Today, I want to talk about a problem many teachers face, that is, having to use resources for your classes that are ‘not quite right’, and my quest for perfect fonts.
In the language school that I work for, sadly, one of the primary criteria that they use for selecting teaching resources, is that they are free. And I’m sure many teachers in mainstream education face this same challenge. For example, a lot of the worksheets children at my school are supplied with, are sourced from a quick search in Google Images. Usually, very little thought goes into what is chosen. And, since the teacher isn’t paid for their lesson planning time, they just find the most easily accessible resources that roughly meet their needs.
Sadly, this can only lead to an education for the child that is ‘not quite right’.
This brings me to my quest for the perfect fonts.
For a long time now, I’ve been looking for good tracing fonts for teaching handwriting to kindergarten students. Like many other teachers, I’ve used some of the available free fonts (which I’ve discussed elsewhere on this website) to create my own worksheets.
The problem is, most fonts aren’t exactly what I want.
For example, some fonts have tracing arrows that tend to obscure the letter, and others have unusually shaped letters, amongst other shortcomings. (In fairness, having now dug deep into the font creation field, I realise that it is not an easy task to create a good font.)
Another big problem is that tracing fonts that don’t have guiding arrows aren’t really appropriate for younger kindergarten children. A lot of teachers at my school use these types of fonts in their materials creation, all of the time. Again, this is because they are free, and provided by the school.
Which brings me to teaching handwriting.
Early in my teaching career, I remember asking one of the mentor teachers at my school how to teach handwriting.
What I discovered was that, like me, most language teachers didn’t have any understanding of how to teach handwriting.
With no training, teachers make some guesses about what they might do. This primarily, if not exclusively, means giving the child lots of tracing worksheets. Then they leave it to the child’s regular school to teach the mechanics of handwriting. The mentor teacher at my school said that, as long as the child was making strokes on the page, and on the tracing letter, they were still learning ‘pencil control’ or ‘penmanship’. And, any errors they were making would be corrected at some stage by their regular school. And so, teachers at my school would be making custom vocabulary tracing sheets – to be used with limited or no direct supervision – by students as young as three years old.
I don’t think that’s a sound approach to teaching handwriting.
One of the primary reasons this isn’t good, is that the child is encoding an often incorrect letter formation into ‘muscle memory’. At some stage, that will need to be corrected, and it might be a very challenging or stressful process for the child.
Why not just teach it properly the first time?
In my online research for a better tracing font that I could use to construct my own bespoke alphabet and tracing sheets, I discovered the Alphastrokes font.
One of the core ideas behind Alphastrokes, was to correct some of the shortcomings of other tracing fonts, in a way that minimises the probability of the child making the incorrect letter formation. These common errors include forming ball-and-stick letters, or lifting the pencil off the page where a continuous stroke would be more appropriate. If you hand a child a tracing sheet with a font that doesn’t have guiding arrows, you will see a large number of students making these types of errors.
Alphastrokes works like other custom fonts in that you buy the font, download the font file, and install it on your Mac or PC. Then you use whatever software (like Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint or other software like Interactive White Board (IWB) software) to create resources for your class, like tracing sheets or flash cards.
At their website, Alphastrokes has other resources to support handwriting teaching, like alphabet flash cards, workbooks, and animation videos of the correct letter formation.
One of the ways I’ve used letter formation animation videos in my classes, is to embed it in either a PowerPoint file or a digital presentation, using the IWB software (ActivInspire) that my school supplies. So, for example, among the many activities I use for teaching phonics and handwriting, I have the children individually walk up and trace with their finger, the alphabet letter on the IWB.
When the students are working on tracing sheets, I have the correct letter formation animation video visible on the IWB. If you don’t have an IWB, you can just make your own flash cards with the guide arrows (or draw it on the board) to illustrate the correct letter formation. However, I think an animation is better, because students actually get to see the strokes being made and they can refer back to it as many times as they need. Again, this is going to result in less errors than if they just interpret the directional arrows themselves, however good those arrows might be.
(In another class I teach outside of my school, I only have a laptop, iPad and television. I’ll share with you another day how you can use this as a makeshift ‘Interactive White Board’ to achieve the same effect.)
You can find free letter formation videos on YouTube, and even buy some ready-made PowerPoint presentations for letter formation at websites like Teachers Pay Teachers. However, again, I haven’t really discovered one that had completely met my needs, and I have been using a letter formation animation video from a phonics package I found.
Overall, I really like the Alphastrokes font, because of the depth of thought that has gone into creating something that minimises student errors, and supports the process of teaching correct letter formation. (When you read the history behind some of the special fonts that are designed for young children, you discover there is far more to this process than meets the eye.)
The Alphastrokes font has helped me create exactly the kinds of resources I want to use in my class, and I think its a useful piece of the handwriting teaching puzzle. I think of it as a puzzle, because there are so many different resources you can put together in order to make the handwriting process effective and enjoyable for your classes. Its a big step beyond just handing out free worksheets you found online with a quick Google search.
You can find the Alphastrokes font, a discussion of how it differs from other handwriting fonts, and the associated resources, here. It is possible to download and install a free version of the Alphastokes font (that doesn’t include the tracing arrows) from their website.