Writing Readiness (Pre-Writing) Skills

main image preschool prewriting skills

Why are writing readiness (pre-writing) skills important?

Pre-writing skills are essential for the child to be able to develop the ability to hold and move a pencil fluently and effectively and therefore produce legible writing. When these skills are underdeveloped it can lead to frustration and resistance due to the child not being able to produce legible writing or to ‘keep up’ in class due to fatigue. This can then result in poor self esteem and academic performance.

  • Hand and finger strength: An ability to exert force against resistance using the hands and fingers that allows the necessary muscle power for controlled movement of the pencil.
  • Crossing the mid-line: The ability to cross the imaginary line running from a person’s nose to pelvis that divides the body into left and right sides.
  • Pencil grasp: The efficiency of how the pencil is held, allowing age appropriate pencil movement generation.
  • Hand eye coordination: The ability to process information received from the eyes to control, guide and direct the hands in the performance of a task such as handwriting.
  • Bilateral integration: Using two hands together with one hand leading (e.g. holding and moving the pencil with the dominant hand while the other hand helps by holding the writing paper).
  • Upper body strength: The strength and stability provided by the shoulder to allow controlled hand movement for good pencil control.
  • Object manipulation: The ability to skilfully manipulate tools (including holding and moving pencils and scissors) and controlled use of everyday tools (such as a toothbrush, hairbrush, cutlery).
  • Visual perception: The brain’s ability to interpret and make sense of visual images seen by the eyes, such as letters and numbers.
  • Hand dominance: The consistent use of one (usually the same) hand for task performance, which allows refined skills to develop.
  • Hand division: Using just the thumb, index and middle finger for manipulation, leaving the fourth and little finger tucked into the palm stabilizing the other fingers but not participating.

Activities to help with readiness

Pre-writing shapes are all of the shapes that form letters. They include the directional movements of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines and curves. Shapes like the vertical (+) and oblique (x) cross teach a child to intersect lines. Squares and triangles teach the concept of drawing corners. The ability to both intersect lines and draw corners, are important developmental steps.

This picture shows the shapes, along with the average age children learn to draw them. The average age is that age at which 50% of children will be able to draw the shape, so half of children will be slower than the ages given.

Vertical and Horizontal Line, Circle, Straight Cross, Oblique lines Square, Oblique cross, triangle

Left handers – a note on oblique lines

When working with left handers, the oblique line order switches. It is easier for left-handers to draw the oblique line to the right (\) rather than to the left. This is because when drawing to the right they can see the end point, or where they have to take their pencil. When drawing to the left (/) they have to visually imagine where to take their pencil as their hand is in the way.

The opposite is true for right handers. When they draw a left leaning oblique line (/) they can see where they are taking their pencil. But, for a right leaning line (\) they need to visually imagine where to draw to.

This is the same reason that left handers find spacing their work more difficult. Their hand covers what they are writing, so they have to work much harder to visualise where to start letters and words. It’s also why so many of them work with their book at extreme angles, or with their wrist hooked in awkward positions. They have figured out a way to see where they need to write!

It is important to be aware of the different needs that left handed and right handed children have. As only 10% of the population is left handed, they are often left to navigate a very right handed biased world!

Imitating pre-writing shapes

When therapists use the term ‘imitate’ they mean that the child imitates movements that they have seen. So, the adult draws the shape before and with the child so that they can watch and imitate the movements. This is easier for the child as they don’t have to plan (or remember) the movement required.

Worksheets are a form of imitation as well as they provide a template for the child to work from. Some children may also need to watch the adult first to understand what to do on the worksheet. It is helpful to keep the same movements on the same sheet to help with reinforcement. So, straight lines on one sheet and curved on the next.

Recognising and matching pre-writing shapes

Being able to visually recognise and match pre-writing shapes is an important step to being able to draw them. It is impossible to draw something that you don’t have a visual representation of. For example, could you draw a saola? My guess is that most people reading this article haven’t heard of a saola and therefore won’t know what to draw.

However, if you follow this link to see what a saola is, then you would be able to copy it. It’s the same for children learning to draw shapes. If they don’t know what a triangle is, they will struggle to draw it.

Recognising oblique lines

A common difficulty I have seen in children with additional needs is that they struggle to identify their oblique lines. So, they see | / and \ as the same shape. These children need more support to firstly understand that a straight line (|) is different to an oblique line (/ \). I often call them ‘straight man’ and ‘falling over man’ to make the distinction. Having them physically move their bodies into the positions can also help to reinforce this.

Next, they need to understand the visual difference between / and \. Typically, these children also need support to identify the difference between straight (+) and oblique (x) crosses too. It can be helpful to use matching sheets which the child has to find one or the other of the shapes. And, also puzzles which match the different shapes.

When teaching them to draw oblique lines, it is important that the child always starts that the top of the shape. This means that you can reinforce the direction of movement. If they change where they start (i.e. between top and bottom) it is more confusing for them to learn.

Copying pre-writing shapes

Once a child can imitate a shape, the next step is copying it. By copying, I mean they can look at a pre-drawn version of it and make their own, without any help from an adult. When copying, they need to have an understanding of how to plan their movements. This is much more difficult for children with dyspraxia.