Handwriting Without Tears

This past weekend, I attended a one-day Handwriting Without Tears conference in Toronto, and it has turned me from a happy customer to a cheerleader.  Carol has written before about the HWT system, and it was actually her post that got me to their website to buy the workbooks to use at home with my kids.  Many of the participants at the conference were occupational therapists, and it was startling to realize that when kids have problems with handwriting, it’s more often the OTs than the teachers who address those problems.  How can it be that handwriting has come under the purview of special ed?

In the 1970s there was a shift in educational philosophy from phonics to whole language learning.  With that shift, teachers’ colleges stopped training student teachers how to teach handwriting.  Many people of my generation (1970s) were taught handwriting because we had as teachers the last cohort who learned how to teach writing.  Today, handwriting instruction is no longer part of the curriculum for students in elementary schools.  Now, it is up to the individual teacher whether or not to include structured handwriting instruction: correct pencil grip, paper position, stroke order and uniform letter formation.  Not only is handwriting no longer on the curriculum, those who do teach it in a structured way face a stigma for being retrograde.  A friend who attended the conference with me was told explicitly by a mentor in the school board not to put the workshop on her resume when applying for teaching jobs because it is perceived as old-fashioned.

When my eldest was in Junior and Senior Kindergarten, it never occurred to me to ask if he was being taught to write.  I just assumed that daily work practicing writing letters over and over again with the correct stroke order would be part of the day, like it was for me.  He was left to copy the letters in any way he liked, which led to some very creative, and ultimately damaging, habits of stroke order.  I was assured that his writing would improve with age, and that the irregularities would sort themselves out.  They didn’t.  When it came time to learn cursive letters, the kids were given instruction for only four weeks, then they were left to decide for themselves whether to print or write in cursive.  Without a requirement, my son reverted to his slow and unevenly-formed print.  The facilitator at the conference gave me a lot of peace of mind about helping my son to re-train his hand.  She compared the bad habits to when you move the garbage can in the kitchen and you keep tossing things to the place that the garbage used to be.  It’s a simple matter of regular reinforcement of the new, and will take only 15 minutes a day of work over two or three months to correct.  By the end of the school year, we can correct and improve both his printing and his cursive.

My middle son, luckily, has had teachers who do include handwriting instruction.  We have been doing sporadic work at home in the workbooks, in part because I am not so worried about filling in the gaps, but his writing is not terribly neat, either.  After the workshop, I am persuaded that daily reinforcement at home this year with pay off enormously in the years to come.

My four-year-old son loves the HWT i-pad app, and it has actually become the ticket to any and all use of that screen.  He will pick it up and say, “Can I do five letters today, Mum, to get screen time?”  If it’s a week day, when we do not have t.v. or other play screen time, he will happily do the letters anyway, and I could not be happier with how seamlessly this learning fits into our lives.  At four, he already knows the stroke order for all the capital letters, and that learning has been effortless and fun.  He had his first go today on the chalk board (see Carol’s post for details about the chalk board), and I was so impressed by how neat his letters are already.

As far as I can tell, most private schools in Toronto use the HWT books in their elementary schools.  Our neighbourhood tutoring school also uses the books, but it costs $35 an hour to have handwriting instruction there, and I balked at paying that much for something that I can do almost effortlessly at home.  (I say almost, because it does require a lot of discipline to get those books out every day.)

The system

HWT was founded by Jan Olsen, an occupational therapist whose son had difficulty with his handwriting in Grade 1.  She went into his classroom for 15 minutes each morning, gave him, and eventually several of his struggling classmates, direct instruction, and the company has taken off from there.

The HWT materials begin with preschool and end with Grade 5.  The student workbooks do not have the grade level on them, so as not to discourage students who are developmentally behind their age group.  Students begin with manipulatives (wooden shapes out of which to form the letters), progress to writing upper case in JK, lower case in SK, and cursive by the end of Grade 2.   All the books have a double-lined guide for letter formation, and the lines get gradually narrower as the fine motor skills develop.  All of the books also include grammar instruction, so students learn grammar rules as they learn handwriting.

The HWT systems begins by teaching all the capital letters first.  This is because a person can be functionally literate with capitals alone.  If a child can master all the capital letters, most of which are easier to write than the lower case letters, he or she can be a functional writer for all classroom writing.   This helps with fluency for all writing activities in the class, no matter what the grade.  The strokes for capital letters are easier for small hands, and in some cases, the capital letters are shaped the same as lowercase letters, so the child already has a head start with the lower case alphabet.  Letters are not taught in alphabetical order, but are grouped so that children learn all similarly-written letters together (E, F, L, D, P) reinforcing correct stroke order and beginning position.

The system is designed to appeal to all kinds of learners: visual, aural, tactile and kinesthetic.  By teaching the letters in non-alphabetical order, the system also pre-empts common problems with letter reversals.  Lower case d, which appears much more often than the letter b in English, is taught early, and the letter is reinforced for a long time before the letter b is introduced.  The workbooks are all designed to be equally friendly to left- and right-handed students.  Best of all, I have found the materials to be very reasonably priced.  And the website offers all kinds of free materials.  What’s more, facilitators will come to your child’s school to do a “lunch and learn” or a seminar for teachers who are interested in incorporating the system into their classroom instruction.  If you want to see handwriting re-introduced into the classroom (where it should be!), talk to your child’s teacher or principal about getting a representative to your school.

Until then, and as a supplement to what the kids do in school, this is an efficient and fun way to ensure writing success.


10 thoughts on “Handwriting Without Tears

  1. My grade 6 daughter is one of those students now seeing an OT for handwriting issues. I tried, from the time she was in JK, to get her teachers to encourage her to hold a pencil properly a la “froggy fingers”. Not a single one of them would do it. They are not trained to deal with these now and take the approach that everyone holds a pencil differently.

    I found it hard to get my daughter to hold a pencil properly at home, when this was not supported at school – where her incorrect technique was reinforced for several hours a day.

    It’s important to note that there is actually a learning disability called dysgraphia – which does involve handwriting, pain, and difficulty forming letters on the page. It is often mistaken for dyslexia because it seems that reading is an issue – but there are some major differences.

    • Thanks for contributing to the discussion. Yes, when I tried to correct my eldest’s writing (or spelling!) he’d say, “The teacher doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter.” I understand the need to aim for fluency, but not entirely at the cost of accuracy. I know that there are many students with exceptionalities who do need the help of an OT, and I think it’s wonderful that we have access to them through the school. It just saddens me that all of our children do not get early and consistent teaching in so basic a skill.

  2. I was in school for Elementary Ed in the 1990’s in the states and they did teach us how to teach printing…but I cannot recall if cursive was a part of the learning! Hmmmm! My career went in a different path than classroom teaching. In any case, in the years since I think that those who shape our educational system have determined that there are other things more important and computers have taken over. There is good and bad in that. I look back at my grandparents cursive and can’t believe how perfect and uniform it all looked! I agree even here, my son had little instruction in cursive and at 13 his signature looks like something from a third grader. His printing is atrocious, and he does have dysgraphia, so his early teachers that did encourage practice and repetition, but did not understand his extra difficulties did little to help him. While he’s been able to access OT at school due to his GIEP, that helped little as he did not transfer his learning to the classroom. I’m going to look into that HWT app. His maturity now may lead to him actually relearning how to form his letters correctly. Thanks for sharing

    • It’s funny because the conference leader showed us the sample of Jan Olsen’s son’s writing, and most of us thought it was just fine! She noted that standards have slipped so much that what was once a red flag for intervention would raise no eyebrows today. I don’t think that we should be churning out little robots who all write alike, but we do need to have more directed instruction. The app is really geared to a young audience, but for the grade five level book, they hired an illustrator to make the comics more cool! (Jan Olsen did all the illustrations for the other books.)

  3. My husband used HWT when he taught early elementary and used it with our son. He swears by it, not just for the handwriting practice, but for the fine motor skill development it fosters. Good for you!

    • Yes, the instuctors I know who use it, do swear by it. And the teachers’ guides are great. My only criticism so far is the name! Do you find it off-putting? I did at first.

      • At the cottage last summer, my husband pushed our son too far beyond his reach a number of times, and I reminded him about Handwriting Without Tears, as it might be nice to have Swimming Without Tears. I like it.

    • I think that’s the hidden bonus of good handwriting, Suzan, and even perhaps a way to convince the school system of its value. Especially for younger kids, the fine motor skills and little muscle development is something that is taught in school, at least the teachers are aware of and told to focus on.

      It’s like the broccoli of learning: learning letters, handwriting, developing fine motor skills and even grammar, all with just one lesson plan.

  4. I bought the books after reading Carol’s post, but this reminds me that I need to GET THEM OUT regularly! I’m not even sure where they are anymore…

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