Handwriting Questions

By Nan Barchowsky, BFH, Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting, www.bfhhandwriting.com

Our Age of Technology is intriguing, amazing, confounding and frustrating. Something is always new! Specifically, how should we meet challenges in classrooms? Handwriting is hotly debated. Will it become obsolete as we use the growing number of digital ways to communicate? Or should we save handwriting? Should we look to solutions used elsewhere in the world?

Professionals should seek and provide children with education based on the best research and practice available, but it doesn’t always happen. Well over 100 years ago, Maria Montessori demonstrated the importance of touch with fingers in learning to write. But are her teachings, and other theories well attended, or even valid? The digital world brings great advances and with new knowledge of brain function, science shows researchers how our hands teach us. We learn the differences between writing with pen, pencil and other markers, as opposed to writing with computers. We now understand how young children gain appreciable cognition with handwriting, and that tapping keys does not do as much.

The benefits continue among older writers when they use pen and paper instead of technology. With note-taking by hand, we retain more information, better. Almost all public schools in the United States teach print-script, known as manuscript, in the beginning, or in first grade, as prescribed by Common Core. Print-script is often followed by “cursive” in second or third grade. (“Cursive” here is defined by many people as a method with all lowercase letters joined in words. There are other cursives, so here it is referred to as “conventional cursive”)

There is a large push to save conventional cursive. Proponents are teachers, parents, state legislators, and of course, vendors of handwriting programs that advocate print-script first, followed by conventional cursive. Many of the arguments that support using two alphabets, misquote wording in actual research, where it discusses no specific method of writing. A substitute in a research paper is made, “cursive” for “handwriting.” Fine-motor skill is the essence of fluency in any hand activity. It’s mentioned often in handwriting, but is it attended? If two, diverse alphabets — print-script and conventional cursive — are taught, there is a contradiction between directions of lines and shapes of letters. Is it necessary to teach such diversity when one alphabet will work? Certainly we do not teach any other subject in two versions! Space does not allow here for an illustration showing the differences, but email me and I will happily send one (njbarch@mac.com).

The youngest children should have a lot of hand and finger play to build relaxed hands in preparation to write. Even a few chores to help Dad or Mom around home are valuable. This advantage may be lost in the introduction of a diverse alphabet in second or third grade. When one sees images of students striving to form different letter formations, the evidence is clear. They fail fluency! Many kids learn conventional cursive in just one or two assigned grades, then forget it, revert to print-script, and develop their own hybrid handwriting. Is this why instruction is forgotten and people say they can’t read “cursive?” Some charter, parochial, private and others schools teach only conventional cursive from the beginning. The students avoid two-tier instruction, making it a huge advantage to the development of fine-motor movement.

Increasingly, other schools teach italic in the United States and in other parts of the world. Recently, “Grundschrift” has been introduced in Germany in search of greater clarity in handwriting. It’s a simplified print-script with few pencil lifts within letters and small entry strokes added to some letters. It should help to develop some joins between letters to increase fluency. This year (2015), New Zealand approved a strong move to halt increasing illiteracy. Every young student will start out learning to write by hand this year. Their selected method is italic. Many New Zealanders, known as “Kiwis”, use the cursive italic hand.

The italic method goes back to the late fourteenth century and the Renaissance. Whether written with a quill dipped in ink or written with a humble pencil, it has survived among those who prefer this method of writing that uses easy, simple, eloquent letter formations. Children can first be taught letters separately, then quickly join them up as early as first grade, as there are no changes to letter forms. Italic has been extraordinarily successful in my own teaching career. In addition to teaching the wonderfully natural fluent movement of italic letters, I believe in pre-writing play. There is ample time in pre-school and Kindergarten to strengthen hands and fingers with playful activities that prepare children for fluent writing. I include some activities on my blog. With hope, questions in this article will inspire some thought about how we might improve handwriting instruction. Look critically at some of the ways we teach. Be a sceptic. Basically, help children learn! Please visit my website, www.bfhhandwriting.com, and tell me your thoughts!

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