Handwriting instruction in an OG lesson
How often have you done an intake session with your new student only to discover their handwriting was illegible? As we know, the struggle that appears at age six usually hasn’t miraculously resolved by age 10 or 16 or even 42. Whether they use manuscript or cursive, their formations can be inefficient and lack automaticity. Or perhaps you observe that their grip must cause them pain; they press so hard on the paper that it leaves an imprint on the next page of the notebook. I find this happens most of the time. When I encounter this situation with my students, there are go-to strategies and materials I use.
When I have a new student, I always do a handwriting evaluation. I learn a lot in the dictation portion, plus I ask them to write the alphabet. I observe how they hold the pen. Do they correctly form the letters? Do they look uncomfortable? Do they make capital letters instead of lowercase or maybe a mixture of both upper and lower case? I document all of this. In addition to observing their handwriting, I need to know If they have deleted letters or put the letters in an incorrect order, which would tell me that I need to work on alphabet skills, but that’s another post. As I prepare for the first lesson, I decide where to begin with handwriting skills.
Often I decide if time spent on manuscript would better be served with cursive instruction instead. With direct, explicit instruction, often students with poor manuscript will have nicer cursive. The benefits of cursive instruction are many. One advantage is obvious—the sounds smoothly flow from one letter to the next without having to lift the pen. Just like teaching manuscript, I teach cursive in groups of like-formed letters. I also teach all my late second and third-grade students cursive. It is always fun for them to know how to write in cursive before their peers. It also ensures they don't develop bad writing habits if the classroom teacher doesn't have time for direct instruction for the entire class.
I can write upside-down, can you? During my first OG course, I was told I needed to learn this skill. It felt almost impossible, considering my own penmanship was a mishmash of both cursive and print. We were taught to sit directly across from our students; shifting next to them wasn't an option, therefore, upside-down reading and writing were imperative! So every night I would practice this skill (which could now be my new bar trick, as it amazes most everyone!), and it has become invaluable. I can easily reach over the table and model a misformed letter. When teaching yourself to do this be sure you are correctly forming the letters as your student sees them, for example, we want them to downstroke a lot of letters which is counter-intuitive when writing upside-down. Give it a try!
At their next lesson, I may do “copycat alphabet.” This means I reach across the table and model the correct formation, size and placement of the letters. This is why the aforementioned upside-down writing is crucial. Once again, Orton-Gillingham becomes diagnostic and prescriptive. I decide if doing this at each session is enough or if I need to break it down into smaller, stoke related groups. During dictation, I am mindful of the letters we are working on and do frequent modeling. Sitting across from my student and using upside-down writing gives them immediate feedback and error correction without turning their paper or switching chairs.
Pencil grip is another ongoing issue in my head! In spite of my perfect pencil grip, my handwriting is atrocious. Conversely, a friend of mine with beautiful handwriting has a grip no one corrected. People seem to agree that if the student is straining to write or their hand gets very sore, we should attempt to correct their grip. I say attempt because that is often easier said than done. Sometimes students have weak small motor skills and may need an Occupational Therapist. I have tried a large assortment of grip attachments; it seems not all of them work for all students. It becomes trial and error.
I have a wonderful success story. Recently, while watching a high school student of mine, I broached the topic of cursive and his pencil grip. I can't begin to describe how he held a pencil and formed letters. With a background in Chinese, his letters were a series of strokes. I wasn't sure if we had the time to spend to retrain his brain and still get the required work done. He had never had cursive instruction. This was uncharted territory. I really had no idea what to expect, considering his age. I didn’t think correcting his penmanship would be easy. I demonstrated how I held a pen. We did the pinch and flip technique, and he was in, hook, line, and sinker! After that, we moved quickly through the cursive groupings, and he happily left with practice work. I have to admit it usually isn't that easy. It was an incredibly rewarding experience.
The red handwriting is my demo, and he is green.
Many students struggle with simply knowing where to place a letter on the paper. They are uncertain if the letter is an ascender or descender. I realized that the style of paper they use is also crucial. There are several paper choices on the market, including Handwriting Without Tears, dotted line manuscript paper, and the typical wide and college-ruled notebooks. Students can literally tear through some of these. Others are either too big or too small. So along came our Stay in the Gray paper. It is printed on heavier paper with columns for sounds and dictation on one side and sentences and handwriting practice on the other. They are top bound, so perfect for right- or left-handed writers! Students and teachers alike love it!
While working at Orton Gillingham Reading specialists, Karen Sonday insisted that as OG practitioners, we needed to teach handwriting the same way we teach reading and spelling. It needs to be directly and explicitly taught. My dear friend and colleague, Tracie Ditty, had the nicest handwriting of us all. Her lesson plans were always neat and legible. She was given the task of creating our handwriting curriculum on our Stay in the Gray paper. It was such a hit with the other practitioners at the center that we decided to publish it. Manuscript Made Easy and Cursive Made Easy are now available as a digital download to use with your lessons!
happy handwriting instruction!