How to teach a child to write?
Welcome back to Best Case Parenting!
As an experienced teacher of young children, I have often had parents asking me…...
“Why can’t my child write?”
“Is my child behind in writing?”
“How to teach a child to write?"
For the short answer, I want to make you understand that learning writing is a process! First, your child needs to build up the muscles in their arms and hands. This will give them the control in the first place to actually physically write. Then, you start teaching your child phonic awareness. Over time, your child's flow of writing will gradually improve. This is not a race. Every child is different. Finally, try to make the process fun!
With that out of the way, we can now take a more detailed look at this problem.
Most of my teaching career I have been teaching children from 3-6 years old.
Among many parents I have worked with. this is a topic that many of them spend a lot of time worrying about, and I can totally understand why. My aim here is to answer that big question, how to teach your child to write?
Speaking and writing are basic skills that us humans need to communicate. They will be the building blocks for a lot of what we do in later life. If you can’t write, you might find it hard to forge a successful career, for example.
So, I get it. I understand why teaching a child to write is such a big thing for parents.
My idea for this article is to make it a starting point. To give you some of the key knowledge to start understanding more about how to teach your child to write. I will also try to show you some tools and writing topics for kids. Hopefully, some inspiration to get started.
I am not detailing a full phonic or writing programme, but giving you the essentials you need to start you off down the road of teaching your child to write.
Be warned, this is a complex issue in parenting! Therefore, be prepared to read a substantial article here! Go grab a coffee, relax and take your time.....
Why can't my child write?
Right out of the gate, I would like to say…..calm down….take a deep breath. It is more than likely that your child is doing great. I find a lot of parents get way too anxious about things that they needn't worry about. I know it’s easy to say from a teacher’s point of view, but it is true.
Every child is different
When thinking about how to teach your child to write, you also need to understand that all children are different. They are interested in different things, have different interests, etc. etc. You cannot easily compare your child with one of a similar age. Just because Johnny down the road could do XYZ at a certain age, doesn't necessarily mean your child should too.
Writing is not a race!
Think of this as a marathon rather than a sprint. Your child has many years to perfect their writing skill. The process of writing is a long one, but it is just that…..a process. It is also hard to put exact time frames on each stage of writing, as it varies for each child.
The tabs below represent the 3 main stages of the process:
- 0-3 Years old
- 3-5 Years old
- 6 Years +
Of course, the age that a child moves from one stage to another can vary greatly depending on the individual child. This is more of a guide of the process and what you should expect.
It is important to note that this process needs to be followed through.
There is an appropriate time for every child to move to the next step.
If they are not ready for the next step and you try to force it, you are doing more harm than good.
How to prepare a child to write?
Before a child can actually attempt to write, you need to prepare them appropriately. You can’t just hand them a pencil and expect them to take to it. You don't just send a pilot up in a plane, they go through rigorous training and preparation. A child needs this too before they write.
Why can't my child just pick up a pencil and write?
One of the biggest problems I see, is parents not understanding that a young child has to build up to writing in a fine or defined way. To put it in basic terms, they need to do big movements before they can accurately do finer ones.
You cannot expect a child to hold a pencil with control straight off the bat. They first need to build up the muscles in their hands before they even attempt to hold a pencil properly and accurately.
So, how can you help with this?
Your child needs to spend time scribbling, painting, and making as many marks with implements as they can. These first implements need to be chunky and easy for a young child to hold.
You will notice, that when a young child is doing this, you will often see them doing circular motions. This is helping them to build up those important muscles with these big movements. In the teaching world, we call these gross motor movements.
It doesn’t matter if all you see is scribbles, give your child as much opportunity to do these activities first. Only when they have built up the muscles properly, can they start holding writing implements in a more refined way.
The school that your child is at should already be helping them with this. Although, this might be worth asking about at parent-teacher meetings. Even though this is happening during school, you still need to encourage this at home too.
These are the building blocks that will define your child's early writing skills!
I say encourage, because at this age, forcing this kind of thing won’t get you far.
I would recommend having as much paper, pencils, paint and such like in your home as possible.
Think of topics that interest your child, to encourage this early mark making. For example, if they really like a certain cartoon, you can ask them to have a go at drawing a character. A good way is for the adult to try first, purposefully getting the drawing wrong or not doing it well. Usually, this will motivate the child to show you how to do it better.
And that’s it for the early stages. It’s actually very simple. Get your child to make marks on paper as much as possible, resulting in mostly scribbling. Another thing to say is buy the biggest paper that you can find. Restricting a child to an A4 piece of paper isn’t going to allow them to make those big movements that we want.
At this early stage, I would say that the role of the adult is just to be a good role model. We want the child to start getting the idea that writing is often used to communicate meaning to others.
You can do this by trying to include your child in any basic writing activities you do around the home. Often, children like to pretend to be adults anyway. They observe what adults do and want to mimic this themselves. This should help to get your child interested in these activities.
For example, you may have to write a note to another adult in the home. When I was a teenager, my father would leave notes for me on the back of old envelopes when I was on school holiday! Usually asking me to do chores around the house!!
Anyway, I’m getting off the main point here. You should try to involve your child in this process. Tell your child what you are doing and see if you can get them to sit alongside you when you are writing these notes. You can do this for any writing tasks in the home, whether it be writing shopping lists or whatever. The most important thing is that you are being a good role model for your child when it comes to writing.
Role play is also an excellent way to encourage a young child to write. Maybe your child is really excited and interested in trains. You could make a mock up of a train in your house (even if it is just a grouping of chairs) and help your child act out being a train driver, conductor or even someone in the ticket office.
During this role play, there will be many opportunities for emergent writing. They can make train tickets to give people in the ticket office. They can make signs to go on the train. Very quickly, you will be able to see your child enjoying to write in many different ways.
Even if they are just scribbling or writing what adults consider nonsense, this is just fine. Your child is at the early stages of putting meaning to the marks they make on paper!
So, how to teach a child to write?
At this point, ideally, your child has been exposed to all those quality mark making experiences.
They should be starting to hold a writing implement with more control. You will also start seeing that the scribbles are showing early signs of turning into something more formed.
Well done so far....but there's more to do! Your child should be moving to the middle stage.
I will say again, if you try this next stage and your child is clearly not ready, simply go back to this one. Your child needs to have built up sufficient control before they can move on. It's not a race, it's a process 🙂
What to do now? Well, more to the point, what NOT to do!
If you were learning something new to you. For example, if you were learning a new computer software for the first time. Imagine you have been given the basic training already, and are now getting your first chance to try it for the first time. How would you feel if there was someone stood behind you correcting every small thing you did wrong?
You probably wouldn't feel happy, and this is as an adult. Can you imagine how a child feels?
But I have seen many people over the years doing this exact thing to their child when they start to write. They will correct even small stroke errors in a child’s first writing, for example.
The way I look at teaching a child to write, is as follows.
Writing is a flow and we need to give a child the confidence to build up that flow. Once that flow is built up, we can gradually work with that child to slowly hone their writing flow as they get older.
And, like I said earlier, there are stages to follow that cannot be skipped. If a child hasn't had enough chances to practice those big early mark making movements, they will simply get frustrated when asked to try holding a pencil and writing in a finer way.
So, at the early stages, we have something I call emergent writing.
The child has started realising that the whole reason that people write is to convey meaning to others. They have seen others write for meaning and want to do the same.
At this stage, we don’t care much for the end result, we just want to help our child start the flow of their writing. You can’t develop a child’s flow of writing if it doesn’t exist!
So don’t correct your child, don’t worry about exact formation. Praise and celebrate your child’s writing efforts. This will in turn help them gain confidence and want to write more. If you scold them for incorrect writing or formation at this early stage, this will be their early impression of writing. You might even put them off writing for life!
When a young child first starts speaking, we don’t start correcting everything they say. We accept this as early baby language. It is the same for writing.
The only thing I would lightly correct is pencil grip. If you see your child holding a pencil in a full fist, you can gently remind them of the appropriate way to hold a pencil.
The pictures below help to illustrate this. The left picture shows the early "fist" pencil grip, and the right is the classic pencil grip.
Now we have a flow of writing, what now?
This is where we gradually start honing the child’s writing. This is how to teach a child to write.
A gradual process of watching their writing flow get better over time.
Phonic knowledge is the other ingredient in this recipe!
At the time of writing, you will find other articles on this blog about brilliant free phonic tools or phonic resources. Your child’s phonic knowledge is an important part of them learning to write.
I would recommend you spend time talking to your child’s teacher, to make sure that you understand what phonics they are learning and how. This will help you match this to whatever you are doing at home.
As your child is learning to write, they are basically learning to apply their phonic knowledge. A good phonic programme will teach the letter sounds in an appropriate order, giving the child an opportunity to spell simple words early on.
For example, in most modern phonic systems, the following phonic sounds are taught first.
S, A, T, P, I, N.
Even if these are the only phonic sounds your child knows, they can already try to make simple words such as tap, pin, nap.
As children start increasing their phonic knowledge, you should start to see this having an influence over their emergent writing.
Often, a child will start by putting random phonic sounds into their emergent writing. Maybe some incoherent squiggles with some actual phonic sounds mixed in.
This is perfectly normal, don’t correct anything. The important thing here is that the child is associating a meaning with those squiggles and random phonic sounds.
Then, you will see the child start to put the correct phonic sounds at the start of some words. Maybe they have told you they have written
“I like pigs”
Where the child has written the word pig, you would see that they have put the correct “P” sound at the start.
Usually, a child will learn the sounds at the start of words first, then the ending sounds and finally work out how to fill in the middle.
The final step is to learn so called "tricky words". These are words that don't follow the usual phonic rules and thus can't be sounded out.
The act of sounding out words will take time for your child to master, so don't worry if they struggle at first. You can help them practise with games and you will find at some point that the penny will drop. Some children will get this quickly, whereas others will take time.
Are you starting to get the idea? There is a natural flow to writing progression that we need to embrace. The child can also have much more fun when we teach them how to write in this way. They are far more likely to build a love of writing if we go down this route.
Of course, I would recommend doing research on full phonic programmes, I only have the time to give you a simple outline in this article.
Please don't teach your child letter names only!
This is something I have seen again and again as a teacher.
A child will enter my class at 4 years old and can reel off all the letter names perfectly.
However, when asked what the letter sounds are, they are totally lost for words.
A child can’t sound out a word with letter names. This is why, if you want to help your child at home, you MUST teach them the letter name and letter sounds together!
This is also one of the reasons I don’t like the traditional ABC song. For some reason it seems to tell parents that letter names are the most important thing.
See what I mean??
But my child still can't form letters right!!
Another thing I see a lot is parents worrying about their child’s exact letter formation and correcting it at every turn.
I prefer a more subtle approach. Most of the time, simply exposing your child to correct letter formation, will help them improve their own writing over time.
It’s the same when we learn to speak. Maybe at first a child won’t say a particular word correctly. However, as they hear that word said correctly again and again, their speech is naturally corrected.
It’s the same for me when it comes to early writing. We don’t want to deflate a child’s confidence with over correction. If I see a child forming something incorrectly, I simply show them the correct way at the end. Having a small whiteboard handy is usually good for this.
The only time to start correcting this, is if you see the child getting older, to the 6 years + stage and still forming most letters incorrectly. However, at the earlier stages, we focus on encouragement and being a good model of writing to the children.
How can I help my child with letter formation?
Like anything with Early Childhood education, it MUST be in the form of a fun and engaging activity.
As long as the child sees how you form the letter and copies it, it doesn't matter what the game is.
Some basic examples of this could be....going to the beach and writing letters in the wet sand (using a stick).
Playing bingo with a small whiteboard. The child writes down some letters to form their bingo card. Then, you act as the caller to call out the letters.
As I said above, always read the letter name and sound together.
As I don't want this article to be a million words long, I will leave it there. There are plenty more ideas to be found online.
Should I use worksheets?
Personally, I never use worksheets. In my mind, an actual practical activity is always more meaningful than worksheets. A worksheet makes things quite abstract, especially for a young child.
I can see why worksheets are so popular. They are easy to use and appear to be "work" in the eyes of the adult. But, believe me, you will get so much more out of your child if you replace those worksheets for fun and engaging activities.
But my child doesn't want to write!
You will always find that some children are naturally interested in writing, whereas others may need a bit of support to gain the required motivation.
When thinking of writing topics for kids, it’s actually quite simple.
We want the child to feel that the writing activity has value or meaning for them. If they feel an adult is forcing them to write for no reason, this could often de-motivate a child.
These writing topics must have a meaning. You can do this is two main ways.
Like I said earlier in the article, a lot of children take great pleasure copying what they see adults do. Therefore, If you have shown them routines at home that require writing, they are far more likely to find this interesting and want to help.
Maybe you have had the child sat next to you whilst you have written shopping lists in the past, for example. As the child grows older, you can encourage them to have a go at writing their own shopping list.
You might like to label food jars in your house with their contents. Again, if you model this when the child is younger, you can encourage them to have a go at this when they are ready.
By relating writing activities to your child’s interests, you should find the natural motivation starting to come back.
It could be as simple as buying your child a special writing book with their favourite cartoon character on front.
You could choose one of their favourite characters from a story book. Mock up a letter from that character to your child. In this letter, it could ask your child to tell them something or help them with a problem. Your child will then have a real reason and motivation to write a letter back.
This article cannot possibly explain all of this In detail. You can find more about this style of teaching writing by doing your own research.
Is this the be all and end all of how to teach a child to write? Certainly not!
The idea of this article is just to give you the general idea of how to support your child’s writing journey. The process is a long one with many stages. Each stage is age and/or ability appropriate. Each child is ready for each stage at different points in their life.
It’s not a mad rush to write, it’s about supporting your child through the writing process in the most natural way possible.
Have fun with writing. If done right, your child should grow up enjoying writing, not dreading it!
If I can help just a few parents understand the common question “Why can’t my child write?” a bit better, then this article was more than worthy of my time.
Although this article got pretty long, I am sure there are things I may have missed. You can write any questions you have below.
Also, if you would like to share any key moments or inspirations from your child’s writing journey, please feel free to do that too.
You might want to check out some reviews I have of phonic or writing related products. For example, here is my Teach Your Monster to Read review, an excellent free phonics resource.
Here I have also reviewed an excellent course that will guide you how to teach your child how to read with quick lessons every day.
Below are some products that you may find useful whilst teaching your child to write.
(Handpicked by me, for what it's worth!)