It’s one of the ultimate comparisons between children around ages 4 and 5: who is writing their name yet, and who isn’t? Is there something wrong if a child isn’t writing their name before kindergarten? What if they don’t even want to try??
Even in a world where technology is king, we still tend to push children into writing very early. So early, in fact, that they might not be developmentally ready for the task. Sure, some children are able to write their names at age 4, but some typically developing children still aren’t ready until well into age 5! So before you panic about getting those letters on a page, let’s take a look at what it really means to write a name.
When is a Child is Ready to Write?
There has been a lot of discussion, and even some controversy about when a child is truly ready to write.
A study by Weil & Amundson (1994) suggested that children who are able to copy at least nine forms on the Beery Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration (Beery VMI) are more likely to be able to copy letters. (That’s an age equivalency of around 5 years, 3 months, according to the Beery VMI’s norms.) For those not familiar with this particular assessment, it begins with imitating and then copying simple pre-writing shapes such as vertical and horizontal lines, cross strokes, circles, and squares. (See the image below for a progression of these shapes.) Using a developmental model approach, we would assume that in order to write letters, children would first need to understand and be able to create the underlying shapes that make up those letters.
While visual motor integration appears to be a very crucial component of writing, therapists usually suggest there are even more indicators for writing readiness that we shouldn’t overlook: Can the child hold a pencil efficiently? Are they positioned at the table with proper biomechanics? Can they identify letters, or at least components of letters in order to see what makes them similar or different? Can they follow verbal or visual instruction to form the letters?
When you break it down, handwriting consists of many different skill components which must be working together to achieve success. And that’s just following a model of typical development! Many of the children we work with in occupational therapy have difficulties with one or more areas of development that prevent or delay their readiness for these skills.
What Happens When Children are Pushed to Write Too Early?
Pushing someone to do something before they are ready is a recipe for frustration. If a child isn’t able to achieve any sort of success with a skill, they’ll often avoid it. In fact, I bet we all know a child that “HATES” handwriting, and will do anything to get out of it.
According to research, we know you need to practice to improve and solidify handwriting skills. But what happens when a child is practicing the wrong way, or compensating for skill deficits such as poor visual motor skills, poor posture, or poor fine motor control? In addition to discouragement to continue, it also often leads to irregular or inefficient writing habits that can be difficult to correct in the future.
When children over-practice a skill they aren’t quite ready for, it can also lead to what’s called splinter skills. That’s a skill that exists on it’s own island, because the precursor skills haven’t developed yet. Many children can “write” their name, but it’s really more like a familiar “drawing.” That’s to say that they may know what their name looks like, but can’t identify what the letters are apart from that particular set. Knowing how to write a name means something a bit different when the child has learned it independently of its components.
But I get it, parents love to see their children write their names. In fact, many children learn this task at home before they even start school. While this is great to see such supportive encouragement, I wish I saw more excitement to work on pre-writing shapes, nailing down diagonal lines, or working across midline. But most people want to see that adorable signature that they see other people’s children creating. It’s simply one of those feel-good hallmarks of developmental progress.
What’s the Best Way to Learn How to Write a Name?
Upper case letters are easier to learn than lower case letters. (Weil & Cunningham (1994) confirmed this in their review of the available literature.) However, many times, a child sees their name as upper and lower case together, and most aren’t ready for those complicated lower case letter formations.
I usually encourage learning upper case letters first due to the developmental progression of skills. However, I’ve received lots of different opinions on this from teachers, parents, and even other therapists. Yes, a child typically sees their name as upper case/lower case presentation (“Johnny” instead of “JOHNNY”), but pushing them to write complicated letters before they are ready can really turn them off to the idea of writing.
Also, a kid named “Sebastian” might not learn their name as quickly as a child named “Joe.” Longer names and more complicated formations can impact the progress of this skill as well.
Presenting lined paper too early can also be a confusing experience for new writers. Encouraging children to learn their name in a variety of mediums, without the constraints of lined paper, may encourage practice without frustration. This is where all that fun practice in paint, shaving cream, or play-doh can really come in handy. I also encourage families to not be afraid of hanging back and working on drawing pre-writing shapes. That additional practice may improve underlying visual motor skills for future handwriting.
Still Worried About Your Child’s Progress?
While this whole post encourages us not to push beyond typical skill development, there are instances when skills still don’t progress within the ranges of expectation. We wouldn’t want an underlying developmental issue to go unnoticed and leave a child significantly behind the skill level of his or her peers.
If avoidance of writing or drawing all together begins to interfere with a child’s participation in school, or the child has missed fine or gross motor milestones, a teacher or pediatrician might recommend a referral to occupational therapy services. That’s when a therapist would assess the underlying skill components to see if anything is interfering with their participation.
So while the urge to compare skills like name writing can be strong, it’s important to remember the underlying skills that are required and the wide range of typical skill development.
It’s so much more than just a name.
Weil, M., & Cunningham, A. (1994). Relationship between visuomotor and handwriting skills of children in kindergarten. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 48(11), 982-988.