February 21st, 2012
06:02 AM ET

My View: Encourage your kids to write

Courtesy Don Dinehart By Laura Dinehart, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note:  Laura Dinehart is an assistant professor of early childhood education at Florida International University. Her research focuses on the development and early academic outcomes of children from birth to 5 years of age.

As a researcher in the field of early childhood education, I relish the idea of uncovering how factors in early childhood related to children, families, and schools, connect to children’s academic achievement once they enter school. As a parent, I often find it exasperating.

Take for example our recent findings of a study that looked at over 3,000 preschoolers in the state ofFlorida. We found that preschoolers’ early writing skills – their ability to copy letters, shapes, and numbers – significantly predicted both their grades and standardized test scores in second grade reading and math. As a researcher, this finding was important! Public schools all over the country are dropping handwriting from their curriculum and technology has taken over the need to write anything with pencil and paper. And while newspapers and media outlets highlight this work, parents all over the country are wondering, “Is this one more thing I have to work on with my child?”

As a parent of three young children, I get it. Parents spend time reading, counting, playing outside, doing puzzles, doing extracurricular activities, and finishing homework – now the handwriting too? Do our findings mean that kids with poor writing skills in preschool are doomed to fail? Of course not! In fact, every time I talk about these results, someone inevitably says, “I had horrible handwriting when I was a kid and I did really well in school.” At this point, our study has prompted fewer answers and more questions. Do the findings overwhelmingly demonstrate that teaching handwriting in preschool will result in an improvement in academic skills in the later years? I'm not so sure, just yet. I am comfortable with the notion that early writing skills can serve at least as an indicator of later achievement.

So as researchers work to uncover the underlying mechanisms that link early writing skills to later academic achievement, should you work with your child (or students) on their writing? Sure! It’s important to note that occupational therapists who design handwriting curricula would argue that teaching handwriting is a very specific process. I’ll leave that to the experts for now. As parents, I suggest we provide children with as many opportunities to engage with writing tools as possible. Don’t deny them writing experiences because: (a) you think your electronic device is more "fun" and/or educational or (b) you will have to invest in wall and carpet cleaner.

Here are some quick tips to provide kids with opportunities to write:

Make sure you have a lot of writing materials around your home.

Markers, pencils, pens, and crayons should be made easily accessible to your children, as well as coloring books, paper, composition books, journals, and/or notebooks. There are plenty of books out there that encourage children to draw, make shapes, and trace letters and numbers. Have a few of them available for them to use at their leisure.  Easels, with both dry erase markers and chalk, are often low cost purchases that encourage children to draw, write, and play (more on that below). Going outside? Take sidewalk chalk with you and draw some family pictures while practicing writing the names of each family member. Going to the zoo? Help your child make a list of the animals you think you’ll see and have them check them off as you go along. Keep in mind that spelling accuracy is not important here. It’s the act of “writing” that is the target.

Use writing in play

Imaginary play also provides opportunities for children to write. Be creative!  Notice that doctors write in your medical file and write prescriptions (albeit with horrible penmanship?).  If your child is playing doctor with her dolls, give her a “file” to write on and a pad to write “prescriptions.” Waitresses take orders and you sign a bill every time you go to a restaurant. Serving breakfast? Have your children order from their “menu” that they wrote and sign their “bill.” Finally, what do kids like more than playing teacher? That easel you purchased is going to come in handy now!

Be a role model for your child

Do you write on paper anymore? Do you take all your notes, type up your grocery list, and send emails on your electronic device. Of course you do! Don’t think your four-year-old isn’t noticing. In fact, chances are he is picking up your old, battery-less cell phone (that has now become his toy) and is pretending to type up his grocery list as you head out the door. Be a role model - leave written notes around the house and write a recipe on an index card together. Write out your grocery list next week rather than typing it into your phone.  See if your four-year-old wants to make a list of his own just like you do.

And don't force them. Kids have different levels of interest and ability.  They'll come around.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laura Dinehart.

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. esmeowl12

    I love the idea of providing a variety of material with which children can write. If they show interest, let them!

    February 21, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  2. PK Teacher

    I was disappointed that this article focused on handwriting more than the writing process. I teach pre-k in a public school and I have had students come in who could write their ABC's and their names perfectly - their parents had worked with them a lot! - but really had no understanding of what writing is, why we write, etc. In my experience, the students who do well in writing by the end of the year are the ones who internalize the process and engage in developmentally appropriate writing practices (like inventive spelling, for instance), and these are not necessarily the students who come in (or leave!) with great handwriting. I would like to see a study that looks at the way writing is taught and how that affects students' outcomes later in their academic careers. Too often, I see "writing blocks" in kindergarten and first grade that are essentially kids copying sentences off the board, and I can't see that this is helpful for developing good, creative writers.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  3. Connie Magee

    Since teaching handwriting isn’t included in the national Core Curriculum now, many schools are eliminating it, leaving the task to parents or teachers who try to make time for it. Teachers question whether teaching keyboarding should replace basic handwriting instruction. When teaching time for handwriting was being reduced in our local school district, my teacher friend came up with an innovative way to pair technology with traditional handwriting - a no-frills DVD video (available from http://www.animatedhandwriting.com) that displays the drawing and redrawing of each letter in the alphabet. It made learning handwriting more efficient and faster because she could devote time to helping individual students instead of drawing letters on the board. Students got the best of both worlds, loved the DVD video, and handwriting continued to be taught in the schools.

    February 21, 2012 at 9:06 am |