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Why Handwriting Matters

Writing is a lifelong skill that starts long before kindergarteners sit down at their desks in school. Whether it’s within an early childhood educational group setting or in one-on-one occupational therapy sessions, we begin laying the groundwork for success in handwriting as early as two years old. But what’s the best way we can approach writing with our young children? The answer is: playfully. In this arena our number one job as parents and caregivers is to wire our child’s brain with positive associations and experiences with writing. Neuroscience research tells us that successful associations (through many, many “short and sweet” handwriting experiences, in this case) will ultimately support a child’s long-term curiosity, grit, and success with new skills.

[T]he physical processes involved with writing by hand improve our cognitive memory retainment, support understanding of sounds and language, develop future reading skills, refine our visual-motor skills (i.e. how our eyes and hands work together), and support the development of our executive functioning skills (e.g. working memory) throughout adolescence and into adulthood.

This is particularly important with writing, a skill that grows and changes with us and supports our interaction with the world around us in a myriad of ways. The art of writing recruits and engages our brains differently than tapping a touch screen or typing on a keyboard do. For example, the physical processes involved with writing by hand improve our cognitive memory retainment, support understanding of sounds and language, develop future reading skills, refine our visual-motor skills (i.e. how our eyes and hands work together), and support the development of our executive functioning skills (e.g. working memory) throughout adolescence and into adulthood.

Getting Started

What should we keep in mind when starting with our youngest writers? The answer boils down to a few key practices:

  • Meet them where they’re at. Present children with developmentally-appropriate tasks. (See below.)
  • Make it a win. Ensure children are successful while engaging in writing tasks like the ones listed below (and modify the activity so they are successful).
  • Keep your eyes on the clock. Offer short writing tasks, and expect engagement for only two- to five-minute bursts of time.

Here are some reasonable, attainable, and developmentally-appropriate ways to target key skill areas with your young child:

  • Build a strong understanding of simple size and shape concepts for the lines and curves that are necessary for forming capital letters and numbers — i.e. big lines and little lines, big curves and little curves.
  • Practice imitating: Write something first; then ask your child to do what you just did. Try this with a vertical line, a horizontal line, a circle, and a cross.
  • Use multi-sensory materials they can feel (read: they must be able to actually hold the materials in their hands) to practice building capital letters and numbers using lines and curved pieces. For example, use Play-Doh, sticks, bendable beeswax sticks, etc.; mold them into shapes; then form numbers and capital letters.
  • Offer children short writing tools that will support the use of an age-appropriate grasp pattern. For example, offer thick crayons (less than three inches in length), pieces of chalk, short paint brushes, etc.
  • Present children with a variety of different vertical surfaces to practice writing and drawing on. Vertical surfaces will support the development of their grasp and upper-body stability. Upright easels, chalkboards, washable shower doors/walls, or simple large pieces of paper taped onto walls are all great options.

Leave Lowercase for Later

In addition to learning what is helpful to do, it can be equally helpful to learn what you don’t need to do. So what shouldn’t you worry about? As an occupational therapist who addresses handwriting in children of all ages, this one is simple: with young children (ages two to five), there is no need to worry about practicing lowercase letters before they begin kindergarten. The primary reason behind this comes down to numbers. Here are the numbers that inform the developmental sequence in which we teach letters:

  • All capital letters start at the top; lowercase letters can start in four different places.
  • All capital letters are the same size/height; lowercase letters can be two different sizes.
  • All capital letters occupy the same vertical space position; lowercase letters can occupy three different vertical positions (i.e. small, tall, descending).

From analyzing a simple comparison of key differences between capital and lowercase letters, you can see that capital letters are much simpler than lowercase, and young writers have fewer opportunities to make mistakes when they write capital letters — contributing to a child’s increased success and confidence with this new skill. Focusing on establishing a strong foundation in a young child’s understanding of line and shape forms, capital letters, and numbers is the most developmentally-appropriate path during this time and will bring a payoff later. When children learn and practice capital letters first, they tend to avoid confusion between capital and lowercase letters in the future, and they are also more likely to learn lowercase letters more easily when the time comes.

On the flip side, research tells us that children who are presented with unreasonable expectations (e.g. writing lowercase letters before they’re ready) are not only more likely to have difficulty with or struggle with writing later on, they are also more likely to avoid writing or exhibit low self-esteem and confidence around this skill.

Exposure Versus Expectation

You may be wondering, “Aren’t kids seeing lowercase letters all over anyway?” Yes, lowercase letters are everywhere in our world — at the grocery store, at the library, and in the books we read to our children at night. So let’s take a moment to clarify how this is different. Exposure to lowercase letters is a natural part of our world and is supportive for so many of our children’s skillsets, namely reading and writing. It is our job as parents and caregivers, however, to be cautious about what kind of expectations we set around these exposures with our children. Put another way, we can encourage exposure without setting expectations for forming lowercase letters before children are developmentally equipped to do so. The more we can set reasonable expectations for our child, the more engaged and intrinsically motivated they will likely become — and the more successful they will be.

A Little Goes a Long Way

Over the long run, working with your young child to develop the foundational skills supportive of handwriting will pay off in many ways, from the development of related motor capabilities to increased confidence and persistence when writing in a school setting for the very first time. As parents, it should be encouraging to know that a little bit of time spent each day can and will go a long way in building not only your child’s handwriting skills but also their self-confidence, grit, and willingness to engage with the world as a lifelong writer and learner.

To learn more about St. David’s Center’s occupational therapy services, visit our Pediatric Therapies page.

If you have additional questions, please feel free to reach out. Our CORE Navigators are available to help answer questions about St. David’s Center services.

Bridget Topousis has been an occupational therapist for 10 years. At St. David’s Center she works with children and families on everything from identifying and treating sensory processing differences in young children to developing executive functioning strategies with adolescents. She has special interest and training in the areas of motor incoordination and dyspraxia, handwriting skill foundations and remediation, multi-disciplinary assessment teaming, and teaching and learning with occupational therapy graduate students and course instruction.

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