Can I just be blunt? We are horrified by the Head Start practice of leaving preschoolers to figure out how to form letters on their own – ’emergent handwriting’ as they call it. They reason that preschoolers are not ready for instruction, and that what ’emerges’ is preferable to time-honored methods. But this philosophy overlooks and important fact: the motor brain begins to establish neural pathways as soon as a motion is repeated, so if a child starts forming a letter from the bottom up, and they repeat that choice, motor memory becomes established, and it is nearly impossible to change, even with instruction and practice come kindergarten! We know this for a fact after assessing over 400 kindergartners one-on-one.
Why does it matter where they start? It matters because in order for handwriting to be a useful educational tool, it must become automatic. The motor brain must handle the task of recording while other parts are listening, thinking, reasoning, and remembering. To achieve automaticity, strokes must flow efficiently – cursive or manuscript – in a smooth, top-down, left-to-right motion. A ‘pulling’ or ‘drawing’ stroke takes less effort than a ‘pushing’ stroke. (This may not be true for left-handed students who must deal with the awkwardness of ‘pushing’ the instrument from left to right, but that is another subject.)
In a project we sponsored in Yuma Arizona, we assessed kids’ ability to write their own names after a few months of preschool. One regular classroom used the no-instruction Head Start method. The class using our beginning instruction was all Special Ed with a full spectrum of disabilities. In spite of low expectations for these kids, the results were striking. Most of the special needs kids were able to legibly write their names, while none of the regular Head Start kids could, except the few who had received instruction at home.
The time when a child picks up a writing instrument and attempts to form a letter is the perfect time to begin the simplest, but most profound instruction – start at the top! Head Start does allow mazes as appropriate preschool fare, and so we have created ‘Letter Mazes’ as a preschool activity. (It is actually identical to our regular instruction method in the ‘Beginner Tracing Booklets’.) Kids easily learn the traffic light code: green=go, red=stop, and yellow=caution, because we’re going to change direction. On their own, they find their starting points, follow the arrows, and build efficient motor memory as they work through the ‘letter teams’, arranged to build repetitive stroke upon stroke.