A few years ago we were on vacation and my oldest son had done some artwork at the museum in Williamsburg. He proudly brought the paper over and I was amazed at how his name had been written across the top. I quickly asked him which of his sisters had written his name for him and he grinned from ear to ear. “I wrote it Mama!”
I just about fell out of my chair. I’m not sure if I was more shocked that his four-year-old self had written this (now) masterpiece or that I was just now finding out he could write his name. (Oh, it’s funny to look back and laugh sometimes at just how much you miss when you have three or four little ones running around underfoot, isn’t it?)
Oh yeah, back to the topic…
Writing often gets a bad rap in the homeschool world. Since most kids don’t teach themselves to write like my 3rd child did, we often find ourselves struggling to understand how and when to teach. We wonder if there really is a difference between handwriting and writing. And if there is, what do we do with it?
Well, this is one area where my teaching degree has helped, so let me pass along a little of that wisdom and we’ll see if we can clear a few things up.
When to start teaching writing
Writing is sort of like baseball: every parent has a different idea of when a child should start. Many think you should buy that first ball before Junior is born and adorn him in a jersey as soon as one fits. Those same parents march Junior down to the little league office the day he turns three. Others take what I call the Michael Jordan approach. (Did you know that Michael didn’t play basketball on a team until junior high? His parents didn’t sign him up at three and he still became a legend in the sport.)
I’m not advocating for either method for teaching writing. In fact, quite the opposite. I think you can get there both ways. You can be super prepared and start very early or you can wait until later than most. Either way, your chances are still fairly similar for being successful at teaching your child to write. (Good news for us all…collective sigh of relief is certainly in order.)
However, I’ll humor you with my two cents. In order to attempt to answer the question of when, it’s helpful to define the terms.
Handwriting: the skill of learning to form letters in a legible manner
Writing: the skill of crafting sentences and paragraphs to convey a message to your reader
So, while the two terms are often used interchangeably, it is clear that they are not AT ALL the same. However, they are often lumped together or used to describe the same subject because of their progression. In light of the definition, it is probably obvious to you that one cannot write until they have mastered handwriting. So, let’s start at the beginning.
How to teach handwriting
When my children start writing, we begin with Handwriting without Tears. The reason I like this particular program is that it starts very slow, is extremely thorough, and is largely successful at producing excellent handwriting. Below, I will break out a step-by-step approach, but I want to remind you that every child is different. The ages are loose guidelines. The most important thing to evaluate is your own child’s skill set.
This is a great time to encourage free coloring and doodling. Allow them to explore colors, strokes, and paper. The more often they are allowed to do this, the more opportunity they will have to get comfortable with the crayons and other writing tools. PLEASE DO NOT buy those silly fat crayons. They are not better for little hands. Think about it….if a six-month-old can pick up a Cheerio, your three-year-old is able to handle a thin crayon or pencil. In fact, I often think that the fatter crayons can be difficult to maneuver.
I would not teach anything formal at this age unless your child is asking for it. By asking, I literally mean, “Mommy, will you show me how to write this letter?” Otherwise, let them doodle!
There comes a point around kindergarten when your child will want to write letters. If you have encouraged them to doodle their way through the preschool years, it is likely they can already write their name and many other letters. Now is the time to teach them formally.
As I mentioned above, I used Handwriting without Tears. For my girls, I bought the entire starter set and accompanying books. We used all the manipulatives and loved them. I still highly recommend this, but let’s face it—if you are homeschooling two older kids, when number three learns to write, manipulatives are slightly laughable. So, my boys have used the books alone and, shockingly, both are writing just as well! I will note that if you find your child is struggling, the manipulatives are especially useful.
In handwriting, practice makes perfect. Generally at this age, parents have their children practice—a lot. You can continue buying books from Handwriting without Tears or similar companies, or you can do “copywork.” Copywork is simply when a child copies written text onto paper.
Copywork is an essential skill that has pretty much been phased out of the public school experience. However, it provides crucial tracking skills, and spelling and language practice, that aid in the development of WRITERS. Not handwriters, but actual writers—those people who can successfully craft a five-paragraph essay without a tirade.
How? Copying excellent quality language cements the patterns into your brain. So, when you select copywork, select something excellent. In our home, we often use the Bible or lines from excellent pieces of literature. (Idea: have your kids copy one verse from Proverbs each day.) I also absolutely love the Write Through the Bible Curriculum for this!
What about cursive?
Interestingly, you’ve probably been wondering about this question all along, yet I never told you to teach your child to print first. Hehe. Most people do teach their child to print first. However, many have advocated that cursive is easier to teach first, as children are naturals at circle strokes.
Whatever you choose is fine with me (and Michael Jordan’s parents). Do what you think is best. If you choose to do print first, you might wonder when cursive should be added. There is no right answer, of course, but most children have a natural desire to learn it around 3rd grade. Why not take advantage of that?
My 3rd grader learned it toward the end of 2nd grade per her request, but prefers manuscript (print). So, I let her use print one day and cursive the next. Why? I am keenly aware that handwriting is not going to be nearly as crucial in her life as other things and I don’t want to die on this hill. Which reminds me…perhaps I should start teaching keyboarding skills!
How to teach writing
To review, the definition of WRITING is: the skill of crafting sentences and paragraphs to convey a message to your reader. This is what your child needs to develop once they can write letters and sentences legibly. And friend, this is no easy feat.
First let me say this: children are gifted with different strengths. If your child is a math whiz, chances are writing will be harder for him. Most people aren’t equally capable in all subjects. However, this is not an excuse to push the subject aside. If your child wants to go to college, great writing skills are a must. Even if he/she does not, it will still be difficult to go about life without the ability to communicate something to another person in writing, even if it’s just an email.
There is much debate in the language arts world about when to start teaching this craft. Some would say that students should start to form sentences as soon as they can legibly write the letters—generally in kindergarten. Most public schools follow this theory. Others would say that the early elementary years should be used to teach HANDWRITING and good form through narration and copywork.
Really, we are back to the little league or Michael Jordan question. When should you start? I can’t say. You’ll need to decide, but here are a few resources to get you started.
This reading mama has daily posts with authentic writing for the little guys. I love her stuff. I am also a big fan of Write Shop if you are looking for a more formal curriculum. This one focuses more on creative writing and is super fun and engaging for students.
If you choose to wait on the formal writing, check out IEW or Writing with Ease. Both programs are systematic approaches to writing, with instructions for students and parents. Many parents choose to do this in a co-op setting, which is an excellent option.
Living and Learning at Home has created many beautiful copywork resources. She is also doing a series on the importance of copywork this week!
For my family? I actually do a little of both. When my children first learn to read, I give them a spelling dictionary. A few times a week, they have writing time. I give them a journal with blank pages and they draw. After they draw something, I ask them to write a sentence about what they drew. If they ask me how to spell a word, I look it up in their spelling dictionary and circle it for them. Otherwise, I never correct for spelling—I simply let them write. Sometimes I suggest a topic, but most of the time I do not.
In the 4th grade, my kids start the IEW writing program as their formal writing program/curriculum. (So I am mostly a Michael Jordan, with a bit of head start, in my method.)
More Christian Homeschool Curriculum
Read more Christian homeschool curriculum tips and favorites here.
Do you have a favorite writing or handwriting curriculum? Do you have a question about teaching writing?
Through practical tools & Bible-based resources, Kim Sorgius is dedicated to helping your family GROW in faith so you can be Not Consumed by life’s struggles. Author of popular kid’s devotional Bible studies and practical homeschooling tools, Kim has a master’s degree in education and curriculum design coupled with over 2 decades of experience working with kids and teens. Above all, her most treasured job is mother and homeschool teacher of four amazing kiddos.