5 OT Tips for Teaching Prewriting Skills

As an OT working in early childhood, one of the most common areas I support is the development of prewriting skills.  Today, let’s explore what prewriting skills are, why they are important and my top five favorite tips for teaching them!

What are prewriting skills?

Prewriting skills area the foundational skills a child needs before we would expect them to engage in handwriting tasks.  A large part of this includes learning to imitate and copy prewriting strokes, which is mostly what we will focus on today.  Additionally, skills like motor planning, crossing midline, pencil grasp and upper body/hand strength are important to develop in early childhood to set a good foundation for handwriting in the future.  Click the blue links to read some of my previous articles on those skill areas!

Why are prewriting skills important?

Like I mentioned before, prewriting skills are essential to build the foundation needed before expecting students to perform a variety of handwriting tasks.  Being able to write words and sentences is a much harder task than we might realize.  Ensuring that students have a solid motor foundation to form words and sentences is essential before asking them to actually do it.  When the motor skills are automatic, it makes more room for the brain to focus on the higher level cognitive parts of writing, like coming up with an idea, planning, spelling, etc.  Prewriting skills, specifically learning how to make different strokes and shapes,  can also help with drawing skills.  I teach a lot of my students to combine shapes together to make simple pictures, and it is so much easier when those motor skills are solid.

Now that we understand the what and the why, let’s talk about the how! How exactly do we go about teaching these skills to young children?  Here are some of my favorite tried and true tips I have used over the years when working on prewriting skills.

Follow the developmental sequence.

Knowing where to start is important. I use the a combination of developmental information from two popular OT assessments: the Beery VMI and the Peabody.  Typically, we expect a child to imitate first before copying.  Straight lines are easier than diagonals.  Here is a very general summary of the progression of teaching prewriting strokes. There is a wide age range of skill development.  For more specifics regarding your student, reach out to your OT!

  • Between 16-24 months, we begin to see children start to scribble with a crayon.
  • Between 24-36 months, we would expect a child to begin imitating and then copying vertical, horizontal and circular lines.
  • Between 42-48 months, we would expect a child to imitate and then copy a cross
  • Between 54-63 months, we would expect to see a child beginning to copy a square, X and a triangle.  

So, if you are asking a 3 year old to copy a triangle and it is hard to do, that is ok. Developmentally we would not expect that yet. Knowing the developmental sequence is so important for finding that just right challenge for your student.

Use visual cues.

Giving a student a clear start and stop point can help when first learning how to make prewriting strokes.  I like to use green and red dots or you could even use stickers to indicate a clear start and stop point.

Embed practice into daily routines.

One of my favorite ways to embed practice into the classroom is by using a ‘sign in’. When my students came in to start the day, they would sign in to class. Often that would include matching letters in their name and tracing/imitating or copying prewriting strokes depending on the child’s goals. This routine practice was so much more successful than me coming in once a week and making the child practice. We also used to have a center sign in sheet. So when the child transitioned to my center, he or she would have to imitate or copy the prewriting stroke of the day.  Sasha has some awesome task cards that could work for this daily practice!  You could even embed this at home too.  Try putting a piece of paper up on the fridge and having kids draw on it before or after dinner!

Practice on a vertical surface.

OTs love vertical surfaces!!  Writing on a vertical surface builds upper body strength, which is another essential component of prewriting skills.  Tape paper up on a wall, fridge, or easel and let kids go to town!  The smartboard at school could be another option.  Even if the child isn’t practicing prewriting strokes on that vertical surface, just making that small modification to any activity really helps build that strength. So next time you are doing any activity – it could be painting, coloring, using stickers, doing mazes or even other academic tasks – I challenge you to put it up on a vertical surface for extra fun!


Make it fun!

You don’t just have to practice prewriting strokes on paper.  You can really practice them in anything!  Multisensory play is not only fun but it is so important for building up those little hand muscles, which will lead to a better pencil grasp in the future.  Try making prewriting strokes in shaving cream, playdough, dirt, sand, salt, with chalk, paint, pudding – be creative!

What are some of your favorite ways to practice prewriting skills?  Drop a comment below!

This blog is for informational purposes only.  Please contact your OT for specific recommendations.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.