Category Archives: Language and Literacy

Fine motor skills, handwriting, or writing? What’s the difference?

I recently received a call from a program administrator asking for an opinion on a practice that was concerning to her. Several parents have enrolled their preschoolers in an enrichment program based on “Handwriting Without Tears.” The parents are telling her their preschool children need to know how to write before they enter kindergarten, so the enrichment program has been very popular, for the parents. The administrator asked if, indeed, children do need to know how to write, and what did I think of this practice?

First, let’s sort out the difference between fine motor skills, handwriting, and writing, and what exactly is developmentally appropriate for preschoolers.

Fine motor development is all about strength and control of the small muscles in the hand.

Developmental progression of fine motor skills involves the mastery of the following:

A young child using this grasp will tend to grab indiscriminately at objects, hoping that something stays within his/her grip. Chubby crayons, puzzles with large knobs, and fingerpainting all support development of the palmer grip. As the name implies, gripping an object is mostly done by placing the object in the palm of the hand and closing the fingers around it.

As children’s hand strength and coordination improves, the pincer grasp involves grasping an object between the finger(s) and thumb, allowing more control over smaller objects. Picking up an individual Cheerio, playing with clay, and stringing beads support development of the pincer grip.

Development of eye-hand coordination involves the strength and control of the fingers and hand, as well as the ability to visually focus attention on what the hand and fingers are grasping and how to control the movements of the fingers and hand to accomplish a task. The above tasks all involve some amount of eye-hand coordination, but a child’s developmental maturity will influence how successful he/she is at each task.

Handwriting is all about the proper way to form letters and words, typically using paper and pencil.

Handwriting is NOT a developmentally appropriate skill until a child is in first grade. Where many early childhood educators get stumped is on how to promote the proper grip for holding crayons and pencils. Google the word “handwriting” and you’ll find many, many links to downloadable worksheets for handwriting practice. As a skill, handwriting involves many steps:

  • Knowing the letters
  • Visual perception skills, i.e. being able to interpret and understand what is seen
  • Following a sequence of steps
  • Controlling the pencil on paper to stay within the guidelines
  • Repeated practice of individual letters or groups of letters
  • Understanding left to right progression
  • Understanding top to bottom progression
  • Tracking the movement of the hand, the pencil, and the paper

Writing is about putting your ideas on paper.

Communicating ideas so that others understand what you want to say is a lifelong skill. Written communication begins in toddlerhood with the first marks a child makes with paper and crayon, and maybe even a wall. There are fairly universal typical stages of writing development and drawing development in children. Writing for young children takes many forms:

  • Making marks on a page
  • Scribbling with crayons
  • Drawing or painting a picture
  • Using letter like shapes and symbols to represent words
  • Writing words, phrases or sentences
  • Drawing a sequence of pictures to tell a story

So what is really important for a 3 or 4 year old? Is it forming the perfect letter “a” on a page, or drawing a picture of your family and scribbling to represent their names?

Legible handwriting is important, for an elementary school age child, but what is far more important is the ability to express your ideas. In preschool, attention should be focused on providing a wide variety of activities and experiences that build fine and gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination, the opportunity to express ideas in multiple ways. Handwriting has other important benefits, besides the formation of letters, however, as a developmental skill, handwriting success doesn’t come until children are in Kindergarten and First grade.

Handwriting emphasizes one right way to put the letter on the page. It involves many coordinated skills, as well as lots of repetition in order to master this skill. Handwriting Without Tears claims it is a research based program, the research cited does not explicitly state that handwriting practice is an essential early childhood skill. The research quoted references the need for children’s play, and the development of language and literacy skills. All of this can be accomplished in well- developed program that focuses on best practices in early childhood education.

Written communication emphasizes expressing yourself so that others understand your message.

Some might even argue that handwriting is becoming obsolete with the growth of electronic media. We all know what spell check has done for us! . However, there will always be a need for well-written thank you note.

Success in school and in life depends on how well you are able to communicate your ideas, not how neatly you form your letters.

As much as I despise standardized tests, none of the tests out there measure handwriting ability, but they sure do measure how well you can communicate your ideas. Early childhood screening tools don’t measure handwriting ability. Screening tools measure fine motor skills, and communication skills.

So what’s a parent to do?

Find ways to support your child’s fine motor development. Roll and throw the ball to your child. Vary the size and texture of the ball. Paint. Color. Play with clay. Make pizza dough. Practice using a mixing spoon in a bowl. Use tongs to place pom poms in an ice cube tray. String beads. Do jigsaw puzzles. Use stampers and ink. Play in the sand. Dig in the dirt. Build with blocks. Race cars around a track. In a nutshell, PLAY!

Encourage your child to express his ideas. Tell stories. Ask your child questions about what interests her, why he likes or doesn’t like something, or how he solved a problem. Read books. Make predictions, about a story, about the weather, about what might happen next, about a game. Talk to your child. Have a conversation. PLAY together. BE together. The rest is icing on the cake!

To Label or Not to Label

Q: Dear Randi,

In setting up my 3 year old classroom, I am struggling with something, and I am hoping you don’t mind helping me. I am labeling certain areas of the classroom (mostly on shelves) with words and pictures to help the children when it is clean up time (i.e. blocks, toy food). The pictures will hopefully help them know where to put things, and the words seemed like a good way to reinforce literacy at the same time. Do you think it also makes sense to label other things around the classroom that would not require a picture since they never move (i.e. plant, computer)? These labels would be much more exposed. On one hand, having words around seems wonderful. On the other hand, it seems like it could get out of control and be a bit visually overwhelming, and is that necessary for 3 year olds who cannot read. I keep going back and forth in my mind on this, and I would love your opinion.


A: Dear Label-maker,

This question comes up often, and it can be quite confusing.

Everything you place in your room, and the placement of every item in your room should be intentional. When it comes to labeling, the first question to ask yourself is why are you labeling things? What is the purpose of the label?

As you said, you are labeling the shelves and baskets to help children know where to put things away, therefore, this labeling serves the purpose of managing materials (social-emotional development), and organization (approaches toward learning). It also reinforces emerging literacy skills, with the picture and word. This is called functional print. It serves a specific purpose and is intentional by design.

We often hear the term “print-rich environment” for early childhood classrooms, yet rarely do we hear what that exactly means. A print-rich environment is one in which children are encouraged to develop emerging literacy skills. This involves having “environmental print” in the classroom, authentic opportunities for reading and writing, and other examples of “functional print.”

Environmental print means words/ phrases that would typically be found on common objects. Examples of environmental print include “STOP” on a stop sign, the “EXIT” sign by your outside door, the big arch for McDonald’s, the Target bull’s eye, “Cheerios” on a box of cereal, “Quaker Oats” on an oatmeal container. Environmental print includes logos and font styles that help with brand recognition. Environmental print can also be the universal symbols for hospital (H), or bathrooms, or other road signs and symbols.

Functional print, as mentioned above, is intentional and serves a purpose for children (and adults). So the shelf and material labels are functional print. Functional print also includes class rules, the daily schedule, documentation or labels included with classroom displays, and children’s names when used for a purpose such as attendance or center choice. Functional print also includes the words “Science journal” on the outside of the composition book you place in your discovery area. It includes the words/pictures you place on index cards and slip onto a ring binder, related to each of your centers. For example, in the dramatic play area, you have a ring of index cards with words/pictures of house, mom, dad, sink, phone, refrigerator, post office, etc. Note that these words are not taped to pieces of furniture. Why you ask? Because when children begin playing, they are not paying attention to those words. It is just visual clutter. As children’s play matures, they start to recognize that there are words they use all the time in certain areas of the classroom. If you as the teacher are modeling and encouraging children to write about their play, they will gravitate towards those word rings and use them to write or draw about what they are doing. (Note that this may not happen until March or later!)

So, where do those labels for the computer, the plant, the window, the door, etc. fit?

Ask yourself these questions:

1. What is my intention in putting up these labels?

2. Is this word environmental print?

3. Is this word functional print?

If you can answer question 1, and say yes to question 2 or 3, put up the labels.

If your answer to question 1 is that you want to support emerging literacy skills, but #2 and 3 are NO, then find another way to support literacy. I would suggest taking photos of objects in the classroom (maybe even include a child in each photo). Place one photo on a page, add your label to your photo page, and create a class book to put on your bookshelf. Continue to take photos of children, everyday activities, special discoveries, etc. and create more class books. This is the best way to support budding readers.