X’s and O’s: All About Handwriting Readiness

All About Handwriting Readiness

Children scribble. Children draw. Children explore, get messy, and climb on things. All of these build the skills necessary for handwriting. 

The moment a child has a writing tool in their hand, their first inclination is to make marks with it. As they mature, they create intentionally meaningful drawings and scribbles which later turn into letters and words.

As children begin to learn how to write letters, they start developing pathways in the brain necessary for reading. In fact, research shows that 2- and 3-year-olds can distinguish writings from drawings, and that children at the age of 4 can recognize that printed words have meaning that can be decoded.

What does it take for a child to write?

Handwriting is a complex task, requiring both physical and mental development abilities and sensory skills. It may not seem like much, but there are many systems in play:

  • Sitting in a chair (Postural Control: balance)
  • Holding a pencil (Touch and Fine Motor Skills)
  • Stabilizing their paper while writing (Bilateral Coordination: the use of both hands)
  • Understanding lines in letters (Directionality and Motor Planning: the ability to complete an action)
  • Spacing letters and words (Body and Spatial Awareness)
  • Writing smoothly across a page (Midline Crossing: the ability for a limb to cross over the middle of the body)
  • Seeing what they are writing (Visual Processing Skills)

Some children may exhibit handwriting readiness between 4-6 years old. If a child is taught handwriting before they are ready, they may frequently run into difficulty later as the expectations to write for content (versus penmanship) increase. This may result in poor writing habits and low self-confidence as they age. 

How do you know when they are ready?

This may sound weird, but researchers have suggested that handwriting instruction be postponed until after the child is able to master theses 9 figures:

Is My Child Ready for Handwriting?
  1. Vertical line
  2. Horizontal line
  3. Circle
  4. Cross
  5. Right Oblique Line
  6. Square
  7. Left Oblique Line
  8. Oblique Cross
  9. Triangle

    (*These are found in the Beery-Buktenica Visual Motor Integration Test, aka the Beery VMI)

Children who were able to copy these forms were able to copy significantly more letters than those who could not. In addition, it was noted that kindergarten children were able to correctly copy 78% of the letters presented. This means that most children should be ready for actual handwriting instruction in the latter half of the kindergarten school year. 

What can I do to help prep my child to write?

  1. The playground! It’s an all-in-one place to work on a variety of skills. Climbing, crawling, hanging, spinning (not to mention all the fine motor manipulatives); these all help with posture, strength, bilateral coordination, fine motor skills as well as body/spatial awareness and motor planning.
  2. Pre-writing activities help with integration and refinement of visual motor and fine motor skills.
    • Scribble marks on different surfaces with different writing utensils on different angles. 
      • Surfaces – paper, concrete, chalkboard, windows, mirrors, whiteboard
      • Writing utensils – pencils, pens, fat and skinny crayons, markers, chalk 
      • Different angles – on the wall, flat on the floor, inclined on an easel or slanted desk, taped under a table
    • Coloring books 
    • Painting with fingers or paintbrushes
    • Activity books that include tracing, line drawing, mazes, or dot-to-dot activities
    • Playing with Play-Doh 
    • Playing with small toys (the more intricate, the better)
      • Examples – windup toys, squeeze toys, pegs, stackers, blocks, pop beads, Legos
      • Using tongs or tweezers to pick up small objects
    • Cutting or tearing paper into shapes
    • Stringing small beads or lacing cards

Don’t think that you have to drill in the alphabet or have them copy letters on end. Like all complex activities, handwriting requires lots of different systems and skills working together. Seemingly small activities lay a good foundation and can be fun as well. 

Daly, C.J, Kelly, G.T, and Krauss, A. (2003). Relationship Between Visual-Motor Integration and Handwriting Skills of Children in Kindergarten: A Brief Report. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 57 (4). 459-462.
James, K.H. and Engelhardt, L. (2012). The Effects of Handwriting Experience on Functional Brain Development in Pre-Literate Children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1 (1). 32-42.
Case-Smith, J. (2005). Occupational Therapy for Children, 5th ed, pg. 587-589.
Kranowitz, C. and Newman, J. (2010). Growing an In-Sync Child: Simple, Fun Activities to Help Every Child Develop, Learn, and Grow.  New York: Penguin Group.

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