By Kayla Schulz, MS, OTR/L
As experts in supporting students’ handwriting skills, school-based occupational therapists
are often charged with choosing just the right handwriting program to meet their students’ needs. With so many options available, this task can be a bit overwhelming. While many schools have preferred programs utilized within the general education setting, some students may benefit from a more personalized approach. To help you sort through the confusion, this blog offers a review of the most commonly used general education handwriting curriculums as well as a brief overview of several more occupational therapy specific options to use with the students on your caseload.
Handwriting Curriculums Commonly Used in Schools
Zaner-Bloser and the D’Nealian Handwriting Program are two of the most widely used handwriting curricula in school-wide general education settings. While these curricula have the benefit of being familiar to many educators, parents, and learners - they lack some key features that tend to benefit students such as approaching writing from a developmental approach and targeting foundational skills required for handwriting. These features are often especially benefical for our students who receive special education services.
3-step lesson model easily incorporated into classroom setting (Model, Practice, Evaluate)
Programs correlated to state standards and the Common Core
4 basic strokes to form all letters
Focus on Shape, Size, Spacing, and Slant as keys to legibility
D’Nealian Handwriting Program
Continuous stroke for lowercase letters to promote progression to cursive and reduce reversals
Focus on proper size, space and slant
Audio, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic approach
Handwriting Curriculums Commonly Used by Occupational Therapists (OTs)
As occupational therapists, we see students with a variety of diagnoses, each of which can impact learning styles and handwriting abilities. Knowing this, it’s important to explore the handwriting program options available to us in order to best support our students’ unique needs.
Whether you’re a new OT who is just jumping into handwriting support, or a seasoned therapist looking to expand your approaches, here are some great places to start. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these are a few of the most commonly used programs along with some key features of each.
Handwriting Without Tears (HWT)
Pre-K - grade 5
Multisensory approach to support auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners
Teaches letters in developmentally appropriate order (rather than alphabetically)
Unique double lined (rather than tri lined) paper to promote legibility
Size Matters ® Handwriting Program
Developed by an OT
Groups letters into 3 letter sizes - “Focus on Size! Form will Follow!”
Graded approach to cognition, perception, and motor planning
Concept driven, flexible, and adaptable
Pre-K - grade 5 (with additional kits for Special Education/ELL, Occupational Therapy, and Home)
Developed by an ECSE teacher and an OT
Focused on large motor activities that promote “muscle memory” and common language across the grades
Focus on automaticity of letter writing to promote eventual development of higher-level composition skills
Continuous stroke formation to minimize repositioning (easier transition to cursive)
Insights on Curriculums Commonly Used by Occupational Therapists
We know that using a “one size fits all” approach to education is not best practice and this is also true when selecting a handwriting curriculum. In my experience, early learners such as pre-K and kindergarteners (or those at a similar developmental level) tend to do well with HWT. Its multisensory approach (including wooden block manipulatives, magnet boards, chalk, water, and sponges) is motivating and engaging. Its focus on pre-writing lines and shapes, as well as a developmental approach to teaching letters (rather than alphabetically), eases children into the skill of writing. As students progress in their writing, I find that Handwriting Without Tears’ unique double-lined paper (solid baseline and midline with no top line) can become a bit confusing for some. This is likely impacted by children being simultaneously exposed to more traditional lined and tri-lined paper in other settings.
I’ve recently increased my use of the Size Matters Handwriting Program with students. I find it especially helpful for students who have a basic understanding of letter formation but continue to struggle with proper sizing and line placement. Size Matters also offers supplemental materials to specifically target visual perceptual and eye-hand coordination. For many students, I incorporate elements of both HWT and Size Matters to target the student’s greatest need areas and preferences.
While I am least familiar with EZ Write, I am drawn to explore it further. It’s designed to be used as both a regular classroom curriculum as well as a remedial handwriting program. It has kits available by grade level, but also offers an Occupational Therapy Kit for use in intervention. Its unique focus on developing automaticity is also a key feature for me as many of my students struggle in this area.
No matter which program (or programs) you choose, you have the ability to make the experience of learning to write a more positive one for each of your students. When armed with a strong set of resources and a unique skill set to assess and support student needs, occupational therapists are a vital resource in helping a wide range of learners effectively and efficiently produce quality handwriting.