Handwriting: how your child learns to write

Girl learning to write
Ever wondered how your child really learns to write? Phoebe Doyle gets expert advice on the best ways to promote good handwriting techniques with your child.

Educationalists generally agree that before a child is ready to hold a pencil and form letters correctly, they need to have developed fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. This means that the brain has to become accustomed to working in conjunction with the muscles in the hand. Activities that encourage this include:

Angela Webb of the National Handwriting Association stresses the importance of fine motor experience at an early age. “Fine motor experience is essential as using a pincer grip between thumb and fore-finger is a pre-cursor for using the tripod grasp for holding a pencil later,” she says.

There is a concern that some fine motor tasks that were once an inherent part of day-to-day tasks for children, such as tying shoe laces, are now a thing of the past thanks to more contemporary trends to make life ‘easier’. But when should you begin teaching ‘correct’ pencil grip? “Children develop the ability to make and maintain the tripod pencil grasp between 3-6 years of age,” Angela advises. “Forcing them before that is counter-productive. Once they are ready, one way of making sure they use the correct fingers is to give them stubs of wax crayon or pencil for colouring and writing. This way, the full-finger grasp cannot be used.”

Handwriting opportunities: whenever, wherever

As your child enters school, and especially in the Foundation Stage or Year 1, their classroom environment should be designed so that writing can occur in any of the learning zones. This means writing materials may be supplied at the art table, near the numeracy area, in the home corner, etc., so that the activity can be child-initiated wherever and whenever deemed appropriate by them.

You can mirror this at home by providing fun paper and pencils, dotted around the house. Key to this approach, which promotes independence, is instilling in the children the confidence that they can write. They may not be able to spell words perfectly – it may be that they can perhaps write the first sound of each word, or just all the sounds they can hear. Perhaps they just use pictures and some lines. All of this is still writing. If they can read back what they have written, and if it serves their purpose, this is writing; positive praise and confidence-boosting encouragement should be offered in return.

Resources to inspire handwriting

If an HB pencil and a plain notebook are failing to do the trick, then it’s time to go shopping. Indulge them and follow their interests. It may be that where a plain pad never got opened, one with a favourite story or TV character on it is the bee’s knees. Go wild with sparkly pencils and pens, rubbers, pencil sharpeners, pencil cases, coloured papers – the works!

Your children also may like stuff that looks grown-up and ‘proper’. Using ring files, diaries and standard pens can make little ones feel super-smart, and can all be found at fairly low prices.

For more help with handwriting, check out our subscriber learning pack, Improve your child's handwriting in 8 weeks.

Browse through our handwriting worksheets for practical activities, including patterning exercises to help establish good handwriting habits.