Your couch or walls may already know that writing comes naturally to children. They love scribbling, which is a great way to express themselves: “It’s not mess. It’s art!” This ‘art’ is evidence of emerging literacy. Let’s look at ways to develop it.
Isn’t it too early?
Learning to read and write is an ongoing process that begins in infancy, not Grade One. In fact, mark-making and scribbling begin very early; say, at around 18 months old. Because preschoolers gain writing skill through real-life experiences, their scratches and signs are not random; they’re a critical part of literacy development.
Can we practise?
It's important to create a fun home environment that encourages reading and writing when teaching these skills. Here are guidelines and tips, split by age:
- Try different non-toxic writing tools: crayons, chalk, pens, pencils, and paints, giving your toddler plenty of opportunity to practise. Be sure to supervise them while they’re scribbling away – you don’t want any crayons to become food!
- Use varied media. Newsprint is inexpensive, and little ones love a big surface. But don't forget chalkboards, whiteboards, and even tiles and windows.
- Let kids see you writing: making lists, writing cards, or keeping a diary. Show that writing is an activity with its own rewards.
Two-year-olds are beginning to understand how words express thoughts, but they’re also developing the fine motor skills needed to form letters. This explains their random scribbles (later followed by more controlled scribbles). During controlled scribbling, toddlers may claim to be drawing or writing, and may give objects a name (“That’s a flower.”). Encourage them to discuss their artwork. Try giving them ‘fatter’ crayons to help with their grip. Other options include sand, glitter, sprinkles, clay or dough to encourage them to write.
At three, children begin to distinguish between drawing and writing, becoming more aware of different forms of print. They may ask, “What does it say?” Although most three-year-olds would rather look at pictures than text, point your finger at the words you’re reading. This helps them to recognise how words look. Have your toddler dictate a story for you to write down. Stick alphabet magnets to the fridge or a metal tray, and encourage tracing.
By four, little writers are more skilled and have learned that print goes from left to right on a line. Help them to learn letter shapes by labelling things in the house. Create a family storybook using blank paper and staples. Include mommy and daddy and what they do, siblings, and the family pet. Write a sentence on each page and have your little one draw the pictures.
Writing concerns at this age
What if your little one writes B backwards while Peter next door can read at age 4? Pre-school literacy milestones don't follow a linear path, so your little one is unlikely to be ‘behind’. But there may be a writing problem if:
- They find it hard to distinguish between left and right,
- They can't comfortably hold a pen,
- They struggle to stick to and complete a task,
- They resist the invitation to draw or trace, or
- They can’t sit still (beyond normal toddler fidgeting).
If you're concerned, speak to your little one’s teachers. They see your preschooler in different situations and through an unbiased eye, and will be able to track your child’s progress with expertise.