Teaching Handwriting to English Language Learners (SLIFE)

Learning to write in a new language can be particularly challenging for older English language learners. Literate students do not know how to form the unfamiliar script. They guess the order and direction of strokes. Students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) may never have learned to write in their own language.  It is confusing, frustrating, and stressful.

My Chinese teacher taught the stroke order and direction for writing characters. This method enabled students to write new characters quickly and accurately. English handwriting can also be learned by stroke order and direction. This method makes is learning handwriting quick and easy. It also establishes direction - top to bottom & left to right.

Strokes are introduced 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 diagonals, curves, and circles. The last two lessons can be taught as 2:00 letters (for students who read clocks) or as letters that begin with a 'c' stroke. All English letters and numbers can be learned in 7 lessons. 

Handwriting skills are rarely taught to English language learners above 4th grade. However, students benefit greatly from this instruction. Students who write with a different script (Arabic, Thai, Chinese) quickly acquire English handwriting. Students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) develop handwriting skills slowly and require more practice time. 

Instruction can include large motor movement such as air writing or tracing large letters. Verbal chanting of the stroke direction, letter name, and sound helps to reinforce stroke order and direction as well as the letter/sound connection. Tactile methods such as writing  on sandpaper or in a pan of corn meal can also be incorporated.  For older students, use the pencil down method rather than lifting up the pencil for each stroke. For example, 'a' is written with the pencil constantly down, not raised and lowered for the separate strokes. This is how most English speakers print. It is more fluid, rhythmic, and efficient. 

One lesson per day allows literate writers to practice their handwriting skills. SLIFE may need several days for each lesson. After learning all the letters and numbers, students should practice the uppercase, lowercase, and combined letters. Tall lowercase letters (b, d, f, h, k, l, t)and letters with descenders (g, j, p, q, y) often need to be emphasized. Pangrams, sentences which include all 26 letters, are excellent for reinforcement. (The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.)

Learning to handwrite correctly helps students to concentrate on other aspects of literacy. It also reduces hand fatigue and stress. In addition, numerous studies have shown handwriting improves spelling and reading skills.

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