Educating young learners: The importance of developing fine motor skills

Fine motor skills ELT

Hawys Morgan is an editor, author and specialist in phonics, primary and preschool ELT materials, and CLIL. She has written many inspiring and fun school books for children all around the world, teaching them to speak English and to learn to read using phonics. Hawys most recently contributed to English Code  – Pearson’s new innovative primary course which promotes hands-on creative learning, investigation, fun projects, experimentation and more. In today’s post she looks at a number of practical ways you can help young learners develop fine motor skills. 

Teachers of young learners will be familiar with the importance of developing children’s fine motor skills. Building muscle strength, hand to eye coordination and control are essential parts of students’ development during their early years. 

A holistic approach to education

For young learners, their education is frequently holistic. A single game or activity might be developing their speaking and listening skills, their mathematical knowledge, their social interaction, artistic development as well as motor skills. In the same way, improving fine motor skills can form a natural part of students’ English classes and can have the following benefits: 

  • Builds concentration and self-esteem
  • Actively engages students in their learning
  • Develops the ability to switch between physical and mental activities
  • Improves social development and autonomy

Below are some simple ways you can develop fine motor skills in your classroom.  

Building muscle strength

Holding a pen for prolonged periods requires strong hand, wrist and arm muscles. If you’ve ever had to sit long hand-written exams, you will be familiar with tired and aching hand muscles! 

It is important that students develop their muscle strength so they have the stamina and control needed for writing. Kneading and rolling play dough is a fun way to build these muscles. Then, children can use their playdough creations to role-play scenarios such as having a picnic or visiting a farm. They could even model it into letter shapes.

Encouraging young learners clay model
English Code Student Book Starter level, ex 4, p22 – Make a clay letter

When singing songs or telling stories to young learners, teachers often incorporate actions to reinforce meaning. This is another opportunity to build those muscles. Children could also create shadow puppets with their hands to act out stories.  

Craft activities that involve scissors and glueing also help improve stamina and hand-eye coordination. 

Mark making

Mark making is an important step in a child’s development, encouraging creativity and coordination. 

Try giving your students the opportunity to explore different mediums of mark making. For example, they could draw marks in trays of sand, jello, shaving foam, flour or rice. Talk to them about their sensory experience (Is it cold? Do you like it? What color is it?). They could start making marks with their whole hands and then, as their coordination improves, use an index finger. Then, they can start using a stick to make marks.  

As their fine motor skills develop, try using magic markers, chunky crayons and egg chalks to make large marks. Egg-shaped chalks are easier for young children to grip. Each straight line, wavy line and circle is another step on the road to learning how to write. 

Pincer grip

As children move on from general mark-making, it is important to establish a correct grip when using a writing tool. This is especially important if you expect your students to go on to use a cursive style of handwriting in the future. 

The pincer grip is when we hold something with our index finger and thumb. Peeling off and placing stickers, sorting building blocks and threading beads use this grip and provide opportunities for practicing colors, numbers, vocabulary and prepositions of place. Doing up buttons or zips uses this grasp too. 

Educating young learners motor skills keychain
English Code Student Book 1, ex 6, p9 – Make a name keychain

While it may be second nature for adults, for children this grip requires precise control of the small muscles in their hands, wrists and fingers. Challenge students to pick up items with large blunt tweezers or chopsticks and work on their English at the same time (What have you got? I have a car. It’s small.)

Tripod grip

The next stage of development for most children is the tripod grip. It uses three fingers: the thumb, index and middle fingers. It enables children to keep their wrist steady so they can make small, precise pencil movements. 

Some children find using a rubber pencil grip, or simply wrapping an elastic band or lump of playdough around the base of the pencil helps them maintain this grip. 

At this stage, students will be learning to hold and use writing tools such as pencils, crayons, markers, chalks and paintbrushes. 

Prewriting activities

Prewriting activities offer more controlled fine motor skills practice. The usual progression is to start with straight lines, zig-zags, curved lines and diagonal lines. Then move on to tracing over circles and u-shapes. This is all essential preparation for writing letters and words. 

English courses for young learners are full of mazes, dot-to-dot, tracing and matching activities, all of which combine prewriting with learning English. 

Educating Young Learners - motor skills - trace
English Code Student Book 1, ex 4, p109 – Trace and circle
Encourage young learners - motor skills - maze
English Code Student Book Starter Level, ex 2, p12, – Maze activity

When it comes to writing letters, it can be helpful if students begin by drawing the letter shape in the air or in sand. They then trace the letter shape with an index finger, before finally tracing over the letter with a pencil.

Other writing systems

When teaching students who use a different writing system in L1, establishing fine motor skills routines can make all the difference to students’ writing. 

It can be helpful to work on left to right orientation. For example, before they sit down to write, give students scarves to move from left to right in the air. These students will benefit from pre-writing activities that work on left to right, top to bottom patterns. 

Social development

Doing up buttons, zips and laces, turning on taps, cutting up food, opening boxes – all of these things improve students’ fine motor skills. They also promote autonomy and social development by helping students learn essential everyday life skills 

This has an added advantage for the teacher. The less time you have to spend helping students with these tasks, the more time you will have to work on other areas of their development. Not only that, it is also motivating for students to have that ‘I can do it all by myself!’ feeling. 

Students will be far better prepared to pick up a pen or pencil if they have developed strength, dexterity and stamina in their hands, wrists and arms. This will leave them free to concentrate on the language element of their classroom task, rather than the physical challenge it presents. 

About English Code

Teach fine motor skills with English code

English Code is a 7-level course for 7-12 year olds, offering 5 hours or more of English study per week. Available in both American English and British English versions, it promotes hands-on creative learning, investigation, fun projects, and experiments. 

With a focus on project work and STEAM learning, children develop fine motor skills while learning how to collaborate and solve problems with their peers. Core functional language is at the forefront, giving students the vocabulary and tools they need to become confident speakers of English inside and outside the classroom.

Learn more about English Code or download a sample now!

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