The magazine to cross ideas in early childhood education
The teaching of manual writing in kindergarten:
Where are we at?
In the French educational system, kindergarten occupies a special place, and although with no binding, nearly 100% of children attend from the age of three years up to 6 years age required to enter elementary school. It can also accommodate, under certain conditions, children 2 years  . It offers, throughout the territory, secular schooling structures, free, integrated into the national education system. Teaching staff is recruited the same way as teachers of secondary and high schools, and assisted by a municipal staff, kindergarten assistants, who have an important educational role. Kindergarten is mainly provided by public sector institutions.
It has its own programs, in conjunction with those of the elementary school, and it is officially a ‘school’ and not a ‘nursery’, nor, as formerly, a refuge for poor children.
The place of the teaching of writing in kindergarten programs
Already, since the creation asylums around 1836, a curriculum had been developed. It included the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Replacing the asylums in 1881, the kindergarten schools flesh out areas of learning (drawing, object lesson, history, geography, stories, language exercises, etc.), but the ‘read, write, count’ trilogy remains a major activity. When looking closer at the statements from the first curricula to this this day, we observe the introduction of new teaching objects : language and drawing exercises (1887), sensory exercises, observation exercises (1921), plastic expression (1977),scientific and technical activities (1986), becoming a pupil (2008). We also note a reduction of the number of areas that go from 12 in 1881 to 4 in 1986. In fact, from that date, some areas merge to form sets that are structured around the same specialty, this is the case for example of oral and written language  , the arts, etc.
Regarding the teaching of writing, the official curricula show nomadism in the classification of educational goals, which no doubt reflects the fluctuations of educational priorities, most often in connection with psycho-social considerations and/or policies that are highly contextualized. Thus, this teaching which originally occupied the second place after the religious instruction (1836) and moral instruction (1881), is found at the end of the list of fields taught (1887 and 1921  ) and gradually regain an important place in the programs in 1986 (second place, as in 1995 and 2008) to stand in the first place in 2002 and recently in 2015, in close association with the oral language and reading.
Anyway, regarding the learning of writing, expectations towards the end of kindergarten remain relatively stable in recent decades : every child must be able to copy words in cursive writing with or without the help of the teacher and, at least, write his name and alone and by memory in cursive writing, skills to which the first keyboard writing experiments are added in 1995.
How is the teaching of writing prepared in kindergarten?
In regard to the first learning of writing, teachers' concerns are mainly the tracing of the letters and words, their ductus, with the main objective being the control of forms that will be necessary for successful cursive linked writing, since it constitutes the social and academic reference in France, even if later on people are willing to free themselves from it. Learning of this type of writing is quite laborious; it is long prepared throughout kindergarten during various activities requiring several dimensions of the writing action.
According to a survey conducted by Cambon and Lurçat , a distinction can be made between ‘indirect’ preparation and ‘direct’ writing.
The indirect preparation covers:
The control of gestures and space: on the one hand gestures global exercised during sessions of physical education and spatial orientation, and, secondly, subtle gestures requiring the mobility of phalanges during handling exercises, as well as during the design of lines on a sheet;
The exercises of the symbolic function, very important to approach writing, concerning the understanding and use of symbols, signs, codes, patterns. The encounter with albums is in this case primordial;
The exercises involving analysis, classifications and memory (auditory and visual analysis, finger plays, rhymes, classifications and markings, time sequences, sorting, classification, rhythm).
The exercises developing the attitudes and motivations (exercises involving the care, attention, respect for the set, etc.).
The direct preparation
Exclusively concerns motor activities that require holding a tool :
It is primarily designed as personal expression, source of development of imagination, creativity is rarely taught or forced by strict rules  . Since the sixties, in line with new educational conceptions, children's productions have been highly valued, and sometimes even elevated to the rank of ‘works of art’. Under the influence of work in psychology, drawing has essentially become, for teachers, a means of expression and the witness of the emotional and social development of the child. Its implementation requires visual and motor perceptual activities but mainly requires the symbolic function. Contrary to the early times of kindergarten history, drawing is no longer seen as the indispensable source for training in writing. Most of the time, the rules are free, except when applying imitation techniques or drawing from observation.
As used in kindergarten, they have no symbolic function. They are constructions with a didactic and pedagogical purpose  . It is the study and the reproductions of elementary plots (points, lines, and shapes), patterns, geometric figures and drawn lines used for visual and motor training, decoration or ornamentation. These lines would then be reinvested by the pupils in cursive writing. The rules of these exercises are interchangeable, subject to the instruction of the adult. In this case, it is the motor and perceptual visual functions which are mainly required, as well as the development of attention/concentration (observance of the model and the set) and organizations of space.
If writing also relies on perceptual visual and motor activities, it greatly relies on a double process of symbolization: representing the world with signs but also transcribing the sounds of spoken language (in our alphabetical system): this is the semiotic function. Its graphic transcription is highly regulated, and the rules and conventions are collective and define a common code of meanings  .
If we consider these three graphic-motor activities, we observe that processes they have in common involve the visual perceptual activity on the one hand, and the motor activity on the other hand. What differs is the purpose of each: the symbolic expression for in drawing, the semiotic function for writing, the graphic-motor training in graphics. Therefore, by offering graphic exercises combining drawing and graphics in order to simulate the letters layout (e.g.: draw the scales of the fish to learn to draw arches that will be needed to write the letters m and n), the dominant idea is that gestures to draw the selected shapes should naturally transfer to the writing of the letter through the motor training. But, this activity design, we mix these three activities, and the learned letters drawn from this type of exercise blurs the relationship with knowledge for pupils and raises the question of the transfer.
The 2002 curriculum, such as that of 2007, wanted to define the objectives of each activity in explicitly dissociated drawing graphic and writing  activities. One can even read in the booklet accompanying the 2002 programs  , that the graphic activities: ‘do not constitute preparatory activities in the strict sense because there is no direct continuity with writing’. This position is still far from being accepted by most teachers, although the last 2015 curriculum reiterates this position  .
The graphic exercises, an activity rarely questioned
The graphic exercises have not always had their place in the kindergarten curricula. As we have just pointed out, they explicitly described their functions analyzed and carefully separated for the first time in the 2002 curriculum: ‘These three dimensions of the symbolic activity are exercised at all levels of kindergarten without confusion between these three activities.’ Until then, graphics were briefly mentioned in official documents , sometimes in connection with writing, but very briefly (1986 Curriculum).
The term ‘graphic’ is used for the first time in the 1977 curriculum instructions, but did not refer to a clearly identified activity. In 1995, the graphical activity was elevated to the rank of ‘instrument for learning’, but only drawing and writing are explicitly named under this heading. The graphics are discussed in the ‘fine arts’
Thus, these exercises that daily occupy pupils throughout their kindergarten education did not have an explicit official existence. Yet, they quickly and lastingly imposed themselves on kindergarten teachers with the conviction of helping pupils to acquire the ‘prerequisites’ deemed necessary for learning to write. One may wonder since when they occupied this privileged place in all classes.
It is on the side of education journals that we found traces of the first graphics exercises close to those designed today : they give pupils a stereotyped pattern to complete by a form to promote sign language training to writing. Before that date, the children of the nursery school were asked to draw, to trace shapes, either by linear drawings or penciling more or less directed to ‘soften hands’ but never directly involved in writing letters  .
This is how graphic exercises, incorporated into drawings and writing substitutes, begin their long and fruitful career. Booklets with exercise models will be multiplied rapidly and will be used more and more, leading to immoderate use of photocopied cards. These cards can sometimes constitute a danger insofar as they trivialize this activity, by proposing the repetition of stereotyped traces, included in drawings that are intended to be attractive, but without any kinetic model or true didactic reflection.
Understanding this emergence
Several reasons can be cited to justify their hegemony. Is it:
One can ask whether the initial movement has been strengthened by publishers, considering the number of practical educational books that have been published about it, the number of matrices to copy or photocopies offered by publishing houses that supply plenty of parents  and teachers!
It is difficult to decide, this emergence is undoubtedly due to the amalgamation of all these reasons. However, despite the criticisms expressed, the traditional graphic exercises can express other objectives than those usually mentioned.
Where is research on graphic activities at?
Studies of graphic productions of the child focus on the drawings  , on learning of writing (M. Auzias  ), on the acquisition and automation of the motor act (L. Lurçat  ), on the speed and the readability of messages (Vin Bang  , 1955), on writing disorders (Ajuriaguerra  ), on the cognitive components of this activity (E. Ferreiro  ) and more recently on the neuro-motor processes involved in this act (J. L Velay  ). But to our knowledge, there is no research offering a detailed study of the graphic exercises, and an analysis of their relevance, if not in quantitative survey questionnaire form destined to know the actual practices of teachers in the areas of reading and writing.
L. Lurçat  observed the graphic practices of kindergarten pupils in order to shed light on the genesis of forms and representations, their development and the various steps taken by the pupil to achieve the writing graphics. Considering that its purpose is not to study the nature of school situations; her work sheds little light on teaching practices. She argues that the educational gesture and automation are fundamental data to step into writing, which has strengthened the practice of graphic exercises since it is this automation that is primarily sought  . However, if the automation of the writing gesture will ultimately be necessary, it may be irrelevant to prematurely aim for this skill through exercises of form repetitions, taken out of the writing context, even before the child discovers and experiments at his own pace the movements that can produce plots. One should not reverse the steps, automating the writing gesture will be done later, in writing, when the child has acquired a certain mastery of writing, when he can write words and especially the successful connections between letters. M. Auzias rejects learning routine and stereotyped gestures and instead proposed to diversify activities, to provide children with modeling activities, free drawings, plastic activities ‘that can be inserted into smaller works’ and adds that ‘graphics-writing,’ specifically prepares to writing, the arabesques tracings, sinusoids, ‘uuu’ curves, garlands, loops, etc., should be reserved for children in final year of kindergarten. As for E. Ferreiro (1988), she criticizes school practices: 'traditional preparatory exercises do not exceed the level of motor and perceptual exercises. In reality, it is the cognitive level which is primarily concerned with complex processes that lead to the appropriation of the writing system structure’
In fact, these exercises are not challenged in their relationship with learning to write. However, after several years of graphics, writing learning difficulties persist for many children and teachers from elementary school often complain about the poor preparation of their pupils to cursive writing.
Our own research  focused on the goals of graphic exercises, not their direct relationship with writing from the perspective of worked shapes that emphasizes the gestures of writing, but rather exploring the processes that generate and which ultimately identify potential that goes far beyond the so-called prerequisite for writing.
It seemed that this practice, too closely tied to the norms and conventions of writing, has obscured the true functions of graphics.
The real functions of graphics
We have seen that to trace the various lines, forms and patterns, which are the raison d’être of graphic exercises, two functions were solicited : visual perceptual processes and motor processes, we now need to define the modes of action.
Visual perceptual processes:
They are of two types, one must distinguish those under the overall control, the moment of collection of clues on the model, those on the local visual control  , the guidance of the hand to conduct and regulate plots ( ‘The eye will first follow the hand in the graphic production, then it will guide it.’, L. Lurçat  explains. )
The overall visual control
At first, the identification of a model does not seem to pose particular problems for the child, he only needs to look at it carefully to identify its component and then try to reproduce it. It is the motor act which seems more difficult to achieve and which focuses the attention of teachers. But it is not as simple for young kindergarten‘s children to immediately understand the role of the model. G. Sounalet showed how the material model to copy is not apprehended by a child the same way as an adult would.
For a 3-4 year old child, the model ‘is merely a social sign indicating only the pattern of action to use’. At 4-5 years, the child understands that it is an activity-controlling scheme, but the model is ‘not yet conceived as a reference object and if it is complex, his perception is not capable to consider it in full by a single operation. Only around 5-6 years does the child ‘apprehends the model as a guide and support, which is to say as an absolute regulator of action.’ Suitable relationships between forms will appear at the age of 7 years.
Barriers related to understanding of the model are connected to peculiarities of children's perception. What H. Wallon  clearly explained: ‘the perception relates to successive and mutually independent units or rather they have no other link than their enumeration itself.’ ’They are sets that the child captures but unorganized or fragmentary sets’. Thus, a problem for the child is to be able to establish relationships between the parts and the whole, that is to say organize perceptual data. He takes some information about the model, often globally, and then juxtaposes the most obvious lines, which seems sufficient to him. Asked to describe the model, he lists the various elements without noting their relationships. He is guided by questions that he will organize these elements in relation with the entire model.
Thus, to reproduce a model, one must be able to discriminate its different components, to identify the elements, collect topological relationships to eventually use these pieces information correctly. In other words: knowing how to observe. It is therefore understandable that the distribution of ready to use cards, accompanied by the injunction ‘do like the model’ do not fulfill their role of support to successfully copy the model.
However, the practice of observation is not obvious, it is an activity that is taught and learned. This involves exercising an exploratory activity, identifying and isolating the target form, detached from its context (especially if the support is a drawing), to describe, to compare it to others. Which involves discrimination, categorization. It also means to expand the child’s references, to discuss other aspects of tracings designed to insert into a set that gives it meaning, to speculate, to propose changes, that is to say, to break with passivity.
We therefore advise to systematically and jointly conduct the analysis, the description, the comparison, of lines, shapes, graphic patterns, from the point of view of their particularities. In particular, we advise emphasizing the similarities and differences as well as their organization on the paper sheet area and between plots. And you should not hesitate to give counter-examples (which incite to discrimination, to the analysis and comparison: it is the way of categorization and construction of concepts).
These verbal interactions accompanying the observation of the model, either before or after the completion of the task, with different regulatory objectives, allow the child while deciphering it, to understand the role of the model and to initiate, albeit slowly at the beginning, the transfer process which will be useful for his future writing tasks.
For its part, the local visual inspection, the guidance of the hand, accompanies the graphic-motor activity since ‘the eye directs the hand’. Therefore, the perceptual and the motor skills are so closely intertwined, that we can speak of perceptual-motor activity.
The motor actions for graphic operations depend on several factors: the pupils’ age, that is to say, the level of motor development (including genetic limits in terms of neuro-motor development especially the proximal distal law  ), development of laterality, body image, but also motor skills related to different tools and media used.
The graphic motor skills also depend on the body posture (standing, sitting, squatting), on the arrangement and the nature of media (vertical, oblique, horizontal, placed on the floor, a smooth or rough surface, with or without the presence of obstacles), and tools (brushes, caps, pencils, pens, etc.) and quality (ergonomic or not), support points (the role of the arm and of the second hand), the agility of the fingers (thumb opposition, the other fingers).
These details show the possible variations in the production of plots and tracings and their influence on their realization. Thus, graphic motricity is not uniform, it is above all an adaptation to the conditions of the proposed task.
Be that as it may, graphic-motor education cannot be conceived as being limited by the rules and conventions of writing. Nor can it be conceived as an early conditioning of the hand. Going over lines, or dotted lines, with the idea that these exercises allow the child to learn the tracings, is an illusion. For the child to control his actions and succeed the proposed forms, it is necessary to initiate the awareness of the relation between the gesture and the tracing. When the child draws a shape, he does so in a spontaneous movement. For example, he would trace circle rotating to the right or to the left, without being aware of the direction of his movement. The voluntary control of both rotations requires awareness. This is what Piaget  explains: success is comprehension in action (the subject takes note of the result). Understanding is like succeeding in thought (the subject conceptualizes his action). To assist in this awareness, which is not easy, verbalization is proving to be a fundamental tool here. Associating the child with the description of the gesture, with the statement of the rules of execution, with the analysis of the procedures, are not trivial actions: these become instruments for thinking the action. We refer here to the proposals of Vygotski , for whom thinking ’takes place in the word,’ that is to say that the language causes changes in mental activity, such as understanding.
Our own research  is based on the verbalization of the teacher’s actions by the students themselves. We have noticed that the instructions given to the adult by the students, the description of the steps needed to draw a pattern, to place the different elements and to use the desired trajectory, produce positive effects on the subsequent child realizations. : verbalizing the actions of others according to the vygotskian conception.
In this case, pupils propose actions to regulate those that others (the teacher) must realize. They are experiencing on others control processes they can then apply to themselves. By not performing the tracings themselves, on the one hand, pupils are freed from the concrete task, and on the other hand, by verbally describing the letter segments and designating the actions to draw them, they engage in a process of decentration.
This technique, on the one hand, allows the children to understand the functions of the model, as they are encouraged to describe it, and, on the other hand, to approach the difficult process of awareness of their motor action. This is exactly the function of graphic exercises.
We therefore affirm that the real objective of graphic exercises is not to prepare the child's hand writing by imposing the rules of writing on drawings to complete using shapes. Their purpose is to allow the child to develop its perceptual activity and its graphic motor skills, not to constrain or condition. Added to this is the anticipation of actions, the memorization, the management of the space on the sheet for the spatial organization of the elements that compose the model to reproduce.
Taking into account the perceptual education of the child during graphic design activities will be of great use in the learning of writing. It is the same for the motor activities. But imposing from the first tries to strictly follow a shape, a direction, prematurely conditions the gesture and limits its development. All directions of graphic tracings should be explored. In the case of the circle, for example, it is counter-productive to exclusively impose the rotation corresponding to the tracing of the round letters (that is to say, anti-clockwise). Indeed, L. Lurçat  noted that the letters are meaningless hybrids, and the two rotary movements are required to address cursive writing: ‘The double curvature is the driving condition of writing: some letters like a or e have positive sense, others, such as m have a negative sense, others like y are mixed: positive direction and negative direction. Being able to produce both directions of curvature is a necessary but not sufficient condition’. The writing of the letter x or the number 3 are clear examples. This is how the circle, initially freely drawn, will have an imposed rotation when the child writes letters.
To switch from the accidental gesture to the voluntary and then the mastered gesture, the child must be confronted with a series of different enough situations, where he will multiply graphics tests and where the kinesthetic memory will issue a voluntary activity and not a conditioning. It is by first freely drawing lines, shapes and patterns, that the child tests his motricity, the dynamics of the movements and develops his gestures. Subsequently, the renewal of the tests, according to various modalities, with other tools, other supports, other formats, then with the addition of inductive elements, instructions, will refine and discipline the gesture. Thus, it is not only the nature of graphics tasks that needs to be reconsidered, but also the context in which these tasks are carried out.
Graphics should be a conquest, not a conditioning.
Marie T. Zerbato Poudou
Ph.D. in Education Science
Member of the AGEEM Scientific Council