Sue Cowley: How to Encourage
Mark-Making in the Early Years

The foundation for every child's early writing skills.
  • Mark-making is one of the key building blocks in developing early writing – but why, and how?
  • Early years author Sue Cowley explains why it’s so important, along with other skills like fine motor control, concentration, and a good vocabulary.
  • You’ll also find activities and ideas to encourage quality early writing practice.

One of the most joyful aspects of working in the early years is seeing children experiment with making marks.

These are the marks that will gradually develop into writing and drawing, and which allow children to express themselves and their ideas. Even before they are able to talk fluently, we gain an insight into our children’s thinking through the marks that they make.

Writing in all its forms is a powerful tool for communication. But how does it begin? And what role does early mark-making have?

Writing is a physical skill

The act of writing is very much a physical skill as well as an intellectual one.

A key area for development in the early years is around this physical aspect of mark-making – building the strength and coordination needed to make those marks to begin with. Where we see issues around motor control and writing later on, it is often because the child’s initial physical development was not sufficient for building the strength and dexterity required to write.

When a baby is born, she cannot hold up her head. Gradually her strength develops, and this happens from the head downwards, and from the body out. In other words, she must learn to balance her head on her neck before she can move on to crawl, then walk, and then to build the strength and dexterity required to sit still and write.

So of course, this core strength is needed before children can even begin to make the fine motor movements required to manipulate a writing tool.

Fine and gross motor control

That’s why in order to develop the physical skills needed to write, settings should focus on lots of physical play, including activities that promote both fine and gross motor development. Children can build this core strength in all sorts of different ways – climbing, lifting, carrying buckets of water, hanging from bars and so on.

Fine motor and eye-to-hand coordination will develop through lots of activities that utilise actions like pinching, grasping, twisting, threading, squashing, and squeezing. You can incorporate these throughout your continuous provision, such as by providing sponges in an area set up as a garage, encouraging children to squeeze them out as they wash the cars in their role play.

Activities such as threading, weaving and manipulating small items with tweezers will all help build fine motor control and eye-to-hand coordination.

Learning to focus

Another skill needed to be able to write is the ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others. We can help children learn how to concentrate by offering them learning that really engages them. Multi-sensory activities typically help children to really focus their attention and will also help build those precious fine motor skills.

For instance, I once watched a two-year-old scooping out the centre of a pumpkin at Halloween time. She spent ages exploring how the texture of the pumpkin felt on her fingers and tongue. The level of focus she demonstrated, and the length of time for which she applied herself to the task, was incredible to see in such a young child.

Experiencing that concentration at such a young age is a fantastic early experience to prepare her for the demands of writing at a later date.

Provide more multi-sensory opportunities

Although it is tempting to think about early mark-making as using a pencil, crayon, or paints, there are lots of different materials your children can use to make marks.

This could include mark-making in natural materials such as mud, sand or snow. They can also use different tools to make their marks, including natural materials such as grasses, sticks and feathers.

The key is that they’re exploring the media in a way that is engaging and creative to them.

A sea of talk

What else? Well, writing is essentially the act of turning the thoughts in our heads into marks on a page. In order to write, your children need something to write about.

They also need to learn how to formulate and structure their thoughts when putting them on the page and to develop lots of vocabulary to help them explain those thoughts too.

A lovely quote from James Britton sums up the vital role of talk and discussion in this part of the development of writing well, that “Reading and writing float on a sea of talk”. Children need something to write about; they also need the chance to formulate and structure their thinking, and to build their language. The very best way for them to do this is through lots of talk.

Serve and return conversations

‘Serve and return’ conversations are really important in helping children to build language and communication skills. In a ‘serve and return’ conversation, talk flows backwards and forwards between the child and the practitioner, in a responsive set of interactions.

The technique, known as ‘sustained shared thinking’, will help you to build these serve and return conversations with your children. When using this technique, you help the children to build their thinking via the use of open-ended questions and conversations during play that help increase understanding.

To learn more about sustained shared thinking – you can check out our two-part guide with Kathy Brodie here – Matt

An act of expression and communication

Writing (and its precursor, mark-making) is an act of expression – we write in order to ‘make our mark’ too. Mark-making allows us to communicate with other people, helping them to understand our ideas, or to gain an insight into how we feel.

Explore the many different ways in which you can encourage your children to express themselves. For instance, they might respond with marks to a piece of music or draw images of themselves to show how they are feeling. More generally, encouraging children to express themselves in different ways is a key part in learning self-regulation and understanding their emotions too.

Creating an audience

It is important to consider the role of an ‘audience’ in writing, when thinking about ways to engage and motivate your children. A piece of writing only really ‘comes to life’ when someone reads it – until then it is just words on a page.

You can use picture books to help you create imaginary audiences for the children’s writing – for instance, writing a letter for the ‘Jolly Postman’ to deliver, or writing a set of instructions to make a sandwich for the ‘Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch’.

There are lots of ways in which parents and carers can act as an audience for the children’s mark-making, even in something as simple as drawing and writing cards for the different celebrations that punctuate the year.

Writing in role

One of the most powerful forms of mark-making is writing done from a different perspective, or role. By taking on a role and then writing as though we are that person, we can help the children build empathy and an understanding of different viewpoints and perspectives.

By creating different role-play opportunities, we can get the children to ‘take on’ a character and then write the kind of things that this character might write. For instance, making signs or writing lists while in role as a shopkeeper, or creating superhero symbols while playing in role in a superhero den.

Mark-making outdoors

Because there is less concern about ‘making a mess’, the outdoors can provide the perfect environment for mark making. Experiment with lots of different materials for making marks – paint, outdoor chalks, mud, sand and so on.

A lovely way to encourage mark-making in the outdoors is to set up a road system that children can ‘drive’ on using any ride-on vehicles you have. The children can make marks to show where the roads go, and create road signs for the other children to follow.

‘Becoming’ a Writer

The process of becoming a writer is one that takes place over time, but is one that starts with the feeling that people are going to value what you say with your marks. As early years practitioners we play a vital role in helping their children take their first steps along the ‘road to writing’. The joy of being involved in the first part of this process is a wonderfully rewarding part of the work that we get to do every day in our settings.

Sue Cowley is an author, presenter and teacher educator. She has helped to run her local early years setting for ten years. Her latest book is The Ultimate Guide to Mark Making in the Early Years published by Bloomsbury.

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