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Prewriting Skills to Support Early Writing
By Carolyn Tomlin

Five-year-old Kim is excited about starting kindergarten. A preschool tablet, pencil, crayons and other items on the supply list fill up her new red book bag. Meeting her daughter after school, Kim’s mother notices a difference in the happy child she sent off that morning. “What’s wrong, Honey? Where is that smile?”
 
Tears well up in her eyes. Then she confesses, “I don’t know how to write. But a light shines in her eyes as she says, “But a lot of the other kids can’t write, either!”

Erin Brown Conroy, author of Writing SkillBuilders, Book One: A Fun-Filled Book of Prewriting Skills for Beginning Writers, says that hand-eye coordination begins to develop at an early age.  She notes that children need to perfect that coordination in order to learn writing skills, “Through repetition and practice of specific movements, the brain and muscles learn to work together as a team,” (Conroy, 2004).

Several factors determine the difficulty of handwriting for children. One is the rate at which each child develops the skills essential to early writing.

Fine Motor Control: A Prerequisite for Writing
Fine motor skills are the ability to control the small precise movements with the fingers, wrists and hands. Before a child can reproduce letters and numbers that are legible, this development must take place. Like other stages of maturity, there is no one certain period when this growth takes place. For some, finger dexterity appears at age 2 or 3, while others are still developing them at ages 5 or 7 or later.

Fine motor skills are not only important for writing— they are necessary in order to button and zip clothes, tie shoes, and later learn to read without difficulty. Eye-hand coordination is a prerequisite for developing the visual perception necessary to read from left to right (Beaty, 1979).

Activities and Manipulatives to Develop Fine Motor Control
Activities and manipulatives that focus on eye-hand coordination develop fine motor control.  For children with severe fine motor delays, these activities also serve as occupational therapy. Provide a wide variety so children have an opportunity to choose throughout the day. Here are some activities that young children enjoy using:
 
• Finger plays make learning fun and increase fine motor dexterity. Use these with poems and rhymes. If a book doesn’t include finger motions, make up your own to match the developmental level and enjoyment of the children. Children of several generations have learned these finger plays.
 Five Little Squirrels
 The Beehive
 My Hands
 Ten Little Fingers
 Where is Thumbkin?
 Five Little Monkeys
 Eensy, Weensy Spider
 The Apple Tree
 The House
 I Have Two Eyes to See With

• Shaving Cream allows a child to experiment with fine motor development, make changes, erase and begin again. There is no right or wrong way – except to keep the cream in a designated place.
• Cut sandpaper letters and numbers in block form and place in the manipulative center. Ask the child to look at the shapes, then with their eyes closed, feel and trace the outline with their finger..
• Air writing consists of making shapes with the index finger, as if writing on paper. Begin with large circles—moving to small circles. Continue with geometric shapes and move into letters and numbers. As you introduce each letter of the alphabet or number, ask children to “air write” the figure.
• Provide a sand table or large dishpan of sand for letter writing. Children may use their index finger or a blunt stick or pencil for “writing” in the sand.
• Use coloring books of favorite objects with short crayon stubs. Using stubs forces the child to maintain a pencil grip, which will later help her hold a pencil correctly.
• Use play dough or clay, and have the child knead the material, pound it into shapes, roll it and mold the material into objects. After you read or tell a story, children will enjoy making characters in the text out of clay.
• Use puzzles to give children the opportunity to make choices while developing finger dexterity. Always place puzzles on a low shelf in the classroom designed for manipulative play. They  can choose the pieces they want to work with as well as where they want to work. The floor? Or, a low table? Wooden commercial puzzles that make up a separate part of a person’s or animal’s body, are the best ones to start with for unskilled three-year-olds. You may need to try out different puzzles with your children in the beginning to make sure they are not too difficult (Beaty, 1979).
• Other manipulatives include interlocking bricks, stacking toys, dominos, Tinkertoys, snapping beads and stringing beads. Don’t overlook those inexpensive games you can make yourself.
• Place small pegs in a pegboard to teaching eye-hand coordination.
• Stick golf tees in Styrofoam for an inexpensive game easily made by teachers and parents.
• Drop pebbles into tubes to develop dexterity for small fingers.
• Use the index finger and thumb to move small butters, coins, pasta from one egg carton to another.
• Lace cards using a hole-punch and yarn.

Tips for Beginning Writers
As a kindergarten teacher, I recall the frustrations of a 5-year-oldnamed “Jason.” Unfortunately, Jason came from a home that expected perfection—nothing else! One morning, as he tried to form the letter “J” he ripped page after page from his tablet and threw it in the trashcan. Big tears streamed down his cheeks.
Jason is only one of many young children who are not ready to begin using tablet and pencils. For these, they lack fine muscle control that allow the fingers to control a pencil.

Parents and teachers can use a variety of manipulatives as well as these tips to make the process easier.
1. Show by example the correct way to hold a pencil. Using a “tripod grip,” hold the pencil equally by the thumb, the side of the middle finger and the tip of the index finger (Conroy, 2004)
2. Make handwriting pleasant without unnecessary stress. (Olsen, 1998)
3. Begin with a long sheet of paper slanted on a vertical plane. Tape or tack this to a wall at the child’s eye-level. As the child masters this technique, gradually slant the paper to a horizontal plane.
4. Begin by tracing the letter in the air with the finger, then a large stick, move to damp sand and end with finger paint.
5. When the child is ready, provide an opportunity to scribble(not the wall, not the furniture) on paper provided for this purpose.
6. Realize children learn best through modeling. As you teach, use drawings on a white board to illustrate characters or objects in the story. Ask: how can you follow the story through drawing?
7. Don’t rush into writing. Allow youngsters time to experiment with shapes and alphabets by scribbling (Striker, 2001).
8. “Publish” children’s writing by turning their early writing into pages and using a cover that illustrates the book. Place in the reading center for easy availability.
9. Plan for fun opportunities. Watch them grow in creativity, imagination and skill.

Stages of Prewriting
Dr. Melvin Levine, author of Developmental Variation & Learning Disorders, cites the following stages through which all children progress (including those with handicaps).They include:
• Scribble or pretend to write
• Gain the awareness that letters can be arranged to form words
• Begin to organize letters and shapes in a line
• Begin to print letters and numbers
• Become adept at printing letters
• Become preoccupied with visual appearance of writing
• Use invented spelling of words liberally (Levine, 1987).

Use the elements outlined above as general guidelines to ensure early writing success!

References:
Beaty, J. J. (1979). Skills for Preschool Teachers. Charles E. Merrill
    Publishing: Columbus, Ohio.
Conroy, E.B. (2004). Writing SkillBuilders, Book One: A Fun-filled Book of
    Prewriting Skills for Beginning Writers
.  Celtic Cross Publishing:
    Lastingham, England.
Levine, M. (1987). Developmental Variation & Learning Disorders.
    Educators Publishing Service: Cambridge, MA.
Olsen, J. (1998). Handwriting Without Tears. Quiet Stream Press: Potomac, MD.
Striker, S. (2001). Young at Art: Teaching Toddlers Self-Expression,
    Problem-Solving Skills & Appreciation of Art
. Henry Holt & Co.: New
    York, NY.

Carolyn R. Tomlin, Jackson, TN, has taught preschool, kindergarten and been the assistant professor of education at Union University. She contributes to numerous education magazines.