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Learning

Writing development

This article identifies what skills are needed for children to write and how to support your child as they learn to write.

In the early stages of children’s development, before you even consider them as writers, it is important that they’ve had plenty of opportunity to experience things using all their senses – exploring what they see, hear, smell, feel and taste. 

There is plenty of research to show that sensory exploration builds nerve connections in the brain’s pathways during sensory play. These additional connections help enable the child to complete more complex learning tasks, supporting cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving, social and language development.

So, if you can let them embrace sensory experiences, through eating with their fingers, letting them be physical just as their body tells them to be, rolling around on the bed, jumping off the sofa and climbing a pile of sofa cushions, for example, they will have had a kickstart in the right direction to get them to the writing start-line. 

Increasingly, we are living in a world where we are far more confined than we have ever been. Children don’t go out to roam and play as they used to. From a young age, some are confined to things like baby Bumbo seats so they stay still, they aren’t allowed to make a mess, even tasks like painting are now often done with tube paints that you squeeze straight onto paper so as not to create a mess. Children are less likely to be allowed to scramble freely in the mud and go upstream barefoot. These are all important aspects that help a child prepare for their development, to be ready for things like writing.

Parents are often unaware that to be able to write children need a great deal of physical strength. 

This is often overlooked in schools too as they are desperately trying to move children on at pace, in order to tick boxes and get through the huge curriculum. This is one of the reasons that in Finland they don’t start formal learning until age seven.

So, what is required to be ready for writing? Children need to have developed both fine and gross motor skills to be physically ready. Fine motor skills are where the body requires small movement, for example, using tweezers to pick up objects, pegging things to a washing line, buttoning up clothes, using scissors and playing with construction toys like duplo/lego or building puzzles.

Gross Motor skills are where the body requires big movements using big muscles like the trunk, arms and legs for agility, balance and coordination. Some example of gross motor skills are; riding a bike or scooter, running, throwing or using opposite hand to leg to bat something. In order for the fine motor skills to develop, the gross motor skills need to have been established – providing a solid base for the deployment of fine motor skills.

To explain the physical development needed, I’ve laid out the development stages of writing from birth along with an outline of National Curriculum writing objectives and stages suggested by other professionals. This is so you can see the full scale and if you have a reluctant writer it may enable you to go back a step and help them secure certain skills before supporting them to write. Writing is definitely one of those areas that if you push too hard or have too higher expectations you risk putting your child off, potentially for life! For some children writing is one of the hardest things to do as they try and master both the skills of writing and remember what they are trying to say.

The development stages of writing in the UK from birth are defined in Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stages. I have listed the key milestones below.

Birth-26+ months

  • Children’s later writing is based on skills and understandings which they develop as babies and toddlers. 
  • Early mark-making is not the same as writing. It is a sensory and physical experience for babies and toddlers, which they do not yet connect to forming symbols which can communicate meaning.

22-36 months

  • Distinguishes between the different marks they make.

30-50+ months

  • Sometimes gives meaning to marks as they draw and paint. 
  • Ascribes meanings to marks that they see in different places.

40-60+months

  • Gives meaning to marks they make as they draw, write and paint. 
  • Begins to break the flow of speech into words. 
  • Continues a rhyming string. 
  • Hears and says the initial sound in words. 
  • Can segment the sounds in simple words and blend them together. 
  • Links sounds to letters, naming and sounding the letters of the alphabet. 
  • Uses some clearly identifiable letters to communicate meaning, representing some sounds correctly and in sequence. 
  • Writes own name and other things such as labels, captions. 
  • Attempts to write short sentences in meaningful contexts.

When considering writing with your child as part of homeschooling, there are different routes you can take, utilising formal structures like Development Matters and the National Curriculum, alongside organic routes to writing, examples of which are below.

  • Exposing your child to writing through text in books, magazines, posters, and signs when you are out and about.
  • As a parent, modelling writing in as many different situations as possible, both writing by hand and text on a screen. A great one for this is a little blackboard in the house as a shopping list. Fridge magnetic letters, postcards with little sayings on, anything with text.
  • I mentioned in a previous article about learning to read that signing up to a library as early as possible is a great way for children to be exposed to text.
  • Children eventually become inquisitive about writing and will start to copy letters, which then leads onto words and before you know it they are writing. 

If you want to support them in more detail with handwriting, a natural order of mark making is: Vertical lines; horizontal lines; circle shape; cross shape; square shape; right and left diagonals; x shape; and triangle. Then wavy and zig zag lines. These are great to do in a multi sensory way, drawing with a stick in the mud or sand on the beach, using shaving foam on a tray to draw with your finger to create marks and lines. You can get them to draw on your back and see if you can guess what they are drawing.

Following this, they may want to start drawing letters. If you want to help them at this stage you could consider: getting them a letter sheet to use as a guide and laminate it; buying wooden marble runs for each letter or the alphabet; purchase apps that get the child to copy letters – some writing font programmes have rhymes which go with each letter which can be handy to help your child remember where to start and what to do.

Start with lower case letters and then when they are confident with them work on upper case letters and introduce them in the order listed below. I taught my children to write with a cursive font when they started learning letters, the great thing about cursive font is all letters anchor to the line and help children build the shape and size of the letter. This is totally up to you, there is no right/wrong and many publications teach in different orders. Using the cursive approach means they are often slower to start writing as the letter shapes are more complex but they will be quicker to write when they get going and they won’t have to learn two different fonts, that is if you intend to teach them to write cursively, as the National Curriculum suggests (from year 2).

This is the writing order that I followed for lower letters and numbers, it came from Foundation Years

The four groups are as follows: 

  • (long ladder): letters i, j, l, t, u (v, w with rounded bases) 
  • (one-armed robot): letters b, h, k, m, n, p, r; (numbers 2, 3, 5 follow a clockwise direction)
  • (curly caterpillar) letters: c, a, d, e, g, o, q, f, s; numbers: 0, 6, 8, 9
  • zigzag letters: letters: v, w, x, z; numbers: 1, 4, 7. 

It’s worth noting here that we didn’t use a rubber when learning to write, again this is preference but I modelled making mistakes. I felt this was really important for them to know that it is ok to make mistakes. I would just let them naturally draw a line through (self-corrected) mistakes and write what they meant above or next to it. This stops children thinking everything has to be perfect! Rubbers can be introduced at a later age when they are comfortable with making mistakes.

If your child is struggling with writing, you could try the Brave Writing programme by Julie Bogart. She suggests scaffolding children through the following stages: jotting it down with them; partnership writing and; ownership writing. I like the idea that if a child starts singing a song but can’t yet write independently you jot it down for them. It can then be celebrated, shared with others which is great for children to see the enjoyment that other people get from their creations. It is important to make writing relevant to the child. For example, if Lego is their thing they could create a catalogue of their lego characters, make their own Top Trumps cards or design a Lego themed board game and write the instructions for it. They could also produce a Lego comic strip or funny newspaper article. By using things that they are interested in they are far less likely to see it as a boring task!

The primary phase National Curriculum is made up of: transcription (spelling and handwriting); composition (articulating ideas and structuring them in speech and writing) and; vocabulary, grammar and punctuation.

This is taught through looking at different genres, such as: narrative (stories for example); poetry; non-chronological reports (written about a topic that has a range of facts); recount/Diary; letter instructions (for example, recipe); explanation (for example, why or how something happens); newspaper; biographies and; persuasive (for example, arguments for or against something).

There is much debate around the English writing curriculum, particularly the grammar and whether teaching it is now relevant for our young people. I really would always recommend parents teach their children what they feel will be necessary for them during later life. I did find teaching the 100 most frequent words really helped my children progress with their reading and their writing. Some of these words are tricky to decode so we had to use different techniques to learn them other than just copy and remember. My daughter loves to act the letters to a word out, in other words, out she would make an o, then a u and finally a t with her arms, shouting; o, u, t, as she did so. My son loves mnemonics, he will use a rhyme to remember a word, for example, the word eight he would recall as, eating, in, giant, high, towers. He would take the first letter from each word to spell eight. It works for them and makes spelling more interesting!

It is important to have some resources around the home to aid independent writing. I like to have: blank postcards; envelopes; different types of paper; note books; sketch books; posit notes; pencils; pens (metallic, biros, gel pens, the more the merrier) around the house. When the children were younger they loved writing on the bath with bath crayons. My daughter loves baking and has edible pens that she loves using to create messages for everyone enjoying her cakes. One of the best things I bought my children was a calligraphy pen, they love making their writing all fancy. The key is making opportunities to write that don’t feel like arduous lessons or writing on endless worksheets. 

Of course, in this day and age some people question the need for handwritten skills when you can use a dictaphone or voice to text function, for this reason some parents decide to follow an organic route but then introduce a touch typing programme to enable their children to do their writing on screens. It is all about personal preference and what fits with your style of homeschooling!

Links

Letter-join 

Research around sensory play and writing