There are many “great debates” in the field of early childhood and handwriting is right there at the very top of the list. On this page I have compiled information on handwriting that is developmentally appropriate for preschoolers. When determining the handwriting approach you will take in your classroom it is best to carefully examine the policies of your school or district first before making any decisions.
The foundation of all good handwriting begins with the following skills:
- Pencil Grasp
- Proper Letter Formation (top to bottom)
Therefore, it only makes sense to focus our efforts on these two skills when introducing young children to handwriting.
Introducing the right skill at the right time
Many teachers jump the gun when it comes to handwriting and begin their instruction with writing on the lines. In order for young children to be successful with handwriting they must be introduced to the skills in the proper order first. Every child progresses through these skills at a different rate based on their fine motor skills.
What are fine motor skills?
Fine motor skills involve the small muscles of the body that enable such functions as writing, grasping small objects, and fastening clothing. When we refer to fine motor skills in the context of handwriting we are typically talking about the small muscles in the hands and fingers used for writing.
Pre-kindergartners benefit from daily experiences that support the development of fine motor skills in their hands and fingers. Children should have strength and dexterity in their hands and fingers before being expected to master the daunting task of handwriting. Teachers can help students strengthen those muscles in the classroom by providing authentic, fun, and developmentally appropriate activities on a daily basis. This activities will also support the development of appropriate pencil grasps when the child is ready.
Suggested Fine Motor Exercises
The following activities will help your students develop the muscles in their hands that are necessary to grasp a pencil properly. These activities can be embedded into your academic curriculum throughout the day or during center time.
- Use a plant sprayer to spray water on plants or “Monster melt”…….draw monster pictures with a marker and then spray them with water.
- Provide child safe tweezers or tongs and encourage children to pick up small marshmallows or pom-poms and place in empty ice cube trays for counting games.
- Provide spring loaded clothespins and encourage children to clip clothes or pictures on a line.
- Provide small child-sized paper punches that make different shapes.
- Provide Cheerios, Fruit Loops, or macaroni and encourage children to lace them on string or yarn.
- Provide small tops to spin.
- Spread cards, coins, or buttons on the floor and encourage students to turn them over.
- Provide a manual eggbeater and a pan of water- add dishsoap for extra fun.
- Mix food coloring and water and use eyedroppers to decorate flattened coffee filters.
- Insert feathers or golf tees into play dough.
- Play with finger puppets.
- Sing chants and fingerplays that encourage the use of the fingers such as 5 Little Pumpkins, 5 Green and Speckled Frogs etc.
- Provide small pieces of chalk or broken crayons for children to write or draw with.
- Provide old greeting cards for students to cut, the thick paper provides the resistance they need to be more successful.
- Spread salt in a shallow pie pan and encourage students to use their fingers to draw in it.
- Place clear hair gel and food coloring in a sandwich bag. Force all the air out of the bag and seal tightly with packing tape. Place the bag on a flat surface and encourage children to use their index fingers to write on the bag.
The manner in which a child holds a pencil is called a pencil grasp.
Pictured above is a child using the correct tripod grasp. This grasp requires the thumb, index, and middle fingers to work together and is also referred to as the pincer grasp. When using a tripod grasp the child should move his fingers with the writing utensil and not use his entire arm. The tripod grasp is considered to be the most efficient because it allows the greatest amount of finger movement and thus control over the writing tool; it is the least fatiguing method for the muscles in the arm and hand.
Many young children hold their writing tools in a closed fist grasp. When using this grasp the child moves the writing tool by moving his shoulder and entire arm. The improper fist grasp requires extra effort thus causing fatigue in the arm and hand. A child who uses a closed fist grasp will tire easily and struggle with the task of writing.
When you see your students holding their pencils and crayons in a fist grasp it indicates that they are lacking fine motor skills. Instead of forcing them into a tripod grasp, intentionally embed fine motor development opportunities into your daily routine so they can further develop the muscles in their hands.
Many children will have already selected hand dominance by the age of 2 or 3 if they have been given ample opportunities for fine motor development at home. However, you may see a disproportionate amount of students who do not have hand dominance in preschool if you work with at-risk populations. If you have students in your classroom who have not yet selected hand dominance it is crucial that you provide them with plenty of fine motor exercises in the classroom. The more they exercise their fine motor skills the more quickly hand dominance will emerge.
The most important thing about working with preschoolers who don’t have hand dominance is to not force them into selecting a particular hand. Forcing children into hand dominance will make learning more difficult for them as they will always have to “translate” what they are writing to the other hand.
Proper Letter Formation
When we refer to proper letter formation we are referring to starting letter strokes at the top of the paper. All letters should start at the top and go down. The reason for this is because it is much easier to roll a boulder down a hill than it is to push it up, in other words, it is easier to write when you start at the top. When you write from the top down you can write more quickly than starting from the bottom up. Research has shown that students in later grades with incorrect letter formation take twice as long to finish assignments and tests that require writing. Also, since it requires more effort to constantly push the pencil upwards their muscles become fatigued, slowing them down even further. This also attributes to negative attitudes towards writing.
Stroke directionality develops from consistent teacher modeling. When working with young children proper stroke formation can be addressed during the following times:
Encouraging Reluctant Writers
When learning something new young children often get frustrated, refuse to do the task, or only give minimal effort, if any, especially when feeling forced to practice the troubling task. Therefore, it is important when introducing preschoolers to writing we encourage and support them as much as possible.
Tricks and Tips
- Broken Crayons- Using broken crayon stubs forces the correct tripod grasp.
- Triangular Pencils and Triangular Crayons: Using triangular pencils and crayons helps reinforce the tripod grasp.
- Pencil Grips: Using pencils grips can also help reinforce the tripod grasp.
- Vertical Surfaces (easel): Drawing and painting on an easel can exercise the shoulder, arm, and wrist muscles of young children, thus better preparing them to write.
- Play dough: Manipulating and cutting play dough with plastic scissors is not only great fun, but excellent exercise for small muscles in the hand.
- Sensory Table: Pouring and manipulating materials like sand in the sensory table is not only fun but good exercise too!
What About Worksheets?
You may be wondering where worksheets fit into the handwriting picture, from a developmentally appropriate standpoint they don’t fit in at all. As stated above, the two most important aspects of handwriting in pre-k are proper letter formation and pencil grasp. Most handwriting worksheets focus on repetitive writing of letters on lines, which is neither engaging or appropriate for any young child.
See also my No More Worksheets page.
What About Lined Paper?
In addition to the reasons stated above, most worksheets require children to write on lines, which requires another skill set, that of visual acuity. Just as in the hands, the muscles in the eyes of many young children are not yet fully developed, thus causing them to see wiggly or wavy lines. Imagine being asked to write on a line when you can’t even see it, this is a source of great frustration for young children. Often, when we ask young children to write on the lines they become more focused on the lines and less on the letter formation and pencil grasp and they are unsuccessful at all three tasks which then causes a negative attitude towards writing.