One of these days, while I was teaching a small group of English language learners in kindergarten, I observed this student who couldn’t quite trace the letters or even recognize them well. Let’s call her Maria (not her real name). She stood out since all the other students in that group had been showing great progress in the same amount of instructional time. All the other students could already trace all the letters of the English alphabet, name them, and identify their sounds, but Maria was way behind. Was she showing traces of dyslexia or some other learning disability?
I observed everything Maria did for days and suddenly noticed the immaturity of her drawings compared to those of other students. She would draw a circle for the head, lines that came out of the head (arms?), and legs. Her persons also had big eyes, but not exactly a face. Then, looking at other students’ drawings, I saw figures that had a body, face, slightly proportional arms and legs, and hair. In other words, the other children in that group of kindergarteners were able to draw people with a lot more details. Their pictures resembled little people with more clarity.
What did Maria’s drawing tell me about her writing? Think with me. If Maria drew heads and legs, did that mean those were the only parts she distinguished on other people’s bodies? Was she able to perceive and represent other details? Of course, she knew the body parts. She could name them properly both in English as in her home language. So why couldn’t she draw all the essential parts?
Her drawing pattern denoted immaturity and that is absolutely acceptable at young ages. They were a sign that Maria was not ready to notice or reproduce the details of an image. And what are letters but images that arbitrarily represent sounds? If Maria couldn’t represent people’s body parts, how would she “draw” the slight differences between a b and a p, or between an a and an o? How would Maria notice the difference between a B and an R? In the image below there is an example of drawing and writing pattern of a kindergartner. See how the figure of a person, as well as the letters, show the learning stage of that child.
The letters of the English alphabet can look very similar when the learner is not ready for their really small details. Try this exercise to put yourself in the shoes of ELLs: look at the characters in other languages such as the Arabic, or the Japanese, or the Chinese. Are you able to identify the essential differences between their graphemes? Are you able to reproduce them accurately? Look at these pictures from children’s literature in Arabic and Japanese and try that exercise.
Maria was only 5 years old, and she may have had a learning disability. In fact, I don’t have that answer. But one thing her drawings showed me was that she was not cognitively mature enough to write yet. She needed some more time to reach the level of abstraction and sensorimotor coordination required in drawing and writing. She needed some longer time to meet the reading/writing level of the other students in that group. The development of those skills will require stimulus and practice so that the child’s brain can make the right connections.
My tip for the kindergarten classroom teacher in that instance was to invest time in teaching Maria about shapes and patterns, and on directing her attention to details. Maria needed the opportunity to draw more, to observe more, and to examine more details in images. Someone may say that those are Math or Arts concepts. Well… That’s when interdisciplinary education comes together. Math and arts may help other Marias learn how to trace letters and to read them better.