Learning to write can be a difficult process for many children; not only do they need to be able to recognise letters shapes, but also they need the fine motor control to write the letter correctly. There are an increasing number of apps out there to help including those we have reviewed here: Good Learning to Write Apps.
Many of these encourage children to trace letters on-screen with their finger, such as Hairy Letters, Pocket Phonics, and Justin’s World Letter Sounds. ‘Pen’ type accessories are starting to emerge as well, like the Appen, LeapFrog’s Learn to Write Mr. Pencil, iCrayon and Crayola’s Digitools. The question is, can they actually make a difference? Having observed many children using these sort of apps we believe that yes, they ‘can’, with the emphasis on they ‘can’ and not that they definitely ‘do’.
There is no substitute for pen and paper
At Fundamentally Children we believe there is no substitute for time with a real pen and paper. Any time spent on apps that support learning to write needs to be in addition to time with real pens and paper. In other words if your child is going to be playing on an app, then encouraging them towards one that supports learning to write is a good idea.
So how can good apps help support a child learning to write?
- Building the required muscles: one of the most important things a child needs to develop are the necessary muscles. One could argue that apps do not encourage physical skills. However, the right apps can get children moving their hands and fingers – such as tracing a letter onscreen, colouring an image, accurately dragging and dropping, etc. – and it all helps.
- The pincer grip: some of the tablet ‘writing instrument’ accessories we’ve seen for kids are great because they try to encourage the pincer grip. The Appen, for example, has coloured pads to encourage a child to use a 2-finger grip and Mr. Pencil has a great ergonomic shape. We’re optimistic that more and even better digital pens will emerge in the future.
- Letter recognition: in order to write, a child needs to recognise letters in the alphabet. Many apps help children practise this recognition and by using animations, letter associations, interactive features etc. they can make it really fun and engaging for children. We have observed real improvements in children’s letter knowledge (both in terms of letter sounds, names and shapes) from using the sorts of apps mentioned in this article.
- Letter shape: just as tracing letters on paper or with their finger in a tray of sand or shaving foam is a good way to get your child re-creating letters, tracing letters with their finger on-screen is helpful too. Whilst this is good to develop accuracy and fine motor control, it is less effective at reinforcing letter shapes as children focus their attention on accurately tracing the line and not on the overall letter shape. There are some apps that encourage copying the letter rather than tracing (e.g. in the sand in the Les Trois Elles app) – both certainly have a place.
- Letter formation: some of the apps we’ve tested not only require a child to trace over a letter accurately to be successful, but encourage them to form the letter in the right way. This can be easier to do on-screen with an animation than on paper.
- Confidence: in the end one of the most important aspects of learning to write (as with many skills) is developing confidence, and this is an area where apps can really help. They typically have plenty of rewards for success (not as good as congratulations from a parent, of course, but we understand that a parent cannot be there to cheer every letter!), and because they are fun and engaging even reluctant little writers can learn as they play.
Children often make their first attempts at writing letters while they are 3 years old, and at this young age there is an awful lot they need to master to become skilled writers. Use of apps can be a small part of this picture, if you choose the right ones and use them in support of practice with pen and paper.