I t’s center time in Dawn Oakes preschool class and Chloe Cotton doesn’t want to miss a thing. She and classmate Mallory Adair take turns rolling out yellow Play-Doh on the table into long ropey lengths. Chloe lays her length carefully down the left-hand side of a small frame box.
“You have one big line, what else do you need?” asks Oakes, a preK 3 teacher at Briarcrest Christian School, where the two girls are practicing their letters.
“A little line,” replies Chloe, as she adds a second and third piece of clay to build the letter of the week.
“What letter did you make?” asks her teacher when the work is complete.
“The letter F,” Chloe says with a smile.
At another table, Hunter McNamara and Griffin Stang work with a magnetic dry erase board to practice the same task.
“Where do we start? Show me the smiley face,” says the teacher’s aide as she points to the smiley face sticker on the upper left-hand corner of the board. Once Hunter stamps the letter F using small wooden sticks, he traces it with his finger to remember the shape.
As these preschoolers practice the fundamentals of letter writing, other lessons are also at work: recognizing that letters are written from top to bottom, and that text is read from left to right, subtle but crucial building blocks for developing readers. Later, the children sit on colorful floor mats to sing silly songs about the alphabet, about how to remember your right hand from your left, and about how to hold a crayon.
This hands-on, multisensory approach to writing is part of a curriculum called Handwriting Without Tears (HWT). This method helps children learn to identify and write their letters using multisensory materials: clay, wooden sticks, miniature pencils and crayons, as well as music.
Until last year, Oakes relied primarily on worksheets to teach her students handwriting. And while tracing letter patterns on lined tablet paper has long served preschool and kindergarten teachers, it can be a frustrating work for little hands. Handwriting Without Tears provides materials and an approach that helps young children learn this skill more easily.
“I’m sold because it’s developmentally appropriate,” say Oakes. “This starts a child correctly on the path to reading and the correct way to form letters,”
Despite the prevalence of computers today, handwriting is still an important skill for students to master. But finding the best approach for 3- and 4-year-olds who are still learning how to grasp a pencil, and sometimes struggle with short attention spans, can be tricky. The website teachhandwriting.com, lists brief reviews of more than 40 handwriting curriculums available to teachers and home-schoolers.
Oakes heard about HWT from teachers at other schools, and then attended a workshop last spring. The curriculum was developed in 1977 by occupational therapist Jan Olsen. She originally used it with special-needs children, but quickly found that all children could benefit from her approach. Last year, more than 2 million students learned to write successfully using this method, according to the company’s website.
While not inexpensive (Briarcrest budgeted $4,000 for materials to teach 90 to 100 students), Oakes and her colleagues have noticed students making significant strides using this method. The program also has kindergarten teachers excited, since children who learn how to write correctly in preschool come better prepared for kindergarten and first grade work.
“From everything I’ve seen in the last 20 years, this is the best material I’ve used because it addresses so many different issues,” says Oakes.
The program teaches upper case letters first to 3-year-olds, then moves to lower case letters once children are 4. Teachers say part of the reason the materials are so effective is that they’re geared to the abilities of young children and help them learn the material in different ways. Pencils are stubby and slender, the flip crayons help develop fine motor skills. The wooden spelling sticks, long rectangles and half-moon crescents, give children concrete visuals that help them remember the parts of a letter.
“It’s fun to teach and fun to see how far the kids have come since the start of school,” says Oakes. “We’ll definitely expand this program next year. This starts children on the path to reading.”
For Oakes, the letter F might just stand for fantastic.