Before you read this article, quickly write the answer to this question: What is your favorite color?
This might've seemed like an automatic and mindless task, but your body and mind had to work closely together to complete a series of steps in the right order. You had to pick up a pen or pencil, hold it steady, remember what color you wanted to use as an answer, think about what letters appear in the word and in what order, move your wrist and hand in the right way to shape the letters, follow what you wrote with your eyes, and apply the proper amount of pressure to the paper.
Learning to Write
Even though we do it every day, writing is one of the most complex tasks that humans engage in, involving both motor and critical-thinking skills. It's not surprising that learning to write is a process that takes years to complete. It also happens in order, with each skill building on the last.
As with reading, kids are aware of writing from infancy, especially when they're exposed to it regularly. By being read to and seeing you write, your child begins to understand at a very young age that written words have meaning.
It's only a matter of time before kids start trying to create words on their own. All children start writing by scribbling, an activity most toddlers enjoy. To do it, they must use coordination to hold the crayon, keep the paper still, and apply enough pressure to make a mark on the paper.
As time goes on, with lots of practice, they'll start to realize that not only can they make marks to create a pattern, but by repeating the same movements, they can make the pattern again.
At around 3 or 4 years old, kids may start to practice writing, and included among the scribbles may be recognizable letters. For example, you may notice your child writes all of the letters of his or her name in a seemingly random way on different parts of the piece of paper. That's because kids learn to write individual letters before they learn how to put them together to form a word.
As they continue to read and develop an understanding of how words work, kids start to understand how to group letters into words. Between kindergarten and first grade, most learn to put letters together into words and will use these words to label pictures that they draw. Kids this age usually use only capital letters and will not include spaces between words. They will also use "invented spelling," writing words with no vowels (for example, BBYDLL for baby doll).
Eventually, with practice and formal schooling, kids learn what are called the conventions of print — writing from left to right, the difference between uppercase and lowercase letters, how to put spaces between words, and how to use correct spelling in most instances.
As kids get older and develop more motor control, their handwriting becomes smaller and neater. Between second and fourth grade, kids learn to write in cursive and will apply the conventions of handwriting automatically.
Importance of Handwriting
Even as we move to a society driven by keyboards, kids still need to learn to write by hand. Handwriting is so much more than simply putting letters on a page; it is a key part of learning to read and communicate. In fact, experts think that developing writing skills reinforces reading skills and vice versa.
In order to read, a child needs to understand that letters stand for sounds and that the sounds are put together to make words. Learning to write letters is an important part of this understanding.
When preschoolers start imitating the letters that they see around them, they show that they understand the connection between the sounds they hear and the words they see on the page. When kindergartners use "invented" spelling, they're practicing writing words the way they sound, which helps them as they learn to read. When first-graders use words to create a poem or write about an experience, they're experimenting with language and sharing their stories with those around them.
As kids grow older and start to use a keyboard, the motor control and communication skills they've gained through handwriting will help them become more successful writers because they'll know how to transfer their thoughts into words.
Handwriting is also important because kids are required to use it daily in school from kindergarten on. Children who struggle with the mechanics of handwriting may have trouble taking notes or tests or completing their schoolwork. This can affect both their self-esteem and their attitude toward school.
An important part of helping kids develop early literacy skills is giving them chances to practice. As soon as your child is old enough to scribble (as early as 1 year old for some kids) offer some fat, chunky crayons or markers and a big piece of paper and let him or her experiment.
As your child grows older, create a special art center with lots of paper (you can bring scrap paper home from work or save junk mail) and many different kinds of art supplies like markers, crayons, colored pencils, and paint and brushes.
You can even encourage your child to practice writing and drawing while you're outside, providing sidewalk chalk or a bucket of water and a brush to "paint" on the pavement. The more practice kids get using their hands in this way, the more they'll develop the muscles, skills, and coordination necessary for forming letters.
As your child enters school and starts practicing writing there, continue to find ways to practice at home too. Suggest writing letters and thank-you notes to friends and family. Ask for help writing a list or recipe. Buy a notebook to use as a journal and suggest that your child spend time at the end of each day writing in it.
If your child's handwriting continues to be messy and hard to read even after formal instruction at school, try these tips:
- Help your child take it slow. Many kids struggle with writing because they try to do it quickly. Encourage your child to take time to form the letters carefully.
- Explain that mistakes happen. Teach your child how to use an eraser.
- Reinforce proper letter formation. Find out from your child's teacher how he or she should be forming letters, and then encourage your child to practice writing using those patterns. Using lined paper can be helpful.
- Make sure the pencil is properly positioned. Ideally your child will use what is called a tripod grasp. This means the pencil should rest near the base of the thumb, held in place with the thumb, index, and middle fingers. Plastic pencil grips sold at office supply stores may help if your child has trouble holding a pencil properly.
- Expose your child to lots of words. You can do this by reading regularly together, pointing out words that surround you (such as street signs or product labels), and by hanging up examples of your child's writing around the house.
It is important for all kids, even those who struggle to write, to practice using their handwriting. It is also certainly OK to have them start practicing keyboarding skills, even at a young age. But unless an occupational therapist recommends it, kids should not use a computer with a keyboard to complete schoolwork that their peers are completing by hand.
Signs of Handwriting Problems
Kids develop at different rates, and just like adults, handwriting varies greatly among them. Some kids have trouble learning the direction letters go in; others struggle to write neatly or use cursive writing.
Sometimes writing problems can be a sign of other issues such as developmental delay or learning disabilities. Often these problems have multiple symptoms, with writing being only one component.
Conditions that can affect a child's ability to write include:
- memory problems that prevent a child from remembering spelling, grammar, or punctuation rules
- language problems that cause difficulty with word pronunciation, spelling, and sentence structure
- visual or sequential ordering problems that cause uneven spacing of words, and inability to make lists or put ideas in order
- dysgraphia, a neurological disorder characterized by writing difficulties (such as distorted letters or misspellings) regardless of reading ability
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Children who have special needs also may have trouble learning to write.
Signs that a child may need additional assistance with learning how to write include:
- a very awkward pencil grip
- illegible handwriting
- difficulty forming letters
- an inability to concentrate and complete writing tasks
- avoiding writing
- many misspelled words
- letters or words that don't follow correct sequence
- incorrect placement of words on the page
- uneven spacing between letters
- a large gap between spoken language and writing ability
- an exceptionally slow and difficult time writing
If your child is struggling with writing, you may choose to have him or her assessed by an occupational therapist. This can help you determine if your child needs actual therapy and tutoring or just some additional writing practice at home.
Learning to read and write is key to success at school and in life. So whether you work together to make a book or spend time on the weekend writing letters to Grandma, when you write with your child, you help him or her develop important skills.
Reviewed by: Wendy Harron, BS, OTR/L
Date reviewed: September 2011
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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