Tag Archives: handwriting

Helping Mushroom Learn to Write

I posted a couple weeks back about Mushroom’s epic, epic school tantrum about handwriting wherein I made him shape up (literally, shape his letters more correctly) and I ended up with a kid in tears most of the day.

Well, I can report that it has greatly helped his copywork handwriting, which now looks like this.  There are still some of those scale issues that led to the tantrum in the first place, but it’s a massive improvement over just a couple of weeks ago.

Does that mean I was right to come down hard and make him go through that?  I still don’t know the answer.  He’s an anxious kid sometimes and it was a trying, terrible time.  He is so vulnerable and I find it hard to strike a balance between helping him move forward and helping him feel affirmed and loved.

Here’s what I do know.  Mushroom has decided in the last few months that he wants to be a writer when he grows up (no more dreams of being a chef and he now disdains the kitchen!).  He began filling up page after page of writing.  He just keeps going and going.  Some of his story ideas are clever and creative.  Some of his sentences are complex and well-thought out.  He naturally understands many things about story structure and even metaphor, which just amazes me from an 8 year-old.  But while some sentences are lovely, others get lost in the middle and don’t even make sense.  Sometimes his spelling is so bad he can’t even read what he’s written.  His handwriting is none so lovely as his copywork, that’s for sure.

Still, I really want to honor these rambling, scattered pages of his.  He is pouring his soul into them and is so happy and proud of himself.  Handwriting, spelling, and everything else can come because I know he has that core of creativity and understanding of story.  Julie Bogart talks a lot about being on the side of your child as a writer in The Writer’s Jungle and I am trying to be on his side by loving these stories yet still helping him become more coherent so other people can love them too.  Right now, he decidedly doesn’t want to do any revisions or have me type them up, so I’m holding off.

In the interest of finding that coherence, I have had him write out and post on the bookshelves (we have no wall space, something you may have noticed if you’ve noticed our schoolhouse pictures) a list of the 100 most commonly used words in English.  The rule is that he must spell these, at least, correctly.  When I catch one misspelled, he must write it out correctly several times, which he has done a few times since we posted them.  It does seem to be helping a little.

I also gave in and bought All About Spelling.  Groan.  Not groan because it’s a bad program, which it’s clearly not.  Groan because it’s expensive and scripted with lots of bits and pieces and therefore not my style in any way, shape, or form.  So far we’ve flown through the introductory steps in Level One and he likes the confidence he’s gaining from it and the fact that there’s now an enormous white board stashed behind the easel that’s just for him.  The real test will be when we get to double letters and the ck rule, which will happen very soon.  I’ve been working on that with him for…  oh, three years or so.  If AAS manages to teach it to him, then I’ll be a convert and they can sell me all the bits and pieces they like.

Our language arts program continues to be based on the Bravewriter “lifestyle.”  We do copywork or dictation, freewriting, narration, and the poetry tea reading once a week each.  We round that out with piles of read alouds, piles of independent reads, grammar mostly through living books, and language games on hand.  A few weeks ago, I was having a bit of a crisis about Mushroom’s writing, but I’m feeling more confident and hopeful now than I was before.

Cross your fingers for no more epic tantrums.

Worst School Tantrum EVER

Earlier this week, Mushroom had the most epic, most off the wall, most out of control school tantrum of all time.  I dare you to put this tantrum to shame.  At one point, my eight year old was actually on the sofa kicking and screaming, tears streaming, arms flailing and he looked like some cartoon of what a tantrum should be.  Something I haven’t seen in ages.

What spurred this tantrum, you ask?  Proper letter formation.

Look.  I’m not a stickler about these things most of the time.  But when your handwriting starts to interfere with your ability to convey meaning, then you’ve got to stop and rethink.  You know, before you’re in high school and it’s way too late.  So I asked him to write a few lines correctly, really focused on it, with me sitting there helping him.  And all h-e-double hockey sticks broke loose.  And then something that should have taken less than ten minutes ended up taking all morning.

Then we went to co-op.  And he looked like this.  That’s him, right in front.  In case you can’t see it, he has a gleefully happy expression on his face.  So at least the day wasn’t all bad.

And then we got home and the tantrum resumed for the rest of the afternoon.  I try not to photograph the tantrums.

I still can’t say if I did the right thing by digging in and making him do it anyway.  I often just happily go sideways with things like this.  Drop it and pick it up again later when it’s less threatening.  I don’t usually get so entrenched.  That usually works.  We did that with math and now he really likes math (he in fact stopped crying for a minute mid-tantrum to solve BalletBoy’s Singapore Challenging Word Problems assignment!).  We did that with phonics and now he’s come along and reads very well.  Slowly and steadily, we changed the format, we dropped things and came back to them until the skill found its right moment.

But I’ve been dropping this mixed up “n” and “h” thing and the wrongly scaled letters thing and the letters floating off their lines and the lack of spacing and picking it back up again for nearly a year.  And it just hasn’t changed.  If anything, it’s worse now.  He wrote a densely packed page of story of his own accord the other day and many of the letters were stranger than usual.  I didn’t say a word (other than to gush over the story, which was really very cool – my kid is totally writing steampunk with big clock gears that transport you to other planets), but when we sat down to do Monday copywork, I was determined to make him get it just right.

When it was finally done, there were lots of hugs and apologies on both sides for the torment caused to us both.  He agreed, with extra tears, that he needs to work a little extra on his letters.  I’ve always thought that as a parent and a teacher, you have to know when to back off and when to push forward.  Let’s hope I got it right this time.

wHAt Do yoU MeAN i NeeD to cHANGe My LetteRs?

BalletBoy and I are currently in a struggle over the case of various letters.  I see a point to them and he does not.  He just alternates and uses the ones he likes best whenever he wants.  Always lower case “e” but upper case “N.”  Lower case “i” but upper case “A.”  And so forth.

Up to a point, I’m okay with this.  He writes labels on things for fun and when he focuses on other elements of writing, like spelling or creativity, then I usually don’t want to correct his case usage since that’s not the point of the exercise.  However, it’s getting to be the end of first grade and I think he should start getting a little more consistent about it, especially if I ask him to for specific assignments.

That has worked really well for Mushroom.  He also switches cases all the time and still does for many things, but when I ask him to pay attention and use the correct case then he does.  Overall, his use of case has been growing somewhat organically toward being correct and all is well.  Not so for BalletBoy.

I guess this is one of the drawbacks to having read early and well.  He can sound out words fine, but he struggles to notice things about words and writing – the spelling, the case of the letters, the punctuation.  Some (maybe even many) natural readers also turn out to have an intuitive understanding of words in general.  They’re natural spellers too.  But not poor BalletBoy.

I guess what it boils down to is whether I should have insisted on this sort of thing from the get go so he could form proper habits or if I should have been lax about it and let him enjoy the elements of writing he wanted and grow into the ones he struggled with more.  With reading, that approach worked for BalletBoy, but not for Mushroom, who needed a more structured approach.  On the other hand, the reverse is turning out to be true of the elements of writing, where the relaxed approach benefited Mushroom and hurt BalletBoy.  Can a parent ever win?

We spent a full day in complete battle over this.  When I relented slightly, I suggested that we work together and “make a plan” to figure out how to help him get to a point with his letters that he could write the lower case ones he was averse to using.  Perhaps he needed to practice them.  Perhaps he could add in one a letter a week that he would have to use all the time from that week forward.  He literally plugged his ears and yelled at me about it.  I finally said, fine, we don’t have to talk about it today, but we do have to make a plan for you to change how you write these letters.  Sleep on it and we’ll figure it out tomorrow.  The next morning, school dawned and the first thing BalletBoy said was, “Okay, I want to work on that thing with the letters.”  I said, almost incredulously, “What thing?”  “I want to practice writing the letters like you said.”  I gave him his notebook and in less than two minutes he dutifully copied out all his lower case letters in reasonably neat handwriting.  Then he went back and redid the copied note that had caused all this trouble in the first place the day before.

It really is all about when to push and when to back off, I guess.  I don’t trust that we won’t butt heads about this again.  It doesn’t answer whether we’d have been better off if I had just made him establish better habits in the first place.  But I do want to remember this for myself the next time BalletBoy refuses to do something.

Handwriting Tears

I love Handwriting Without Tears.  However, Mushroom wants everyone to know that it is not as advertised.  Over the course of the year, there have been many, many tears, most of them shed by Mushroom, but also a few from BalletBoy.

Some of Mushroom's finer workbook work.

Handwriting is really tough.  I had a funny relationship with it as a child.  I began with the D’Nealian program in a private school, but then we we moved and I began public school, the teacher told me straight out that she hated all the D’Nealian flourishes and private school kids couldn’t write at all.  So, despite my lovely slanted D’Nealian script, it was all D’s in handwriting from then on out.  If you saw my handwriting now or then, you’d be appalled at the teacher who thought it was okay to give me near failing grades in a subject that really should be primarily about legibility.  Trust me, I’m quite legible.  In fact, despite all that discouragement, I began studying calligraphy on my own around age 11.  While I no longer spend a lot of time on prettifying my writing, I do value beautiful letters.

Fastforward to Mushroom and BalletBoy beginning their own study of handwriting.  I chose Handwriting Without Tears because people on all the homeschooling lists seemed so crazy for it.  Also, I thought the font they use was more aesthetically pleasing and simple than the other leading systems.  In case you don’t know about it, the HWT program uses these cool wooden letter pieces to teach about the letter shapes.  They’re against having kids do pages and pages of rote practice, instead wanting to focus on improvements letter by letter.  They have little stories about how to form the letters and little songs.  We didn’t do every bit of the program, but the song, “Where do you start your letters?  At the top!” still gets a little chant around our house sometimes.

Mostly, the kids like doing handwriting.  They don’t get a lot of workbook action, so I think it’s sort of a fun novelty to them.  When they aren’t into it, I try not to have us doing it.  However, it’s not uncommon for me to see one of the kids making a mistake on their letters.  I’ll say something like, “That’s better than before, but it’s too big.  It needs to stay on the line like this one.”  Usually that’s fine, but sometimes it’s not.  Then my poor little perfectionist freaks out.  Me saying, “That’s okay, we don’t have to do handwriting now!” doesn’t help a bit.  Once the waterworks start, they have to run their course.

I do keep trying to explain that to learn almost anything worth learning, it takes practice.  If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t learn from them.  Whenever we start new things, I often warn them that they had better mess up at least a hundred times before getting it right.  Sometimes that helps.  I think it’s so important to be able to mess up then try again (though maybe not exactly in the moment when you’re upset) so I’ll keep at it.

Since we’ve finished our workbooks, we’ve been doing some of the exercises from Peggy Kaye’s wonderful book, Games for Writing.  Anyone homeschooling early elementary should look at the Peggy Kaye books.  They’re just wonderful.  In our quest to get through the workbook and practice forming letters, I got away from doing things like the games she suggests but I’m glad I rediscovered this on my shelf.  It’s nice to unite handwriting with actual writing.

Some of the writing exercises we've been doing. The story in the middle is Mushroom's, where, interspersed with my words, he wrote about "a abc monstr."

Using the book’s suggestions, we had a race to write down everything we could see in the room.  Mushroom won by using a clever strategy: he thought of three letter words he felt confident about and then looked for them in the room.  BalletBoy struggled to write down some ambitiously long words that came out pretty unintelligible.  We also wrote a story together by rolling a dice to decide how many words BalletBoy or Mushroom had to contribute (1, 2, or 3) between the parts that I wrote.  So far, no tears at all.  I hope to remember to intersperse our first grade work with more activities like these.