What does research say about the benefits of teaching children to write letters and numbers accurately?
Research shows that handwriting is a foundational skill that can influence students’ reading, writing, language use, and critical thinking. It has an important role in brain development. It is necessary to teach children to write, alongside technology in the classroom, as it promotes success in other academic subjects.
A standard expectation in education is that young students learn how to write legible, well-formed letters. So how do we teach a child to write letters and numbers legibly and accurately?
Research indicates the benefit of using multisensory activities to teach children to write letters and numbers.
According to scientific studies, children learn best by engaging in hands-on, multisensory learning that incorporates the five senses.
A study, conducted by Kast, Meyer, Vogeli, Gross, and Jancke (2007), found that targeting multiple senses during a writing training program helped students, with and without developmental dyslexia, to improve writing skills.
Multisensory instruction can also help children become more invested in the classroom. Results of a study by Molenda and Bhavangri (2009) stated that students become emotionally involved in multisensory activities in the classroom.
Here are ten multi-sensory/hands-on approaches to teach children to write letters and numbers.
These methods are used to help students address challenges such as illegible letters/numbers, inconsistency in letter/number size, and letter/number reversals.
1. Surface Tracing
Show your child a letter and ask him/her to pay attention to how it is formed/shaped. Then ask your child to try to trace it from memory on a table, door, window etc.
You can also trace a letter on any surface and have your child guess what it is. Use a large surface or small surface. Write large or small letters.
If your child is really struggling to trace or guess the letters, have her put her hand on yours while you trace the letter. You can also put your hand on hers while you guide her to trace the letter.
You can even trace the letter on your child’s hand and have her guess it and ask her to trace a letter on yours and have you guess it.
Research demonstrates that having children attempt to write/draw letters from memory is an effective strategy when trying to teach children to write or to improve letter formation.
2. Stencil – Write the letters/numbers in stencils to naturally practice correct formation.
3. Ask your child to trace letters/numbers with arrow cues.
Students can trace with arrow cues on a piece of paper or a dry erase board. Once they have the hang of that (may take several sessions), ask them to trace without arrow cues.
You can also get a handwriting workbook such as Lots and Lots of Letter Tracing
or a dry-erase book where your child can erase and rewrite the letters/numbers as many times as they want.
4. Look at the letter and then write it on paper or a dry-erase board from memory.
If a child struggles to keep the letters in the lines because of trouble with motor control or perceptual difficulties, provide them with wide-lined paper.
Young children (or those with small hands) may also benefit from shorter/child-size pens/pencils.
5. Use the Wet-Dry-Try Method
The Wet-Dry-Try method is a component of the Handwriting Without Tears Program, a research-based handwriting intervention program.
How does the Wet-Dry-Try method work?
First, the adult writes the letter on a chalkboard.
Next. the child uses a sponge and then their finger to go over the letter to make a nice wet version of the letter.
Then the child lets the letter dry and traces over the letter with chalk.
See detailed instructions below.
Here is an image of the app.
6. Feel/touch letter formations.
8. Talk about letter formation.
For example, describe what a letter looks like-“a B has a straight line and two curves coming out to the right, a C looks like a crescent moon, an E looks like a comb with some missing teeth, a V is two slanted lines that meet at the bottom, etc.
Describe it to your child and have your child describe it to you. Talk about letter formation while you look at, write, or trace a letter.
9. Use mnemonic devices for b/d reversals.
Mnemonic devices are research-based techniques a person can use to help them improve their ability to remember something. Here are some examples of mnemonic devices for b/d reversals.
You May Also Be Interested In: Mnemonic Examples: Everything You Need to Know (And How to Use Them) by magneticmemorymethod.com
10. Write letters in clay.
Your child can use the point or back end of a pencil/pen or other carving tool. This will allow them to feel resistance when writing which is helpful for feeling letter formations and building hand strength.
Your child can look as they write or look (only if needed) and they try to write from memory.
11. Incorporate music and movement into learning.
Research demonstrates that music enhances learning and a component of multisensory learning (discussed above) often includes kinesthetic learning (learning that takes place by the student carrying out physical activities).
Check out these Handwriting Without Tears moves.
Here is a fun song that has the letters of the alphabet singing, dancing, and waving!
Keep in mind the following when working with students on writing:
Keep practice sessions short (e.g. 2 to 10 minutes for younger children or children who get easily frustrated and 10 to 15 minutes for older children or children who can work for longer periods without frustration), unless the child is eager to keep going.
For suggestions on ways to encourage children to complete tasks or assignments they do not want to do, read 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion and How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior.
Remember to always stay calm when working with a child or student, even if you think they should be getting something that they are not getting.
If you get frustrated with them, they may start to feel anxious, angry, inferior, stupid, etc. which will lead to a less productive learning session.
Want to know if the strategies recommended in this article are working?
Ask your child to write the alphabet and the numbers 1 – 10. Check how many letters have the correct form, positioning, and are clearly recognizable. Implement the strategies in this article two to five times weekly.
At the end of a chosen time period (let’s say 10 weeks) reassess your child’s ability to correctly write 26 letters of the alphabet and numbers 1 – 10.
If you see improvement, you know the interventions are working.
It is important for children to work on mastering one letter before moving on to the next. Mastery means they can correctly write the letter on a piece of paper from memory.
Here is some additional information about writing support for your child.
Studies estimate that between 10 to 30 percent of elementary school children struggle with handwriting (Karlsdottir and Stephansson 2002, as cited in Feder and Majnemer 2007).
If you are concerned that your child is struggling with handwriting, talk to your child’s school to find out if they share the same concern.
If you are still unsure you can check with your child’s doctor or review handwriting milestones and guidelines such as the ones at North Shore Pediatric Therapy which indicate that by six years old children typically should be able to copy or write their name and be able to write the alphabet without omitting letters.
It also states that children are expected to write the alphabet in uppercase and lowercase letters without switching forms throughout and should also use appropriate capital letters and punctuation to write complete sentences.
By seven years old children are expected to write letters in the correct formation and position, particularly letters where reversals are common (example: ‘b’ versus ‘d’).
If your child is having trouble with letter formation, handwriting, or acquiring other academic skills, despite consistent practice and guidance, inform your child’s school and/or doctor.
They can refer you to the appropriate professionals to determine what might be interfering with your child’s progress and what additional strategies might help.
An occupational therapist can assess posture, pencil grip, visual perception, hand-strength, etc. (all important skills for writing development) and work with your child to address specific areas of need.
A clinician such as a school psychologist, child psychologist, pediatric neurologist or developmental pediatrician can determine if additional challenges such as a learning disability or autism spectrum disorder are interfering with writing progress.
Occupational therapists can be found in your child’s schools or your community. Contact your child’s school, county, or insurance provider for more information on occupational therapists.
You Might Also Like: The Best Way to Teach Kids to Write by Preschool Inspirations
Video Presentation About Multisensory Handwriting Approaches
Multisensory Tools to Help with Letter and Number Formation
You can find more tools for learning to write in our Multisensory Store.
Rachel Wise is the author and founder of Education and Behavior. Rachel created Education and Behavior in 2014 for adults to have an easy way to access research-based information to support children in the areas of learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. As a survivor of abuse, neglect, and bullying, Rachel slipped through the cracks of her school and community. Education and Behavior hopes to play a role in preventing that from happening to other children. Rachel is also the author of Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
“Children do best when there is consistency within and across settings (i.e., home, school, community). Education and Behavior allows us to maintain that consistency.”