Writing in the Early Years

Writing, along with reading, makes up literacy, one of the four specific areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

The Early Learning Goals for writing come from both literacy and physical development.

They are:

Writing – children use their phonic knowledge to write words in ways which match their spoken sounds. They also write some irregular common words. They write simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others. Some words are spelt correctly and others are phonetically plausible.

Moving and handling – children show good control and coordination in large and small movements. They handle equipment and tools effectively, including pencils for writing.

What comes before writing?

We are seeing more and more children getting to school with underdeveloped fine and gross motor skills; a prime area of learning. This could be due to the increase in children of preschool age using iPads etc. at home. The ability to write is a complex one. Not only do children need to have the confidence to pick up a pencil and make marks on paper, they also need to be developmentally ready to write with strong core and hand muscles. The hand is a really complex piece of machinery and is made up of lots of joints and muscle groups that interconnect and work together to provide maximum dexterity.

How do muscles develop?

Children’s arms and hands contain a series of pivotal joints which develop from largest to smallest (shoulder, elbow, wrist, fingers). Once the pivots have worked their way down to the wrist, the journey doesn’t stop there, though for many children it becomes far trickier and they often face difficulties. The end of the pivot journey is when the mark making ends at the smallest set of pivots, right at the end of the fingers. If children can hold their mark making tool there, then they will have the fullest, most dexterous range of movement that their bodies can provide and be ready to write for life. This is fine motor control. However, it is important to remember that a child cannot master fine motor activities until gross motor skills are developed.

Writing and language

When babies first start to scribble, it’s simply a physical activity. But through interactions with adults, they’ll learn that these marks have meaning and can convey thoughts and feelings. It’s helpful to talk to children about what they’ve produced as it gives them confidence to experiment more with mark making and extends their understanding of how writing works.

Once the muscles are fully developed we can move onto mark making with pencils. The children will develop their own grip and it is important not to constantly ‘correct’ it but to guide children carefully to feel more comfortable holding a pencil. Children will begin with mark making and develop to pictures with meaning before finally beginning letter formation developed alongside Letters and Sounds. It is important children are taught the correct formation from as early as possible so that they do not form habits of writing letters incorrectly.

Gross motor skills                                                                                                                         

Learning to write is closely linked to a child’s physical development. Before children can control the muscles in their hands, they need to develop their gross motor skills (those that need large or whole-body movements). For babies this means the freedom and space to kick, roll and crawl. And for older children this also means the chance to run, climb, balance, throw, push, pull and swing their arms.

Gross motor skills activity ideas:

  • use ribbon sticks to make large circular and zig zag movements in the air
  • swing and hang from climbing frames
  • lift and move heavy objects
  • paint with large rollers and brushes on a vertical surface (like a wall or easel)
  • marching to music
  • anything that encourages children to stretch their arms above their heads

Fine motor skills                                                                                                                              As soon as a baby starts to show that they’re beginning to control their movements, you can encourage fine motor skills (precise, small muscle movements). Hand eye coordination is a key part of this so provide babies with a range of interesting objects to grasp, squeeze, pat and poke. By handling objects, children are strengthening their hands and fingers, so that they can grip a pencil.

Fine motor skills and hand strength activity ideas:

  • use small droppers to drop water on to a target
  • use a spray bottle to fire water on to a target
  • screw up small pieces of paper
  • open and close zip loc bags using index finger and thumb
  • squeeze sponges to move water from one container to another
  • pop bubble wrap
  • push pipe cleaners through the holes of a colander
  • prod, poke, squeeze and roll play dough or push it through a garlic press
  • pick up small objects and put them in compartments or a cupcake tray
  • twist and open containers with lids.

Mark making

Before children are able to form letters, they need to learn how to make marks. These marks can be with their finger in yoghurt on their high chair tray or pictures they’ve drawn or painted. They’re working out how writing works, how to hold their pencil, what pressure to put on the paper and how to control the marks they make.

It’s important to have mark making and writing resources available for children to use in every area of the early years provision in your setting – including outside. Children need space to explore making marks and boys in particular may enjoy making large scale marks on the floor where they can stretch out. You could use the backs of rolls of wallpaper for this or use chalk or water on the floor outside.

Ways in which you could help your child with writing at home 

Provide lots of attractive writing equipment, e.g. fancy pens, chalk, crayons and pencils, paper and notebooks etc. will help to inspire them to mark make and write.   

Try to encourage them to writing for a purpose following their interests —label their buildings or their pictures, make signs, postcards, shopping lists, cards or invitations. Encourage them to read back their writing to you.  Write down the things your child says to support their developing understanding that what they say can be written down and then read and understood by someone else.   

Encourage them to sound words out as much as possible, even if they can only write the initial sound or a couple of sounds in a word.   

Gently show your child the letter formation—this is tricky for young children to grasp. They need to know where to start the letter and to write in a cursive script. We begin by teaching the children to write in lower-case letters and only introduce capital letters for the beginning of names and then at the beginning of a sentence.  It is useful if you can follow this at home too.  

Encourage your child to have a go at writing and praise any attempts at writing. 

Above all…. Make writing fun!