Handwriting is a Complex Behaviour

Handwriting is one of the most complex behaviours we learn and continue to perform. Organising our thoughts on paper is far more difficult than processing speech. Handwriting is one of the building blocks for becoming literate. It promotes our visual memory and encourages a certain level of unconscious skill to automate the process of graphic maturity. With practice and consistent exposure handwriting becomes fluent.


Handwriting Starts Early

Handwriting starts early with a young child’s scribble patterns. This is the first steps and prerequisite to developing the skills and knowledge needed for formal writing. Holding implements to eat, draw, paint and colour, is an important part of developing correct pencil grip when commencing formal writing. The development of gross and fine motor arm, hand and finger movements all assist in the ability of the learner to manipulate with fine motor skills of the fingers and movement needed to hold a pencil and write.

Handwriting is an integral part of every learner’s experience. 

The Skills Effecting Writing Ability Are:

  • Internal factors such as the abilities found within the learner to understand and manipulate small motor movement. Visual - motor skills, visual perception, motor planning and the ability to plan new motor behaviours are essential for learning to write.
  • In-hand manipulation and kinaesthetic awareness for holding a pencil and knowing how to move and manipulate it to form letters ties in with hand eye coordination.
  • Also of importance is attention memory and language. The ability to hold an image in memory to understand what is to be written and how to write it.
  • External factors such as instructional procedure and the materials used to do writing play an important role in learning to write.. You need to ask yourself as their teacher, how are you teaching writing and are your utensils appropriate.

Success of handwriting can be optimised when developmentally appropriate. Know when a learner is ready to begin formal handwriting. There are six foundation skills needed as prerequisites to writing. Assess these in the learner before moving on to formal writing. The pre-requisites are;

  • Small muscle development.
  • Effective hand/eye coordination.
  • Appropriate utensil or tool manipulation.
  • Cognitive readiness.
  • Basic stroke formation.
  • Alphabet letter recognition and orientation to speak and write language.

Handwriting Milestones for quick reference are a little different for each child but will give you a guide as to what your child may be getting ready to do to encourage the skill needed to build a foundation for beginning writing.

Age 10-15 months. This group love to scribble on paper and the wall if you aren’t careful. Offer different diameter crayons and coloured and white paper to stimulate interest and consistent exposure to handwriting tools.

Age 2 years. Should be encouraged to initiate horizontal, vertical, circular, and curved lines by building muscle strength in the hands and fingers. Use spray bottles with coloured water so the child can practice squeeze and release motions. Also introduce other media and tools such as paint and brushes to stimulate interest.

Age 3 years. This group will start to copy different lines on paper. May start to make the letters of their name. Provide opportunities for drawing and colouring and creating of different shapes. Provide such resources as chalk, white board markers and playdough to roll and squeeze to continue to encourage strength in small muscles.

Ages 4-5 years. Continue to copy their own name and are able to copy directional lines. May start to write other letters and numbers. To encourage further development use tracing sheets with different outlines of animals, numbers and letters. Can start dot-to-dot games and continue to encourage playdough.

Ages 5-6 years. They are now starting to copy shapes such as squares and triangles. They love to cut with scissors. Encourage pincer and tripod grip by using tweezers to pick up items and walking their index and middle fingers on a surface.

There are many great work books to use so learners can practice the pre-requisites to writing. These are set out in developmental sequences and learners should be allowed to perfect their styles before moving on to formal writing.

Everyone’s writing is different so don’t get too pedantic with perfect form as this can cause stress and fatigue in the learner. All attempts are a great effort.

Handwriting will eventually become automatic if learners are allowed to progress through the process of building a strong foundation for progressing to become an independent hand writer. Encouragement to use tools; exercises to develop small muscles; and exposure to written language through reading will all play an important role in children becoming literate through handwriting.

Forming Letters

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Heather Collins

Heather Collins is an Early Childhood and Special Education Teacher who makes developmentally appropriate resources for teachers and parents to use with their children. She is author and co-author of poetry books and children’s books. She is a passionate collagist and has crafted beautiful finger puppets and story aprons suitable for early childhood education.

Her resources can be purchased on this website or she can be contacted at Create-Ed by emailing heathercreated@gmail.com. You can order an original apron for any favourite storybook.

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