Mark Making-March 14, 2023

Recently, Eli has started making what seem to be, more intentional marks with his crayons. Rather than trying to grasp as many crayons in one hand as possible, which he still occasionally enjoys doing, Eli’s mark making shows an early understanding that written language provides an avenue for expressing ideas. It also shows that he understands cause and effect—if I do this, then that happens. These marks are either lines formed across the entire area where the crayon has barely left the page or strong staccato-like dots resulting from Eli striking the page with the tip of the crayon. His pencil grasp looks like what you would typically expect from a toddler his age, a fully fisted grip, although he has also held a crayon using a pronated grip, and I’ve been surprised a few times by his use of a more standard finger-like tripod grip.


Learning to form the letters of the alphabet begins with holding a writing utensil with a full grasp and making these types of randomly assorted marks, which you might call scribbling. As a child’s fine motor skills develop, they are able to use a stronger grasp to draw and form letters and begin to make words. The importance of moving towards a tripod grip has to do with efficiency and energy. It takes a lot of effort to write you name, for instance, with a fisted grip than with a tripod grip. Although I have seen a few kindergarten children write and draw beautifully with a fisted grip, guiding children towards a tripod grip (if needed) without influencing their motivation to write is important. The process can be tricky, but the magic can happen with the support of different tools, like a painting easel—the child, almost involuntarily rests the palm of their hand on the paper and somewhat automatically uses a tripod grip while they make their marks.


Richard Gentry shares a developmental progression of writing, and more specifically spelling, that begins with scribbling and moves towards more letter-like symbols. As a child progresses through these stages they begin to string letters together—capital letters are usually easier to form at this early stage and spaces aren’t always present. As a child begins to develop an understanding of letter-sound relationships they start to represent words with the correct sound(s), at least the initial sounds. Take this string of letters, for instance: LADEBSORQT. Any thoughts about what this child is trying to express? Without spaces it’s certainly difficult to decipher. But the same child has drawn this picture which could help...

Knowing the round creatures this child has drawn are ladybugs, we might have a better chance at decoding the sentence. With spaces the string of letters would look like: LADE BS OR QT, which if you haven’t already guessed it, can be decoded as ladybugs are cute. This child has reached a stage in writing, or more specifically spelling, where they’re able to use their phonemic awareness to encode or write words, expressing their ideas in writing. At first, initial sounds might be the only sounds of the words that are represented by print. The ladybugs are cute example shows that the child is representing words with the initial and final sound they hear in each word.

It’s been interesting to hear some of the teachers I’ve been interviewing talk about letter formation as a precursor to fluent writing. They agree that learning to form letters either printed or cursive is an essential step in the writing process. Handwriting is something the students in their class practice daily. During a few of my recent school visits, I’ve also observed children in Montessori environments practice forming their letters, using both print and cursive writing. This practice is done in a very guided way where children might trace letters or receive direct instruction on how to form letters. Letter formation and cursive writing is a skill that is emphasized in Montessori schools and in many independent schools, from what I have observed over the years. Attention to handwriting, however, seems to be declining in public schools. In kindergarten and perhaps in grade 1, students might be given direct instruction using a program like Handwriting without Tears, but any emphasis on cursive writing in public schools seems to be a rare occurrence. On one hand I do understand why cursive writing is not a focus of a literacy program, especially beyond the early primary years—it’s not emphasized in the language curriculum (at least in Ontario), it takes time away from other essential literacy skills that need to be taught, and computers can do it for us (typing or speech-to-text software). The fact that independent schools like Montessori still emphasize cursive writing does make me ask, why? What are the benefits to teaching cursive writing in the 21st century? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that handwriting is accessible to everyone, we don’t need to rely on technology. Or perhaps learning cursive writing is seen as a valuable form of art. It could also be that learning how to write and read in cursive is necessary to be able to decode historical texts. Some researchers also argue that the process of expressing your ideas in writing, in print or in cursive, fires neurons related to memory—when you take notes by hand you can actually remember more of what you’ve written down than if you’ve typed it out. Handwriting has also been linked to letter processing which underlies successful reading.

While the curriculum in Ontario does not currently emphasize cursive writing, I wonder if this will change with the rollout of a new curriculum document. Calls have been made for the language curriculum to include systematic and direct instruction in foundational reading skills, which I believe is necessary. But what about writing, and more specifically writing conventions? Will these foundational writing skills also be addressed? Or is it better to ask whether handwriting is still considered a foundational writing skill in the 21st century?

Mark Making-March 14, 2023