Interview Samarra St. Hilaire, OTR/L, Author of  Writing in Stages: Getting Back to Basics

Interview Samarra St. Hilaire, OTR/L, Author of  Writing in Stages: Getting Back to Basics

At the beginning of her handwriting workbook, titled Writing in Stages: Getting Back to Basics, Samarra St. Hilaire, a Licensed and Registered Occupational Therapist, writes, “Although handwriting appears to be an easy task, it is far from simple. Handwriting requires the use of numerous skills such as visual motor, fine motor, and visual perceptual skills, to name a few. Rushing to handwriting and demanding perfection often results in the development of bad habits, confusion, and lack of confidence.

Having raised three children and been a teacher in French elementary schools for thirty years,  I know the importance of having an easy, child-friendly method to teach hand writing skills. So that there is no confusion, Ms. St. Hilaire’s workbook teaches “PRINTING” not cursive writing. In many schools cursive writing is not taught at all and has not been for ten years or more.


Lorna: Congratulations on your beautiful workbook on learning to print the upper case letters of the alphabet.  What made you realize that such a resource was needed?

<<Samarra St. Hilaire: I have worked with children for 13 years now and one of the main concerns has and continues to be handwriting. As I thought about my many students I began to notice a common trend. Many of the children lacked the solid foundation required to produce legible handwriting.

I began to make sure the children understood directionality (i.e. up, down, across, and around), which made providing instructions for letter formation easier for them to understand. I also reviewed concepts such as stop, go, big and small.  I then began providing the same instructions in a very simplistic manner to reduce the need for hand over hand assistance that often results in dependency. When I noticed progress based on using the same method, I decided to put the book together because some of the books geared towards handwriting often did not meet the needs of my students. They were either too difficult or placed emphasis on just learning the letters without providing the necessary encouragement.

Skills Needed for Handwriting

Lorna: Not all children are ready to learn to print at the same age.  Handwriting requires the use of numerous skills such as visual motor, fine motor, and visual perceptual skills, to name a few. Before attempting to use your workbook to learn to print, what level of preparedness should the child have reached? If the child is not ready it is very frustrating for the child.

<<Samarra St. Hilaire: Learning to write letters does not necessarily have to begin with using writing utensils. We also have to keep in mind that everyone wants to feel some degree of success or pride when engaging in or completing a task; that includes children.

Before beginning handwriting I believe it is important to allow children to engage in everyday activities while focusing on understanding concepts through language and demonstration. For instance, fastening buttons on a shirt provides a child with the opportunity to use  both hands simultaneously, use muscles of the hands, problem solve potential errors, use sequencing skills, and visual motor skills just to name a few. These are some of the same skills required for successful handwriting.

When pouring juice inside of a cup, parents can emphasize the word “ inside” making sure children understand the concept as it will be used during handwriting as we often tell children to print letters within designated boxes.

Engaging in gross motor play such as rock climbing helps build upper body and core strength, which directly impacts handwriting. Do the letters have meaning to the child? If a child requests a specific food (i.e. Spaghetti) the parent can say “ I love spaghetti and it starts with the letter S..” As they take walks or drives, point out different letters.

Understanding your child is important. The standard of measure should not be based on what siblings or other peers are doing, as we know, a child’s performance can be average, above average and below average.

Lorna: Why did you only include the upper case letters and a few basic shapes like the circle, square, and triangle? In the schools in your part of the country, when do the kids learn to print the lower case letters?

<<Samarra St. Hilaire: My perspective may be a little different from others since I am an Occupational Therapist. When you breakdown a letter, each stroke and curve is part of a shape. When discussing shapes, we truly only use 3 shapes. For instance, when completing an assignment in grade school, the instructions may include circling or drawing a square or triangle around a word/letter. Also, printing uppercase letters is easier than lowercase letters. Addressing formation of upper case letters first allows the child the opportunity to develop a solid foundation and understanding of letter formation.

Accommodations for Child with Special Needs

Lorna: Many of our readers are parents of children with special needs who have major challenges with school related skills. What are some modifications or accommodations that are available for a student who is not able to hold a pencil and learn how to print well?

<<Samarra St. Hilaire: I like to use gulf sized pencils with rubber bands at the base to serve as both a visual and tactile cues for positioning of the fingers.  The gulf sized pencils may be used alone given the child is allergic to latex. I also recommend use of the Twist’n Write pencil. It is shaped like a wishbone and allows for more finger separation for children who tends to use their entire hand to hold a pencil. I also encourage participation in fine motor activities such as tearing paper in addition to playing games such as Thumbs Up. Use of an inclined or vertical surface also helps with grasping. Take time to celebrate progress even if it seems small.

Lorna: Your bio says, « Mrs. St. Hilaire has always been passionate about creating environmental modifications, creating/adapting equipment, worksheets, and tools based on a child’s individual needs. Writing in Stages is the first of many products to be released by Mrs. St. Hilaire.” Are you working on a “new product” or have one in mind for the future?

<<Samarra St. Hilaire: Lorna, I am always thinking of ways to modify anything presented to me. I have a few products in mind and hope to have at least one released by 2019.  Right now, I am placing more emphasis on building my private practice.

Handwriting Workbook - Writing in Stages: Getting Back to Basics by Samarra St. HilaireLorna: What I especially liked in your workbook, was the way you divided the letters “in stages” and have colorful certificates of completion for each stage.  The workbook is sprinkled with words of encouragement and this positive approach should be appreciated by all who use your workbook.  What are a few “fun activities” parents of young children could play with their child to help them be “school ready”?  Being able to print doesn’t begin with pencil and paper J

<<Samarra St. Hilaire: I guess you can say that I am old fashion because I still like Simon Says, Red Light Green Light and the Hokey Pokey song. These games address attention to task, following instructions, and learning to wait/be still when warranted, and body awareness. Learning letters and numbers doesn’t have to take place on the table. Instead, throw those index cards on the floor and have your child hop to each letter like a frog.  Crawl on the floor, see what you can find as a detective or secret agent.

Lorna: Thank you very much for telling us about Writing in Stages: Getting Back to Basics and for this interview.  All the best in the new year!

Read Also: Review of Handwriting Workbook – Writing in Stages: Getting Back to Basics by Samarra St. Hilaire, OTR/L

Buy: Writing in Stages: Getting Back to Basics by Samarra St. Hilaire Amazon.com  Amazon.ca

This post was written by Lorna
Lorna d’Entremont: Co-owner of SentioLife Solutions, Ltd. the company behind KidCompanions Chewelry (2007) and SentioCHEWS (2013), mother of three, grandma of 5 and wife. She is a retired teacher and special needs advocate. Throughout she has taught all levels from grade 2 to grade 9. Lorna loved teaching and enjoyed seeing the students progress in the school system. During her 30 year career she took a few years off to raise her three children.
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