Developmental Progression of Handwriting Skills

As a pediatric occupational therapist, I often receive questions from concerned parents and teachers about whether their child is on track with their handwriting development. So today I wanted to share with you about the developmental progression of handwriting skills so you can keep these milestones in mind when tracking your child’s handwriting development!

DEVELOPMENTAL PROGRESSION OF PENCIL GRASP

DEVELOPMENTAL PROGRESSION OF PRE-WRITING STROKES

A pediatric OT breaks down the developmental progression of handwriting skills #finemotor #schoolOT #occupationaltherapy #functionalskillsforkids

DEVELOPMENTAL PROGRESSION OF PENCIL GRASP

Pencil grasp is usually the most obvious fine motor marker of how a child’s handwriting development is coming along, and it’s often the one I get asked about the most by concerned adults. Though handwriting development begins to take place well before a child ever picks up a pencil, these are the milestones to keep in mind when looking at how your child is holding their crayon, marker, or pencil.

1 to 1.5 years – Palmar Supinate

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The crayon or marker is held in the palm (“palmar”) with the thumb on top in a slight forearm-up (“supinated”) position. This is considered a “primitive” grasp and typically accompanies the “scribbling” stage. Scribbling movements are typically initiated by the shoulder and elbow, which involve larger muscle groups and a relatively low level of precision.

2-3 years – Digital Pronate

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The child transitions to holding the crayon or marker with the whole hand while the pointer finger (“digit”) points to the tip and the forearm rotates to point down toward the paper (“pronated”). This is considered a “transitional” grasp and is typically present when little ones are learning to make lines and circles. Coloring and early drawing movements still come from the larger muscle groups and typically involve large strokes, however, there may be a higher level of control over the tool compared to the Palmar Supinate grasp.

3.5 to 4 years – Static Tripod

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The child can now hold the crayon or marker with the thumb and index finger while resting it on the knuckle of the middle finger. This means there are a total of three fingers controlling the tool (“tri” = “three”). Movements during coloring and drawing are initiated from the larger joints of the arm such as the shoulder and elbow, while the fingers remain “static” and the hand moves as one unit. This grasp is typically present around the same age that kids are becoming “pre-writers” and learning to make shapes such as a cross and square.

When the Static Tripod is first developing, you may see the wrist flexed (bent forward) and “floating” above the writing surface, whether the child is working on paper flat on a table or coloring on a vertical chalkboard (as pictured above). However, as kids become more comfortable and confident in this position, they are then usually able to transition to resting their forearm on the table as they color or draw. Interestingly, research has found that nearly 50% of three-year-olds are already able to use a tripod grasp, and grasp maturity at this age tends to be higher for girls than for boys. Regardless of when it occurs, the shift from Digital Pronate to Static Tripod occurs is a BIG one! It means kids have moved from a “toddler” grasp to a “big kid” grasp, and that is a HUGE deal in the world of fine motor development!

You may see kids use a grasp similar to this one, called the “Static Quadrupod.” It is similar to the Static Tripod, but there is just one extra finger pinching the marker. So three fingers pinch and one supports the tool, for a total of four (“quad” = “four”). This Static Quadrupod grasp is just as functional and age-appropriate as its Static Tripod counterpart, and is pictured below for your reference.

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4.5 to 5 years – Dynamic Tripod

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The child continues with the same grasp pattern of pinching with thumb and index finger while resting the crayon, marker, or pencil on the knuckle of the middle finger. However, the pinky and ring fingers can now tuck themselves securely into the palm to stabilize the arch of the hand and the middle finger, the wrist is consistently positioned in slight extension (bent back), and the forearm and pinky-side of the hand (the “ulnar” side) are comfortably stabilized on the table. This means movements are now able to be initiated from the first three fingers and wrist while making vertical and horizontal strokes, rather than from the elbow and shoulder.

This “dynamic” grasp allows for more precision and detail during tasks such as coloring within the lines or within smaller spaces, drawing with more detail, and tracing or writing letters with more precision. It is around this age that children demonstrate an emerging ability to form diagonal strokes when coloring and/or drawing shapes. Once kids can consistently utilize a Dynamic Tripod grasp, it means they are one step closer to being ready for formal writing instruction!

A similar grasp you may see kids this age use is one we refer to as the “Dynamic Quadrupod” grasp. Like I mentioned earlier, one extra finger is used for pinching and controlling the pencil (for a total of three pinching fingers and one stabilizing finger), and it is just as effective and age-appropriate as the Dynamic Tripod. I have included a picture of the Dynamic Quadrupod below for your reference.

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Now, before you tell me that your child’s grasp doesn’t seem to match any of these pictures, let me say it is common for pre-writers to experiment with a variety of grasps as their hands and pre-writing abilities develop. And it is also common for young kids (e.g., ages 1-3) to demonstrate different grasps on different types of tools, based on whether they are fat, skinny, long, short, or even how they are positioned in front of them.

Below are examples of a few other grasps you may see during the toddler and preschool years (these are not all the possibilities, but should give you the idea that variety isn’t uncommon in the early years):

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Research has found that the Dynamic Tripod and Dynamic Quadrupod grasps aren’t the only functional grasps out there. The Lateral Tripod and Lateral Quadrupod are also just as effective. Click here to see a side-by-side comparison of all four grasp patterns.

DEVELOPMENTAL PROGRESSION OF PRE-WRITING STROKES

Did you know children tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern of when they develop the ability to draw various shapes at different ages, known as “pre-writing strokes”? While pre-writing strokes are often thought of as the lines and circles needed for later learning how to write letters and numbers (that’s why they’re called “pre-writing” strokes, right?), they also prepare kids for being able to draw, which is another great indicator of pre-writing development!

Though pre-writing development is typically an area of early childhood development that is less familiar to parents and teachers as compared to pencil grasp development, I would argue that it is just as (if not more) important for helping prepare children to learn how to write. Kids’ writing and reading skills often develop alongside one another, and kids who are able to produce pre-writing strokes will often have an easier time learning how to write letters and numbers. Pre-writing development is important!

I want to make a quick note about some important terminology.

In pre-writing development, there is a difference between “imitating” and “copying.” “Imitation” means the child first watches a demonstration of the shape being formed, and then they immediately try to do what they just saw. “Copying” means the child is simply shown a picture or a model of the shape, and then they try to reproduce it on their own. Developmentally speaking, kids typically learn how to imitate drawing shapes before they learn how to copy them. Once they’ve learned how to copy those shapes, they can then begin to form a visual memory of them and draw them without a visual model. As with all developmental milestones, keep in mind that there is a wide range of “average” and children’s acquisition of these milestones can be influenced by their level of interest and attention.

1-2 years

  • Scribbling
  • Imitating vertical lines, horizontal lines, circular scribbles 

2-3 years

  • Imitating cross
  • Copying vertical line, horizontal line, circle

3-4 years

  • Drawing circle without a model 

4-5 years

  • Imitating square
  • Copying cross, square, right and left diagonal lines, X shape, some letters and numbers 
  • May be able to write own name
  • Drawing a recognizable face with eyes, nose, mouth 
  • Drawing a basic stick figure with 2-4 body parts 
  • Coloring inside a circle and filling it at least halfway 

5-6 years

  • Copying triangle
  • Printing own name
  • Copying most capital and lowercase letters
  • Drawing a person with at least 6 body parts

Looking for more information about handwriting? This post is part of the Functional Skills for Kids series (#functionalskillsforkids), where 10 pediatric occupational and physical therapists break down a different functional skill of childhood each month. This month our focus is HANDWRITING! You can read all our posts on the many different factors that contribute to handwriting success by browsing below.

Developmental Progression of Handwriting Skills | Mama OT

Handwriting Development, Sizing, Spacing & More | The Inspired Treehouse

Fine Motor Requirements for Handwriting | Therapy Fun Zone

Gross Motor Skills and Handwriting | Your Therapy Source

Sensory Processing & Handwriting Skills |  Sugar Aunts

Handwriting and the Reluctant Writer |  Kids Play Space

Activities to Practice Handwriting Skills at Home  | Growing Hands-On Kids

Visual Perceptual Skills Required for Handwriting |  Your Kids OT

Handwriting and Play |  Miss Jaime OT

And you can read all of my monthly posts I’m contributing to this series RIGHT HERE!

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References:

Amundson, S. (2005). Prewriting and handwriting skills. In J. Case-Smith (Ed.), Occupational therapy for children (5th ed.). St Louis: Elsevier, Inc.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, March 27). Important Milestones: Your Child at Four Years. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/milestones-4yr.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, March 27). Important Milestones: Your Child at Five Years. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/milestones-5yr.html

Exner, C. (2005). Development of hand skills. In J. Case-Smith (Ed.), Occupational therapy for children (5th ed.). St Louis: Elsevier, Inc.

Smith, B. (2011). From Rattles to Writing: A parent’s guide to hand skills. Framingham: Therapro, Inc.

Yakimishyn, J. E., & Magill-Evans, J. (2002). Comparisons among tools, surface orientation, and pencil grasp for children 23 months of age. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 56, 564–572.

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Mama OT In addition to being mama to two sweet little boys and wife to a crazy awesome husband, Christie is a Registered & Licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L). She holds a B.A. in Psychology with a Minor in Education from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA...Go Bruins!), and an M.A. in Occupational Therapy from the University of Southern California (USC OT). She has experience working as a pediatric OT in early intervention (birth to 3), clinic-based, and school-based settings. Her mission with MamaOT.com is to encourage, educate, and empower those who care for children. Christie loves that she gets to PLAY when she goes to work, is hopelessly addicted to Kettle Corn, and is known for being able to turn virtually anything into a therapeutic tool or activity, from empty food containers to laundry and everything in between. Learn more about Christie and what inspired her to become an OT.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a holistic profession that helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, also known as “occupations”. Some OTs help people diagnosed with disability, injury, or disease. Others help prevent disability, injury, or disease. Because of occupational therapy, people of all ages are able to say, "I can!" no matter what their struggle. Isn't that amazing?!

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Please provide appropriate supervision to the child in your care when completing any activities from this site. You as the grown-up will need to decide what types of products/activities on this list will be safe for your child. If you’re not sure, check with your child’s occupational therapist or pediatrician. Appropriate and reasonable caution should be used when implementing any ideas or activities from this site, particularly if there is any risk of injury (e.g., falling, crashing), choking (e.g., small parts), drowning (e.g., water play), or allergic/adverse reaction (e.g., materials/ingredients). The author and blog disclaim liability for any damage, mishap, or injury that may occur from engaging in any activities or ideas from this site. 
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23 thoughts on “Developmental Progression of Handwriting Skills

  1. Maybe I missed it, but did you mention the thumb wrapping over the index finger? I can’t re-create it for myself but I have a few students who do it.

    • Hi Sue, thumb wrap isn’t part of what’s considered to be “typical” development of pencil grasp, though many students do use it (as I’ve observed from being in many classrooms over the years). Students who utilize a thumb wrap often are more likely to complain of fatigue or hand cramping due to how tightly and inefficiently the thumb wrap causes them to hold the pencil. I am actually a thumb-wrapper myself and I can attest to how inefficient it is and how quickly my hand cramps! Do you have any additional follow-up questions you wanted to address?

      • Thanks so much for your reply…your article is such an excellent resource. It gives me back-up when I discuss pencil grasp with parents and fellow staff members who question my “concerns” with it. I wasn’t sure on the thumb wrap….it surely isn’t typical.

  2. Great points here! It is good to watch the development of kids’ motor skills and how they write and draw. Thanks for sharing this good overview of different stages!

  3. Thank you for all of the important information on your site. Can I ask you question…I am a pre-k teacher and am looking for guidance on handwriting. In my classroom the children come to me about to be four or five; some stay with me a second year and others go onto to kindergarten. I do many fine motor activities with clothes pins, paper clips, rubber bands, hole punches, tweezers, beads, etc. as well as writing in salt, sand, shaving cream, building letters with wiki sticks, HWOT letter forms and dry erase pre-writing tracing cards as well as “writing” on magna doodles, “writing” during restaurant play as waiters/waitresses and “writing” cards and letters. I am getting some requests from parents to do letter and name tracing worksheets which I feel are not developmentally appropriate (as well as just plain boring!!) I read your article on the developmental progression of handwriting skills which strongly implies that such worksheets would not in fact be appropriate for my class, but I was looking for your direct opinion on this matter. I seem to be in the minority as I have seen children being required to do worksheets where they have to trace the whole alphabet in both upper and lowercase in the two and three year old classes. Please advise me as to whether I am on the right path or I should acquiesce. I think that just because children may have to do letter tracing worksheets in kindergarten, does not mean we should make them do them in preschool. Please let me know what you think, I want to do the best thing for the children in my class and need your expert advice. Sorry for the length.

    • Hi Eileen, I love your question because I think it hits on such an important topic, and one that many people have questions about! First of all, it sounds like you are doing a million amazing things to support the development of your little students’ hands, pre-writing skills, and tactile sensory systems. I wish I could come see your class in action! Secondly, I know what you mean about parents or other professionals wanting children to “produce” work on things such as tracing worksheets. I don’t have anything against tracing, in and of itself. It can be a great visual motor integration activity, requiring the visual system to “talk to” the fine motor system and then coordinate the actions of the eyes and hands together. This is an important component of pre-writing as well. HOWEVER, my OT challenge with tracing letters on worksheets at the ages of 2 and 3 (and even 4) is that, while it teaches kids to try and approximate the line, it doesn’t usually teach them correct letter formation. So then what happens is, while these adorable children are “producing” traced letters and numbers on worksheets, they are practicing inefficient and incorrect motor plans and sequences for how to construct the letters and numbers. So by the time they are old enough to actually learn how to write the letter without tracing it, they have already practiced it dozens of times the “wrong” way. In the Handwriting without Tears training, I learned that it can take 10 correct repetitions of a motor plan to “erase” 1 incorrect repetition (that is a crude way of stating it, but you get my point). That’s why HWT is so big on teaching children the correct letter formation sequence and “story” from the very beginning, starting with “building” wood pieces and play dough and then moving to actually writing the letters as they get closer to age 5. My other OT challenge with tracing letters and numbers on worksheets at age 2-4 is that many children have not yet developed the pencil grasp skills to be able to sufficiently hold and control a pencil while tracing. So then what happens is they compensate by holding the pencil in an awkward and inefficient manner each time they approach this task. Yes, you could use a pencil grip (such as the CLAW grip) to place their fingers in the correct position and introduce that motor plan, but if their hand and finger muscles are not developed and ready to grasp a pencil or marker with control, why would we give them paper-and-pencil tasks to complete…and at age 2-3? Most kids that age are still using the “large” muscle groups at that point (as I stated in my post) and are not even close to being ready to manipulate and control a writing implement to trace and form letters and numbers. Again, in the Handwriting without Tears training, they advocate for waiting until a child has established a solid hand dominance and is ready to begin formal writing instruction before having them “write” with pencils. This typically occurs, on average, around age 5. So back to your question about what you should do…I would stick with what you know as an educator. If you are providing students opportunities for developing their foundational skills of fine motor strength, gross motor strength, tactile exploration, multi-sensory play, pre-literacy activities, drawing activities, functional writing activities…that is exactly what they need. If you wanted to incorporate more visual motor integration and visual perceptual activities (which is the type of activity tracing is), you could think about activities such as connect-the-dots, basic mazes, hidden pictures, word searches, drawing activities, and even basic cutting-on-the-lines-and-curves activities with scissors. All will address that foundation of visual motor integration and visual perception without necessarily reinforcing incorrect grasp or letter formation. Bottom line: tracing letters and numbers is not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be introduced when the child has the appropriate pre-requisite skills to be able to control the pencil and for the letters and numbers to mean something to them, and it needs to be done in a way where children are able to be instructed in the appropriate sequence when forming the letters and numbers, rather than doing it however they want and then inadvertently making it harder for them to learn the appropriate formation in the future. I hope this puts your mind at ease!

  4. Christie,

    Thank you so very much for your detailed answer to my question. I am a retired attorney who fell in love with teaching when I had my own children and I am now teaching pre-k and loving it. However, given that the majority of my formal education was not early childhood education (or child development) AND that I feel the full weight of the responsibility of getting these precious children ready for kindergarten, I feel the need to try to get as much additional training and/or advice to inform and improve my teaching. I am now following you on Pinterest and look forward to all of your new posts. Thank you again for your very informative response.

    • Thank you, Joan, I’m glad you found the post helpful! I also appreciate the fact that you did not just copy and paste my original post and plop it onto your own site (as this unfortunately happens in the internet world), but introduced it and then linked to it instead. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  5. Thank you for a great article. I also love all the questions and your answers to the questions. I was wondering if you have any pictures of what is considered acceptable for pre-writing strokes. When a child makes a vertical and horizontal line, does it have to be a certain length, certain amount of control, etc? I hope you can understand what I am asking. I would love to see some pictures as to what is considered “acceptable”. For ex, like they have on the WRVMA or the Print Tool.

    • Great question, Beth! To be honest, in general, if a child is progressing in their ability to create pre-writing strokes that are recognizable as such, I would encourage parents and teacher not to worry too much. For example, if the circle looks like a circle, or the cross looks like 2 intersecting lines that are relatively straight, then most kids will be pretty much on track with that. Yes, there ARE specific criteria for scoring pre-writing strokes on standardized measures, such as the Peabody Developmental Motor Scales (PDMS), currently in its 2nd edition. The scoring booklet does specify how long to make the model for straight lines and how long the child’s should be, how closed the circle needs to be, how precise the angles of the cross should be, and what the square should look like. HOWEVER, I really wouldn’t want parents and teachers drilling pre-writing shapes with little preschoolers unless it is something they are being specifically taught in a developmental or therapeutic setting. Do you know what I mean? Preschool development is not about, “Sit here and draw these crosses and squares until they have all 90-degree angles!” It’s about facilitating holistic development, including fine motor and visual motor development in hands-on activities that also include things like coloring, drawing, painting, tracing, and more. I hope this helps you out a little, please let me know if you have follow-up questions!

So, whadya think?