Writing for Beginners: Letter Formation

Nothing is more frustrating than getting a student (who DOESN’T want to write) to write.

How can we mitigate the problem and make writing more enjoyable?

This post is specifically about handwriting and beginning writing for younger students. This isn’t necessarily for older students, or those who are past the basic writing skills. But primarily for those who are still practicing writing words and putting those words into sentences.

Letter Formation (Pet Peeve Alert)
Before you get started writing with your child, make sure he or she knows how to form his/her letters correctly. If you do not correct this when they’re little (and learning), then they will form bad habits, and writing will ALWAYS be stressful for them. Writing your letters incorrectly means wasted time, brain space, and energy. Which means a bigger struggle for you. So, here’s some things to try.

  • Use lowercase. If your child never learns uppercase letters, they will be ok. Ok, maybe that’s a little extreme. But 95% of the letters we use, write, and read are lowercase, so why do all these educational toys use CAPITAL LETTERS?!? It makes me mad. Don’t do it. Don’t be a statistic. Don’t buy the cute educational toy that teaches capital letters. They do it because it’s easier to write (sticks rather than curves), they’re more differentiated (B looks clearly different than D), and the assumption is that if you learn capitals first, then many of the lowercase ones are similar enough to learn later. But it’s malarkey. If your child will supposedly learn lowercase letters because they know their capitals, then bam, it works the other way, and they’ll learn their capitals because they know their lowercase letters. These stupid “educational” toys cause a problem when there doesn’t need to be one. If you’ve been taught from age 2-4 that D looks like [D], then you’re shown a [d], you’re confused out of your mind, you feel like you’re having to learn a second alphabet, and now you’re not sure whether it’s [d] [D] or [b]. So simplify your life and throw out all those toys and just teach lowercase letters.
  • Use unlined paper. Seriously. When they first learn to write WHO CARES if the letters are the same size. If they touch the line. If they start at the top left, work their way over to the right-hand side of the page evenly, then start over on the next line. IT DOESN’T MATTER! That is a writing convention that happens during and (wait for it …) AFTER they learn to write.
    1. However, if this bugs you, teach them how to count on a number chart. Have a calendar and let them count to “today” on it. Read them books, and put your finger under the line as you read. English reads from left to right, top to bottom. But this practice is EVERYWHERE. So practice it in other places where it naturally occurs to learn the convention.
    2. Note, lefties/those with dyslexia struggle with this later too. I don’t know if this is the way their brain works. I try not to make it a big deal, but teach skills to compensate. I had my son wear a “school bracelet” for WEEKS on his left hand because he KEPT GETTING IT BACKWARDS. Form the habit of “this is my left” with the left side of their bodies so they KNOW which is their left. Don’t worry whether they “know” their right and left – just make sure they know their left, know their left, know their left. Drill it in. (I don’t know if this is as much of a struggle righties? My daughter doesn’t struggle with this, but every lefty I have worked with so far does – coincidence maybe?)
  • After you’ve stopped pulling your hair our because their letters are all over the place, make sure their letters start at the top. Two minor exceptions, [e] starts in the middle and swirls out, and [d] “begins” at the round part (the body) and goes around, up to the top, and down. Repeat after me: letters start at the top.
    1. This is a HUGE way to avoid (hopefully) D and B confusion. D starts at the body (same place that a C starts), goes around, up, and down with a tail. B starts at the top, goes down, bounces up and around.
    2. Side note: I’m seriously half-considering teaching students who continually start at the bottom cursive from the get-go (because it’s apparently natural) … cursive starts almost exclusively at the bottom (“swoop up…”), and helps the brain connect the “image” of the words in their minds. But that’s a discussion for a different day.
    3. Please make sure your child starts his letters at the top. As a teacher. As a parent. It’s so important for handwriting later.
  • Use one fluid motion. Almost as important as starting at the top is making sure the letters are formed using one motion. Don’t let them pick up their pencil in the middle of the word. You don’t make the line for the B, pick up your pencil, and draw the round part. Model it as being one fluid motion, keeping your pencil on the page. Obviously, you pick up your pencil to cross your T or dot your I and J.
    1. K is a little different. Depending on the handwriting book you grew up with, you may write it a little differently. Either way, you can go down, go up half-way, make a look, and kick out; or, go down, go up half-way, kick up, go back, kick down. It’s up to you. I am finding merit in using the more cursive-looking loop. It looks like an R when littles write it, but that is remedied by (later) teaching letter heights.
    2. English is weird. That was my first rule when teaching English: it’s weird. It breaks its own rules. I can explain most of the rules, most of the time. But then sometimes, it’s just weird.
  • Let them practice. Let them enjoy forming letters. Make up pretend words. Copy words out of a book. At this point, the ONLY thing to critique is starting at the top (because it’s SO hard to unlearn). Make it a game. Make it a challenge. Make it fun. The more they enjoy writing their letters, and writing just simple letters isn’t a struggle, the easier writing will be.
  • Use different mediums. Writing on paper can get boring (and waste a lot of paper – trust me, I know) so use different things to write with. Get a boogie board. Use a magnetic drawing board. Write with chalk. Write with paint. Write with a marker. Write with colored pens.
    • I don’t love using play dough or sand for this, and here’s why. Play dough and sand are great for learning the letters and what they look like. Assuming your child already recognizes his/her letters, using play dough/sand throws off the smooth formation of the letter. It becomes choppy and disjointed, and they start the letter wherever the play dough is formed, or there are wonky lines in the sand from where your finger came back down, and it just messes up the rhythm.
    • Note: letter recognition means “This is a C, can you make a C?” which is a great use for play dough or sand. But at this point, I’m assuming that your child already recognizes his letters. If not, forgive me, take a step back, and go back to reviewing the letters. If your child doesn’t recognize his/her letters, he/she doesn’t really need to be writing them yet (yes, there are exceptions to this, of course).
  • Once you’re at this point, and your child is writing letters, begin talking about letter heights. Find a cute analogy that you like, and stick to it. I like calling them “tall letters” “short letters” and “low letters.” Some people use a house analogy and have “attic letters” “room letters” and “basement letters” (I don’t know why, but this one kinda annoys/confuses me, personally). Another one I do like, however, is using animals, and calling them “giraffe letters” (they’re taller – or you can say a bird because they fly (although that can be confusing), “mouse letters” (or some other friendly ground-animal) and “mole letters” (or something that borrows in the ground). Don’t stress it, because they’re not really using lines at this point (right???), but teach it while they’re practicing now.
    1. TALL LETTERS: b, f, h, k, l, t
    2. SHORT LETTERS: a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, z
    3. LOW LETTERS: g, j, p, q, y
    4. D – depending on your child’s level of B/D confusion, teach this as a low letter (because it starts like a c) with a tall head (like a dinosaur?). If this isn’t an issue, you can just call this a regular tall letter.
    5. Side note, I also like to use a category called “Caterpillar C letters”. Look up a cute picture of a curvy caterpillar and picture that image in your head when you start these letters: c, d, g, o, q

Ok, so that’s a LOT just on letter formation. So I’m going to stop here and just let you digest ALLL of this. Message me if you have any questions or would like to know more. And please let me know if this was helpful for you or what you’d like to learn more about. And be on the lookout for my next beginning writing series post!