Supporting children as they learn to write

I have been chatting to a few mums lately whose children have recently started school. The same questions keep coming up “How do I support my child to hold a pencil properly?”  “They get so frustrated because they can’t write the letters.” “They cross out their work or refuse to do it again because it looks wrong.”

What usually happens is that the children are really keen to have a go at first, but the act of writing is a bit more complex than just picking up a pencil and making a squiggle that looks the same as the squiggle my mum or teacher does!

The process of writing needs to be broken down.

Firstly it is important to build the muscles in the fingers, the wrists and the arms. Children need to be able to have strong muscles in order to hold a pencil and press it down. They also need to be able to make clockwise and anti clockwise movements with their wrists and arms. These things are best practised with finger gym activities (see my other blogs for lots of ideas here). It is also good to practise the movements in fun ways such as dancing with dance ribbons, making marks in the sand or mud with a long stick, drawing vertically by colouring in a cardboard box. All of these activities will help children when it comes to using a pencil and forming letters.

Secondly having the opportunity to draw and make marks in a variety of ways. Children love to make marks from a young age and it is important to talk to children about their drawings as though they are ‘reading’ their drawing. Charlie loves to make marks and is just starting to form representations of people, objects and animals. He will talk about what he has drawn and point to the relevant parts, for example he drew a picture of his family. He talked through his drawing saying who each person was, and as he added detail he described what he was doing. “Daddy face, with eyes and a nose and a big smile. Daddy arms.”

Next children like to imitate writing, they will have a go at ‘writing like Mummy or Daddy’ and usually looks like scribbles, zig zag or wobbly lines along a page. They often give meanings to these marks for instance writing a shopping list, or taking an order for food during role play. Children need the opportunity to explore this element of writing and have lots of opportunities to nurture this. We have lots of notepads, recycled diaries, sticky notes, paper of various sizes and lined paper available for the children to access on a daily basis. They naturally include it in their games. For example yesterday Megan was dressed up in an apron and came marching into the kitchen with a pen and paper saying “what do you want?”  We had to give her an order and she scribbled it down and then went off to make it. They also enjoy making tickets for all sorts of role play games and I often find pieces of paper with wobbly lines dotted over the house.

Once they are confident in these stages children will then start forming some letters they know such as those in their name, circles, sometimes there will be spaces between the marks. This occurs as children have more exposure to print, perhaps they have seen their name written down lots of times, playing with magnetic letters or sponge letters in the bath, reading stories together, reading signposts, logos of shops or brands they play with.

They all start to support the connections between the marks children make and the words they see around them. It’s great to go out on a walk together and try to spot the letters in their name in different places such as road names, writing on the road etc. Charlie got very excited on the way to the library this week as he noticed a ‘c’ written in the car park. He didn’t know the letter name but he said “look it’s Charlie” and stood on the letter ‘C’.

The next stage is the stage that many children who start school are at now. They are having phonics lessons and as part of those lessons they are learning to read a letter sound and also how to write the letter sound. They are usually able to pick up the reading a lot quicker than forming the letter correctly and this is usually where the frustrations occur. Schools may practise the letter formation at school and then send the letter home for your child to practise at home. This is usually done in a book or on a worksheet. If your child is finding it difficult to hold a pencil, to form a small letter or gets frustrated if it goes wrong and refuses to try again these are my top tips!

  1. There is no obligation to complete the sheet provided, this is a guide for you and your child to work with. It is the process that is important not the end result.
  2. Talk through the letter formation together. Sometimes there is a rhyme that goes with the letter.
  3. Draw it on each other’s backs and then hands with a finger. Draw it in the air with your finger on a large scale.
  4. Think about different medium you can use to make the letter. Some ideas are: Paint, in a sand tray, a flour tray, in mud outside using a stick, in a messy tray like slime, or with paintbrushes and water on a path. As long as you are practising the formation of the letter correctly on a large or small scale it doesn’t matter how you do it.
  5. Pencil grip! This is so important, if your child is not using a good tripod grip then they are not ready to write letters yet, they physically won’t be able to do it. There is a process with grip and while it can be taught it is also down to the muscles working in the fingers. A child still using a fist grip will not be able to control the pencil enough to form the letters correctly. I would suggest lots of finger gym games and fine motor control activities to support your child first.
  6. If you want to have a go at writing it down but they struggle with a pencil or get frustrated then try a whiteboard and pen, the pen glides across the board so they don’t need to put so much effort into pressing down and so can concentrate on forming the letter. It is also quick to rub out a whiteboard pen so if they get upset when it doesn’t look right it can be easily rubbed out and start again.
  7. Finally have fun with it. If it becomes a chore to do then writing will get a negative association and this will continue for a long time. Show your child that it is ok to get things wrong when you are learning something new. Show them that you get things wrong sometimes, or that you have to try again and again to get something right as it helps them to understand that everyone makes mistakes even grown ups. My children and children I teach are always laughing at my attempts at drawing because I am terrible at it. However I always say that I try my best every time and I don’t mind if it doesn’t look perfect because I have enjoyed myself doing it.

I hope this helps to explain the process of writing and how many things the children need to be able to do before they start to write letters. I would also say that finger gym activities are a must throughout Nursery, Reception, Year 1 and even Year 2 as children really need good finger muscles to learn to write and then to write for a period of time as they get more confident.

Happy writing 🙂

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