Pre-Writing Skills Development. Walk Before you Can Run.

They say you can’t run before you can walk, and I am certain that we all agree that this is true.  Just as valid is that children cannot learn to form letters and numbers before they have mastered the drawing of shapes.  And they cannot draw shapes before they can draw the component lines.  So, we need these pre-writing skills in place before your child is ready to begin with formal handwriting instruction.  Read on to find out more about pre-writing skills development and pre-writing activities for preschoolers.

We have looked in detail at the mastery of basic lines and stokes in The Journey from Scribbles to Handwriting.  But there was only a brief mention of the next step of shape acquisition.  By about 4 years of age, many children have mastered the vertical and horizontal lines and the circle.  However, they now need to add the diagonal lines and the square and triangle.

A pre-writing skills development infographic showing the developmental sequence of the lines and shapes needed for handwriting.

pre-writing skills

Recognition before reproduction

Before a child can reproduce a form, they need to be able to discriminate and name the different forms.  This starts early with matching games and shape sorters where the child posts the form into the matching hole.  Naming occurs at much the same time as parents and caregivers name each form as the child engages with it.

The ability to reproduce a form can be looked at in different stages:

  1. The ability to recognise and name the form;
  2. The ability to draw the component lines such as the vertical, horizontal and diagonal;
  3. The ability to watch someone draw the form and then make your own, known as imitation:
  4. The ability to copy a visual representation of a form before them;
  5. And finally, to be able to draw the shape from memory. This requires them to retrieve a visual picture of the shape and then represent it on paper.

Keith E Beery, known to many in the education field as the developer of the Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration, said that children need to be able to replicate the first 9 forms of the test before they can begin to master letters. These 9 are included in the infographic. Therefore, we must give shape reproduction a place in any programme focusing on pre-writing activities for preschoolers.

We seem so hasty to get our children writing. But if we just allowed them a little more time to develop the foundations before rushing towards formalised handwriting instruction, they would, in all likelihood, get to the endpoint quicker.  Asking our children to write before they are developmentally ready to draw lines and shapes is a little like asking them to run before they can walk.  We need to allow time for pre-writing skills development to be consolidated before leaping into formalised handwriting instruction.

A pre-writing skills development post and download from The Happy Handwriter on the stages of shape reproduction development.


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How do we teach our children to draw forms?

The mastery of these shapes is part of pre-writing skills development. It is much the same as the mastery of all early graphomotor – or pre-writing – skills. We are looking for a multi-sensory approach that will incorporate the tactile, kinaesthetic, and auditory modalities. The visual system goes without saying.

Pre-writing skills development

Tactile input is not new to parents and teachers. It has been discussed since your children were babies and is an integral part of any pre-school teacher’s training. We know that giving specific touch input assists with the laying down of motor pathways, and mastering the drawing of shapes is no exception.

The kinaesthetic or movement input arises from the muscle spindles, with some additional input from the touch receptors.  Auditory input is powerful when it comes to establishement of letter formation and we have every reason to believe that verbalising the directions of a shape is helping the brain to process and lay down the motor pathways for the drawing of shapes in just the same way.

Our Shape Builder has put this all together for you in one resource including the visual, tactile, auditory and kinaesthetic input.  It starts with the most basic of shapes and progresses to the more complex.

Ensuring the lines, strokes, and shapes are in place before commencing with letter formation in Grade R will help your children accomplish this with far greater ease. If we equate pre-writing skills to walking, letter and number formation are the running. Putting it all together as handwriting in Grade 1 is the ultra-marathon. No one would expect a runner to attempt such a race without the proper training. Therefore, ensuring the pre-writing lines and shapes are in place is an integral part of pre-writing activities for preschoolers.

In closing about pre-writing skills development

One of the critical building blocks for letter formation is the ability to draw the basic lines and shapes from memory.  Developmental readiness is a vital aspect of the mastery of any task.  Asking our children to engage in formalised handwriting tasks before they have mastered the foundations is almost certainly contributing to the handwriting challenges that have become so prevalent in our classrooms.  We need to get back to basics and focus on pre-writing activities for preschoolers in our programmes.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

You may find the developmental outline of the shapes here:

Erhardt, R., 1994. Developmental Hand Dysfunction. 2nd ed. United States of America: Therapy Skill Builders.

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Karrie Kelly also has loads of ideas of pre-writing skills on Pinterest, so do take a look!

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