcycled the trays to practice letter writing. I painted the bottom so that the letter stands out more. You could also try using colored sand, but it’s much less expensive to buy a big bag at your local home improvement store (and then you can use the rest of the sand for other things!) Of course, you might be able to find a flat platter at the dollar store that works well for this. You can even buy wooden sand trays on Amazon, but I’d rather upcycle something that we already have!
H started out writing this way, and right now, E (2) enjoys making lines and curves. I’m interested to see when he’ll want to start making letters, too! When we aren’t using the sand tray, I put it, sand and all, in a gallon-sized zipper bag and store it up high.
Early Years Handwriting Problems
Since these years are child-led, I don’t recommend throwing your child’s work out the door when it doesn’t look amazing. A five-year-old’s best handwriting won’t look the same as a ten-year-old’s best work. What’s more important than looking perfect during the early years is that they are formed correctly. But, there are some problems that you probably want to address right away.
B and D Reversals
Interchanging the lower case versions of these letters is very typical. I often say that as a first grade teacher, it didn’t worry me at all, but as a third grade teacher, I started to get a little nervous. As a fourth grade teacher, b and d reversals might indicate that a child needs some further intervention.
When our children are very young, picking a word that contains b or d that they can get familiar with, learn by sight, and understand which way the aforementioned letters face can be helpful. Maybe it’s a word that represents something they enjoy, like “dog,” or a name of someone they love. If a lower case b or d is in your child’s name, help them learn to form their name correctly, and then refer to that when they are stuck. If your child’s name is Ted, you can say, “That’s a d, just like in your name! Which way does it face?”
Writing Words Backwards
A few months ago, my husband came to me with a piece of paper, and a puzzled look on his face. Our daughter had written her name entirely backward. Cause for concern? No! Young children often do this! I just congratulated her effort, and then said, “Wait…doesn’t your name start with an H?” I was not about to make her write her name over again (at this point, at least!) but I did want to gently draw her attention to what happened. The next time we read a book together, I pointed out that words and sentences always begin on the left side.
Forming Letters Incorrectly
Using the gross motor recommendations above, make sure to help your child form letters the right way from the start. You can model this for them, or give gentle reminders when they choose to form their letters (i.e, “Remember to start at the top!”)
Beginning Pencil Grip
Like I mentioned before, my self-starter will pick up anything she can to write- pencils, pens, crayons, paint brushes… There was no stopping her. She loves to write any time she gets the chance. If your child is not like this, please don’t worry at all, and please don’t rush your child into writing with a pencil. But, just like the other habits we’ve talked about so far, pencil grip is a habit that’s hard to change once it’s ingrained in your child. Help your self-motivated child to hold a pencil correctly from the start. While those squishy pencil grippers we remember from childhood can help, keep in mind that there is more than one way to correctly hold a pencil. This post from OT Mom Learning Activities helpfully explains correct pencil grip options.
Building Fine Motor Skills
One of the best ways for your child to build fine motor skills and the hand muscles needed for writing is (can you guess?) outdoor play! Any time your child builds with mud, picks up a small stick or insect, picks a flower, etc., your child is building fine motor skills. When he or she climbs a tree, packs a snowball, or carries a nature pail, the muscles in his or hand, that tend to get tired and achy when young children write, will be strengthened. (A guest writer wrote about ways to prepare for handwriting here.)
Charlotte Mason handwriting is never a game of “drill and kill.” When our children get older, they will practice handwriting through meaningful copywork. During these early years, handwriting should be child led, enjoyable, and as far from “drill and kill” as we can get it.