As I walked into school the other day, a friend of mine grabbed me in a panic and said “Should my four-year-old really be practicing a page of letters every night?! This is the only time I get to spend with her and I’m forcing her to write a whole page of D’s! This stinks!”
No, as an OT, I don’t believe that a four-year-old should be practicing a page of letters for twenty minutes a night. It’s too much for those little hands.
But – an educator who spends two days a week in kindergarten, I have to say, this is where the curriculum is going. Developmentally, preschoolers are still preschoolers, but kindergarten curriculum expectations have increased tremendously. Little kids are expected to be able to write upon entering kindergarten. Preschools are bowing to the pressure and teaching what used to be the kindergarten curriculum.
I felt empathetic towards my friend who just wants to play with her little girl at night, rather than drilling her to finish a worksheet. But here’s what I told her.
“Think about it differently. You have the chance to make sure she learns all her letters correctly before she starts Kindergarten.There will be other children in her class who don’t know their letters, and the teacher won’t be able to really sit with them one on one to make sure they get it. Many teachers teach one letter a day in two forms (capital and uppercase), so the kids don’t really develop the motor memory. It’s difficult for kids to learn it and to write comfortably at this rushed pace. If a child learns their letters correctly it is so much easier for them to write neatly. It becomes automatic.”
I’m not sure if that made her feel better, but I do feel that it’s the truth. The curriculum doesn’t account for the children entering kindergarten who did not go to preschool or may not have the fine motor skills to write pages of letters at a time. Point blank – it’s just not developmentally appropriate.
Plus, I really don’t think kids learn to write a letter unless they learn the letters in groups by letter formation. (You can learn more about this in my Free Handwriting Email Course. It provides an outline of how letters formations can be grouped to make learning how to write easier.)
Occupational Therapists and handwriting specialists teach the letters according to letter formation. Kids learn to make “c”, then turn it into an “o”. Make a “c”, then learn to turn it into an “a“. It’s like practicing a new dance. You do the same motions over and over until they become automatic.
It doesn’t always have to be pencil and paper. The child could
- Paint the letters
- Write them in chalk outside
- in shaving cream in the bathtub, etc.
- practice on their Magna doodle or Aqua doodle
- form the letters out of clay, with toothpicks, etc.
I also mentioned the IPAD, which my friend thought her daughter would love. There are a lot of great apps for teaching letter formation on the IPAD. Most apps have options where you can limit the letters that your kid learns so they learn just a few, or just the letters in their name, etc.
*If the app does have that option, it’d be in your settings page. Scroll down and click on that app.
10 Apps to Help Your Child Practice Grasp and Writing
Here are 10 Occupational Therapist approved apps that you can use to help your little one learn to write their letters properly. It’s a good idea to give your kid a stylus, so they get used to using a tool to write. But please make sure they are holding it correctly. You can even put a pencil grip on a stylus to help those fingers sit in the right spots.
*Screen time should be limited for children. Here is a great article by Charlotte Smarty pants called “Why Kindergarten Teachers Want Your Child to Step Away from the IPAD”. However, in small doses, IPADS and Tablets can be a great learning tool.
1. Writing Wizard
by L’Escapadou ($4.99 for iOS/$3.99 for Android)
- Offers tracing lines and shapes, uppercase letters, lower case letters, numbers, and words.
- Parents can set the level of difficulty and program word lists.
- Children enjoy the color and it allows the child to play a bit after tracing the letters.
- Interactive visuals for start & stop points, visual and auditory cues when they stray from the tracing line.
- Options: removing tracing lines, choosing the font (Zaner-Bloser, D’nealian, and Handwriting Without Tears formation options), and choosing between free play or “5-star” mode where they have to correctly trace the letter 5 times before they can move to the next letter.
- Offers progress monitoring features and reports
- There is an option to look at each user’s trace history and watch a replay of each trace to see where they had difficulty.
- Parents or teachers can also export pages for each user and email them.
- Age: This app reports that it is for ages 4 and up.
Check out the YouTube demo:
And it comes in cursive!
2. Cursive Writing Wizard by L’Escapadou ($3.99 for Android/$4.99 for iOS in app store)
- Similar to Writing Wizard but teaches cursive formation (D’nealian based).
- This app uses visuals that correspond to the letter they are tracing (ex. the letter b is traced in little bees!).
- Most of the features look the same as Writing Wizard (see above).
- There are also options to practice tracing simple pictures
3.Touch and Write by FIZZBRAIN LLC ($2.99 for iOS)
- Change the background to look like writing paper, leopard print, zebra, etc.
- Change what you are “writing with” to write the letters in icing, chalk, whipped cream, or even ketchup (my favorite) with sound effects included!
- This app is fun and it can be good for picky eaters since they are “working” with food, even though they aren’t.
- BONUS: Provides the child a comparison of how they formed the letter with the actual formation.
- The visual supports are playful (ex. making the monster eat his cupcakes) and can be removed as they become proficient.
- Custom word lists can be added. There are also options to practice individual letters, numbers, and high frequency sight words.
- Age: Recommended for ages 4+…not to be confused with the free app Touch and Write ABC in the Google Play store!
Check out the Youtube demo:
Oh, and this app also has a separate version for cursive!
4. iWriteWords by Roy Winata ($2.99 for iOS in App Store)
- Teaches kids to write uppercase and lowercase letters individually and in simple words.
- Practice your numbers up to twenty.
- BONUS: One major difference with this app is that when the child goes too far off the tracing line they are required to start over (though it does give them a good bit of wiggle room). (This might be frustrating for some little learners. There are visual cues (a little crab and numbers) to guide formation.)
- The tracing line looks similar to drawing with water on a dusty chalkboard. When they have successfully traced the letter, there is a little letter icon that falls down in the corner and has to be “swiped” across before it moves on to the next letter.
- Extra feature where they can tap on the screen to play the ABC song can get somewhat distracting.
- Choose the handwriting style and changing settings for right or left-handed children.
- Ages: Recommended for ages 3-7.
- Check out this Youtube demo from Great Apps 4 Kids:
5. iTrace by Michael Bogorad ($3.99 for iOS)
- Features a realistic hand holding a pencil that shows kids exactly where to trace on a letter or number.
- Erases incorrect tracing and provides a thin line on a wide tracing line.
- Uses everyday items to go with the letters
- Provides visual perceptual activities like finding the items on a busy background. A great way to work on visual perceptual skills!
- Practice upper and lower case letters, numbers and words.
- Allows you to add the child’s name to practice.
- Another cool feature to increase engagement is the “scenes” where the child writes words related to that scene. For example, the beach scene has them write BUCKET.
- Words can be practiced in upper and lowercase letters.
- This app also has a progress monitoring tool where an adult can see what they practiced and what mistakes they made (ex. they started in the wrong place).
Check out this Youtube Demo by Great Apps 4 Kids.
6. Dexteria Jr by BinaryLabs, Inc ($3.99 for iOS in the app store)
- Dexteria Jr. includes pre-writing, fine pinch, tracing, and beginner level maze activities.
- None of these activities involve direct letter practice but build the foundational skills needed for writing.
- “Pinch the Pepper” game requires the ability to pinch a moving target on the screen. A well developed pincer grasp supports functional pencil grasp.
- “Squish the squash” works on finger isolation as well as hand/eye coordination and visual tracking.
- The prewriting forms and mazes build foundational prewriting skills and can be done with the finger or a stylus (preferable for building that functional pencil grasp).
- Age: works on prewriting skills, might be appropriate for children as young as 3 years.
- Just be sure to limit screen time overall and sit with young children to help them understand what they are doing.
7. Dexteria ($3.99)
- Targets some of the same fine motor skills as the Jr. version
- Includes letters/numbers
- The visuals on this app are not nearly as playful or engaging (this wouldn’t be my first choice for young children).
- Precision required on the tracing tasks quite high and this might be frustrating for little ones.
- Older children, however, might be motivated by some of the tasks. The finger and hand isolation movement activity where you anchor your thumb and tap each finger individually as fast as you can remind me of things we would do at the lunch table as kids.
- Age: good for middle or high school kids.
Check out this Youtube demo from Apps for Children with Special Needs
8. Handwriting Without Tears by No Tears Learning, Inch ($4.99 for iOS on App Store)
- The app version of the classic “wet-dry try” method by Handwriting Without Tears handwriting program.
- A good alternative if you don’t have the time or materials for “wet-dry try”, but you’re not going to get the tactile feedback you get with the sponge and the chalkboard.
- You do still get great verbal cueing from this app.
- Awesome for some students but might be lost on students who don’t process verbal instructions very well.
- Good for transitioning to writing letters on paper
- Provides the option to put the letters in “HWT Order”, (start with the easier to form letters and progress to more difficult letters rather than attempting to go in ABC order).
- Practice uppercase, lowercase, and numbers. Bonus: provides a classroom edition for an additional cost to track multiple students’ progress individually or as a whole class!
- Drawbacks: Can be frustrating for kids who struggled to “grab” the sponge and the “towel”. Some reviewers have also complained that this app does not work without Wi-Fi or on iPad mini.
- Ages: Recommended for ages 4+
9. LetterSchool by LetterSchool Enabling Learning B.V. ($9.99 for iOS and Android)
- Great features including awesome visuals and sounds!
- Uses the “tap, trace, write” strategy for each letter, number, or shape.
- You start by just tapping the visual start points to watch the proper letter formation.
- Watch the visual model, then trace, then write on your own without a tracing line.
- If the child gets stuck, there will be little visual cues to try to help them find their way. Even during the last phase of “writing” on their own, there are still cues for each start/stop point.
- No verbal instructions in this app!
- Works strictly on the steps of letter formation.
- Good for students with limited motor control. (No matter how “wobbly” your line is, as long as it is going the right direction and gets to the next start/stop point you will see a perfectly formed line).
- This might be helpful for kiddos that struggle with fine motor control and need to feel success with writing. (Just don’t forget to work on precision and control some other way).
- Options to practice uppercase, lowercase, numbers, and shapes.
- Can be used with Handwriting Without Tears, D’Nealean, and Zaner-Bloser handwriting styles.
- You can have profiles for up to 3 users, each with their own settings.
- Ages: Recommended for ages 4+
10. Ready to Print by Essare LLC ($7.99 for Kindle Tablet/$9.99 for iOS)
- Designed by an OT, Ready to Print teaches letters, shapes and sounds.
- Offers letter tracing, connect the dot pre-writing activities, and even coordination games with pinching and dragging pictures that match.
- Activities are presented in challenge order from most basic skills up to more complex skills.
- Keep data on multiple users, adjust settings differently within each user profile.
- Settings can be adjusted to make tasks more or less difficult.
- Bonus feature: Offers such a wide range of activities and also allows for students to try writing a letter independently after they have traced it with the visual supports. This makes this app a great value in that it can be used and made challenging for so many different students.
- Age: The app reports that it is for ages 4 and up, but it my opinion it offers plenty of prewriting activities that teach the foundations to handwriting. Seems like it would be good from ages 2-7 to me! Just be sure to limit screen time to 1 hour or less per day for children under 5.
Check the YouTube demo from special apps for kids
These 10 apps are fun and engaging to work on letter/number formation as well as foundational fine and visual motor skills for writing!
Like I’ve mentioned before, children under 5 should be getting no more than an hour a day of high-quality, educational screen time (preferably with an adult to interact with and help them understand what they are doing). While these apps are all great, children still need to be engaged in learning activities with trusted adults to support and encourage them in order for them to retain and understand what they are working on. Also, make sure apps are just one tool in your toolbox! Children learn best when they practice skills in many different ways!
Don’t forget to check out the 2019 Online Toddler Conference – It’s Free!
About the Author: Amanda Beason is a school-based occupational therapist, technology lover, and drinker of all the coffee serving learners ages 2 to 22 in public schools in Chesterfield County, Virginia. She is finishing up her 4th year as a school-based therapist and her mission is to support positive development and participation for all abilities in an increasingly technology-driven school setting. When she is not serving students she is creating how-to videos for setting up switches and other assistive technology in classrooms. Amanda loves to share information about assistive technology and emerging technologies for education and school-based practice.