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A guide to letter formation

Do the write thing: How kids learn to write and how to help them do it

The first and most important lesson for parents when talking about kids and letter formation is: ‘Don’t rush it’

When we think of children learning to write we tend to picture them holding a pencil or crayon and making marks on paper. However physically a lot needs to happen before we can expect the child to have control of a pencil. To help prepare your child for writing, put the pencils down and go outside! 

Before a child can hold a pencil and form letters, we need to ensure that their physical development is secure to support this. 

A child’s development can be looked at as a vertical line from the brain, down the spinal cord and then into the pelvis and lower limbs eventually reaching to the toes, this is called  cephalocaudal principle of development. 

Horizontally development starts at the midline and then extends through the shoulders into the elbows and wrists and then eventually the fingers/extremities, this is called the proximal distal principle.

With this in mind we can’t expect the child to have good control over their wrists and fingers which is imperative for letter formation, when they have not gained proper control and strength of the muscles that come before this development. The fingers are the last of the developmental sequence.

The importance of developing these muscles cannot be understated. Rather concentrate on supporting this lead up to development than rushing to get your child to write.

How can I support my child’s gross motor skills to encourage future writing skills?

Climbing – Uses the core muscles and shoulder and upper body strength

Throwing balls or bean bags – Throwing overhand and underhand will exercise the shoulder joints

Bat and balls games – Uses shoulder, elbow and wrists and whole-body coordination

Riding bikes and tricycles – Develops core muscles are used for balance and control

Swimming – Develops core, arm and neck and shoulder strength

Mop painting – Use a large sheet of paper/wallpaper or tarpaulin. Place some water with bubbles and some paint and allow for the children to paint with the mops. This will also encourage crossing the midline which is essential for writing.

Playing wheelbarrows where you support the child’s weight by holding their feet and they walk forward with their hands. Slowly and as, they get stronger allow  them to use more of their body weight which will strengthen the upper body

Other fine motor activities which support letter formation

  • Threading beads onto laces
  • Playdough and clay
  • Using tweezers to pick items up such as pom poms, peas, rolled up paper balls
  • Place pegs on the side of a tin and ask the child to take them off and then place them back on the tin
  • Place some flour in a shallow tray and allow for the child to make patterns and marks in the flour
  • Using scissors to cut paper and even playdough will strengthen the muscles in the hands

5 ways to support your child with their letter formation practice at home

  1. Wooden boards with letter grooves are a lovely way to practice making the shapes of letters. These are available in various shops and online

2. Trays with flour – Use a wooden pen or finger to trace letters.  You could print the child’s name and have this on the side for them to copy. Use capital letters for the first letter of their names but concentrate on lower case at this stage.

3. Messy play is also a lovely fun way to encourage movement. Wiping shaving foam back and forth across a surface is a simple way to encourage children to move their shoulders and arms and make marks.


4. It is a good idea to have writing tools and paper and books to write on around the house to encourage children to write and make marks. Sometimes it is exciting to create an unexpected area such as placing paper underneath a table and getting the children to write upside down while laying on the floor.  This could be a secret den with special messages or a headquarters for missions, let them use their imagination to make writing fun.

5. Use opportunities when you are outdoors to write in sand with a stick or write in the air with your hands trying to guess the letters.  Remember movement is  key to producing strength for writing.

Your child’s handwriting journey 

By the age of 2 years or thereabouts, children will begin to distinguish between different marks they make and from approximately 30-50  months they will begin to give meaning to the marks they make.  

You will notice that toddlers tend to grasp pencils and tools in a palmer grasp (whole hand). They will then move on to a tripod grip (three fingers) and by the age of approximately 3-4 years a two finger and thumb grip.

They may start to imitate and draw circles and lines between the ages of 22-36 months, and this becomes more controlled and secure between 30-50 months when they may start copying letters.

Children between the ages of 40-60 months may move on to using anti clockwise movements and drawing vertical lines.

Remember that all children develop at different rates so don’t worry if they have not achieved this exactly at the times suggested. Always liaise with your child’s educators for guidance on their specific development progress with regards to letter formation and further.