How Children Learn to Write

Long before children enter a formal education setting, they are developing the skills that lay the foundation for learning to write.

From fine motor skills to the complexities of vocabulary and sentence structure, it takes years for children to fully hone their writing technique. And while all children develop at their own speed, education experts say that writing milestones can be expected based on a child’s age.

The process of learning to write starts early, says Breeyn Mack, vice president of educational content at Teaching Strategies, an education technology company in Maryland. Think of an infant seated at a high chair, using their fingers to make forms in their yogurt.

“That’s really the start of emergent writing,” she says. “It continues as older infants and toddlers start to make marks on paper, and then it progresses.”

Toddlers can engage in experiences that support future reading and writing, says Allison Wilson, senior director of curriculum and innovation at Stratford School in California.

“Fine motor control and drawing are young children’s first steps toward writing,” she says. “Then they progress to scribbles before reaching conventional writing and spelling.”

[READ: 7 Strategies to Increase Reading Comprehension.]

The Process of Writing

While developing the fine motor control required for writing is vital, it can be painful if children are forced to write before their muscles are ready, says Donna Whittaker, vice president of curriculum and education at Big Blue Marble Academy, an organization with more than 40 schools, predominantly in the southeast.

“Young children can build (these) muscles by manipulating small objects, drawing, scribbling, painting, smearing, playing with Play-Doh, scooping, pouring and squeezing,” Whittaker says.

By kindergarten, children work not only on letter formation but writing simple words, structuring sentences and copying simple, two-to-three-sentence paragraphs, says Elizabeth DeWitt, a curriculum expert at Learning Without Tears, which provides educational materials for parents and teachers. Each year thereafter, the rigor increases, she says.

“It’s the academic practice that’s really important because we want this skill (writing) to transfer to every subject of the day,” DeWitt says.

Writing Milestones By Age

Development varies from child to child, says Karen Aronian, an educator and parenting expert in New York. So when you’re looking at writing milestones, remember to consider that every child’s motor development happens at a different pace.

“If you notice delays, consult with your pediatrician to have your child evaluated,” she says. “Early intervention is vital, and an occupational therapist can assist.”

12-18 months. Children may begin making purposeful marks and scribbles while grasping a crayon, marker or pencil in a closed fist.

18 months-2 years. Children can grip writing implements with their finger and thumb, but they are using arm movements to draw or scribble.

2-3 years. Children will typically be able to hold a crayon with their fingers, though their grip is still evolving. “Children should now be able to mimic how to draw vertical and horizontal lines and a circle,” Aronian says.

3-4 years. Preschoolers can draw vertical and horizontal lines, circles and intersecting lines on their own and begin to copy letters, numbers and symbols. They’ll also be able to trace, remaining on the lines most of the time.

4-5 years. Older preschoolers will display a preference to write with one hand, draw a simple stick figure, copy intersecting lines and simple shapes, connect dots, draw a line inside a maze, trace their hand and copy their names using fingers and hands to write instead of arm movement.

5-6 years. Kindergarteners can hold a standard pencil with a dominant hand, draw a detailed stick figure with a face, print their own name, copy most lower and uppercase letters (and numbers 1 through 5), and trace curved lines, triangles and diamonds.

6-7 years. By age 6, children can print the entire alphabet and numbers from 1 through 10 by memory. Between ages 6 and 7, they can write the alphabet without skipping letters or alternating between uppercase and lowercase, Aronian says.

7-8 years. Children are trying their best to write clearly in a straight line while maintaining a space between index finger and thumb in their grip. They can write many words, know to write from left to right across a page, and attempt to form letters of a uniform size, though they may still cluster words together.

8-9 years. Children can write complete sentences with proper capitalization and punctuation.

[READ: What Parents Need to Know About Testing for Dyslexia in Schools.]

The Link Between Reading and Writing

Reading and writing usually develop together, says Robin Erwin, an associate professor of education at Niagara University in New York. He said they are sometimes described as reciprocal processes.

“Reading supports writing development, and writing supports reading development,” he says.

The more your child does both, the stronger their overall literacy skills will be, says Wilson, and children thrive on modeled behaviors at an early age. Listening to stories, poems and other texts helps children experience the writing process.

“By orally retelling stories, drawing or acting out read-alouds, young children understand narrative or story structure,” Wilson says. “They then can apply that to their own stories.”

[READ: How Children Develop Fine Motor Skills.]

How Parents Can Help

To write stories, young children must learn to generate ideas, elaborate upon them and then sequence and connect them coherently. Education experts say parents can play a strong role in helping that process.

“Children develop these skills through scaffolded play, storytelling, writing practice, and in conversations, particularly with adults and older children,” Wilson says.

When reading to their children, parents can encourage them to retell the stories in their own words or reimagine the ending, Wilson says. Parents can also model writing at home by making grocery lists or taking children on a nature walk and labeling the items they collect together, Mack says. Having children use sidewalk chalk to write a note to a friend is another idea.

“We should never have children write just because it’s time to write,” Mack says. “We’re writing to share an idea, we’re writing to document our findings or we’re writing to convey meaning.”

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

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How Children Learn to Write originally appeared on usnews.com

Clarification 11/15/21: This story was updated to clarify the size and scope of Big Blue Marble Academy.

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