Maggie Parker-Heys urges early years practitioners to appreciate and nurture the skills required to form even the simplest letters

Children will imitate adults, grasping writing tools and making marks on paper or any other available surface as soon as the opportunity arises. These early scribblings need to be nurtured and guided in order to develop a confident and evolving hand, as they form the basis for the handwriting which will develop.

As in any other area, children vary in their rate of development, and it is important for practitioners to be aware of the stages as children pass through them, offering activities to master each level and progress onwards.

The developing stages of pre-writing:

  • Lines and dots. Often at this stage the child has no predetermined hand.
  • Ability to imitate directional marks made by others.
  • Curves and enclosures.
  • Ability to copy straights and curves made by others.
  • Ability to link straights and curves to form a symbol.

Forming letter shapes

A prerequisite to forming letters is to make an enclosure, and only when this is made anti-clockwise can a child move with ease to a more cursive script. From this simple shape, a child can draw faces, features, arms and legs. He/she can then begin to interpret the marks made and accept the need for labelling and writing.

Not all children have a natural anti-clockwise rotation on rounded letters. If the enclosure has not been observed by the adult, an easy way to identify orientation is that starting points always show more pressure. The end stroke is much finer, with little pressure by the writer. A correct anti-clockwise rotation is needed in order to form letters that allow the writer, in the future, to move to a cursive script. For example when writing ‘a’ if the orientation is clockwise then the down stroke will be on the left side of the curve. Adults should be aware of this and plan activities to promote exercises encouraging correct rotation. Some activities are included towards the end of this article.

Straights and curves
Once a child can make straight and curved marks, he/she may be able to move on to making some symbols. All symbols, both letters and numbers, are made up of straights, curves or a combination of both.

The straight symbols are: Numbers 1, 4, 7. Letters w, i, k, l, z, x, v.

The curved symbols are: Numbers 0, 8. Letters o, s, c.

These can be referred to as ‘simple’ symbols. All other symbols contain a combination of both straights and curves and these can be called ‘complex’ symbols. (There can be some exceptions depending upon the font used.)

Simple symbols are easier to form. They require a less advanced stage of perception and hand-eye coordination. Complex symbols will always be more difficult. They require a greater level of perception on the part of the child and a higher level of hand-eye coordination. There are many more complex symbols than simple ones. Add to this the symbols in either category that require change of direction on the part of the writer, and you realise what a difficult task this has become! The young writer needs no added twirls and flourishes to complicate the procedure. For this reason, the simpler the script, the better.

Cursive script
It has been recognised that a cursive script has an impact on children’s reading ability and this script has been promoted in schools. While recognising this, adults need to be aware of the perceptual development of each individual child. There will be occasions when children in the Foundation Stage reach this level of perceptual maturity enabling them to link curves and straight lines successfully, but it should never be assumed that all children are at the same stage of development or can approach the task with the same ease. Using a cursive script too early can put undue pressure on some children.

Pencil grip development

Pencil grip follows a predictable pattern. This develops from:

the basic palmar grasp, where the child wraps all his fingers round the pencil and moves his whole arm to make marks, to the digital finger grasp, where the hand is above the pencil and the child uses the whole arm to manipulate it,

to the tripod grasp, with fingers placed near the tip of the pencil with the thumb opposing the fingers, and movement controlled by the fingers.

Points for adults to aid children’s fine motor skills development

Chair and table
These need to be at the required height to suit the child. The adult needs to make sure that the child is sitting comfortably with both feet under the table

If the child is of school age and copying from the board, it is essential that he/she face the writing to be copied. While understanding that this is not always possible because of classroom size, the teacher should then select the child with greatest need to face the correct way.

Hand support
Having decided which is the dominant hand, the child needs to be encouraged to use the other hand to support the paper. This not only prevents the paper from slipping, but gives the child the correct posture and balance for the best results.

Children have to learn how much pressure to exert in order to make marks. Some children may need a softer pencil than the standard ‘HB’. All younger writers should use a ‘B’ pencil to achieve immediate success.

All Foundation Stage children should use triangular shaped pencils (available in writing, colouring and felt tips). This will foster and encourage a correct grip.

Mirror writing
This is a very common occurrence. The adult can help overcome this by consistently writing names at the top left of the page to encourage left to right orientation, or mark the top left corner with a green dot. A child starting to write at the right hand side of the page will produce mirror writing.

Children who have a determined left hand need to be encouraged to angle their paper in order to see the writing produced.

Table contact
In order to execute successful writing, the side of the hand needs to slide along the paper. Children gradually learn to achieve this. Some children who have only used computers, adopt a grip with the pencil that avoids contact with the table, similar to using a mouse. This puts a strain on the arm and does not allow the writer any level of control.

Activities to encourage pencil grip and rotation

These activities are fun, play activities but have a direct effect upon developing perception, control and sensory experiences, and should regularly occur in any Foundation Stage setting.

Activities to develop pencil grip:

  • Playdough – pinching, squeezing with thumb and forefinger. Who can make the longest snake?
  • Threading – beads, pasta, straws. Let’s all make a necklace.
  • Picking up small objects – use tweezers and pipettes/eye droppers. How many peas can you put in this pot?
  • Finger rhymes – stretching, curling fingers.
  • Water play – using spray toys and spray bottles. Let’s go outside and water the flowers.
  • Craft activities – glue sticks and paint brushes. Make a collage with lots of fine papers and decorate it with sequins.
  • Icing cakes – using a plastic dispenser to push and squeeze out the icing.
  • Strengthening activities – swinging from the climbing frame or grasping to climb and crawl.

‘Pinch and swing’

If a child needs reminding about grip, the ‘pinch and swing’ start is recommended. This method requires the child to pick up the pencil by the writing tip. While holding the tip, the child swings the top of the pencil over and onto the back of the hand between the thumb and index finger. This is the natural position for writing.

Activities to develop correct rotation:

  • Stirring cake mixture – encourage a two-handed operation, one to hold the bowl and one to stir. Encourage an anti-clockwise rotation.
  • Mixing powder paint and blending colours – similar to above.

Mark-making and sensory play

Mark-making should go beyond a pencil and paper and include a range of textures and media.

  • Paint using an easel and large brushes.
  • Paint the playground with water.
  • Draw shapes in the air with a wand.
  • Dance with a ribbon in your writing hand.
  • Chalk on boards or dark coloured sugar paper.
  • Draw in the sand.
  • Finger paint on the table with cold water paste and powder colour.
  • Make rubbings on rough surfaces
  • Draw in cornflour slime.
  • Make tactile displays that allow the child to change or move the objects.
  • Use tactile, natural materials eg wood, suede, hessian and fur.

Learning to hold a pencil and make marks that ultimately lead to writing is a complex development. No child’s work should be ignored. We will never understand the reason for their mistakes if we, the educators, are not observant. Little children’s scribblings and drawings are their way of communicating and showing observation of their world. We, as adults, should encourage, praise and celebrate their achievements. Only by being informed and observant of their work, can we hope to guide them further.