The importance of pre-writing shapes

Pre-writing shapes are the lines and shapes a child needs to be able to draw prior to learning to write letters and words.  They are the shapes which form letters, such as straight and curved lines.  Pre-writing shapes include the directional movements a child needs to make to be successful with writing.  This post will cover:

  • Steps before pre-writing shapes

  • Pre-writing shapes explained

  • Tips for teaching pre-writing shapes

two children drawing

The importance of pre-writing shapes

Pre-writing shapes are the lines and shapes a child needs to be able to draw prior to learning to write letters and words.  They are the shapes which form letters, such as straight and curved lines.  Pre-writing shapes include the directional movements a child needs to make to be successful with writing.  This post will cover:

  • Steps before pre-writing shapes

  • Pre-writing shapes explained

  • Tips for teaching pre-writing shapes

Pre-writing skills

Pencil grasp

Pre-writing skills are all of the skills a child needs before they start writing.  They include drawing pre-writing shapes, as well as being able to sit up, hold a pencil, and recognise shapes.  The child also needs to be able to make marks and control their pencil.  I explore general skills for handwriting readiness, like gross and fine motor skills in this post.  Here, I will focus more specifically on pre-writing shapes.

Before pre-writing shapes

The first step is an interest in markers and the ability to hold a marker, crayon or pencil.  Pencil grasp, like mark making, develops sequentially.  I explore pencil grasp development specifically in our post What does a good pencil grasp look like?.

For young children, the best thing to start is with thicker markers and crayons. This is because they are easier for young children to hold onto.  I promise they do not need to be triangular!  For children who are a bit older and struggling with isolating their fingers, small pencils (see the video below) can be helpful.  My song ‘Crocodile Snap’  focusses on isolating these fingers.  For children older than 4 years, you can  use my Write Rules programme too.

Mark making

Before drawing shapes, a child starts to scribble!  This helps them to understand how to make marks.  It helps them to know that when their hand moves a mark occurs on the page.  Usually they start with vertical (up and down) type scribble as this is easiest.  Next, they learn to scribble horizontally (side to side).  Then, they learn to combine these two movements and to make circular scribble.

As they have more experiences, children start to ‘colour’ in specific areas.  So, they will ‘colour in’ a picture.  Initially, they have very poor control and their marks don’t stay inside the lines.  With practise they learn to control their movements.  This practise can be with a variety of activities and doesn’t just need to be with a pen and pencil.

boy scribbling

Activities to help with readiness

  • Finger painting – use paint, shaving foam and sand to make it fun!

  • Aquadoodle – use sponges as well as the pen

  • Galt Magic Water Colouring Books – use small pieces of sponge (2cm x 2cm) instead of the pen to make them last longer

  • Bingo markers – are great as they are so thick

  • Black boards – yes, they are old school but they are still awesome!

  • Window markers – these are great if you have a large mirror or glass door you’re happy for the children to draw on

  • Small crayons – I explore why these are so helpful in the video above

What are the pre-writing shapes?

Pre-writing shapes are all of the shapes that form letters. They include the directional movements of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines and curves.  Shapes like the vertical (+) and oblique (x) cross teach a child to intersect lines.  Squares and triangles teach the concept of drawing corners.  The ability to both intersect lines and draw corners, are important developmental steps.

This picture shows the shapes, along with the average age children learn to draw them.  The average age is that age at which 50% of children will be able to draw the shape, so half of children will be slower than the ages given.

Vertical and Horizontal Line, Circle, Straight Cross, Oblique lines Square, Oblique cross, triangle

Left handers – a note on oblique lines

When working with left handers, the oblique line order switches.  It is easier for left-handers to draw the oblique line to the right (\) rather than to the left.  This is because when drawing to the right they can see the end point, or where they have to take their pencil.  When drawing to the left (/) they have to visually imagine where to take their pencil as their hand is in the way.

The opposite is true for right handers.  When they draw a left leaning oblique line (/) they can see where they are taking their pencil.  But, for a right leaning line (\) they need to visually imagine where to draw to.

This is the same reason that left handers find spacing their work more difficult.  Their hand covers what they are writing, so they have to work much harder to visualise where to start letters and words.  It’s also why so many of them work with their book at extreme angles, or with their wrist hooked in awkward positions.  They have figured out a way to see where they need to write!

It is important to be aware of the different needs that left handed and right handed children have.  As only 10% of the population is left handed, they are often left to navigate a very right handed biased world!

Learning to draw pre-writing shapes

Imitating pre-writing shapes

When therapists use the term ‘imitate’ they mean that the child imitates movements that they have seen.  So, the adult draws the shape before and with the child so that they can watch and imitate the movements.  This is easier for the child as they don’t have to plan (or remember) the movement/s required.

Worksheets are a form of imitation as well as they provide a template for the child to work from.  Some children may also need to watch the adult first to understand what to do on the worksheet.  It is helpful to keep the same movements on the same sheet to help with reinforcement.  So, straight lines on one sheet and curved on the next.

Recognising and matching pre-writing shapes

Being able to visually recognise and match pre-writing shapes is an important step to being able to draw them.  It is impossible to draw something that you don’t have a visual representation of.  For example, could you draw a saola? My guess is that most people reading this article haven’t heard of a saola and therefore won’t know what to draw.

However, if you follow this link to see what a saola is, then you would be able to copy it.  It’s the same for children learning to draw shapes.  If they don’t know what a triangle is, or have a visual representation of it in their head, they will struggle to draw it.

Recognising oblique lines

A common difficulty I have seen in children with additional needs is that they struggle to identify their oblique lines.  So, they see | / and \ as the same shape.  These children need more support to firstly understand that a straight line (|) is different to an oblique line (/ \).  I often call them ‘straight man’ and ‘falling over man’ to make the distinction.  Having them physically move their bodies into the positions can also help to reinforce this.

Next, they need to understand the visual difference between / and \.  Typically, these children also need support to identify the difference between straight (+) and oblique (x) crosses too.  It can be helpful to use matching sheets which the child has to find one or the other of the shapes.  And, also puzzles which match the different shapes.

When teaching them to draw oblique lines, it is important that the child always starts that the top of the shape.  This means that you can reinforce the direction of movement.  If they change where they start (i.e. between top and bottom) it is more confusing for them to learn.

Copying pre-writing shapes

Once a child can imitate a shape, the next step is copying it.  By copying, I mean they can look at a pre-drawn version of it and make their own, without any help from an adult.  When copying, they need to have an understanding of how to plan their movements.  This is much more difficult if the child is dyspraxic.

child showing parent drawing

Drawing shapes independently

Finally the child will learn to draw the shapes independently.  So, if you ask them to draw a triangle, they can do this without a prompt.  They already have a visual representation of the triangle in their mind.  And, they know the steps to draw it.  They can draw both oblique lines and have mastered corners.

As these skills improve, there will also be an improvement in the child’s drawing in general.  Their ‘person’ will start to be more recognisable.  Their drawing will become more complex.  And, you will be able to identify what they are without having to ask.

Readiness for letters

Letters are made up of combinations of vertical, horizontal, oblique and curved shapes.  An ‘a’, includes both a circle and a straight line.  The letter ‘x’ is a combination of both oblique lines (/ \).  Children who haven’t mastered both of these lines often draw an ‘x’ with a vertical line and one slightly oblique line.  So, it looks like a hybrid between a ‘t’ and an ‘x’.

The age where half of children can intersect both oblique lines to form an ‘x’ it is 4 years 11 months.  This means that several capital letters and lower case letters ‘k, v, w, x’ are actually outside of the expected age norms for many children in the early years at school.  Unfortunately, many school curriculums, including the UK, do not take notice of these norms. They expect four year old children to be competent with writing sentences.  (This is reception level target in the UK)

Writing letters

Learning letters follow the same steps as learning pre-writing shapes.  Children need to have the visual representation, to be able to make the correct shapes and have a clear plan of how to draw the letter.  The strategies listed above for teaching shapes can be used for teaching letters.

It is also highly recommended that letters are taught in formation groups.  We explore letter families, or formation groups herein this post – Letter formation families – the ONLY way to teach handwriting.

In summary, it is important for children to practice pre-writing skills, including pre-writing shapes first before they are expected to write.  Also, double check that the child is confident with their shapes as this will help with their letter confidence.  My handwriting programme Write Rules also has resources to teach children their pre-writing shapes.

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