How to Teach Your Toddler to Write

toddler writing

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When you really think about it, the fact that children learn a language, learn how to speak, and learn to write in such a short amount of time is extraordinary. As parents and caregivers and educators, we all want to encourage our children to learn the skills they will need for a lifetime, but many of us don't necessarily think a lot about how those skills develop—or at what age we can encourage our children to start learning skills like how to write.

When Do Children Learn to Write?

We might think that children don't really learn how to write until they approach kindergarten age, but a 2017 research study uncovered some interesting findings that show otherwise. The study, published in the journal Child Development, showed that children actually start to learn writing skills as early as age three.

Previously, child development experts had assumed that children learned how to write only once they learned what sounds each letter represented. So, for example, once a child learned what "A" sounds like, they could connect that sound to a letter and from there, start to write the letters that are representing sounds.

Instead, this study found that children actually learn the fundamentals of writing before they learn what letters represent specific sounds. Study co-author Rebecca Treiman, PhD, a professor of psychological and brain sciences, says her research shows that children actually display knowledge about the formulas of written language, such as which letters are usually grouped together before they learn what those letters actually represent.

Young children are recognizing patterns in words—such as how long a word is and what letters go together—even before they know what those patterns mean or what the words mean.

How Writing Skills Develop

This study, unlike other studies that examined how children's writing skills improve as they get older, looked at how early children actually learn how to write. The researchers found that children begin to write "words" that actually follow rules of the written language as early as age 3. These words might not make sense, but they might follow a basic rule of looking like a word, with repeating letters that represent vowels or word types.

Treiman's study looked at spellings of "words" from 179 children in the United States between the ages of 3 years 2 months and 5 years 6 months who were "prephonological" spellers. This simply means that they spelled words with letters that had no connection to the sounds of the letters in the actual words.

What they found was that when asked to spell a word like, "cat," for example, an older child may not be able to write any letters that actually sound like the letters in the word, but the child recognizes that "cat" is a shorter word than, say, "elephant," and writes down their word accordingly. This skill improves as the child gets older, so the 5-year-olds had much better ability to write words that looked like words than the preschoolers.

The researchers based what looks like a "word" on a few standards, which included: length of a word, using different letters within the words, and how they combined the letters within the words.

What the Study Means

This study is an important look at how children learn how to absorb the basic rules of reading and writing at younger ages than previously thought. Knowing this allows parents, caregivers, and educators to better teach young children the foundations of language, giving them a better start on life-long learning.

Dr. Treiman also pointed out that the findings might help educators develop a plan for identifying any potential learning disabilities early on, too. Children who have learning challenges benefit from early intervention, so identifying those challenges as early as possible could be very helpful.

What You Can Do

Don't worry about hosting a handwriting class with your little one. But you can definitely get started on introducing writing skills to your toddler if you would like. You may be curious to see how your toddler approaches reading and writing, if they will naturally gravitate towards a love of language, or if you should anticipate any problems. But of course, keep in mind that kids change quite a bit from the toddler years to school-age years, too.

To get started on introducing writing to your toddler:

  • Consider your toddler's motor development. If your toddler is following typical motor development, you can check their skill development timeline to see what they should be able to accomplish by age. If your toddler is too young to hold a crayon, for example, it may not be time to start introducing words just yet.
  • Provide larger crayons, markers, or pens for your toddler to grasp. A three-year-old with typical development should be able to hold and color with a regular crayon, marker, or pencil, but a younger child may benefit from a larger crayon with a more stable base. The larger design makes it easier for the toddler to hold and start to draw on paper.
  • Lead your toddler in word games. There are many ways you can introduce the concept of words to your toddler—you could draw a word with a corresponding picture, you could have your toddler practice writing words after you write them, or you could play "Snowman." (It's like "Hangman," but child-appropriate!) Draw lines for each letter in a word, have your toddler guess letters for the word, and each missed letter gets one part of the snowman.
  • Give them freedom. Although it may seem tempting to try to lead your toddler into becoming a wordsmith by age 2, one of the best things you can do for your child is to simply step back and let them explore what it means to write all on their own. They may imitate you or try to write words from their own books, but rest assured that play is the work of childhood and your little one always learns best through free play.

A Word From Verywell

As always, the single best thing you can do for your child at any age is to read together. You can read to your toddler or have them "read" to you, but either way, studies show that reading together helps all aspects of communication, language development, and future abilities. Plus, reading is always a fun activity to do together, and it's exciting to see research showing us that there is more development happening at even very young ages than we might have realized.

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Article Sources

  1. Treiman R, Kessler B, Boland K, Clocksin H, Chen Z. Statistical Learning and Spelling: Older Prephonological Spellers Produce More Wordlike Spellings Than Younger Prephonological Spellers. Child Dev. 2018;89(4):e431-e443. doi:10.1111/cdev.12893

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