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Lines to Letters - Small Steps to Handwriting

By Tom and Sherry Bushnell

    How important is handwriting for our special needs children? How much effort should be made on our and our child’s part to accomplish printing?

Around the mental age of 2-3 scribbling is the way most children make the transition from beginning lines to letters. This means we might see our children using pencils, crayons or other media such as mud, in a semi-organized way to make something of meaning to them.

Recognizing letters comes around the mental age of 4, as eye-hand coordination come together enabling our children to look at letters, copying them on their own page. The ability to hang onto a pencil or other writing tool is not necessary to learn letters or to read for that matter.

Many of our children never master past the scribbling stage. Should we strive for handwriting when they don’t seem ready? If our children are continually frustrated with our attempts at getting them to do more than they are able, we are pushing too hard. Perhaps they are sensing our over eagerness or our desire for them to succeed.

It is encouraging to see our children reach the stage of constructive scribbling. There is hope for making letters at least some day. Although the leaps from making free-form scribbles, to copying someone else's scribbles then to copying letters, is large for our disabled youngsters, we can always look for progress. Besides, scribbling is fun. Just look inside the pages of your phone book!


Suggestions for Beginning Scribble Play.

Some children, especially if they are rather motor delayed in one or both hands, benefit from securing the paper to the table. We use tape on 2 corners of paper, or a clip board with some weight.

Beginning scribbling time should be a together-done activity, for later our children need to pay attention to our paper to move forward.

Wild scribbling and aggressive games leading to bad behavior should be avoided. It is easy to progress to this crazy level, however, as even though a child may be seven or eight years old, the developmental and concentration level might be much less. Goofiness or getting more active might be a way to amuse themselves (or others) when paying attention to scribbling gets to be too much.

"Scribbling" time should be referred to as a big-boy or girl activity, learning to write letters. With a happy heart, having fun and experimenting with others, this time becomes a way of expanding and succeeding.

What to scribble with? This is a matter of preference or situation. Some children cannot distinguish what is appropriate to write on once the game of scribbling begins. Large rolls of paper are good to cover table surface in the beginning. These can be rolls of freezer paper or left over rolls from a printing house. Although using whip cream, mashed potatoes and other ordinary food substances are an interesting way to be creative, we may not think so at the dinner table. In an instance where a child is not understanding when sensory materials are best used at what time, we’d stick with pens, pencils, markers or crayon on paper. The exception might be sand or raw rice on a cookie sheet, or outdoor activities not in anyway resembling the table. Learning to scribble should not take priority over good behavior training. This is the beauty of homeschooling. We can be consistent here. A well-meaning, inspired, special ed teacher at school may never know the contortions a mother at home goes through trying to help her little one understand that mashed potatoes are not to be used to paint the table, their sister, or the ceiling.

We feel using a variety of mediums to make scribbles is a great idea. It keeps the interest up and leads to experiment. Each medium has its features to consider.

•Pens and pencils - thick ones are easy to hang on to, but they can have a sharp point and the eraser is easily used as a mid-morning snack.

•Crayons - we use only Crayola as they are non-toxic and are bright enough to hold interest. They can be misplaced into the laundry basket and can color a whole dryer load striped pink, blue, orange, etc. To beginners we give one at a time.

•Foam brushes, Q-tips and paint brushes of all sizes or shape, and water colors - The Crayola brand are bright. Wear an apron. Keep a towel handy. Pre-soak the paints a few minutes before using. We do not use poster paints or any tempura for beginners as the entertainment is not worth the chance of a ruined table top or flooring.

•Mud, sand, whip cream, shaving cream, pudding, mashed potatoes, and other gooey mediums. Again, from personal experience, using these ways to scribble is fine once or twice, but with a number of children it becomes more mess-making-fun-time than actual learning to scribble. The scribbling part lasts about 3 minutes, max. The rest of the time is spent mopping up splatters, shielding us, the furniture or carpet.

•Chalk and chalkboard or cement sidewalk- This is actually a great way to get our children going in gross motor lines and squiggles. Giant circles, done over and over, and lines going from up to down are wonderful. (Down to up is more difficult.) Dust and asthma do not mix however, so temper any health problems with these mediums.

Helping our Children Follow a Pattern

Using hand over hand, with our child’s dominant hand holding a pencil or marker, we want them to follow simple movement patterns.

To do this we might use 1’ masking tape stuck on a large sheet of paper or a grease free cookie sheet. Making tracks for them to follow with their pencil or match box car, they can drive to the store, or farm using their imagination, playing and learning at the same time! Other ways to help our children follow lines might be using big stencils or wooden boards grooved with a router. These lines should be easy to follow at first, gradually becoming more complicated in squiggle patterns and zig-zags.

Remember, "roads" or patterns moving towards the body are easier than away from the body. A road having several turns is more difficult than one having only one line, up to down being easiest to follow and "s" shape being hardest.

Sometimes modeling clay molded around a pencil can make it easier to hang on to, but only if your child keeps their fingers and items out of their mouth.

These games should proceed slowly. A week on each line or space is not too much. Keep the practice time to a couple minutes, maybe several times a day or even once a day.

Copying Scribble Play.

This is the next step to progressing onto making letters. Cheer up! We have seen that if a child can mentally understand how to copy a parent’s scribbles, they will eventually get control of their visual motor skills enough to make some letters.

If you haven’t noticed a dominant hand yet, give your child a few activities to do such as pull a toy out of a jar with one hand, or pick out a cherrio from a bowl with one hand. This hand should be the one that they use to scribble with most often.

Sitting next to mom or dad who is making simple lines up to down, slowly our children will hopefully get the idea of copying. Minimal guidance of our child’s hand may take place, but essentially the effort is made to help our children "catch" the behavior of the parent, mimicking them.

Copying lines or shapes should be done in a non-directed way. If a child cannot notice what you are doing, they are not ready for this stage yet. Brothers or sisters or other children can be very useful in this game, if they can stick to the directions you give them. Generally directed play such as "let’s all make a dot like this" can be fun for a few minutes, but our very challenged children may not be able to follow the pace needed to keep up the interest level of the other children.

As this skill progresses, more controlled scribbling should be done. The following are listed easiest to more difficult.

1. Touching the pencil to the paper, making a mark. Simple short lines on a page about 1/2 inch each. Just a couple to a page.

2. One line starting at the top going down the page.

3. One line going horizontal across the page.

4. A "V" shape with two separate lines going from up to down.

5. Back and forth lines across the page horizontally a few times.

6. Zig-Zag line going up and down across the page.

7. Zig-zag horizontally across the page a few times then zig-zag at an angle.

8. Open squiggle line in a circle, generally made with no real shape. Then try a closed squiggle line in a circle. This is generally no real shape either.

9. Loose wave pattern from lower left to upper right corner of page.

10. Giant cursive small "e"’s going over and over across the page.

11. Circles over and over, smaller to bigger around and around covering page, keeping the pen on the page.

12. Overlapping circles (keeping the pencil on he page).

13. Single closed circle.


Basically we want them to understand the basic spatial shapes; horizontal, vertical, curved in different ways, slanting up or down (upper left to lower right, and upper right to lower left). The lines may also cross.

There are lots of ways to help our children understand the concept of different directional lines on a gross motor level, making it easier them to understand, eventually writing letters with a pencil on paper.

•Horizontal lines: Directing our children to watch, two children can sit down on the floor with legs apart and roll a ball directly to each other. Of course our children will all want a turn!

Having our children watch someone walking along a line of flour in the grass, or walking along a board. Next unrolling a long piece of rolled paper having everyone make horizontal lines.

•Vertical lines: Having your child watch someone climb up and down a ladder or pole. Balls can be thrown straight up and then watched to descend. (Watch the nose.) Large vertical lines can be made from corner to corner up and down on a black board, then focused on a smaller paper.

•Slanted lines: Having our children watch someone go down a slide and following the slant with our hands as they go. A rope can be tied to a place up high and a slanted line made. Make a slanted line like an airplane coming in for a landing with the arms. Focus on a paper later.

•Curved lines: Hold the rope loosely making a curve. Using hand and arm, dip deeply making a fish jump up!

•Crossing lines: Using arms, cross at the elbows. Crossing ropes and boards making an "X" are also good. Flour poured in shapes on grass or sand is also good.


Here are some other suggestions for getting our children to make letters and shapes.

Often our children will not have the concentration to mentally slow down enough to notice how to make legible letters. Writing with a stylus in play dough or modeling clay can slow them down, enabling them to see a letter’s actual shape.

Muscle control and strength come together as we use other activates to help our children gain ability.

•Peeling their own oranges.

•With a table knife, chop potatoes or carrots

•Picking out foreign objects from a bowl of beans or small fruit.

•Peeling off masking tape from a roll and ripping it off to play with.

•Shelling peanuts or peas

•Scooping up rice, wheat berries, or other small stuff into a bowl.


Learning Our Letters

Slow deliberate practice with mom and dad are good times to learn how to relate to "teacher". The fun comes when we notice our children using a pencil or pen in their free time making letters or shapes they have learned.

For our littles ones, the first meaningful letters to learn were those in their name. They had purpose in remembering them. These may not be the easiest ones, especially those beginning with "s". Obvious letters to begin with would be "H" "I" "L" or "O".

To begin with we use tracing patterns. These are simply card stock with each letter printed darkly in felt pens. The cards can then be laminated or covered with plastic wrap. Erasable markers or

pens should be used to trace over the letters over and over until reasonable accuracy is accomplished. The big transfer then comes. We hand our child a blank piece of paper and have them look at the letter and try to copy it. It helps to have our child watch us make ours on our sheet or even hand-over-hand help them with a slight touch if error comes making the letter.

The next step would be showing the child the letter, putting it down and then having them print it from memory. This should be a gradual process with a reduction of cues from us.

Finally the child is asked to draw the letter from memory. This is undoubtedly the most difficult step to do, as they have to accurately form the letter internally and project it onto the paper with eye-hand coordination.

This has all been done with blank sheets of 8 1/2" by 11" paper. The next step after all the letters are mastered from the easiest to the most difficult for your child, is to make letters between smaller lines. The letter size to start with should be 1 1/2 inches if your child can handle it. If not, you may need to use a photo copier to make large lines to print between.

Encourage your child to use the pencil in a "grown-up" manner, if possible, and to move their elbow as each letter is attempted.

Tracing letters can also be graduated to dotted letters, where your child fills in the space between dots to make a letter. This works especially well when beginning with letter "A".

Cursive, Italic or Printing?

There are staunch advocates of all of these. We have estimated which method to use for each child and have not yet found the perfect method for every child. If a child will be writing pages and even paragraphs eventually, then cursive or italics might be a good way to start, avoiding the problems of transferring to another way of writing. One of our sons who has never been able to do much beyond printing has suddenly shown an interest in reading cursive.

For our daughter with autism, printing letters that look just like the letters she is reading is the only way she can connect them. Trying to point out to her that she must print letters one way and read them another was impossible!

Italics is an interesting way of avoiding the print to cursive transfer if you feel your child will be writing consistently.

Here are resources for teaching Italic and handwriting.


Handwriting Without Tears

TM (HWT) teaches all children how to write. This handwriting program was developed and written by Jan Z. Olsen OTR, a handwriting specialist with over 25 years of experience teaching parents, teachers, and therapists how to teach handwriting. Children begin with HWT Readiness materials that inspire active learning. The multi-sensory program uses manipulatives that help children to learn size, shape, and placement skills necessary for printing letters and numbers without reversals. In the HWT printing program, the sequence of instruction is systematic and developmentally -based. Children enjoy mastering their fluency in printing as they build the skills to make the transition to cursive easy. HWT's simple vertical style and emphasis on connections makes cursive easy for all children to learn. For more information please visit our website or call us at 301-983-8409.


Italic Handwriting Series

Italic is a modern handwriting system based on enduring letterforms that are highly suited to rapid and legible writing. Italic conforms to natural, rhythmic hand movements. Italic builds on previously learned concepts and the letter shapes remain the same from basic to cursive, eliminating the abrupt leap from "ball and stick" to looped cursive.

Continuing Education Press

Portland State University

P.O. Box 1394

Portland, OR 97207



There is something to be said for keeping a consistent form of block printing throughout the learning of letters and reading in books. The customary type print seen in most books (Times New Roman) is hard to copy by hand. The computer and a variety of print styles available make it possible to design our own beginning books in printing that look just like what our children typically learn at first. This is especially helpful for children with autism.

(Editor’s note: Portions of this article are taken from Guidelines For Beginning Handwriting Skill Scribbling to Printing. ISBN # 0-86646-180-9. It was written by Bryant J. Cratty Ed.D., published by I MED in CA and is unfortunately no longer printed.)