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On the road to literacy: learning to write

Parents wait for that wonderful day when their child learns to read. But reading words is only part of early literacy; writing is important to literacy, too. And no matter what the child’s age, he or she is learning to write.

“Long before a child can pick up a pencil, the stage is set for the development of writing,” says Jane Kostelc, early childhood specialist at Parents as Teachers National Center in St. Louis, MO.

“When your baby uses her index finger and thumb to grasp objects it is called the pincer grasp,” Kostelc adds. “This skill forms the basis for holding a pencil in a mature writing position.”

Being able to control a pencil depends on stability of the shoulder and arm and strength and dexterity of the hand and fingers.

A baby builds her strength by bearing weight on her hands when she is on her tummy and pushes up to raise her head or chest off the surface, so it is essential to give a baby lots of tummy time to build strong back, shoulders and arms for crawling and writing.

Vision also plays an important role in writing. Children have to use their hands and eyes together to coordinate the movement of the pencil.

When babies gaze and focus on their parents’ faces or accurately reach for and grasp objects, they are practicing eye-hand coordination.

Toddlers are driven by their curiosity to explore with their hands and eyes.

Kostelc says toddlers should be encouraged to play with materials of different textures and consistencies, such as shaving cream or play dough, to provide stimulation for fine motor development.

Unscrewing lids or turning doorknobs helps a toddler’s wrist become strong yet flexible.

Parents are urged to supply lots of paper and a variety of writing tools to encourage the child to scribble often. And drawing with a child helps him associate writing with comfort and enjoyment as he moves into writing in the preschool years.

A child will probably show an interest in writing by using it in her pretend play, such as scribbling a “shopping list” while playing store.

When they do this, preschoolers demonstrate an understanding that spoken language can be written down and that it must be read in the same way every time.

They know that the symbols of writing have meaning and they begin to reproduce those that have the most meaning to them, like their names or “M-O-M” and “D-A-D.”

Says Kostelc, “A child will begin to have more control over writing tools when she starts to use a mature grip, called a tripod grip, to hold them.”

She recommends encouraging a preschooler’s writing by giving her old calendars, notebooks or address books to write in. Parents can also point out letters while running errands, especially letters that are in the child’s name.

“Sit with her and let her enjoy the process of learning to write without pressure to make the letters right. That will come with time,” Kostelc says.

Is he ready to write?

The early childhood experts at Parents as Teachers National Center offer the following insights that a child is ready to learn how to write and read in school:

• Experiments with writing tools by scribbling

• Scribbles left to right

• Understands the difference between drawing and writing

• Makes letter-like forms and perhaps some letters

• Writes letters all over the page

• Strings letters together to represent writing

• Groups letters separated by spaces to imitate words

• Copies a letter by looking at a model

• Writes a first word, usually his name


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