To Trace or Not to Trace?

Of all the topics about preschool literacy that I teach, the most hotly debated among teachers is that of tracing. A simple google search on preschool writing or curriculum ideas will no doubt result in some form of tracing. In fact, even some handwriting curricula encourage the practice. Whenever I introduce the idea of no tracing activities in the classroom, I am often met with a barrage of arguments defending the practice. Some teachers are so tied to this practice that they almost become angry at the idea of giving it up, insisting that tracing has helped their children learn to write.

After years of observing children as they learn to write, I suggest that asking children to trace alphabet letters actually does more harm than good.  The typical tracing activities involve broken line letters to help children make a “correct” letter. The problem with this is that children pay more attention to the broken lines than the actual letter and letter shape. In their attempts to connect the lines, they start at random places to connect the lines, go repeatedly over their marks to ensure the broken lines are completely covered, and often create letter shapes that do not have a written fluency to them. These actions, if repeated enough times, will result in habits that later interfere with both legibility, muscle memory, and writing fluency.

Although the end product may result in a letter that seems satisfactory, it is likely that the lines were traced back and forth and started at a point of convenience with no regard for the sequence of how to create the letter. To account for this, teachers may stand over children with specific directions of where to start and how to make the lines, resulting in low feelings of self-efficacy (i.e., I’m not good at this).

Another issue that arises with tracing involves the control that it takes to stay within the lines. In order to hold a pencil correctly and make letters correctly one has to develop the small muscles within the wrists, hands, and fingers. If a child is struggling to hold a pencil correctly or stay within lines on a paper, this is a clue that the child’s fine motor skills need to be more developed. The best way to develop these skills is by giving the child more manipulative activities, such as searching for pony beads in playdough, picking up small pieces using a pincer grasp, or using puzzles with small knobs. I’ve seen many teachers attempt to correct the pencil grip of a child only to see the child revert back to the “comfortable way” after the teacher walks away. This demonstrates that the correction of pencil grip does nothing to promote control…rather the teacher must look to see what is causing the issue to begin with.

When children have the fine motor control to create letters free hand that are similar in size and shape on paper without lines, they now have the motor skills needed to write on lined paper. By the time children reach this point, they do not need tracing activities because they either are already making the letters or already have the skills to create recognizable letters.

This begs the question, how will children learn to write their names or letters if they don’t have tracing activities? The answer is actually quite simple. Children need many opportunities throughout the day to write freely on topics of their choosing. They need access to writing materials and blank paper. They need models of the alphabet that are on the same surface on which they are writing, name cards to look at so they can recreate the names, and words that they are interested in so they can view the model and then attempt to recreate the letters. There is no shortage of appropriate and interesting writing activities for preschoolers. The key is to find activities that the children want to participate in. Here are just a few examples that you can easily incorporate into your environment:

  • A writing table that is related to an interesting book, topic, or song. Your writing table should include blank paper, an alphabet sample, name cards, interesting word cards with pictures, and writing utensils. I like to use half sheets or quarter sheets of paper to encourage children to refine their writing and write smaller letters rather than larger letters.
  • Clipboards in appropriate areas throughout the room so that children can practice controlling the pencil or writing words, such as in the block area so they can draw and label buildings or signs or in the science area where they can write observations about a science display.
  • Opportunities to write in dramatic play, such as taking an order, writing their name on a train ticket, copying their address for a flower delivery, or filling out a patient chart for their pet. The ideas for implementing writing within dramatic play are unlimited. Children love imitating the adults in their lives by writing lists and filling out forms.
  • Opportunities to write their name using a model. Have a basket of name cards in the art area, at the easel, at a morning sign in sheet or anywhere else children might need to or want to write their name. We often ask children to write their names on their art work, but often they don’t have a model close by to look at.
  • Allow children to create lunch requests in which they fill out a form indicating who they would like to sit next to at lunch or snack. This can be a great way to motivate children to write who might not otherwise be interested.
  • Tactile activities that allow children to feel the shape of a letter, such as writing in the sand or sandpaper letters. With activities like these children are less likely to engage in the bad habits they would create when using pencil and paper to trace.

Research supports this idea of allowing children to free write. Neuroscience research has discovered that there is a specific area of the brain that must be activated in young children in order to become a good reader. This area, the visual word form area, is often called the letterbox region. In the research studies, seeing letters, typing letters, and tracing letters did not activate this letterbox region in four year old children. However, free-writing letters (no lines, blank paper, no dotted letters) did activate the letterbox….further proof that free writing is a more productive activity than tracing. Why is this? It’s thought that as the child produces the letters, he makes them a little different each time. The brain is really, really good at recognizing patterns. So the process of writing the letters free form helps the child differentiate which parts of the letter are important for letter recognition and which things are not important. It activates something in the brain that begins to recognize that this isn’t just another shape…this object is a little different…it connects to a word I know that has sounds in it. In FMRI studies, children who just traced the letters didn’t activate the letterbox area and had less letter knowledge and understanding than children who were free writing.

Tracing does not activate the region of the brain necessary for good readers. Free writing does.

At this point, teachers hearing this information are generally convinced that free writing is a good thing, but they are still reluctant to let go of tracing activities. I often get the question, “Can’t I do both?” My answer to that question has multiple layers. First, is the child establishing bad habits in the way he/she is making the letters. If the answer is yes, then I would avoid the activity. If the answer is no, I would probably ask myself if the child is really benefiting from the activity. The answer is likely that the activity is nothing more than busywork. I hear many teachers complain about the pressure of getting the children in their classroom ready for Kindergarten. With this type of pressure, it makes sense that we would want to ensure that any activity we do in the classroom would promote development. I just can’t seem to find a good reason to trace. I’d rather spend my time on other types of phonemic awareness activities.

The second layer for me involves thinking about whether children actually enjoy the activity. It’s completely possible to engage in an activity without putting forth any mindful effort. When this happens we have to ask ourselves how much learning is actually taking place. Also, forcing children to do an activity that is not enjoyable often results in behavior issues. For the child that doesn’t enjoy the activity, it’s important for teachers to consider whether the child is really gaining anything from it, and whether the battle is worth fighting if behavior issues ensue.

At the end of the day, the choice is yours. However, DAP guidelines, neuroscience research, and literacy experts do not endorse tracing activities. So my final answer to “Can’t I do both?” would be, “Why would you want to?”


For more information about Literacy and the Brain, check out our course, Creating Neural Pathways for Reading.

The Problem with Worksheets

You never want to get on a plane where the pilot learned to fly from worksheets. ~ Todd Whitaker

I was teaching a class recently, and I noticed a common theme…as much as teachers have heard that worksheets are not appropriate they just seem to have a hard time letting go of them. I think the problem is that perhaps deep down they still believe that worksheets have some value to children, or that if they aren’t using worksheets then they aren’t really teaching. That could just not be further from the truth.

So what’s wrong with worksheets?

  • Worksheets often have a “right” answer. Which means that they also have a wrong answer. However, the wrong answer doesn’t allow children to use trial and error to learn from it. Instead, the wrong answers on a worksheet lead children to believe that there is no value in risk-taking because only the right answers are valued. Seeing a lot of wrong answers can also reduce a child’s belief in her/his ability.
  • Similarly, worksheets can only be used in one way. This means that children aren’t using higher order thinking skills like they would if they were playing with concrete materials.
  • Children are concrete learners, which means they need concrete objects in order to learn a new concept. Worksheets are abstract, and are therefore incapable of teaching this type of learner. This is what makes them developmentally inappropriate.
  • Since worksheets can’t teach children of such a young age, that means the only thing they can do is present, or test, a concept that children already know. And if children already know it, then why are we wasting our time on it?
  • Worksheets are task-oriented activities rather then learning activities. When completing a worksheet, the goal becomes to finish the worksheet rather than learn the task at hand.
  • They don’t allow children to work together or collaborate on a project. At an age where social skills are of the utmost importance and are still forming, the activities in our classrooms should promote collaboration, not discourage it.
  • Worksheets do not allow for creativity, divergent thinking, or the opportunity to display learning in different ways.
  • Most often, all of the children in the class are working on the same worksheet. This goes against common logic, because we know that not all children will be at the same level of development.
  • Worksheets waste valuable time, focus on teaching only rote skills (Volante, 2004).
  • Overly academic approaches may offer short term success, such as children being able to recite alphabet letters or rote count, but this comes at a cost. Children from overly academic schools may not have engaged in the higher-order thinking activities that help them understand why things are the way they are. They don’t have a firm foundation for later success. They also have less time for social skills development and often show higher levels of test anxiety compared with their peers from play based schools.
  • Any concept portrayed in a worksheet can be taught better in a hands-on, meaningful way.

As Marilyn Adams said, “If they can do the worksheet they don’t need it. If they can’t, it won’t help them.”

Letting go of worksheets creates more time in your classroom to allow children to explore their interests in a meaningful way. And when you allow children to make choices, they become more motivated. Motivate children and you cause a release of dopamine in the brain, which unlike other neurotransmitters is spritzed on the brain causing it to reach larger areas. Motivate children and you increase learning.

There are numerous ways to engage children in meaningful literacy, math, and science concepts without the use of worksheets. What are your favorite play-based activities?

Creating Meaningful Literacy Experiences for Preschoolers

Creating literacy-rich environments is certainly a buzz-phrase in preschool classrooms. It seems that everyone is always looking for new ideas to make their classrooms literacy rich. What seems to be missing from a lot of these conversations is meaning. It’s not enough to just have a lot of print in your environment. Research has shown us that just putting a lot of print in the environment doesn’t really help children attend to it. In fact, they may even start to ignore it. Rather, current research suggests that we should make sure that we create print-rich environments that are meaningful. Gone are the days when we label everything in the classroom, such as the door, the chair, and the window. These labels have little to no meaning to children. Instead, we have to look at the children in our classroom and determine what type of print would be meaningful to them. There are some universal activities that are meaningful to preschoolers, such as anything having to do with their name. However, what might be meaningful to one classroom might not be so meaningful to another classroom.

I encourage you to question everything you put in your environment to determine if it is actually meaningful to the children. Are the signs that label each area (Dramatic Play, Blocks, etc.) meaningful to children? Or are they just something that someone, somewhere along the way, told you that you had to have? (I’ve yet to see these signs as actually being required in any quality improvement program or accreditation standards even though many teachers insist that they are required). Are the labels you have on your shelves helpful to the children? Or are they a nuisance? Is the alphabet poster something that children use, or does it add to the visual clutter of the room? The answers to all of these questions may be different for every classroom. My point is that you have to be the one to critically evaluate whether something is meaningful or not.

So….what are some examples of activities that other teachers have found meaningful? Let’s take a look…..but even with these suggested activities….don’t forget to ask yourself if these will be meaningful for YOUR group of children!

Meaningful Labels

Some labels are meaningful. These labels help children know where to put the art materials when they are returning them to the shelves.

Meaningful Print in the Science Area

This science center has an example of meaningful print. While the children are not able to read this print yet in this preschool classroom, they will notice that the print has changed and will likely as the teacher what it says.

Reading Area

This cozy reading area is a big hit with children. It includes many cozy features, including pillows, rugs, and plants.

Listening Center

This listening center was made from PVC pipe and a cheap curtain. You can imagine how much children loved getting away to this area!

Books in the Block Area

Don’t forget to include books in other areas though!

When children walk into this classroom, they locate their name on the woodchip and then place it into a basket. Teachers can then use the basket to talk about who is here (or not) at group time or other times during the day.

Writing Table

This writing table is inviting to children. The table is set up for 2 children, because writing during the preschool years tends to be a social experience. The table has blank paper, blank books, fill-in strips with the words to a popular song the children were singing, children’s name cards (and teachers), pencils, alphabet samples, and word cards to put in the fill-in strip blanks.

Job Chart

Job charts are another way to include meaningful print into your classroom!

These small alphabet blocks are fun to put on top of these laminated name cards. Note: The name cards had all capital letters because the alphabet blocks were not available with lower case letters and this class was not yet able to match case on the letters. Typically, all name cards should use Sentence Case – with a capital first letter and lower case letters for the rest of the name.

Compound Words

This compound word activity can be fun for older preschoolers. Children try to find the two words that make up the compound word.

Sorting by Syllables

In this activity, children sort word cards by the number of syllables they hear.

This is just a sampling of activities to start your literacy program. What ideas do you have, and what makes them meaningful to children?

To Teach a Second Language or Not?

One of the questions I get asked alot by teachers is whether they should be teaching a second language in their classroom or not. There is so much pressure from parents and administrators that it becomes hard to know what to do.

There is no doubt. Children who learn a second language before puberty have an advantage. They learn the language as a native speaker and have increased cognitive abilities. Second language learning during early childhood boosts problem solving skills, critical thinking, listening skills, memory, concentration, and overall academic achievement. With benefits like these, it may seem like a no brainer…..why wouldn’t you introduce another language into your classroom? To answer this question, you need to answer a different question:

Are you a native or fluent speaker of the language?

If you answered yes, then you should absolutely include the language in your classroom. You can do this by reading books in the language, conducting circle time in the language, or just having conversations in the language. You can label objects in both languages in the midst of conversation….but it should all be done with the give and take of conversation that happens naturally with human communication.

If you answered no, then the answer is simple. You should not try to teach the language in your classroom. If you do, you will teach incorrect grammar, incorrect pronunciation, and will be more likely to present isolated words without the meaning that generally surrounds those words. Remember…conversation is a give and take…not a quiz about specific words! When you learned your first language, you learned it through natural conversation…not from someone quizzing you about specific words. Research tells us that children learn best through the natural give and take of conversation.

Children learn language from human interaction. Not from videos or audio tapes that try to teach a language. Engage children in conversation in the language(s) that you speak fluently. That’s what will help their language outcomes advance.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I teach some sign language to children without being fluent?

  • Yes. Again, the key here is to incorporate it into your everyday speech. It can be helpful to teach young children some basic signs to help communicate their needs, but the signs should be taught in the context of conversation, not in an isolated situation. For example, when you ask the child if he wants more milk, you might sign the words for more and milk.

What about TV programs that teach a second language? Aren’t those good for children?

  • The research is clear. Children need human interaction to learn a language. While they may learn isolated words from a television program, they will not learn the structure of language that is necessary for becoming fluent. It’s also important to limit the amount of screen time that children are exposed to.

What if I have a child that speaks another language? What is appropriate then?

  • If the child speaks another language, it would be appropriate for you to learn some words in that child’s language in an attempt to communicate with the child. You might try to read a book to the child in his home language, or count in his home language. The difference here is that you aren’t trying to “teach” the home language…rather you are just trying to communicate with the child.

Should I have signs in my classroom in more than one language?

  • Only if you have children in your classroom that speak that language. There is no need to label everything in every language, but it is ok to label some things in the child’s home language. However, if no one in your class speaks Spanish, then there is no need for Spanish labels in your classroom.

Should I try to convince the child’s family to speak English at home rather than their home language?

  • No. Encourage the family to keep their home language intact. This facilitates communication between the child and the parents and keeps a cultural connection open. It also ensures that the child doesn’t surpass the parent’s communication skills in the only common language that they have together.

Obviously the decision about whether to teach a second language or not is a complex decision with many considerations. It’s a hot topic, and there are bound to be strong opinions on each side of the decision. It’s important to consider each classroom and each family on an individual basis to decide what is best for that situation rather than making across the board decisions. Only then can we be culturally considerate.