As a school-based occupational therapist, I am frequently asked by teachers and parents how to help improve students’ handwriting. I work with students on letter formation frequently. Below are some tips and tricks on how to use a multi-sensory approach to teach letter formation! My blog series “Building Blocks for Success in Pre-Writing” also discusses multi-sensory approaches to pre-writing if your child isn’t at the stage where they are ready to start writing letters.
Not all students learn the same way.
Did you know that most children learn well through play! When we think of “handwriting practice”, we are often thinking about paper and pencil tasks. There is definitely something to be said for “practice makes perfect”. However, having that practice done in one way, and one way only, is not always the best solution. Incorporating a variety of senses into learning activities can help students pick up concepts more quickly.
Tactile (Touch) Strategies for Letter Formation
How can we better incorporate the tactile [touch] sense into handwriting practice? This is probably one of the most common sensory systems included in multi-sensory learning. Here are some of my favorite strategies:
- Use a toothpick or pencil to write letters in play dough like in the picture above!
- Taylor talks about 5 ways to utilize play dough in one of her OT blogs!
- Shaving cream [or finger paint] during handwriting practice is always a crowd-pleaser!
- Consider covering the tables with press & seal wrap for easy clean up!
- I love to use Wikki Stix [affiliate link] to build letters for an added fine motor challenge!
Visual (Sight) Strategies for Letter Formation
There is always a visual aspect to letter formation, but let’s think of some ways to enhance this sensory component. Here is how I like to add extra visuals when working on letter formation:
- For students who are transitioning from pre-writing to letter formation, I often use Handwriting Without Tears wooden pieces [affiliate link] that encourage students to use 4 different pre-writing strokes (wooden pieces) to create/build uppercase letters.
- I then encourage my students to trace those letters [maybe with a car/train on the wooden pieces and then with a dry erase marker on the letter cards] before finally using their built letter as a model to write it on their own.
- Hang visuals in your room that encourage proper stroke sequence and letter formation.
- Students can help you create these by making posters while they’re hanging on the wall which will also promote wrist extension and shoulder stability [needed for successful fine motor skill and handwriting!]
- One of my favorite visual cues are “starting dots” to visually remind students where to start their letters [typically at the top!].
- Try having your students add starting dots with stickers, puffy paint, etc. to the Simply Writing: Tracing Letters resource or other tracing practice.
Olfactory (Smell) Strategies for Letter Formation
I bet you didn’t think much about how to incorporate the sense of smell into letter formation practice! However, smell is tied closely with memory and can be very helpful in assisting student with the motor memory needed to write.
- Use stamps with a scented ink pad (affiliate link) to target letter identification and/or to provide a model before independently writing.
- Write with scented markers (affiliate link) and try “rainbow tracing” where the student writes the letter and either traces [or writes next to the letter] the same letter once with each color of the rainbow for repetitive practice.
- You can make your own scented play dough (affiliate link) and target the tactile and olfactory sensory systems by forming your own letters with, or writing in, the dough!
- The Simply Special Ed Visual Sensory Recipes resource has some great recipes for this!
Auditory (Sound) Strategies for Letter Formation
Auditory learners benefit from auditory cues when learning to form letters. Make sure you are using the same verbal cuing (“lingo”) in all settings for consistency. Try adding sound into practice in other ways like:
- Handwriting Apps often have sound/music components that are engaging for students. The Writing Wizard App pictured above provides auditory input when tracing the letter, but also says the name of the letter and sound before demonstrating the letter. You can make your own word lists and record your own cues in this app as well!
- Create songs/rhymes for each letter/number and use them each time you practice. Have students create their own if the ones you have provided don’t seem to “stick”.
Movement-based Strategies for Letter Formation
Full-body engagement is important even in activities that seem to be more fine motor-based like handwriting. Check out my blog series “Building Blocks for Success in Pre-Writing” for more information on why thinking big with gross motor skills is the first step towards handwriting success.
- Start big by having the students form the letter by “air writing” before writing on paper.
- Have students lay on the ground or move their bodies in the shape of the letters. This is a great teamwork activity!
- Work from large to small; have students writing larger letters [maybe on the chalkboard] and then work on decreasing the size after the formation and stroke sequence is mastered.
Letter formation is the foundation for legible handwriting, and practicing in a multi-sensory way improves engagement and retention! Check out some great “OT-approved” SSE resources for some new ways to work on these important skills! Share in the comments the ways you and your students work on letter formation!