Learning and Development

Easy ways to support mark making in the early years

  • Easy ways to support mark making in the early years

The journey to becoming a confident writer begins in nursery, as Sue Cowley explains…

Early mark making, and the process of ‘becoming’ a writer, is a complex and fascinating area of the work done by practitioners in their early years settings.

There is so much more to learning to write than just the physical act of handwriting. It is in the early years that we put the vital foundations in place for our children to become confident and expressive writers later on.

At its heart, writing is an act of communication – the words on a page are the writer’s attempt to communicate meaning to others, and it is this communicative aspect of writing that makes it such a key feature of our world.

Our ability to use symbolic representation to communicate with others, even when we are not there, is part of what makes us human.

As well as helping children learn how to physically make marks and to form their letters correctly, we also need to support them in learning how language is used to communicate.

At this age, this is most easily and helpfully done through lots of talk, especially ‘serve and return’ conversations with attentive and interested adults.

We must help our children build the ability to concentrate, so that they can focus on what they are writing, as well as ensuring that they understand the symbolic nature of the way in which marks ‘hold’ meaning.

In addition, we need to help them grasp the link between the words that they hear in speech, and the words that they see on a page, and to feel confident and inspired in their writing.

Physical skills

One of the key areas of focus in an early years setting is on the physical development that is required to help a child move on to grip and work accurately with a writing tool.

Young children build their strength from the head downwards, and from the body outwards. You will have noticed how the first thing a baby does is to build the strength to support her head on her neck.

Next she will gradually build the strength to push her upper body up while lying down, and to roll over.

Eventually she will have enough power and control in her body to crawl, and at length to walk.

Before she can manipulate a fine writing tool, she will need to build up her ‘core strength’ – the muscles in the centre of her body – gradually working outwards from her shoulder to her elbow, until she can do the finer movements that are required to write by hand.

In order to build up these aspects of control, you will need to offer lots of opportunities for both fine motor and gross motor play in your provision, as well as activities for building eye-to-hand coordination.

Banging with a hammer, walking along a balance beam, swinging from monkey bars, digging in the soil or the sand, threading beads or weaving – all these activities build up different aspects of strength, coordination and control.

Think carefully about your continuous provision to ensure that it offers chances to grip, to grasp, to twist, to pinch, to lift, to carry, and so on.

Moving materials from one place to another is great for building core, arm, wrist and finger strength – for instance, carrying buckets of water or sand in your outdoor area.

Motivations to write

You may often have noticed how your young children can become completely absorbed in a sensory activity, to the exclusion of all else.

This is particularly the case with materials that offer children the chance to make a mess or to get really hands-on with a resource – ‘mucky focus’ if you like.

This kind of focus is a key aspect of the process of learning to write because the child is absorbed in the process of exploring how their world works – just as a writer becomes absorbed in words as they use them to communicate meaning.

Another crucial aspect of any writing is to have a valid reason or motivation to do it.

Remember that your children do not have to be able to write accurately in order to make marks that have meaning for them. Give your children lots of opportunities to write for a purpose – here are some suggestions to get your started:

  • Writing ‘their name’ on a piece of artwork to claim it as ‘theirs’ (even before they can form their name accurately).
  • Writing a letter or postcard to a character or person – Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, an Easter or Mother’s Day card, etc.
  • Making notes as they work in a role-play area – for instance, making a shopping list or a list of visitors to their ‘museum’.
  • Creating a chalk ‘welcome mat’ at the entrance to your setting.
  • Creating ‘helicopter stories’, where the practitioner scribes the child’s story and then the children recreate the narrative together.

The act of writing to communicate meaning is one of the most wonderful gifts that we can give to our children. It is a gift that my teachers gave to me many years ago, and which allows me to communicate with you now through the words that I choose.

Writing gives our children a voice and a way of making sense of their world. It allows them to express their ideas, opinions and thoughts and share them with others.

And it is through writing that our children’s thinking becomes visible and that they get to make their mark.


Sue Cowley is an author and educator and helps run her local preschool. Her latest book is The Ultimate Guide to Mark Making in the Early Years.

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