Pre-writing and Writing Skills in Children

Occupational Therapy
Pre-writing and Writing Skills in Children

Fundamental skills required to hold a writing tool, and to be able to write are called pre-writing and writing skills.

Pre- writing skills require adequate:

  1. Postural control
  2. Midline crossing
  3. Bilateral coordination skills
  4. Hand strength and control for fine motor activities
  5. Visual perceptual skills
  6. Visual motor skills
  7. Motor memory
  8. Ability to attend
  1. Postural control

It can be defined as, “the act of maintaining, achieving, or restoring a state of balance during an activity”.  Although postural control is a developmental process, this does not mean that it develops normally in everyone. Development of posture is important in terms of having the appropriate muscles to keep ourselves in an upright position, but this is not the case in everyone. Watch out for signs of poor postural control; they include, but are not limited to:

  • Sitting on a chair in slouched position
  • Leaning far onto table top to gain support while sitting
  • Frequent falls while seated
  • Difficulty on playground equipment such as slides, poles, sees saws, and swings
  • Walking with wide base support and sitting in ‘W-sit’ wide position

Postural control and proximal stability are important for handwriting. This can be achieved through activities that encourage co-contraction through the neck, shoulders, elbows, and wrists in young children such as:

  • Animal walks (crab walks, bear walks, snake crawl and frog jump)
  • Wheelbarrow walks
  • Playing games on tummy
  • Physical activities with theraband
  • Fun games such as tug-of-war

When sitting on a chair ensure the child’s knees and hips are at an approximate 90degree angle with an upright back, relaxed shoulders and feet resting on the floor comfortably.

  1. Midline crossing

The body’s mid-line is an imaginary line down the centre of the body that divides the body into left and right. Crossing the body’s mid-line is the ability to reach across the middle of the body with the arms and legs.

It is an important developmental skill needed for everyday tasks such as writing, reaching towards your foot to put on a shoe and sock with both hands or hitting a ball with a bat.

When a child spontaneously crosses the mid-line with the dominant hand, then the dominant hand gets the practice needed to develop good fine motor skills.

If a child avoids crossing the mid-line, then both hands tend to get equal practice at developing skills and the child’s true handedness may be delayed. This means that once a child starts school, learning to write is much more difficult when they have two ‘less skilled’ hands rather than one stronger, more skilled (dominant) hand. Difficulty crossing the mid-line also makes it hard to visually track a moving object from one side to the other or track from left to right.

The fundamental skills to improve midline crossing are:

  • Bilateral integration skills: Using both sides of the body at the same time.
  • Core stability and trunk rotation: The muscles of the trunk that helps in stabilizing the body so the arms and legs can move with control.
  • Hand dominance: The consistent use of one hand or foot most often (facilitates development of refined movement control).
  • Planning and sequencing: The ability to follow multi-step instructions to achieve a defined outcome or end point.
  • Body awareness: The information that muscles and joints send to our brain that tells us about our body position in space.
  1. Bilateral co-ordination

Bilateral coordination refers to the ability to coordinate both sides of the body at the same time in a controlled and organized manner; for example, stabilizing paper with one hand while writing/ cutting with the other, jumping jacks, jumping rope and cutting with scissors are a few examples, of bilateral gross and fine motor activities.

There are three different types of bilateral coordination.

  1. a) Symmetrical movements– Both hands do the same thing at the same time.  An example of this would be pulling up pants or socks.  Other activities that help improve this skill include   
  • Holding a squeeze bottle with both hands at the midline to paint
  • Jumping rope
  • Jumping Jacks
  • Catching a ball with both hands
  1. b) Alternating Movements – Using both extremities in alternating motions.  You will see alternating bilateral coordination with swimming or climbing a ladder. Other activities that help improve this skill include:
  • Riding a bike
  • Marching
  1. c) Dominant hand/ Non-dominant hand – Using one hand to perform a task while the other assists is essential for many fine motor skills.  This type of bilateral coordination is needed for writing, and cutting with scissors.  Activities to work on this skill include:
  • Threading
  • Lacing cards
  • Coloring
  • Writing
  • Tying shoes
  1. Hand muscle strengthening and fine motor skills

Fine motor skills involve the movements of small muscles, that require your child's brain to coordinate between the action and what they are seeing. Fine motor skills can impact things like holding a fork to eat or using a pencil to write. Fine motor skills start to develop when a child uses the smaller muscles in their hands, wrists, fingers, feet and toes. Developing those muscles includes actions like grasping, holding and pressing. 

A child's hand is not fully developed until the age of seven. As a child grows and develops their grasp patterns change over time.

  • Palmar Grasp (4 months onward): When any object is placed in an infant's palm, the fingers flex reflexively around the object. This is called palmar grasp.
  • Pincer Grasp (9-12 months): It is the coordination of the thumb and the index finger to hold an object with eye hand coordination. Pincer grasp evolves with infants learning to finger feed.
  • Palmar Supinate Grasp (12 months onward): It is a fisted grasp with the thumb wrapped at the top of the writing utensil, usually accompanied by scribbling.
  • Digital Pronate Grasp (2-3 years): This is where children begin to move the pencil into their fingers, but you'll notice that it's done in kind of a backwards, upside down posture.
  • Quadrupod Grasp (3-4 years): At this stage, the child begins to hold the pencil with their finger. They're no longer using the palm of their hand, but their fingers to write.
  • Tripod Grasp (4-5 years): tripod grasp is holding a pencil with three fingers (thumb, middle and index fingers)

Activities to improve fine motor skills

  • Activities with Play-dough or clay
  • Activities with cloth pegs
  • Single hole punch activities
  • Squeaky squeeze toy
  • Legos
  • Activities with tweezers and tongs
  • Making paper straw
  1. Visual perceptual skills

Some children have difficulty with handwriting for reasons that are not motor related. It may be due to deficits in their visual perceptual skills, or the brain's ability to make sense of what the eyes see. Visual perceptual skills are important for everyday activities such as dressing, eating, writing, and playing.

Activities to encourage visual perceptual skills

  • Paper and marble mazes
  • Connect the dot activities
  • Find the hidden pictures
  • Puzzles
  • Copying pictures or forms. 
  • Wooden blocks
  • Patterning
  • Matching and sorting 
  1. Visual motor co-ordination

Visual motor skills are another prerequisite for handwriting. This involves eye-hand coordination, or the ability to use the hands and eyes together in a coordinated manner. The coordination of visual information is perceived and processed with fine and gross motor skills.

How do you know if a child is having difficulty with visual motor skills? One clue is that they might not be very athletic. They may be clumsy, tripping and falling all the time. They're going to have a hard time catching and kicking a ball. They may also exhibit difficulty with recognizing patterns, have a hard time drawing or copying shapes, and have trouble with sequencing and piecing together a puzzle.

Activities to improve visual motor skills

  • Completing mazes
  • Tracing letters, numbers and shapes
  • Pouring liquid from container to container
  • Playing with Legos
  • Completing puzzles
  • Doing connect-the-dots exercises
  • Stacking blocks
  1. Motor memory

Motor memory is the result of motor learning, which involves developing new muscular coordination. This allows us to recall motor coordination we have learned in order for us to interact with the environment. Playing the piano, catching a ball, and riding a bike are all examples of motor memory.

  1. Attention

If a. child is unable to sit and attend to a tabletop activity, it’s difficult them to attend to the fine motor details and fine visual discrimination details between each letter and/ or words. Therefore, it is very important to work on attention to improve child’s writing skill.

An occupational therapist can a child with pre-writing and writing skills. For more information or schedule an appointment contact us.


Written by,

Mr. Balasubramanian. M (Occupational Therapist)

Ms. Chitra Thadathil (Speech Language Pathologist)

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