Teaching Handwriting to Multilingual Learners (ELL, SLIFE, Newcomer)

When you learn a new language with a different script, handwriting can be very frustrating! It is even harder when you do not know how to write in your own language. This is the predicament faced by many Newcomers and Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE). They are often unable to ask for help with handwriting or too embarrassed to ask.

Handwriting is a skill that is rarely taught to Multilingual learners ages nine and above. They are often expected to write their name and other English words on their first day of school in English speaking countries without any handwriting instruction.

Learning to write in a new language can also be very challenging for those whose first language has a different handwriting system. Do you have students who speak Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Pasto, Urdu, or Kurdish? 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 who write with different first language scripts may also not struggle to form English letters correctly. They often guess the order and direction of strokes.

Some students copy letters they see in books or worksheets. The letters 'a', t, and 'g' and the numbers 4 and '9' usually appear different in print. Many languages do not have upper- and lowercase letters. Manuscript and cursive forms only add to the confusion. Handwriting in English can be very perplexing without instruction.

When I learned Chinese, I watched and imitated my teacher writing 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 and was used to teach many kindergarten and first grade students for many years. However, stroke order may be unfamiliar to current instructors. Teaching letters and numbers by stroke order is quick and easy. All English letters begin with the stroke closest to the top left corner. This method also establishes direction - top to bottom and left to right. Numbers are included because these are written differently around the world.

Handwriting by Strokes introduces letters from the simplest to the most difficult.  1) Horizonal and vertical lines are taught first, followed by 2) diagonal lines, 3) combined horizonal,vertical and diagonal lines, 4) humps, 5) curves, and circles. The last two lessons can be taught as 2 o'clock letters (using a clock) or as letters that begin with a the letter 'C'.  Emphasize the up to 12 o'clock (to the middle) and around movement for these letters. These seven lessons quickly teach all English letters and numbers. 

All ages of 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 writing guidelines 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 significance of the height of a letter (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 also be highlighted.

When teaching older students, 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 reinforces both the stroke order and direction as well as the letter/sound correspondence. For example, when teaching the letters 'L l' one might say, "Down, right, down. L says /l/," 

Students should initially write each letter or letter combination 10-15 times on a piece of paper or individual whiteboard. After all the letters in the lesson have been learned individually, 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. Generous encouragement and praise are a key ingredient when teaching new skills.

One lesson (one line) per day allows literate students time to practice their handwriting skills. SLIFE and nonliterate students may need a day or more 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. Practice all the full height lowercase letters and all the descenders. Pangrams, sentences which include all 26 letters, are also 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 increases legibility and creates confidence. In addition, it enables multilingual students to concentrate on other aspects of literacy. Numerous studies have shown handwriting improves letter recognition, decoding, spelling, and other reading skills. It empowers multilingual learners and provides them with a valuable skill for success in their new language and academic pursuits.

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