Teaching Handwriting to Multilingual Learners (ELL, SLIFE)

Handwriting is the most neglected skill being taught to Multilingual learners. They are often expected to write their name and other English words on their first day of school in the U.S. without any instruction. Learning to write in a new language can be very challenging for multilingual learners whose first language uses a different writing system. Do you have students who speak Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Pasto, Urdo, or Khudish? These are just a few of the languages that are written from right to left. Do your students speak Hindi, Khmer, Thai, or Burmese? These languages use beautiful curvy scripts that are very different from English letters. Students with different first language scripts may not know how to form English letters. They guess the order and direction of strokes. Many students will copy print font letters they see in books or worksheets. Handwriting in English can be very confusing, frustrating, and stressful.

When I learned Chinese, I watched and learned how to write the initial words. Then my Chinese teacher taught the stroke order and direction for writing all Chinese characters. This method enabled students to write new, unfamiliar characters quickly and accurately. English handwriting can also be learned by stroke order and direction. This method is very old, but may be unfamiliar to the current generation. It teaches learning handwriting quickly and easily. It also establishes direction - top to bottom and left to right, and starting at 2:00 for curves. All English letters begin with the stroke closest to the top left corner. 

Handwriting by Strokes introduces letters from the simplest to the most difficult. Numbers are included because these are written differently around the world. Horizonal and vertical lines are taught first, followed by diagonal lines, humps, curves, and circles. The last two lessons can be taught as 2:00 letters (using a clock) or as letters that begin with a the letter 'C'.  Emphasize the up to 12 (to the middle) and around movement for these letters. All English letters and numbers can be learned in 7 lessons. 

Handwriting skills are rarely taught to multilingual learners above the first three grade levels. However, students benefit greatly from this instruction. Literate students, who write in their first language, quickly acquire English handwriting. Students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) develop handwriting skills slower and require more practice time. They often need to develop their fine motor muscles and coordination to write correctly and comfortably.

The purpose for the three guide lines must be explained. All uppercase letters touch the top line. Lowercase letters are smaller and touch the middle line in some way. All letters sit on the bottom line. Emphasize the height of a letter is significant (Ww, Vv). Tall lowercase letters that touch the top line (b, d, f, h, k, l, t) and those with descending lines that go below the bottom line (g, j, p, q, y) should be highlighted.

Use the pencil down method rather than the multiple stroke method.  For example, an 'a' is written with the pencil constantly down, not raised and lowered for two separate strokes. Likewise, 'm' is written using one smooth, flowing motion with the pencil continually down. Teach the way you write letters. This is how most English speakers print. It is more fluid, rhythmic, and efficient.

Instruction should always include modelling how letters are written, practicing letters together, and end with students writing independently. It may include gross motor movement such as air writing or tracing large(8"-12") letters. Tactile methods such as writing on sandpaper or in a pan of corn meal can also be incorporated. Verbal chanting of the stroke direction, letter name, and sound helps reinforce stroke order and direction as well as the letter/sound connection. For the letters 'L l' one might say, "Down, right, down. L says /l/,"  Students should write each letter or letter combination across a piece of paper or individual whiteboard (10-15 repetitions). After all the letters in the lesson has been learned, students should practice writing all the letters in the lesson consecutively in a line several times. Monitor each student to ensure the letters are being formed correctly.  

One lesson (one line) per day allows literate students time to practice their handwriting skills. SLIFE and nonliterate students may need several days for each lesson. After learning all the letters and numbers, students should practice writing all the uppercase letters in the alphabetic order, then the lowercase letters, and lastly the uppercase and lowercase combined. Pangrams, sentences which include all 26 letters, are excellent for reinforcement. (The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.) 

Learning to handwrite correctly not only reduces hand fatigue and student stress, but also creates legibility and confidence. In addition, it enables multilingual students to concentrate on other aspects of literacy. Numerous studies have shown handwriting improves spelling and reading skills. It sets English learners up for success in their new language and academic pursuits.


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