I had the pleasure of observing a couple of students this week in their settings.  One had planned a fantastic painting activity which aimed to encourage children to make circular movements as a pre-requisite to writing.  At a different setting, another student was thrilled to see one of her key children had tried really hard to write his name on something he had created!  He was only 3 years old and I could clearly see recognisable letters and his can-do attitude really shone through.  These observations made me ponder about writing and mark-making in the early years.

Let’s think about a child writing their name.  A simple task that we expect most children to do by around 4 years old…However, it is more difficult than you may think.  You need sufficient gross and fine motor skills to enable you to hold the pencil and move it around and position yourself in an area where you have space to write.  You must use your eyes to see your pencil and paper and work out the distance between them.  You will use both hands; one to find a comfortable and efficient way to hold the pencil and the other to hold the paper steady.  You need to remember your name, which letters to write, how to form each letter and in what order they need to be written. Each letter needs to be scribed in precisely the correct position on the page, evenly spaced with the other letters and of a similar size, despite the fact that no two letters are the same shape.  You have to work out the pressure needed to use the pencil – too light and it won’t make a mark, too hard and the lead will break.  Perhaps it’s not so simple after all!

These are the skills and abilities needed for writing:

  • Physical development and muscle control (gross and fine)
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Positive disposition and attitude towards writing
  • Good pencil grip and seating position
  • Ability to recognise and recreate patterns and shapes
  • Composition – deciding what to write and composing it, including purpose or context
  • Transcription – knowing how to write it – knowledge of phonemes and graphemes.

It’s a huge ask of a child!  When should children start to write?  Simple answer – when they are ready.  Pushing a child into writing when they are not yet ready will turn them off the process and could lower their self-esteem.  Some children may not yet have the muscle control or coordination needed.  Hence learning to write needs to be taught through a number of strategies and in an active and multi-sensory way.  For example, writing in the air, using fingers to draw on friend’s backs, mark-marking in sand or gloop, using different media – with only a small focus on paper-based activities.  But only once a child shows an interest in writing and has the muscle control necessary.  That’s why it is so important in the early years to build the foundations for children so that these skills will come much easier when they are ready.

In my article last month, I wrote about the windows of opportunity in the brain for children’s gross and fine motor skills which develop from before birth to around 5 years and after birth to around 9 years old respectively.  So plan lots of physical play for children both inside and outside.  Provide opportunities to mark-make in non-permanent ways and role-model this to the children.  For example, chalking on walls or playground, painting with water, using whiteboards, tablets/iPad drawing packages, messy mark-making in sand/gloop/paint etc.

Try to incorporate writing into your role play area and demonstrate the various purposes for writing in and around your setting, for example, speech bubbles, lists, captions, maps, registers, labels, signs, posters, newspapers, cartoons, invitations, annotations, doctor’s surgery notes, books, emails, letters, message boards, menus… You can probably think of many more!  You can read a few more ideas by Penny Tassoni in the Early Education Learning Together series of leaflets on mark-making.

When children are ready to write, have built the muscles and are showing an interest, ensure that you teach the correct way to form letters.  Leading Dyslexia charities suggest that to support children with their handwriting it is best to teach a cursive script and begin all letters from the bottom line.  This helps with automaticity as children do not have to learn different starting points for each letter.  They advise that writing should be taught in a multi-sensory way, using as many strategies as possible and through repetition which reinforces learning in the brain.  In addition, as many letters use anti-clockwise movement, we can incorporate large circular movements into our play using ribbons on sticks, scarves, large-scale painting and arm movements which will support our children’s gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination and allow their bodies to recognise anti-clockwise movements. Think Karate Kid, ‘Wax on… wax off…’!

So let’s give our children the Write Start that they need and get mark-making!

About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin’s book, Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children, was released in July 2017.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk


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