‘Big School is different’ (Part 2): More ideas for the first 5 weeks of school

Due to the amazing response to my previous blog post on getting started, I have created what follows as Part two of this Topic. In this post I consider Handwriting, the Alphabet Song and Transition Routines. I hope you find this post as useful as the previous one. I also suggest you re-visit the blog post titled “learning to ‘look’ at and ‘write’ the letters of the alphabet”. You will find it in the Blogs Article Library.

Learning to write my name

Transition Routines/Rhymes

Consider teaching your class rhymes, songs or poems that can be used as a way to manage students in the early weeks of school. Use your imagination and be creative. I have provided a few examples below that I have used, but there are heaps of possibilities. Be sure to articulate the words clearly when you sing and listen carefully to see which children might have trouble with some words/sounds. This is great for Phonemic Awareness.

If you’re Happy and you know it – stand up tall: children learn to stop what they are doing, join in the song, stand up tall and face you – when they are all paying attention and you have reached the end of the verse (you may continue with other verses) you can direct them to the next task. There are many variations you can use of this one – ‘face this way’, ‘fold your arms’, ‘sit up straight’ etc etc

We’re following the Leader (. . . the leader, the leader, we’re following the leader wherever she/he may go): You start singing and walking (or hopping, jumping, crawling) and children learn to stop what they are doing, join in the singing and join the Conga Line – following you for as long as it takes to have all children in the line. They are then ready for your instruction.

The Bear went over the mountain – I used to have this one as my ‘stop everything, join in singing, pack up and join the line at the door – ready to go to wherever we had to go. I would change the words but keep the tune (e.g. The fish swam into the fountain, the dog jumped over the school gate etc etc).

Open Shut them – This is a great one to get their hands involved. As soon as you start singing the song, children must stop what they are doing, put everything out of their hands, face you and join in the actions and the singing. When you have completed the song then you can give your next instruction.

The Alphabet Song

a b c d e f g h I j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z


Teach the alphabet song to your class and refer to an alphabet chart as you sing. All children need to know this song. Many adults still sing the song in their heads when they are trying to remember the order of letters of the alphabet. This is an important reference tool.

You need to be able to refer to the letters by name when you are talking about them. Don’t refer to ‘sounds’ unless you are talking about the ‘sound’ a letter makes within the context of a particular word. (e.g What sound does the letter ‘B’ make at the start of ‘bat’?)

Whatever intricacies of orthography a child must master in school, the most significant cognitive achievement comes at the outset: mastering the alphabetic principle.

Read, C. (2009). Learning to use alphabetic writing. In R. Beard, D. Myhill, J. Riley & M. Nystrand (eds), The SAGE handbook of writing development (pp.260–270). Los Angeles: SAGE.

No matter the level of a child’s phonemic awareness, to make use of it, she or he must learn to identify the visual forms of individual letters. Not being able to distinguish or name the letters of the alphabet has been linked to extreme difficulty in learning letter sound relationships and word recognition.

Adams, M.J. (1994). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Before a child can attach a ‘sound to a letter symbol’ [they must] first of all be able to see the letter symbol as an individual entity different from other symbols. (Clay, 1991, p.266)

Clay, M.M. (1991). Becoming literate: the construction of inner control. Auckland: Heinemann.

Handwriting and Patterns:

Handwriting has been weighed in the balance and found necessary. To handwrite a letter, a child must form a mental image of the letter’s shape. The child then uses this image to guide a pen or pencil . . . With practice, the specific movements needed to form each letter create a unique ‘motor memory’ that not only facilitates writing but also helps children recognise letters when learning to read (Stephen Schwartz, 2017, ACARA).

Schwartz, S. (2017). The writing is on the wall for . . . writing itself. Financial Review. http://www.afr.com/technology/the-writing-is-on-the-wall-for–writing-itself-20171113-gzkj7k

The motor actions performed to produce letter shapes by hand promote letter knowledge, spelling, and reading acquisition

Labat, H., Vallet, G., Magnan, A., & Ecalle, J. (2015). Facilitating effect of multisensory letter encoding on reading and spelling in 5-year-old children. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29(3), 381-391.

. . . handwriting. . . activates motor, visual, and linguistic areas of the brain that the ‘meaningful coupling between action and perception during handwriting, establishes sensory-motor memory traces’ and facilitates written language acquisition.

BUT – Where do you start?

Writing letters can be tricky. There is more to handwriting than you might first think and it is best to get off to a good start rather than having to change bad habits.


  • Posture is important for handwriting Good posture enables free movement of the writing hand, allowing it to glide across the paper and enables easy view of work in progress.
  • Posture requires correct furniture and discipline as well as a strong core.
  • Some children may need to have their desk raised or they may need a box to provide foot support if their feet are not flat on the floor. Correct posture allows for adequate stability of the body and shoulder and allows free arm, wrist and finger movement
  • Correct seating position:
    • 90/90/90 rule
    • Make sure desk and chair are the correct height
    • Desk should be 5cms higher than the elbow when flexed
    • Either correct the chair height
    • Correct the table height
    • Feet flat on the ground
    • Use a foot rest if needed

Mackenzie, N.M., & Spokes, R. (2018). Handwriting, keyboarding or both? In N.M. Mackenzie & J.A. Scull (Eds), Understanding and supporting young writers from birth to 8. Oxfordshire: Routledge, UK.

Children need to learn how to position their page or book and to use the opposite hand to support balance and posture. There is more on this in the handwriting chapter in the Understanding and supporting young writers book.

Fine motor skills

Fine motor skills are small muscle movements by one or both hands and are necessary for handwriting and keyboarding, but also for drawing and ‘performing everyday tasks such as eating, dressing, and manipulating objects and tools’ (Ghanamah, et al., 2020, p. 2).

Ghanamah, R., Eghbaria-Ghanamah, H., Karni, A., & Adi-Japha, E. (2020). Too little, too much: A limited range of practice ‘doses’ is best for retaining grapho-motor skill in children. Learning and Instruction, 69, 101351.

Fine motor skills can be developed through a range of tasks that can also strengthen the hands and arms: Drawing, eye dropper painting, cutting with scissors, string and finger games, weaving, are all helpful. Sewing is another great activity for fine motor skill development and concentration

Pencil Grasp

The way a child grasps the pencil will influence the way they can control the pencil. However, correcting an established pencil grasp is very challenging so the earlier any problems are remedied the better. ‘Teachers need to model, instruct, and monitor how children hold their pencil for drawing and writing. If in doubt, seek advice from a Paediatric Occupational Therapist.’ (Mackenzie, 2021)

Pencil grasp song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP5htYZ5jjQ

“ . . . pencil grasp can be learned and practised through experience with writing tools in non-writing contexts, with drawing providing a relaxed context for children to express themselves creatively while at the same time developing pencil grasp, sitting position and posture that will support them when they begin to write” (Mackenzie & Spokes, 2018, p. 143.)

Ruby’s drawing shows how she is spontaneously practicing her circle shapes. These are movements that will support her writing. The drawing was done when she was 4. (I drew the small bee on the top left at her request).

Ruby and her circles

‘As children explore and learn to control and manipulate a pencil for the purpose of writing, their pencil grasp will progress and alter as their muscles and foundational motor skills develop. Initially, young children will start with an immature grasp which engages the large extrinsic muscles of the forearm and shoulder.’ (Mackenzie & Spokes, 2018, p. 143.)

Start handwriting instruction with patterns

Some of these patterns are harder than you might think. What follows are examples of young children completing the above patterns.

Simple patterns
Zig Zags and downward strokes also easy to do
Clockwise ellipse much more demanding

These are patterns that I would spend time on in those first five weeks of school. Aim for posture, pencil grasp, paper position and smooth movements. You will need to demonstrate and, in some cases, work one-on-one with students (Hand over Hand). Try textas on large paper, paint brushes and paint on newspaper, finger in the air and on the carpet. Wet brushes on the fence (?) – be creative.

Teach letter formations

‘Knowing where to start and which way to go are essential for fluent writing. I recommend you acquire a copy of the letter formations and letter joins, for the script used by your school.’ (Mackenzie, 2021).

Refer to the syllabus guidelines for letter formations – these vary across states and territories. There are also different guidelines for the order for teaching letters. In NSW Foundation it is usual to teach letters in groups that follow a similar pattern.  You would decide which groups to do and when.

i, u, v, w, j, yl, t, f
c, e, o, a, d, g, qh, k, b, p
n, m, rs, x, z,
Possible order to teach letters

I hope this has been helpful. Enjoy the first 5 weeks of school and have fun ‘Kid Watching’ – you might be surprised what your young students know and can do.

Other places to find more:

Mackenzie, N.M., & Spokes, R. (2018). The Why, Who, What, When and How of Handwriting Instruction. Practical Literacy: the early and primary years, 23(1), 17-20.

Mackenzie, N.M., & Spokes, R. (2018). Handwriting, keyboarding or both? In N.M. Mackenzie & J.A. Scull (Eds), Understanding and supporting young writers from birth to 8. Oxfordshire: Routledge, UK.

Mackenzie, N.M. (2018) Handwriting and keyboarding: skills for writing, South Australian Department for Education, http://tiny.cc/BestAdviceLit.

Mackenzie, N.M. (2019). Learning to ‘look at’ and ‘write’ the letters of the alphabet. In L. Beveridge, R. Cox, & S. Feez (Eds.), The alphabetic principle and beyond: a survey of the landscape (pp. 150-165). Newtown: Primary English Teaching Association (PETAA).

Mackenzie, N.M. & Spokes, R(2020) Supporting meaning-making through handwriting and keyboarding. In T Daffern & N M Mackenzie (Eds), Teaching writing: Effective approaches for the middle years, Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest, AU.

Published by nmackenz

My name is Noella Mackenzie and I am an Associate Professor (Adjunct) at Charles Sturt University, Albury-Wodonga Campus in NSW, Australia and a Senior Fellow of the Australian Literacy Educators' of Australia. I also work as an independent education consultant. I am also a daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother who loves to read, garden and travel. While my career has always been in education, there have been four distinct phases. The first phase was that of classroom teacher – teaching children from 5-12 years of age in a number of primary schools. The second phase of my career saw me working as a specialist professional development provider working with teachers in early intervention and special education. The third phase had me working as an academic at Charles Sturt University. That role involved me teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, researching and continuing my work with teachers and parents of young children. The fourth phase sees me working as an independent education consultant, supporting school systems and schools with professional learning input for teachers. I am passionate about teaching and in particular early literacy development. I am proudly the product of public education. I grew up on a farm and went to the local primary and high schools where I was fortunate to have some fabulous teachers. My Diploma of Education (Early Childhood) was earned at the Riverina College of Advanced Education in Wagga Wagga NSW. My Bachelor of Education, Master of Education and Doctor of Education qualifications were all earned at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Vic and were spread out over a number of years as I studied part time and worked full time. I completed my doctorate in 2004 and started work at CSU in the same year.

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