Emergent Writing Skills


Today we’d like to turn our attention to our youngest learners. Let’s take a look at one particular area—emergent writing—and discuss the ways in which we can support students in making up for any learning loss or delays that resulted from the pandemic.

Millions of students across the country didn’t attend any preschool or kindergarten during the height of the pandemic. Of those who did complete some version of remote or hybrid learning, most didn’t receive the in-person, one-on-one instruction that is often needed for beginning writing. Despite the hard work of teachers like you, there are some skills (like correct pencil grip and letter formation) that simply don’t translate well over Zoom. And because students were completing and submitting work via apps on their laptops, they didn’t spend as much time on handwriting and developing the muscle memory that’s so crucial to emergent writing.

As a result, K-2 students have returned to the classroom lacking some of the procedural knowledge—the mechanics of letter and word writing—needed in emergent writing. In order to grow in procedural knowledge, children need many opportunities to use writing tools and explore writing at their developmental level. Here are some ideas for providing those opportunities.


Working on fine motor skills

Even if your students are older, they may not have had sufficient practice in developing their fine motor skills. You can give students an opportunity to write throughout the day and in a variety of centers, but it doesn’t always have to be with a pencil and paper. Think about the different surfaces and writing utensils you can use (e.g., dry-erase boards, poster paper, chalkboards + markers, crayons, and chalk!). This will also help to develop their fine motor skills since they will be holding utensils of varying thicknesses.

Students can also work on their fine motor skills with everyday objects. For example, using hole punchers with younger students is a great way to develop those hand muscles. You could have a small basket with different types of paper such as printer paper, cardstock, and construction paper to let them see how it feels with different thicknesses.


Teaching (or reviewing) letter formation

Initially, have students follow along with skywriting or “magic fingers” on the rug before practicing the letters with writing tools. If you see that fine motor movements are difficult for them, provide opportunities for gross and fine motor practice. When your students are ready to move on to letter formation using writing tools, here are some key areas to focus on:

    • Ensure that students are using the correct grip to hold their pencils — otherwise, they may end up with a sore arm!


    • Show students the starting points for different letters (the top line for many uppercase letters). It can be helpful to teach them a verbal pathway to remember—for example, the letter C would be “pull back and around.” (Click here to download verbal pathways for all uppercase and lowercase letters!)


    • Teach students when to use a continuous line and when to pick up the pencil. Writing is more efficient when you use continuous lines as much as possible, and you may notice children picking up the pencil much more than they need to. (Side note: This is why many Orton-Gillingham-based approaches begin with cursive rather than print!)


    • Keep an eye out for inversions, as well as any confusion with the letters p, b, d, and q (which also have different starting points). (This is another case for teaching cursive first — the cursive formation of these letters looks very different from each other!)


Remember—so much of writing relies on practice and muscle memory, and it may take students time to get there!