Handwriting Without Tears: A Handwriting Program That Lives Up To Its Name

May 9, 2008
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Teacher's Guide; approach geared to all learning styles; helpful manipulatives; excellent quality; not expensive

Cons:None for us

The Bottom Line: An excellent beginning handwriting program for learners of all styles. It's strong on teaching writing "readiness" and makes learning to write fun!

When my daughter began homeschool kindergarten last fall, one of the subjects I felt the most trepidation about teaching was handwriting. Maybe that sounds silly, but my own memories of learning to print are scant, and I'd never taught this skill to anyone before. I'd been watching my daughter color, and I'd noticed her holding crayons in her fist (a very common thing for young children to do). Most of my attempts to get her to change her grip had been met with stubbornness or tearful resistance, and I'd decided not to push it until the day we began more formal writing instruction.

I still remember that first day. She sat at her little table. I gave her a pencil. I very gently guided her fingers into the correct position for gripping the pencil. And yes, she dissolved into tears. "It's too hard!"

The fact that I knew how to verbally and visually instruct her in the art of holding a pencil was due in large part to the time I'd already spent poring over the Kindergarten Teacher's Guide (pictured above) in the Handwriting Without Tears program. And yes, I sensed the deep irony. On the very first day I began teaching handwriting with this program, my little girl was in tears. I figured we had nowhere to go but up!

And up we've gone! Thanks in large measure to this excellent curriculum, both my daughter and myself long ago lost all nervousness about handwriting -- whether learning or teaching. The tears she shed that first day were the last she shed about learning to write. She quickly became enthusiastic about handwriting time each day, and would even sometimes want to work ahead, faster than I wanted us to go. Almost nine months after we started, she prints numerals and capital letters with growing confidence, and is in the midst of learning to print lower-case letters.

The Curriculum

The Handwriting Without Tears curriculum was developed by Jan Z. Olsen, an occupational therapist who specialized in handwriting for many years. It's a simple and effective method, developmentally based, for teaching handwriting skills (getting ready to write, printing, then cursive).

I'll provide a basic overview of the HWT kindergarten program we've used. The HWT company has developed and sells other program resources for Pre-K and 1-5 grades as well. You can locate products by category/grade on their website.

The kindergarten program consists of the Kindergarten Teacher's Guide (imaged above); a number of manipulatives; and a student workbook. These things are generally not sold all together as a "set," but individually. So the various manipulatives are completely optional, though I suspect you will want to have some of them, since they're very effective. However, you could get by with only the teacher's guide and the student workbook, and perhaps some extra practice paper. Since the teacher's guide and the workbook are priced at less than $7 each, even if you just buy extra practice paper and pay shipping, you're getting an excellent kindergarten handwriting program for around $20. It's excellent value for the money!

Some Unique and Favorite Features of the Curriculum

A "vertical style" of letter formation.
Some letters and numerals might look a bit "stiffer" than you're used to seeing, but they are easier to teach to very young children.

For example, capital letters are taught with only four basic pieces, what the curriculum calls "big lines, little lines, big curves, and little curves." By calling each piece by these names, and using the names consistently, your child will begin to visually see how letters are made-up. I know my daughter lost much of her nervousness about learning a "new letter" once she realized that the new letter simply combined elements she already knew how to do in a new fashion.

Two-lined handwriting paper.
Once your child begins learning lower-case letter formation, HTW also recommends using their special two-lined handwriting paper. Having only two lines (instead of the standard three with the dotted middle line) helps some children visually, especially as they're first learning to form lower-case letters, many of which start on that "middle line" (which in this paper, becomes the top line). We've actually used both the special two-lined paper (which mimics the exercises in the HWT workbook, thus looks familiar) and standard lined paper with no problem.

Unique and effective manipulatives.
Some of the manipulatives unique to the HWT program are their Wood Pieces Set, Capital Letter Cards, HWT Mat, and HWT Slate. I spent time looking over all of these, and in the end only chose to purchase the slate. For me it was primarily a budget decision, as the Wood Pieces Set retails at $27.50. The pieces are thin pieces of wood shaped like big lines, little lines, big curves and little curves. The Teacher's Guide is full of fun tips and ideas for helping a child play with and learn from the pieces. They can be put together to form capital letters, either on the pre-printed letter cards or on a foam mat. The idea is that, even before a child is ready to pick up a pencil, she can learn correct letter formation by learning to put the pieces together in proper order. The capital letter "D" for instance, requires a big line and a big curve.

Our favorite manipulative, the HWT slate.
It's a small blackboard/chalkboard (yes, like an old-fashioned slate from "Little House on the Prairie" days) with a wooden frame around it. On the top left corner of the frame (on either side of the slate) you'll find a smiley face. The smiley face is important because it marks the "starting corner" for the formation of many capital letters.

Creative and effective teaching ideas.
With the slate, we were able to employ what the curriculum refers to as the "Wet-Dry-Try" method. With a piece of chalk, I would demonstrate the letter. My daughter would then use a piece of wet sponge to wipe the letter clean, using the same strokes in the same order which she had just seen me do. Then when the wet strokes had dried a bit, but still showed up the faint contours of the letter, she could trace over those contours herself. It's a simple but ingenious method, and just one of many elements of this curriculum that I appreciated.

I also found the recommendation of consistent use of phrases like "starting corner" very helpful. It helps children to know how to "orient" themselves to the writing surface and where to begin. Once my daughter learned where the starting corner was, she could follow my directions when I let her know that a certain letter either started in the starting corner, or was oriented differently. She soon learned that the letter "A" for instance was a "center starter" and didn't start in the starting corner, and that the numeral "9" is an odd number that starts in the corner opposite the usual starting corner.

One of the most valuable elements of the teacher's guide is that it gave me a consistent language to use while teaching. The terms presented are often fun and memorable, helping both teacher and student. My daughter soon learned to call the opposite of her writing hand her "helping hand" (since you use it to help steady and hold the paper). Letter formation was taught using catchy and descriptive phrases. Once a child learned the letter "C", for instance, you begin to call it "magic C." You can teach the letters "O, Q, and G" once you've taught "C" and you easily guide your child at the beginning by letting them know they need to start by writing a "magic C." You call certain letters "Frog-Jump" capitals -- I'll let you guess which ones those are!

A Great Teacher's Guide
I'm just touching on a few of the most unique features of this curriculum, ones that stand out in my mind. What you mostly need to know is that the teacher's guide takes away any fear you might have about teaching handwriting. It provides well-explained methods for teaching proper letter formation, the proper order in which to teach letters (grouping together letters that start in the same location or share common formation elements). The tips for teaching numeral formation were just as helpful.

The teacher's guide also helped me to relax. It's okay if you teach certain letters out of order...in fact, the guide encourages you to teach the child the letters of their name first, a great piece of advice. It's a wonderful accomplishment for a young child to write their own name, and it gives them incentive to keep going.

The teacher's guide best used in conjunction with the proper grade-level workbook, in this case the kindergarten workbook Letters and Numbers for Me. It covers the formation of capital letters, numerals (0-9) and lower-case letters. We loved the workbook, and it deserves a review of its own. (Once I've written it, I will update here with a link to that review.)

Who Could Benefit From Using This Curriculum?

Children of all learning styles, and just about anyone interested in teaching a child to write. That would include school teachers and homeschooling parents. This program has successfully been used in both school and home settings (you can check out the testimonial page at their website, hwtears.com). In fact, there are some great ideas in the teacher's guide about ways to set up a classroom to help promote writing readiness.

There are many acclaimed handwriting programs, each with a slightly different approach. Though I haven't used others (so can't state this categorically from my own experience) I have read comments that claim HWT is a preferred method for those working with children with special needs or developmental delays. Given the emphasis placed on the practice of letter formation, I can understand why. If you're working with a child who has delays or who, for whatever reason is simply not ready to pick up a pencil, I think the Wood Pieces Set would be a terrific investment.

Obviously I can't speak highly enough of Handwriting Without Tears. As someone who not so long ago was somewhat anxiously looking into handwriting programs, I hope that this review will help other teachers and parents who are in the process of making such a decision.

~befus, 2008

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