In this article originally posted on April 17, 2020, we are covering all things tracing, and what occupational therapy providers really think about tracing sheets. The thing is that tracing to teach letter formation can be detrimental. But do you know why tracing may not benefit handwriting? Let’s talk about when and why to use tracing lines as a tool.
Tracing Sheets- What you need to know
If you’re reading this you may have a kid who’s been struggling to learn the letter formations for their alphabet, perhaps have had handwriting issues for quite a while!
Maybe you are wondering about tracing for toddlers, preschoolers, or kindergarten students. You’ve probably come across tracing activities, tracing worksheets, and even whole tracing workbooks! But did you know there is a time and a place for these tools?
Here, we’re talking tracing, and specifically, whether tracing supports handwriting developmentally.
First, what is a tracing sheet?
When we say tracing sheet, or tracing worksheet, we are referring to PDFs or handwriting books that ask the user to trace over a dotted letter. You might see tracing sheets full of diagonal lines, or a whole page designed to trace a single letter over and over (and over) again. You may see a handwriting page that has a bold letter at the top, a row or two of dotted letters for tracing, and then blank lines for the young learner to form letters on their own.
All of these are tracing sheets.
But tracing tasks might include other forms too:
- Tracing cards
- Tracing strips to follow a path
- Tracing over a highlighter marker written on the page
Tracing worksheets and following along a line or parts of a line in handwriting can go different ways. Let’s take a deeper look at tracing as a pre-writing tactic.
What happens when Tracing lines?
Learning letters is a tricky task for our brains and hands; they must work together to look at a drawing, understand that drawing/symbol represents a letter, remember that letter, copy a mental image of the letter, and then instruct our hand to move in such a pattern that creates the letter.
Often times I have parents/teachers who have students who do somewhat well when tracing their alphabet, but when it comes time to write the letter on their own it falls apart.
This can be due to two things:
1. The child does not have a good memory of how to create the letter
2. Tracing allows for the child to start at any point, and therefore formations may start bottom to top/in the middle of the letter/wherever and thus the resulting formation may be large/incorrect/illegible.
While tracing does not appear per the research to limit children with good graphic skills (they learn the motor skills despite the tracing practice), however for a student with poor visual motor skills this can result in reduced carryover of letter formations and letter memory.
This is particularly true for students who rely on visual monitoring for letter formations. Still skeptical? Try it yourself! Have someone write something in their neatest handwriting and you trace it. You’ll notice your handwriting takes longer, and may not be as neat or well formed, due to you having to vary outside your normal motor patterns that you’ve grown used to, resulting in choppy, irregularly formed letters. Pretty neat!
I am not a fan of tracing unless it is used correctly, or the objective is understood. We’ll say this again: tracing has it’s time and it’s place. You might see an OT practitioner asking a child to trace over highlighted lines or pre-writing lines. And it’s ok…because the specific skills of that child are being addressed. When we ask a young learner to trace before they are ready, is when we see issues.
Tracing numbers 1 to 10
While tracing numbers 1 to 10 is not always a recommended practice, there are benefits as well.
Let’s talk tracing so you can use it to the maximum benefit and its intended purpose.
The issue with tracing letters or tracing numbers 1-10 as a means to teaching letter formation or number formation is that when children trace numbers, they often see the dotted lines rather than the number’s form as a whole.
They may use an inappropriate order to trace over the lines of the number. When that happens an incorrect motor plan is created. Then, it is likely that numbers are formed inaccurately even without the tracing stimuli.
That is not to say that there is not a place for tracing. Line tracing definitly has it’s place in certain situations (we cover that in this post).
Some individuals benefit from the tracing lines, especially when visual prompts are added such as arrows, a starting dot, or sequential ordering cues (make the green line first, then jump up to make the blue line, last make the red line), for example.
Equally important is the establishement of a correct motor plan, which can be supported by tracing over sandpaper, foam paper, or rainbow writing with chalk on a sidewalk, as well as other ideas (Listed below in our tracing activities list).
This is important: Tracing is not going to teach number/letter formation if the learner does not know what those figures are. To a learner who does not know these symbols, they will be tracing dotted or dashed lines, not the numbers or letters.
This is worth repeating in a different way: starting handwriting instruction with tracing will likely lead to poor letter formations.
When to use tracing lines and letters
This is not to say that all tracing is bad! Tracing sheets have their time and place! Let’s look at the benefits of letter tracing on printables.
Know your audience. If your young learners do not know the letters or numbers, use the activity as a fine motor task to develop dexterity. If you place a letter tracing sheet in front of a classroom full of students, it is likely that poor letter formations will result because it is impossible to monitor how each student is forming the letters on the tracing lines all at once.
School tracing worksheets can fall into a challenging place in these cases, especially when used with early finishers, morning work tasks, or to address penmanship skills in kindergarten.
Similarly, if using name tracing worksheets or tracing workbooks with a younger child that is not developmentally at the writing stage (Preschool educators promoting pre-handwriting or pre-writing lines curriculum will likely fall into this domain). It is highly likely that you WILL see poor motor plans established for several reasons:
- The child is using the visual motor skills to scan directly in front of the pencil. They are following a near point of “track” to move the writing utensil along. Whether they are tracing with a finger, rock, feather, crayon, chalk, paint, anything…this is the case. The fine motor skills are not developmentally established at this stage and based on child development, it is not appropriate. You are setting up an environment and skills for poor formations, awkward pencil grasps, and compensation in visual motor work, motor skills work, and function.
- Core strength is not where it should be for the near point copy work. Focus on play instead.
- Tracing letters into sprinkles, tracing letters with a paintbrush, tracing name…all of these are sensory motor experiences…good, right? NOT always, and not for preschool children. When exposed to these activities, the child is forming the next line in front of their finger, utensil, tracing object, etc. They are not viewing the whole letter because developmentally, they do not know the forms of all the letters. You WILL see the child starting letters at the bottom rather than the top. You will see the child hopping the pencil or writing tool (or finger) around to form the letter or number out of sequence. The only way to get around this is constant verbal and visual cues for formation, and this can counter any productive aspects. This resource on starting letters at the top explains more about this one piece of the handwriting pie.
Kinesthetic awareness- Kinesthetic learning is a long word means to learn by doing. Theoretically if a person writes the number 5 enough times, the body will start to recognize this pattern and commit it to memory. This only works if the learner understands what is being traced. It’s a motor plan for forming lines of a letter. This is where we are talking about the issue with tracing or copying forms before the child is developmentally ready. Name writing practice through tracing may benefit the child or it may not, it’s all dependent on the individual’s specific needs.
Tracing for dexterity- This is the type of tracing I like best. Tracing for dexterity works on staying on the lines, fine motor control, building hand muscles, scanning and a whole host of other important skills as defined below. Read our resource on fine motor skills for more details.
Phew, okay, now that the science part is done, let’s talk about tracing activities and alternatives to tracing! Again, I want to stress that for students who are able to follow the tracing guidelines or multi step directions (most tracing worksheets or your typical tracing PDF has numbers and arrows to assist with directionality), tracing does not impede learning.
Consider the font- A child that is learning the form of lower case letters, or letter discrimination skills can run into issues with letter practice sheets that use an italicized font or a font with thin writing lines.
The focus for the child becomes especially centered on keeping the pencil marks on the tracing lines and not the flow of the writing utensil. It misses the whole point in this situation.
However, for kids who need the motor planning help here are some good tracing techniques. Use these tracing ideas to work on lowercase letters, uppercase letters, different lines, numbers, pre-writing lines, and shapes.
These are great activities for literacy centers, for learning at home, for focusing on the dexterity and kinesthetic learning of proper letter formation in occupational therapy sessions.
- Use dry erase markers to trace over lines, shapes, or letters on a PDF that has been placed inside a page protector sheet. You can also laminate a PDF and use the page over and over again.
- Write with a dry erase marker on a dry erase board on the wall. Use one color to write the letter and another color to trace over the letter. This is the same concept as the Wet, Dry, Try method from Handwriting Without Tears. Only with a dry erase marker, you are writing, tracing, and then writing again. Use the terminology:
- Trace to Erase
- Write Again
- Use crayons in rainbow writing activities
- Use chalk on a sidewalk in chalk rainbow writing activities
- Use chalk on a carpet scrap
- Write the letters of the alphabet on paper with a sheet of sandpaper underneath
- Write letters on paper with craft foam underneath
- Picture tracing with a picture taped to a window and a piece of paper on top
- Fizzy Dough Cursive Letters uses the sense of touch with tactile exploratory input with fizzy, sensory letter formation.
- Sensory Letter Formation Work on letter formation using dish soap in this tactile and olfactory letter learning and writing activity.
- Write in coffee grounds.
- Write with a cinnamon stick in flour.
- Form letters with glue and use scented bath salts to add texture.
- Form letters with scented play dough.
- Mix marker colors in a color changing handwriting activity
- Use scented markers.
- Write on a resistive surface.
You’ll also find extra practice ideas in our resource on sensory handwriting camp.
- Finish the letter: Start the letter half way and have your child “finish it”. You can use dots to make this easier if your child has trouble for a visual marker of where the line should go.
- Multi sensory play: have the child make the letter out of slime, play-doh, in sand, big on a vertical white board etc.
- Sensory writing bag– fill a baggie with shaving cream. Write letters on the bag with permanent marker and ask the child to trace the lines with their finger. Or just use the finger to mark into the shaving cream. Then, trace over the marks before they disappear.
- Simon says: have your child write the letter in the air by mimicking your large arm movements!
- Group similar letters that start at the same point together. For example, “Frog Jump” capitals are a good place to start. FBRPD are all letters that start at the top, go down, and HOP to the top to finish the letter.
- Verbally say the directions for how to form the letter to enforce auditory learning. For example to make the letter B, say “start at the top, doooown to the bottom, HOP to the top, little belly, little belly.” You can get creative with this!
Hopefully these techniques will give you some alternatives to tracing at home. Happy handwriting!
Research on Tracing
For any therapists/interested people who want to know the research on tracing I’ve attached a couple research articles for your consideration.
Overvelde, A., & Hulstijn, W. (2011). Learning new movement patterns : A study on good and poor writers comparing learning conditions emphasizing spatial , timing or abstract characteristics. Human Movement Science, 30(4), 731–744. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2010.08.016
Paz-Villagrán, V., Danna, J., & Velay, J.-L. (2014). Lifts and stops in proficient and dysgraphic handwriting. Human Movement Science, 33, 381–94. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2013.11.005
Vinter, A., & Chartrel, E. (2010). Effects of different types of learning on handwriting movements in young children. Learning and Instruction, 20(6), 476–486. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2009.07.001