There are several things to keep in mind when helping a student who is struggling to remember how to write one or more letters.
1. Explicit instruction comes first
First, make sure you have explicitly taught the child how to write the letter. The starting point for true handwriting mastery is explicit instruction in the movements needed to write each letter.
Often, handwriting is a skill that is not systematically taught to students. Students may have been left on their own to learn how to write the letters by visual copying or tracing and may not have acquired the long-term muscle memory needed for fluent handwriting. Avoid assigning work that requires a student to use skills that they have not yet been taught. For example, do not assign copywork for the student to complete if they have not yet learned how to write and read what is expected of them to copy. Otherwise, the activity can become mere busywork for them to complete without strengthening their handwriting, reading, or spelling skills. This is because visual copying is more like an art project - look at that shape and draw one like it - than a true handwriting exercise, which reinforces muscle memory and connects the letters to the sounds they represent in words.
2. For students who are still mastering recently taught letters
After students have received explicit instruction on how to form a letter, it is normal for them to need to be reminded of the steps multiple times, and most students will need to practice newly taught strokes and letters many times, over a number of days or weeks, before they truly master them.
When you see the student struggling to write a letter that he or she has learned recently, remind the student of the strokes needed to write it. Do not begin with a picture of the letter to copy; focus on reminding the student of the movements he or she will need to do.
- Say the strokes as the student writes - either the full instructions that detail each stroke (for example, for lowercase h, manuscript: "Start at the top line. Straight to the baseline, bump up to the midline, straight to the baseline") or, if the student is developing mastery and needs only a quick reminder, a single word for each stroke only ("straight, bump, straight"). The key words for each stroke are bolded in Logic of English handwriting materials for your reference.
- If the student needs more support, have the student watch your movements and listen as you physically model the strokes and say them. Make sure the student sees your movement in the direction of reading and writing, from left to right. Form the letter in the air, on a whiteboard, or on the tactile card. Then repeat the strokes aloud as the student forms them (in the air, with a marker on a board, on the tactile card, or in some other large-motor way) and says them with you.
- If a student is still struggling and needs more support, consider reteaching the steps necessary for writing the letter, stroke by stroke. Incorporate multi-sensory tools to teach the brain how to form the letter. Tactile cards or sandpaper letters are an excellent tool to use. The input from these resources allows the brain to learn how the letter feels before handwriting the letter. Use large-motor movements with the entire arm and hand or the leg and foot to write the body with large-motor skills. Have the child practice writing the letter large on a whiteboard, or you might write the letter on their hand using your finger. Be sure to repeatedly say the steps and basic strokes aloud as the student is practicing writing the letter. If the student has strong fine-motor skills, you can also have the student close his or her eyes and form the letter, without looking at it, on paper that does not have lines. Then have your student practice making the letter on lined paper.
- Note: The strokes for each letter, and suggested steps to follow for teaching them, are provided in the Rhythm of Handwriting Student Book, the Rhythm of Handwriting Quick Reference, or the Foundations A and B Teacher's Manuals.
Once the student is writing the letter comfortably, continue to provide practice and support in various large-motor and multi-sensory ways, reminding the student of the strokes as often as is needed. Remember that mastery will take time.
3. For students who forget a previously mastered letter
Students can forget a letter they had been writing successfully in the past if they go a significant amount of time without using it or have been focusing on other new skills. This is especially common with uppercase letters, since they are used less often than lowercase.
Simply remind the student of the strokes or quickly reteach the letter, depending on how much of a reminder the student needs. Follow the same steps listed for students who are still learning the letters.
Once students have developed strong muscle memory for how to form all of the letters, consider providing a cursive or manuscript desk strip for students to keep on their desks or in their workbooks as a reference to remind them of how to form an occasional forgotten letter. One way that students will show that they have not yet mastered handwriting skills is by relying heavily on the desk strip or another visual model. The desk strip is an excellent tool for students to use once handwriting has been taught; however, if you find that students are relying on it extensively for support, this is an indicator that it might be helpful to reteach the letters that they are struggling with.
4. Reasonable handwriting expectations for young students
Many young students have not yet developed the fine-motor skills necessary for handwriting, and even with large-motor practice handwriting will often come very slowly with young children. Be patient! Teach them how to write letters using multi-sensory tools or large-motor movements, since learning how to form the letters strengthens letter recognition and paves the way for future handwriting mastery. However, be cautious not to expect more from them than what they are developmentally ready to do. Remember, handwriting lessons in Foundations are more about helping the child learn how to read than they are about producing perfect penmanship right away. Handwriting mastery is not important at this stage.
For more information, be sure to check out our page on How to Teach Handwriting!