Keep reading for the ultimate guide to handwriting for preschool, pre-k, and kindergarten. These tips will help your little one learn how to write correctly from the very beginning.
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THE IMPORTANCE OF PROPER HANDWRITING FOR PRESCHOOL, PRE-K, & KINDERGARTEN
I’m going to guess that all of us (parents & teachers) have the same goal when it comes to handwriting:
We want our little ones to use handwriting to clearly express themselves through written communication and have other people be able to read it.
But learning to write is an incredibly complex task, and it actually begins WAY before we put a pencil in a child’s hand.
Keep reading to learn the steps of proper handwriting development and how to approach teaching this skill to your preschool, pre-k, and kindergarten littles.
Check out this YouTube video more information!
BEGIN WITH GROSS MOTOR & FINE MOTOR SKILLS
As I mentioned earlier, writing is an incredibly complex task that encompasses many different skills, and there’s a timeline of development our students follow before they can independently form their letters and write legibly.
BEFORE we even give our students a pencil in their hand and ask them to write letters, we need to focus on two sets of skills that will lead to clear and legible handwriting later on:
Gross Motor Skills & Fine Motor Skills.
GROSS MOTOR SKILLS
Gross Motor Skills are those skills that involve the whole body–your core (belly and back), arms, and legs.
There are so many different movements that require gross motor skills, including walking, jumping, running, sitting upright, throwing, catching, swimming, riding a bike, etc.
Believe it or not, developing these gross motor skills actually leads to better handwriting!
Our preschoolers need a strong base of support in order to write, which means they need strong core, neck, and shoulder muscles (not just strong hand/wrist muscles).
And they strengthen these muscles through gross motor PLAY!
So encourage them to crawl, jump, climb, skip, and PLAY as much as possible, and you’ll actually be helping them develop their handwriting!
In case the parents of your students ever question why you have them play so much, you can explain it’s part of their handwriting development (among other things!)
FINE MOTOR SKILLS
In contrast, Fine Motor Skills are those skills that work the smaller muscles of the hands, fingers, and wrists.
Your students also need to develop these fine motor skills, ideally BEFORE they’re given a pencil.
The better their fine motor skills are, the easier writing will be for them!
Some great fine motor development activities include:
- Cutting with scissors
- Zipping and buttoning clothing
- Opening & closing locks
- Threading beads
- Pulling stickers off a sticker sheet
- Squeezing, cutting, & rolling out play dough
- Tracing shapes with their finger in a salt or sand tray
- Playing with legos
- Scooping & pouring at the sensory table or water table
- Using spray bottles
I’m sure you already do these activities in your classroom, but this is just another reminder of how important they are, especially for our youngest students.
Pre-Writing Skills are the lines & strokes our students need to master before learning how to write their letters.
According to occupational therapists, kids follow a typical timeline of development for these pre-writing skills:
- Age 2: Vertical Line
- Age 2 ½: Horizontal Line
- Age 3: Circle
- Age 3 ½: Cross Shape
- Age 4: Square
- Age 4 ½: Right and Left Diagonal Lines
- Age 5: X Shape
- Age 5: Triangle Shape
As you can see, it makes sense that your students won’t be able to write all of their letters right away.
They can’t write a “K” if they haven’t developed those diagonal lines yet, and they can’t write an “X” if they haven’t developed the “X” shape yet.
All kids are unique and develop at their own speed, but this visual is a helpful reminder to set realistic expectations for your students and not push them too far, too fast.
DRAWING VS. WRITING LETTERS
Our job as preschool & kindergarten teachers is to explicitly teach our students how to write letters instead of “drawing” them.
What’s the difference?
- Drawing Letters = students look at a letter and figure out how to re-create it on their paper. They might do this in the same way each time or a different way each time.
- For example:
- A student will take 3 pencil strokes to form a lowercase “e.”
- A student will start a lowercase “g” with the tail instead of the circle.
- These letters may be legible (or they may not be), but they usually take more time and effort to form.
- For example:
- Writing Letters = students learn to form each letter with a few clean, deliberate strokes, and they do it the same way each time.
- This is the ultimate goal of handwriting instruction!
- This allows students to free up cognitive load to focus on the words they want to write/how to spell them without thinking about how to form each letter.
- It speeds up the writing process and makes everything more fluent.
I totally get it…it’s impossible to watch EVERY student form EVERY letter EVERY day. You’d go crazy trying!
BUT…if we aren’t watching kids form their letters, we aren’t catching it when they’re drawing letters & making mistakes with their pencil strokes.
So what can we do?
I think parents are the KEY to helping students learn proper letter formation.
We need to teach parents the correct letter strokes and encourage them to help their child at home.
Parents WANT to help their children prepare for school so they can excel and grow, but they might not know about the importance of proper letter formation.
They might think it’s “fine” for their child to form letters from the bottom up or hold their pencil in a different way.
But that will only hurt their child later on when they’re asked to write longer paragraphs and essays.
Let’s educate the parents now and ask for their help to work on this important skill so there aren’t problems in the future.
Pencil grasp is one of the biggest concerns parents and teachers have when it comes to handwriting.
As a former first grade and second grade teacher, I can tell you I saw A LOT of improper pencil grasps in my classroom, and it was VERY hard to help students change their pencil grasp once it was established.
But just like writing, there is a developmental continuum when it comes to pencil grasp.
Check out this amazing blog post that explains pencil grasp development way better than I can (and includes pictures which are SO helpful!)
I highly recommend taking some time to read that article and see where your kids fall on the continuum.
Do your little ones keep a journal? Check out this video for my best tips for making journal writing a successful & effective routine!
SMALL TOOLS FOR SMALL HANDS
If you want to encourage proper pencil grasp, have your students use small handwriting tools, such as golf pencils and broken crayons.
Please do not have your students use thick crayons or pencils. I’ve seen those marketed as being “specifically for preschoolers,” but they’re too big for our students’ hands. (Plus they’re usually more expensive!)
Don’t waste your money on those…smaller pencils like these are MUCH better! And if you’re going to use dry-erase markers, try to use smaller ones like these (not the thick ones).
UPPERCASE LETTERS FIRST
I see this question asked online ALL the time, and it always sparks strong opinions from educators:
Should I teach my students to write uppercase letters or lowercase letters first?
It’s a great question, and one I wanted to understand better. So I turned to the experts, did some research, and here’s what I found:
- According to many occupational therapists, teachers should teach students to write uppercase letters before moving on to lowercase letters.
- Uppercase letters are developmentally easier for kids to write because they have less sophisticated pencil strokes.
- All uppercase letters start at the top.
- There are 4 different starting positions for lowercase letters (a, b, e, f).
- All uppercase letters occupy the same vertical space.
- There are 3 different vertical positions for lowercase letters (small, tall, descending).
- All uppercase letters are the same height.
- 14 lowercase letters are half the size of uppercase letters.
- 12 lowercase letters are the same size as uppercase letters.
- Uppercase letters are easier to differentiate and students are less likely to reverse them.
- Think of how tricky lowercase b, d, p, and q are!
- Learning to write is developmental…using all uppercase letters is the first step on the writing journey, not a “bad habit” that needs to be broken later on.
Check out this video for more of my thoughts on why I teach uppercase letters first:
So now that I’ve (hopefully!) convinced you to teach students how to write uppercase letters first, you might be wondering…
When do I move to lowercase letter instruction?
Again, according to the experts, you can start teaching students to write lowercase letters in Pre-K when they’re ready.
- They know how to correctly form all uppercase letters.
- They can recognize lowercase letters.
- They hold their pencil correctly.
“Ready” will be different for all students based on their development, but it usually ranges from the spring of Pre-K to the summer before kindergarten.
I use (and love!) the handwriting books from Handwriting Without Tears to teach proper letter formation for uppercase & lowercase letters. You can check them out here.
NAME WRITING: UPPERCASE OR LOWERCASE FIRST?
Many kindergarten teachers ask preschool teachers to teach students to write their names conventionally (uppercase letter followed by lowercase letters) because they don’t want them to develop “bad habits” with name writing that will have to be broken in kindergarten.
But, like we discussed earlier, a preschool child writing their name in all uppercase letters is NOT a bad habit…it’s a developmental milestone!
Since the experts recommend teachers start with teaching uppercase letters first, it makes sense that we teach our students to write their names in all uppercase letters first.
Then, when they’re in the spring/summer of Pre-K, we can guide them toward writing it conventionally (as long as they’re ready for those lowercase letters!)
Whenever I bring up this topic, I get pushback from other educators. Their main argument is this:
If students need to write their names conventionally in kindergarten, why start with all uppercase letters? That’ll just confuse them and make it hard to break the habit. Just start with conventional letters from the beginning.
I empathize with these teachers and understand where they’re coming from. I actually used to think these same thoughts myself before I looked at what the experts recommend.
If you’re thinking those thoughts, let me ask you a question:
Would you encourage a baby to skip crawling and go straight to walking?
I’ve never heard an adult say, “Our end goal is for babies to walk, not crawl. So don’t start them with crawling. It’ll only confuse them and be a hard habit to break. Start them with walking.”
Sounds pretty ridiculous right?
Just like crawling leads to walking, uppercase letter formation leads to lowercase letter formation. It’s a continuum of development.
I think teachers are getting confused between “Starting with the End Goal”and “Starting with the End Goal in Mind.”
Let me explain the difference:
- Starting with the End Goal:
- The end goal is for students to write their names conventionally in kindergarten, so preschool teachers start there.
- There’s no continuum of development. They just start with the end goal and practice it over and over and over.
- Real World Example: You want to run a marathon, so on Day 1 of your training program, you run 26.2 miles.
- Sounds crazy right?
- Starting with the End Goal IN MIND:
- The end goal is for students to write their names conventionally in kindergarten, so preschool teachers start with that goal and work their way backwards.
- What skills do students need to develop in order to get to the end goal?
- Fine motor strength
- Gross motor strength
- Correct pencil grasp & control
- Spatial awareness
- Proper letter formation
- How can we work on these skills over the course of preschool to get our students to the end goal?
- Real World Example: You want to run a marathon, so on Day 1 of your training program, you walk or run 1 mile. Over time, you increase your miles until you’re ready for the marathon.
- Sounds much more doable right?
I’m a firm believer that “Starting with the End Goal IN MIND” is the best way to teach our preschoolers and prepare them for kindergarten.
NAME WRITING: WAYS TO PRACTICE
Since name writing is so important for our little ones, we want to practice it daily in different ways. I’m sharing a few ideas below, but please check out this post for 10+ creative and fun ways to practice names (it also includes two freebies!)
One way to practice names is to put out a sensory tray of colored rice, salt or sand, and have students trace letters in the tray.
This multisenosry activity helps them solidify correct letter formation before having to manipulate a pencil (which is much trickier).
When they are ready to use a pencil, you’ll want them to write their name daily. Check out these editable name writing sheets that are perfect for this. They’ll spell, trace, build, & write their name each day.
Another fun way to keep track of name writing development is through a monthly name writing & self-portrait drawing. You can find this printable in this assessment pack.
Don’t forget to check out this post for more name activities for preschool, pre-k, and kindergarten:
How do you teach handwriting for preschool, pre-k, & kindergarten littles? Do you have any fun activities or strategies that would be great to add to this list? Comment below or find me on Instagram [@littleslovelearningblog] and let me know!
love these ideas? pin for later!
Looking for other ways to make sure your little one is ready for kindergarten? Check out my Kindergarten Readiness Blog Series: