Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Boy Who Hated to Write #SensoryHop

This was one of my Mother's Day gifts from Ben.  It says, "I love you to the moon and back."
Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week.  I had the chance to visit Ben's school a couple of days and work with his classmates on a writing project for their teacher.  As I helped the boys and girls with their writing, it became painfully clear to me just how far Ben's writing skills lag behind the rest. 

I allowed myself a moment of panic before reminding myself that comparing Ben to his classmates is an exercise in futility.

Instead, I have to take a big picture view and look at his progress across the year.

As I think back to Ben's writing skills at the beginning of kindergarten, it's clear that his progress has been huge.

Did I mention that he started the year hating to write?

This progress has not been accidental.

Ben's classroom teacher, OT, and speech teacher coordinate closely as they work towards helping him to develop as a writer (and in all areas).  When we've met throughout the year, they have outlined specific steps in the plan.  I've worked on reinforcing these at home to help solidify what he is learning at school.

These are the steps that we have followed over the course of the year.

Step 1:  Master the grip
Ben has learned to hold a writing utensil correctly through a variety of different techniques.

The first thing that Ben's classroom teacher noticed at the beginning of the year was that Ben needed to master the pencil grip, and this became goal number one.  At the beginning of the year, Ben was holding his writing instruments in a fist.  He also switched back and forth between hands while writing, and I couldn’t tell if he was going to be right handed, left handed, or ambidexterous.  I learned that for young students with weak fine motor skills, it is common for them to switch hands and around the age of 5 ½ they should have selected a dominant hand.  The dominant hand should emerge naturally and by doing activities that involve crossing the midline, the brain will eventually show this preference.  If you'd like to learn more about why crossing the midline is so important, click here.

For the first few weeks of school, Ben’s teacher observed him closely and learned that he favored his right hand.  Once they established his dominant hand, they worked with him on the tripod grasp.  

They used special finger socks to teach his fingers to hold the pencil correctly and within a few weeks he had the grip mastered.  

Once his grip was solid, his frustration with writing decreased dramatically.  Prior to this, he would demand that any writing task happen “hand over hand” with an adult's help.  Once he mastered his grip, he began to do writing tasks on his own.

Step 2:  No more “scribble scrabble”
These pictures represent Ben's writing progression across the first few months of school.  The improvement was dramatic.
Ben’s teacher uses the writing workshop approach to teaching writing.  This teaches children that all writing has a purpose, so they write either to tell a story, to teach facts and information, or to give their opinion.  In addition, a child’s illustrations at this stage are just as critical to the writing as the words on the page.  Ben began learning that the marks on the page had a purpose.  At first he wasn’t able to tell an adult what his “scribble scrabble” meant, but the more an adult conferred one on one with him, asking about his story, coaching him on how to draw people, and eventually objects and animals, his drawings began to take form.  

Ben and his classmates know that they are writers, even in kindergarten.  It's pretty common for me to see a note from one of Ben's friends in his backpack on any given day.  They understand that words have power and that writing is our way of communicating our thoughts and emotions.  I've seen Ben harnessing the power of words more and more as the year has progressed.

Step 3:  Become a master storyteller

Writers must first become storytellers.  Because the physical act of writing is difficult for Ben, it became important to master the concept of story.  Ben and I practice telling stories about everything, including our day.  We tell stories about his favorite toys, creating wild tales that make him laugh. 

Many times, we tell stories with just words, but sometimes we write our stories down into books.  At first, I would write the words for him, and as the year has progressed, he has taken more and more of the responsibility on himself.  Ben’s stories have a special place in his home library and we pull them out often to read at bedtime.  Ben has also been taking theater classes, where he has learned to memorize lines and act stories out on stage.  This has helped his imagination to grow and expand, and often these make their way into stories that he spontaneously writes on his own.

Step 4:  Writing Muscles are Whole Body Muscles
Our kitchen table often becomes overrun by Ben's various art supplies.  Art is a messy, creative process!

We think of writing as a fine motor task, but any OT will tell you that developing writing muscles is a whole body task.  The effort to hold a pencil correctly requires muscles in the hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and core muscles.  This is why activities such as monkey bars and jumping rope are so beneficial for developing writing muscles.  Other gross motor tasks that help develop the writing muscles are the wheelbarrow and bear crawl.  Ben used to hate doing these exercises in OT and would loudly complain when he was asked to do them.  Now he does them with ease.

Writing on vertical surfaces, such as an easel, also helps to improve fine motor skills.  Ben has also come to love art this year as he practices mixing colors in different mediums.  We have purchased him paints, oil pastels (for mixing colors), colored pencils, and variety of other artistic tools.  All of these and more have encourages his writing habit.  

Step 5:  Writing is more than copying words
Ben writing a letter to Santa at Christmas.  He has learned to write for many purposes and often will often choose to write on his own.
This year, Ben has learned to write for a purpose.  Too much rote copying of letters and words can actually be more harmful than good at this age.  Instead, Ben practices letter formations through tracing letters on sand and rice tables (aka- sand or rice on a cookie sheet).  We also practice by forming letters out of play-doh, wikki sticks, and putty.  Ben does have sight word homework every night (his least favorite homework) but rather than writing the words five times each like the rest of the class, Ben practices writing each word once each evening.  This accommodation in addition to the other fine motor practice mentioned above has helped him develop his confidence as a writer.  The most exciting part to me is to see Ben spontaneously choose to go to his writing table and write.  One day it was to make a sign for the dogs, telling them they were not allowed in the living room while he was eating.  Another day it was to craft a fictional story about Star Wars, where Ben Darth Vader became part of the light side again.  But my favorite was this past Sunday when I received the sweetest Mother’s Day cards throughout the day, completely unsolicited.

"I love you to the moon and back"
"I love you a lot."

"I love you forever."

It’s easy to compare our child to others and worry about how far he needs to come.

Instead, however, we need to remember that each child is on his or her own path.  

Our child's needs are not the same as the child sitting next to him in class.  

We need to consider what our child can do well and follow the child's lead in creating the next steps for instruction.  

We need to observe our child carefully to see if we are pushing too hard.  If so, we need to reflect and re-evaluate our course.  

We need to help create lifelong writers who enjoy writing and who write for a purpose.

This, above all, should be our goal.


  1. Many of these still apply to my son at 13. His dysgraphia presented with very erratic spacing and we often use graph paper to help him space properly. He needs to focus to be even close to legible, still. But I really like your focus on the truly worthwhile aspects of writing such as storytelling!

    1. Spacing is a huge issue for us too. He really doesn't see the difference yet between longer and shorter letters, or letters that cross under the bottom line. I've heard about dysgraphia but, much like dyslexia, that's something that they don't really diagnose in Florida. I'll have to read more about it.

    2. AAARGh - it varies so much by state - but i know you will find ways to get him whatever he needs - it's so obvious from this post alone!

    3. Thanks. I'll do my best...and then I'll overthink my decision... :)

  2. So glad to see his school supporting him, too. And the writing is a whole body activity is SO crucial! My poor guy couldn't even sit up a whole school day. He would be laying on the desk by afternoon. Built up some core strength and suddenly he could sit AND write much longer.

    1. Yes- that core body strength is so crucial. Glad to hear your little guy showed growth in this area also!

  3. We struggle with handwriting too. Spacing and size of letters (he writes his to small). Getting better but still not one of his favorite activities to do at home.

    1. My son's OT gave some great advice at his IEP meeting today. She said to work on one writing goal at a time for him, whether it be spacing or getting content and ideas down on the page. Someday we'll work on the integration piece, but, for now, it will help to pick one area as a focus. She also does an activity called "stoplight letters" where we used the handwriting paper with the dotted lines in the middle. We color the top line red, the middle line yellow, and the bottom line green (like a stoplight) and Ben is learning which letters are "red light letters" and "yellow light letters". It's very visual and is working for him with the size and spacing issue. Obviously mine writes his too big. ;)


Please add a comment here.