Get lots of pre-writing ideas to prepare your 2 or 3 year old for writing letters and learn how to get started with handwriting practice WITHOUT alphabet tracing worksheets.
For handwriting practice to be meaningful, your child should understand that letters represent speech sounds and be physically able to form letters using the tripod grip and memory of the letter pathway.
That’s why there’s no rush to encourage 2 and 3 year old children to practice handwriting, despite kindergarten readiness checklists that say your child should be able to trace letters on worksheets and even write some letters without tracing.
My approach is all about offering the right activity at the right time to meet your child where he or she is at developmentally.
That way your child will progress from scribbling to writing letters and words when he or she is ready.
Your toddler or preschooler doesn’t need to trace letter worksheets in order to start learning the alphabet.
The alphabet is a very abstract concept for a 2 or 3 year old child to understand.
Letters are symbols that only have meaning because we’ve all agreed that a certain letter (or letter combination) represents a certain speech sound. For example, the letter t represents the sound /t/, which is pronounced like “tuh” but without the “uh” on the end.
Tracing letter worksheets, or even wooden alphabet boards, won't have any meaning until a child has started developing phonemic awareness.
Phonemic awareness activities don't involve any letter symbols and instead focus on helping your preschooler hear the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words.
To get started, it's fun to play beginning sounds activities using pictures or language objects as props. It's like "I SPY" except you focus on the beginning sound of a word: "I see something that starts with the sound /d/."
Once your child can identify at least the beginning sound of spoken words, then it’s the right time to show your child what that sound looks like using Montessori sandpaper letters.
Tracing each lowercase tactile letter and saying its sound during sound-letter matching activities will help your child develop muscular, visual and auditory memory of the alphabet letters. It's a fun way to learn the pathway of each letter before the hand is ready to hold a pencil with the tripod grip!
The reason I prefer Montessori sandpaper letters versus other wooden alphabet tracing boards is because each letter is on its own individual board and the letters are large enough to allow tracing with the pointer and index fingers. Tracing with these two fingers will help to develop the proper grip for holding a pencil.
I also recommend that you only introduce lowercase letter symbols at this time. If you start with uppercase letters, your child won’t be set up for success with reading or writing because written words are made up of mostly lowercase letters. You can always do lowercase-uppercase matching activities later on to help your child learn uppercase letters for reading and writing.
Scribbling progresses through stages and it indirectly prepares your child for writing. It’s a very valuable activity for your child’s cognitive development!
As adults we may not pay much attention to the scribbling and dismiss it as unimportant until it looks like something we can recognize.
A young toddler (around 15 months to 2½ years) will scribble randomly. Young toddlers will hold a crayon or marker with a fisted grip.
As your child approaches 3 years old, you’ll start to see the scribbling is more controlled and might feature some lines and geometric shapes.
When your child begins to talk while scribbling, you’ll know he or she has progressed to the next stage. You’ll notice that your child now names things he or she is “drawing” even if you cannot recognize the objects.
Between 3 and 5 years, your child will transition from scribbling to symbolic representation. You’ll be able to recognize that your child is drawing objects and people, and there’s usually a story to go along with each drawing.
Even if your child’s drawing is predominately scribbles, you’ll know he or she has progressed to the next stage if you see recognizable objects such as a face or a sun. Your child might also draw squiggly lines to represent writing.
Encourage your 2 or 3 year old child to scribble! It’s ok if your child is “only” scribbling right now. It just indicates that’s where your child is at developmentally.
You’ll want to keep scribbling materials on a low shelf so that they are accessible. This way your child can scribble whenever he or she wants to. The activity set up can be as simple as a few sheets of paper in a tray with 3-5 crayons.
A young toddler will be happy with just one crayon! You can keep it interesting by swapping out the scribbling tool. Whether that’s crayons, chalk, chalk pastels or markers, make sure that they are short enough to make it hard for your 2 or 3 year old child to hold them with a fisted grip. Broken crayons or “rock crayons” are great!
You’ll probably notice that as your child’s scribbles transition into drawings, the way he or she holds the pencil will also go through stages.
If your child hasn’t yet developed the tripod grip and you offer long pencils, then you’ll notice your child will hold it in an awkward way.
That’s why I recommend holding off on introducing regular-size pencils or markers until your child’s hand is strong enough to hold them properly. You can look up charts online to see where your child is at in terms of developing the pencil grip.
To be able to hold a pencil and write letters, your child needs to have strong hand muscles, hand-eye coordination and the ability to concentrate.
Sometimes parents get so focused on the academic skills like writing letters that they dismiss the value of practical life activities for preparing the hand for writing and building concentration.
Each time your 2 or 3 year old child puts on his or her own socks or shoes, or zips up his or her coat, helps to prepare food or cleans up a spill, your child is getting ready for writing letters!
While you’re waiting for your preschooler to be able to hold a pencil with the tripod grip, you can offer lots of fine motor activities to build those hand muscles.
Here are some ideas to get you started.
Instead of pushing your toddler or preschooler to trace letters before the hand and mind is ready for this kind of activity, model handwriting in front of your child.
That way your child will absorb these ideas to get ready for writing:
An easy way to model handwriting is to write your child’s name on any scribbling or other artwork that he or she creates.
You can also get into the habit of making a grocery shopping list with your child. You can ask your child for ideas of what to buy at the grocery story and then write them down using lowercase letters.
Another idea is to invite your child to tell you a story about a picture, and you write it down.
It’s important to model the correct tripod grip when you're writing in front of your child!
Notice how you hold the pencil. You might have to consciously change how you hold the pencil to model how to hold it properly!
If you start phonemic awareness activities around 3 years old, and do sound-letter matching activities next using Montessori sandpaper letters, then your child will likely be around 4 years old.
It’s around this time when you’ll notice that your 4 year old child has developed the tripod grip and is suddenly interested in trying to write letters. This is the right time to introduce writing letters!
There's no sense trying to push alphabet tracing worksheets at a younger age. That's just a waste of time and energy! Plus there's the risk that your toddler or preschooler will get in the habit of forming letters using an awkward grip on the pencil.
To practice writing letters once the tripod grip has developed naturally, I recommend using a chalkboard instead of letter tracing worksheets.
Most 4 year old children won’t have the fine motor skills to write small letters like you’ll find on most letter tracing worksheets.
With a chalkboard, your child can write letters as large as he or she needs. That way your child will use whole arm movements which will help build muscle memory of the pathway of each letter.
It’s also a bonus that early attempts to write a letter can be quickly and easily erased on a chalkboard. It’s an easy way to avoid feeling discouraged during the early stages of learning to write letters, especially if your child is a bit of a perfectionist and gets frustrated easily.
There's no rush to get your 2 or 3 year old child to start writing letters before the hand and mind is ready.
It's better to educate yourself about the learning sequence and what to expect at each stage. Then you can observe where your child is at, offer the right activities at the right time and trust the process.
While you wait for the tripod grip to develop naturally, you can focus on several pre-writing activities.
Let's stop worrying about Kindergarten readiness checklists and focus on indirect preparation!