Trying to Encourage a Preschooler’s Writing Skills? Stop Doing What You’ve Been Doing!

Two weeks ago, I visited one of my student teachers in a room of young three’s. I noticed one of the activities on a table was tracing their printed names on strips of paper with pencils. During most of my hour there, I also noticed that only two of the thirteen children chose this activity, despite one of the teachers manning the table and repeatedly asking who wanted to join in this “fun activity.”

The two children who did come over showed considerable awkwardness getting control over the unwieldy long pencils in order to trace the letters. I called my student over to join my observation. Here was a great example of trying to skip some crucial steps towards a goal, which usually never works very well. And, when a child struggles with an activity, he will generally tend to avoid it in the future.

The hand and finger muscles of these young children are still pretty weak. Before they can successfully manipulate a pencil (or even a marker), they need some work using their whole hand and pincer grip. It’s kind of like learning to crawl before walking.

So, we still want them to practice making marks on paper, but not with long, skinny objects. What, then? Well, chubby crayons can be the answer here. But not a whole 4” chubby crayon. These should be chubby crayons with their jackets peeled off… broken into three pieces. My student immediate asked, “Why so small?” Good question!

child with nub

We want the child to use a pincer grasp with whole-hand control and pressure on that crayon. This will be their only option with a short piece of crayon. And, it would be pretty impossible to use a fist grip on such a nub. So, there will be a quicker move toward a more skilled and mature grip when presented with longer implements.

But right now, they are making shapes, marks, and scribbles… no tracing letters yet. After a couple weeks, start adding a few chubby pencils on the table and watch the magic.

This technique also gives new life to all those naked, broken crayons that are usually tossed out.

I asked my student to try something the next time she was with these children… Tape a large sheet of plain paper to a table top (no chairs), set out a handful of crayon stubs, and write down what happens. The end of the week, she reported back in an email.

“All the children wanted to do this activity! Sometimes there were six or seven at the table at once!”

In the rush to teach young children new skills, we can’t overlook or ignore the developmental facts of the matter. Some things just can’t be hurried.

child writing


Thank you for this post, Deb!! It continues to boggle my mind that we insist on hurrying child development — as though we know better than Mother Nature. We wouldn’t ask children to recite the Declaration of Independence while they’re still babbling, yet we so often demand that children perform other tasks for which they’re not developmentally ready.

If we understood that motor development occurs from the inside to the outside and from the large to small muscles, we’d realize how preposterous it is to ask little children to grasp pencils before they have had plenty of experiencing using and growing their bodies and arms. I’ve heard it said that the best way to help children learn to write is to let them play on the playground!

That’s right, Rae. And, what always surprises me is how many early teachers print the children’s names on their work for them, usually without thinking. Why not just leave out some writing instruments and encourage children to try themselves? In assorted classes, I have gone around the room and printed my students’ names on their quiz papers. After a few minutes I asked how they felt about what just happened. The majority will say things like, “disrespected,” “confused,” “really?” I remind them that a young child can feel this way, too. It’s his paper and he should have the opportunity to make his own name or mark on it. If teachers are truly tuned into each child, she will be able to recognize each of their signature “marks” as their name… and then observe how their skill at this progresses. If she must (for whatever reason) to print a child’s name on his work, for heavens sake respect him enough to do it on the back and after he leaves the area.

Why oh why are we asking 3 and 4 year olds to write at all? There is no evidence that being early writers and readers is beneficial. The bones and ligaments in a child’s hand are not even full grown until age 6 or 7.
How about for fine motor development the draw, sew, play in nature, dress and undress- many choices ? The integration of the vertical and horizontal midline, which is necessary for proper eye tracking, to write and read words on a page, is also not happening until 7 or so.
Hopefully, educational goals in mainstream education will one day be based on developmental science, and not education policy.

Thank you so much for this piece.l had always thought that there was something seriously missing in the way children are taught to write.So many jump the process of getting the children to really write and to also develop the interest in writing.l believe the precept you have taught here is really the key to helping young children write.l have always suggested fat pencils for children learning how to write for better grip, but now l can connect the dots better.

I agree with the intent of this message but must disagree with the photos used as examples. Preschoolers should not be writing on a table top looking down, they should be standing, facing a piece of paper directly in front of them on an easel or taped to a wall. Just as when children in first grade start learning to read, a book should be held up so the student is looking directly at the text rather than down where they are looking at an angle.

Actually, the only photo that applies to what I have suggested is the little girl at the table holding the crayon. The other represent what we often see in child care programs… children trying their best to make a pencil work for them. The reason I like using a flat surface with the crayon piece is it encourages a digital pronate grasp, with the palm facing down. There is also more downward pressure exerted as the fingers grip the crayon. This strengthens the whole hand, so that the child can maintain the arch of the palm. I do see the value, however, of also encouraging the use of a small crayon against a vertical surface, which strengthens the wrist. Because of the proximodistal progression of development, most of the movement, at this time, is still coming from the elbow, as the shoulders begin to stabilize. What usually happens next, (at about age 3-4) as the wrist finally gains strength, is a shift to a splayed 4-finger hold. Most of the movement is coming from the wrist and the hand and fingers move as one unit. The “arc” at the web of the palm begins to form that will be part of the eventual mature grip. At this stage, children would have the ability to connect dots, and maybe trace some lines or circles, but not any good ability to trace letters. I’ve found that if adults try to force a correct, mature grip on a very young child, there ends up an awkward version that tends to create bad habits that are difficult to correct later. It’s so much better to just respect the child’s developmental timeline.

I think if you went and wrote your students’ names on the back of their quizzes when they weren’t looking they wouldn’t like that much either! 🙂 How about asking them if they want you to put their name on their paper? I think the disrespect comes when you go ahead and do it without asking. I do that here and sometimes they say yes and sometimes they say no and sometimes they say “I can do it” and put their “mark” on it which is the best solution!

Good points, Cathie. The very least we can do is ask, right? I do see teachers ask, but then we may run the risk of children who maybe thought about trying it on their own decide to just “let you do it.” You pretty much have to go by the individual child.

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