Teaching handwriting - a stroke based approach

Young learners are introduced to the letter sounds (phonetic awareness) in the reception year (kindergarten) and at the same time will usually start to practice writing the letters they are learning to recognize and sound.  This early phonic awareness  is taught in a structured manner with lots of time for practice. 

Learning to print the letters needs to be approached in a similar structured manner by starting with the basic units (letter strokes) that make up the letters and moving on to combining these units to form letters. This needs to be done with enough dedicated and supervised practice time to master these basic units and following the best practice guidelines for teaching a sensorimotor task.

Handwriting is a sensorimotor skill and effective teaching depends on providing the learners with the  right environment for learning  a motor task.  Most learners in kindergarten  will have acquired the basic graphic skills needed for forming letters. However there are always a small group of children who have poor graphic skills and will need extra  guided practice and drill to learn the letter strokes and letters, especially those with a very cautious nature who avoid challenging tasks, DCD, autism and joint hypermobility. 

Why a stroke based approach with guided practice is important in DCD and ASD

Children with DCD and autism have difficulties learning new plans (sometimes referred to as internal models) because of differences in the way the brain is wired.  Most approaches to teaching handwriting rely on tracing over printed letters which encourages the child to use continual visual monitoring of their movements. This practice inhibits the formation of motor plans as the child does not have to recall the motor plan to write the letter, instead the letter is formed by a series of short strokes guided by visual feedback.

Children with autism have particular difficulties using online visual feedback, but make good use of proprioceptive feedback from the muscles and joints. A stroke based approach which emphasizes the development of motor plans for letter formation, builds on the child's sensory strengths and implicit learning abilities. Once the letter is completed children with autism are able to evaluate the shape and size ot the letter and use their superior ability for seeing detail to provide feedback that can be used to adapt the motor plan.

A stroke based approach, along with guided practice provides children with DCD and autism the best environment for learning and improving their handwriting. 

Why start with letter strokes?

Introducing young children who are just starting to print letters to the basic strokes used to form letters and showing  them how these can be joined to form letters has several advantages: 

  • Firstly it ensures that the child learns to print letters using the correct sequence of strokes right from the start.
  • The other advantage is that the child starts to recognise the strokes that make up any new letters that they encounter.  This is the start of developing the connection between printed letters and the motor plan for the letter. 
  • Once a child has learned the to write and recognise the letter strokes, they will quickly recognise them in any new letter they encounter and are often able to print the letter with minimal specific training for the writing the particular letter. 

Letter strokes are the basic units for printing letters 

Each letter is written by combining two or more strokes in succession. Well learned, fluently written letters are produced by a rapid pre-planned movement that does not require visual monitoring. Visual feedback following the completion of printing the letter is used to asses the quality of the letter. 

Each letter stroke has a specific direction, length and curvature relative to the other strokes in a letter. 

The most common strokes are sticks, humps and doughnuts

Basic strokes.jpg

Why "doughnut" letters? 

The term doughnut is used for the closed rounded stroke used to form letters such as an a or d. Because it is an unusual name it  differentiates the stroke from a circle.

It also  starts with  the letter d. This allows the child to remember that a d starts with a doughnut in contrast to a b which starts with a bat (stick) followed by a ball (closed hump). 

Letters are formed by writing the letter strokes in succession

Doughnut letters are formed by a doughnut followed by a stick or tail. A doughnut is always written in an anticlockwise direction. 
donut letters.jpg

Stick letters start with a stick followed by an open or closed hump.
Sticks are always written from top to bottom. A hump is always written in an anticlockwise direction. 
A k is the exception to the stick followed by a hump rule. 

 stick letters.jpg

Diagonal letters are formed by diagonal lines. 

Exceptions include 
e,f,j,s,t. and u

Letters occupy a letter space

It is useful to introduce young children to the concept of a letter space. Each letter occupies a space - called the letter space.

The first stroke of a letter starts in a particular position in the letter space. Writing a letter involves:

  • recalling the motor plan (the sequence of strokes),
  • selecting the starting position for the letter within the letter space 
  • writing the strokes in the correct sequence. 

Stick letters all start towards the top or halfway down on the left hand side of the letter space.

long and short sticks.jpg

Doughnut letters all start on the right side of the letter space, just below the halfway point.

doughnut letter start.jpg

Teaching letters as strokes avoids letter reversals

Teaching letters by emphasizing the basic strokes with an emphasis on the starting position for the letter within the letter space, avoids the issue of letter reversal, particularly writing a b and a d. 

A b is a stick letter - a stick followed by a closed hump. letter b.jpg
The mnemonic is b = bat and ball


A d is a doughnut letter. letter d.jpg
The mnenomic is d=doughnut. 

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Teaching handwriting using a stroke based approach

  • Why tracing is a very bad idea
    • Using a letter outline to guide the pencil when forming letters inhibits learning the motor plan for a letter.
  • How to use sound feedback to improve fluency
    • Listening to the sound that the pencil makes on the paper cues fluency. 
  • Writing tools, materials, writing and templates
    • All the equipment you will need for your handwriting sessions
  • How to use grids, blocks and letter spaces
    • Each letter occupies a space called the letter space 
  • How to teach humps and bumps
  • Writing long and short sticks 
  • Writing donut letters 
  • How to avoid and correct letter reversals: b's and d's