As a pediatric occupational therapist, I work with kids on handwriting all the time. I have found that people are often intimidated or confused about how to teach left handed children to write. To be honest, there really isn’t that much difference between teaching right-handed and left-handed children to write, though there are a few important things to keep in mind. If you are teaching a left-handed child to write, don’t be scared!
Here are a few tips for teaching left handed children to write:
1) Remember that hand dominance is not expected to fully develop until the Kindergarten years, between ages five and six. If you have a toddler or preschooler who is exhibiting a left-handed preference, it’s possible he could still switch over to become a fully right-handed writer by the time he reaches Kindergarten and begins formal writing instruction. Don’t “force” your kiddo to be left handed because you’re afraid of what might happen if he ends up switching to the other hand. If you allow him opportunities to explore using both hands, he will most likely develop a preference and eventually dominance that utilizes whichever hand demonstrates the greatest skill, strength, and dexterity.
2) If your child truly has established a left-handed dominance, make sure he knows and can verbalize the fact that he is left handed. Sometimes well meaning classroom volunteers and even teachers will switch kids’ pencil to their right hand because they may just assume the child is right handed. This can obviously impact kids negatively and confuse them, so teach them to be able to communicate the fact that they are left handed.
3) Encourage use of the “tripod” grasp (pinch pencil with index finger and thumb, rest it on the middle finger) just like righties do. This will help with developing dynamic finger movements and proper wrist position later down the road so your child is less likely to “hook” his wrist like lefties are known to do. Children in our current educational system often are not taught how to correctly hold their pencil. Many right handed kids can figure it out just fine but because positioning is a bit trickier for lefties, they may be more likely to develop bad habits that will make it harder for them to grasp and control the pencil as they get older and the writing demands increase.
4) Teach your lefty to hold the pencil in that tripod grasp about 1 to 1.5 inches above the tip of the pencil. When lefties move their fingers up the pencil a little higher, it allows them to see what they’re writing so they are less likely to have to hook their wrist in order to have a good view. This should also help them smudge their writing less. If your child keeps forgetting or doesn’t know where to place his fingers, put a sticker at the height he should pinch the pencil in order to provide an easy visual cue.
5) There is no need to purchase any sort of “special” pencils or grippers for your lefty unless it has been specifically recommended by an occupational therapist. Lefties are fully capable of grasping the pencil as maturely and efficiently as righties. However, it’s important for lefty kiddos to use left-handed scissors because of the way the blade is oriented; it allows kids to see where they are cutting and lefty scissors cut cleanly rather than folding or bending the paper. Don’t have access to lefty scissors? Just flip your right-handed scissors upside down in order to switch the blade orientation. This isn’t ideal as far as finger placement goes (thumb will then go in the large hole and the fingers will cram in the little hole), but it’s a quick fix if your lefty needs it.
ARM AND PAPER POSITION
6) As your lefty kiddo gets older and starts to write more (such as at the end of Kindergarten and moving into first grade and beyond), encourage him to angle his paper with the left corner pointed up. Righties tend to angle the right corner of their paper up, and lefties should do the same with the left side. It places their writing arm in a natural position to be able to write on the lines as they move from left to right without having to excessively hook their wrist.
7) Teach left handed writers to place their paper to the left of their body so they can see what they’re writing. When they finish writing across an entire line, their hand should either be slightly to the left of their midline or just in front of it. This allows them to move more naturally as they keep their wrist straight (rather than hooked), minimize smudging while writing, and see what they are writing.
An occupational therapist’s tip for teaching left handed kids to write
8) Encourage your child to utilize the right hand as the “helper hand”. Teachers do not always explicitly teach children to stabilize their paper with their non-dominant hand and, for some reason, this is especially true for lefties. The more consistently they stabilize their paper, the less likely it is to slide around and cause frustration while writing.
9) When teaching lefties to copy letters and words, make sure their model is either above where they are writing or directly to the right side of where they are writing so they can actually see it. Most worksheets place the model letter or word on the left side and then leave a blank space on the right for the student to write the letter or word. This is difficult for lefties because their left arm automatically covers up the model, so it may take them longer to complete or may lead to more mistakes because the model is covered up the majority of the time. Not fair to them! The popular handwriting program “Handwriting Without Tears” recognizes this unique need when it comes to the positioning of models and they have customized all of their worksheets so that they are accessible for both righties and lefties. Thank you, HWT!
10) Letter formation is generally the same for lefties as it is for righties. Be sure to teach your child to write the letter “o” in the same direction as righties, which is in the counter-clockwise direction. This will help him with his overall speed and fluency of writing later on down the road. The only real difference in formation is that lefties can “pull” their little lines backward to cross their letters (like for lowercase “f” and “t” and for capital “A” “E” “F” “H” “J” “T”) by going from right to left rather than “pushing” from left to right. This is really just to make it less likely that they will tear the paper but if they are able to draw those little lines from left to right like righties, it will also help their writing speed and fluency in the long run.
Regardless of whether your child is left handed or right handed, kids in the preschool years should be focusing mostly on fine motor play as opposed to actually using a pencil and writing letters. Be sure to focus on activities that encourage him to pinch with his thumb and index finger (strengthening those tripod muscles), coordinate the use of his right and left hands together (cutting goes in this category), and generally develop the foundational fine motor strength and skill needed for later writing. Crayons, markers, chalk, paintbrushes, sponges, and other non-pencil writing utensils should be preschoolers’ main tools for coloring and drawing. Additionally, short non-pencil tools are preferred because they help develop that good tripod grasp by naturally encouraging children to pinch with those tripod fingers rather than using additional fingers or a fisted grasp.