What is mark-making?

The term ‘mark-making’ refers to the creation of different patterns, lines, textures and shapes – in effect, the ‘scribbles’ - that young children make with various tools (pens, pencils, chalk, paintbrushes, crayons etc.) It is one of the earliest stages of writing and helps to form an essential part of developing both gross and fine motor skills in children.


Why is it important?

Writing is a skill that we take for granted as adults. Like so many other skills acquired in our early childhood, writing is something that must be learnt gradually. Mark-making isn’t just about ‘teaching children to write’. It’s so much more than that. It is crucial for children’s development because as well as enabling a child to learn to write, making marks can benefit a child physically, and also help to develop their imagination and creative skills.

Children can mark-make using a variety of implements – ranging from a finger to a paintbrush, stick, pen, pencil or piece of chalk – whatever they like! As long as they are using the muscles in their hand and arm to make different shapes, then they are on their way to becoming a writer.


Top tips

  • Always try and offer fun, interesting, engaging and multi-sensory ways to mark-make and your children will be on their way to mastering the physical side of writing!
  • A child is far more likely to want to mark-make if it feels good – and is messy too! Have sharp pencils and good quality pens for children to use and plenty of water based paints!
  • If a child is struggling to hold a pencil properly, encourage them to hold a much shorter, thicker pencil or a broken off bit of chalk – this naturally encourages a proper grip, rather than a ‘technically correct’ grip.
  • Apart from the obvious developmental benefits that mark-making brings, it also gives children the opportunity to express themselves in a non-verbal way. Generally, between the ages of 2 and 3, the marks children make in this way start to have meaning. They use it as a way to share their thoughts and feelings, giving practitioners a new insight into their lives that they didn’t have before. It builds on their understanding of the world and allows them to tell a story, or create a ‘gift’ for someone or record what they see. This could be the first time that you have seen the children express themselves, other than verbally or with body language.

Physical development

To be able to control a writing implement, children must first develop their hand-eye coordination. Then, they must build up the muscles in their hands, their arms and even in their shoulders. Throwing balls, climbing, running and jumping will all help to refine the large muscle groups that children need in order to write.


There is no rush!

Learning to write is a gradual process. It needs to be taught in an active and engaging way over a period of time. We know that children develop at different rates so they will all learn to write at a different pace.


Skills and abilities needed for writing

To be able to write, children need the following skills and abilities which can take time to develop which is why mark-making is so important:

  • Gross and fine muscle control
  • Hand-eye co-ordination
  • 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 good sign that children are progressing well through their mark-marking journey is when they progress to being able to 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 – and you can pass these on to proud parents!

Here are some top tips and games that you can use in your setting to help the children on their mark-making and writing journey:

  • Make sure you always have plenty of pens, crayons, chalks etc. and paper too so the children can mark-make whenever they feel like it, not just at allocated times of the day. Children who have the freedom and opportunity to make marks and draw are more likely to engage in the process of writing.
  • Non-permanent mark-making using different coloured chalks and allowing the children to draw on patios, walls and pavements is great fun, particularly in the warmer weather.
  • Using mud, sand, paint (and snow if you have an outside space) will stick in the children’s minds and will motivate them to want to do more.
  • Using scarves and ribbons to make letters and numbers in the air can be made into a dancing game and will keep the children engaged for hours!
  • A firm favourite is a game where the children use their fingers to draw on their friend’s backs – it is sure to bring many giggles to your setting!
  • Although not mark-making, supporting children to manage buttons, zips and put on their clothes will help them master their hand control.
  • Doing jigsaw puzzles, building Lego and threading beads on to laces will also help children develop those fine motor skills which are so crucial for writing.

And finally…

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.

Remember that it’s important for children to see adults making the effort to write and mark-make. This helps them to realise that we live in a world where marks are valuable and provide meaning. Ensure that you role model this and you will have a setting full of children who can’t wait to start their writing journey!

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