Helping your child learn to write

Little girl writing
More often than not, parents provide children with their first writing experiences. Here’s how to encourage good handwriting habits from the beginning of primary school.

Most parents notice the moment when their child first finds a pencil, pen or crayon and starts to make marks with it, either on a piece of paper or, if you’re unlucky, on the wallpaper or the furniture. This simple skill is a very important first step towards handwriting.

Handwriting starts with drawing

Children vary quite a lot in the age at which they show an interest in making marks on paper. Some children who spend a lot of time watching television or the computer screen may not play actively very much. Others who enjoy using their hands may soon become quite adept at using a pencil or crayon and even begin to draw recognisable pictures.

If you or your child enjoys drawing, this is a very good entry point for handwriting as it gives valuable practice in guiding a pencil. If you can draw even quite simple pictures, your child will enjoy watching you and perhaps guessing what your picture will be. They may even like trying to copy what you are doing.

Letter formation

The most important first step in learning to write is for the child to learn to follow the right ‘movement pathway’ of each letter. This is because our writing system goes from left to right and correct formation follows this principle. It also ensures that the letters begin and end in the right place for moving on to the next letter and, later, for joining. If young children are allowed to form letters ‘their own way’ these habits become established and may be very difficult to correct later.

When little fingers get the habit of forming each letter the right way, handwriting becomes much easier. If you are not quite sure how each letter should be written ask your child's school (they will have have alphabet sheets with the letter formation illustrated) or watch the letter formation advice videos produced by TheSchoolRun and the National Handwriting Association.

Handwriting: how you can help

There are several ways to help a young child to write the letters correctly and one is to hold your child’s hand gently and guide it in the right way. At first it might help if you’ve previously written the desired letter lightly in pencil, perhaps with the starting point marked, so that the child then only has to go over the letter following the right path. If the child has a long name, such as Christopher, it may be better to write and practise the shortened version, ‘Chris’, to begin with. Handwriting worksheets offer dotted lines for your child to trace, directional arrows to follow and correctly spaced lines for your child to write on – choose a few worksheets for your child to work on to download.

To make handwriting practice time easier, follow these 5 steps:

  1. Choose a time when your child isn’t tired and when they’re not missing out on a favourite activity.
  2. Give ready praise for even small successes.
  3. Avoid having the television on while you’re working together, as it will cause distraction and affect concentration.
  4. Remember that most pre-school children will not be able to concentrate for a very long time. Ten minutes or so will probably be enough, especially at first.
  5. Show appreciation for what your child has achieved. You might even like to put their efforts up on show.