Getting a head start
By Alison Beshur
The Daily Times
December 21, 2006
Seventeen pre-kindergarten and Head Start students recently stood in a U-shape on a multi-colored rug in Jacy Roach's class. As Roach called out "big line," several children lifted up a ruler-sized piece of wood.
Roach repeated the same call for a "little line," "big curve" and "little curve" as upbeat, pop music played in the background.
The 4- and 5-year-old students then connected the pieces to make capital letters.
This year, the Kerrville Independent School District has introduced Handwriting Without Tears, a program that teaches students top-down and left-to-right formations, capital letters and letter recognition with wooden pieces, magnetic stamp screens, rubbery dough and mini chalkboards.
Nearly 200 children enrolled in KISD's pre-kindergarten, Head Start, special education and the Tivy High School's child development programs spend about 30 minutes of each day using the tools.
Carol Simone, a KISD Head Start coordinator, says the program has several benefits, including learning letters at a faster pace, proper writing techniques and improved spatial awareness.
"When they go into kindergarten, they're jumping straight into academics," Simone said.
Students using the tools also learn proper grip and good writing habits, said Stephanie Drake-Woods, an occupational therapist in KISD's Special Education Department.
"If they don't do it correctly, it's poor formation. (They have) a hard time and it's slow," said Drake-Woods, who has used the tools for several years with special education students. "By second grade, it's so hard to break those habits."
Drake-Woods said she shows teachers how to use the tools to help older students write legibly. Some students have wonderful, creative ideas, but struggle to get them on paper, she said.
Students need writing skills throughout their educational careers, including on the Scholastic Achievement Test, which is used as a college entrance exam, Simone added.
However, not everyone agrees with teaching handwriting skills to four year olds.
Ellen Frede, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said students at that age shouldn't be worrying about how to form letters.
"It doesn't have meaning," said Frede, a developmental psychologist and associate professor of early childhood education at the College of New Jersey. "You want them to understand that learning makes sense."
Instead, children at that age should learn how to tell stories, paint, role play and read all kinds of books that use alliteration and play with language, she said. Active learning and child-initiated activities are better than teacher-directed lessons.
Literacy has a much stronger relationship with oral lessons and whole-group instruction should be limited to 15 minutes, she said.
Diane Flynn Keith, founder of Universal Preschool, an advocacy group designed to protect parents' rights to determine educational choices for their children, said pre-schoolers learn best when they are permitted to explore and follow their own interests.
"Some young children have no interest in learning to write," Flynn Keith said in an e-mail. "[T]heir developmental needs cause them to seek other forms of playful experiences that help them to learn useful skills and information."
But students in KISD programs are not sitting at a desk trying to write letters on worksheets, Drake-Woods said in response.
They're using shaving cream, doing "song play" and connecting parts to a whole, like puzzle pieces. This program is developmentally appropriate and helps meet demands to have students writing letters by kindergarten, Drake-Woods said.
"I agree what we're doing to 4 year olds nationwide is inappropriate," she said. "Our program is in response to what she said. They don't even touch pencils. ...It gives them five or six different ways of learning."
In the classroom, Roach asked her students to name things that start with letters F, G, U and K. They belt out "fish," "grapes," "umbrella" and "koala."
"They've picked up their letters really quickly," Roach said as her students darted out the door for recess. "Most can spell their names."