Writing is a skill that we take for granted as adults. Like so many other skills acquired in early childhood, writing is something that must be learnt gradually. The journey starts with mark-marking – this is a term used to describe the different lines, shapes and patterns that children create before they can write.
You can recognise signs of early mark-making by observing babies when they spill food or drink – they may use their fingers and palms to make patterns in the mess. At this stage, however, the child may not attach any meaning to this activity.
Mark-making gives children the opportunity to express themselves in a non-verbal way. At 2-3 years old, children begin to make marks for meaning. They can use it as a way to share their thoughts and feelings, giving practitioners a new insight into their lives. It also allows children to:
- Build on their understanding of the world
- Tell a story
- Create a gift for someone
- Record what they see
To control a pen, crayon or paintbrush, children must first develop their hand-eye coordination. Then, they must build up the muscles in their hands, arms and even their shoulders. How do they do this? Activities like throwing balls, climbing, running and jumping help to refine the large muscle groups that children need in order to write.
You can encourage children to develop these important skills through dance and activities which require using their upper bodies, such as moving their arms to music. If you watch “Write Dance”, you’ll see the children are learning to do letter and number movements in the air. They think they’re having fun and don’t realise that they’re also learning how letters and numbers are formed!
As learning to write is such a gradual process, it needs to be taught in an active and engaging way. It can’t be rushed, as children will reach this stage at different times. To begin with, you can encourage children to write in the air or use fingers to draw on a friend’s back. The focus can then shift to include paper-based activities, but this must only happen once a child has the muscle control required.
To be able to write, children need the following skills and abilities:
- Gross and fine muscle control
- Hand-eye coordination
- A positive attitude and interest in writing
- Ability to grip a pencil
- Ability to recognise and recreate patterns and shapes
- Knowing how and what to write, according to the defined purpose
A clear sign that children are advancing through their mark-marking journey is when they can use thick felt tips or crayons to make circular or straight lines on a piece of paper. Then, at around 4 years old, children begin to write their first words, starting with their name. Some of the letters may be reversed or missed out of the word completely, but this is an important milestone. From now on, children can proudly sign their name on the drawings and artwork that they’ve created.
Here are some top tips to help children on their writing journey:
- Ensure you have plenty of materials that children can use whenever they feel like it. Stock your rooms full of pens, crayons and paper. Children who have the freedom and opportunity to make marks and draw are more likely to engage in the process of writing.
- Provide lots of opportunities to mark-make in non-permanent ways. For example, get a bucket of different coloured chalk and let children draw on patios, walls and pavements. Encourage painting with water, on whiteboards, using tablets/iPad and mark-making in sand or foam.
- Support children to manage buttons, zips and put on their clothes – these activities will help them master hand control. Similarly, doing jigsaw puzzles together, building Lego and threading beads onto laces will also help children develop those fine motor skills which are so crucial for writing.
- Include examples of different writing in your role play area, as well as demonstrating the various purposes for writing around your setting. For example, you can display lists, maps, registers, signs, posters, newspapers, tickets, books, letters, menus…The ideas are endless!
- Remember that it’s important for children to see adults making the effort to write and mark-make. This helps children to realise that we live in a world where marks are valuable and provide meaning. Ensure that you role model this.
- Praise effort rather than outcome. Children who are corrected frequently may become exasperated or lose interest in the writing process. Conversely, those who receive praise for their mark-marking and efforts to write will naturally want to keep trying and will inevitably get better over time.