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The Goal For Handwriting
by Nan Jay Barchowsky
Academic programs customarily follow a plan whereby the goal is adult competency. Too often hand-writing programs bumble and stumble along; at times are ignored all together. The path should be linear, leading students toward the ability to write fluently. A linear path involves no transition from manuscript to conventional cursive, but more on that later.

Forgotten is the impact of fluent handwriting on academic achievement. Some instruction methods hinder, or actually shackle fluency. Look around at the number of students and young adults who dislike their handwriting and who struggle against their scrawl. When computers came into classrooms many educators declared penmanship dead, made obsolete by new technology. (The same thoughts floated about when the typewriter was invented!)

Schoolwork relies significantly upon handwriting.

  • Pencil and paper are still standard equipment in every grade and in every subject.
  • Blanks on worksheets need to be filled in.
  • Essay questions require written responses.

    Of course, exceptions may be necessary for special students.

  • Creative writing flows better for many students if the “techie” intermediary is not running. Even in this twenty-first century there are renowned authors who compose their manuscripts in longhand. As compelling as computer technology is, (great for games!) is it a valid teaching tool for every academic activity?

    The need for this hand skill continues into the adult business world.

  • A handwritten, personal “thank-you” note, for the time a colleague took to meet with you, and discuss a project, is a powerful tool.
  • A pad and pen are near most phones to record messages that may not come in electronically. Legibility and speed are essential.
  • Who can overlook a hand-addressed envelope in the mail?
    A handwritten letter within that envelope commands attention.
    A note of congratulation affirms your success.
    A note of condolence comforts.

    Education needs simplified handwriting instruction with exemplar alphabets whose formation relies upon easy, rhythmic movements of the hand. An exemplar should be a starting point only, with alphabet samples that indicate the proper direction of strokes and the form of the characters. Instruction should allow each student some latitude so that individualized handwriting can develop. Please see

    Most schools teach some form of print-script in the early grades, commonly known as “manuscript” or “circle and stick.” Teachers help children establish fine motor habits of movement for the characters, whereby almost all strokes start at the tops of letters and numbers. Children who carefully reproduce exemplars get great comments.

    Then in second or third grade a switch is made. It’s time to write like grown-ups. This is the transition mentioned earlier. Major changes in both form and direction are necessary for conventional cursive. The habits, firmly established in early grades, must be retrained. No habit is easily changed. “Grown-up cursive” letter formations require retraining. Lowercase letter strokes now start at the baseline, and strokes for capitals start at several different points. For many kids the good comments are history.

    In the United States “cursive” usually refers to writing in which all or most letters are joined within words. The origin of the word is flowing, as in a river’s course, and as applied to handwriting it refers to fluency.

    The practice of transitioning harks back to the 1920’s. It was thought that print-script would be easier for children to read because it is closer to the type in books than the conventional cursive that previously was the only method taught to young students. Print-script is probably easier to read than grand-ma’s writing, but it was not deemed to be satisfactory for adult penmanship. The way out was to teach a two-tier method.

    Although closely related, letter recognition and handwriting are not the same. Reading takes the eye to the message on the paper, then brings it to the mind. The message to be written is in the mind; the hand takes it to paper. Then the eye reads.

    Another problem with today’s handwriting instruction should be mentioned. Children are taught to read and write at an earlier and earlier age. Too little attention goes to comprehension, and a child’s ability to hold a writing instrument. A parent or teacher takes pride in the clever child who can write his or her name, and knows all the letters of the alphabet and the numbers. But a three or four-year-old’s hand muscles are rarely developed sufficiently to properly hold a writing tool. If one allows early use of markers, crayons, etc., one must closely observe and gently supervise the child’s posture, how the paper is placed, how the tool is held, and how it moves.

    Rhythm is one of two essential components of handwriting. The other is posture. They are interdependent. Movement for letter formation must be in sync with one’s natural, relaxed, internal rhythms if legibility is to develop with age-appropriate speed. A sitting position should be upright but never stiff. The paper should be placed so that a right-hander can pull downstrokes toward the midline, or so a left-hander can pull toward the elbow and still see the writing. The forefinger should control the movements with the thumb and third finger helping to hold, never strangling the tool! Without supervision a death grip is almost inevitable. It will cause pain, especially in later years. That tight grip is a result of concentrating so hard to make good letters, and to please mom, dad or teacher. However, relaxation is imperative.

    Consider the postures of pianists or baseball players. Their bodies are ready for physical activity. Their movements flow. They were taught one way only to play! Handwriting too is physical activity. With its physicality in mind instruction will be logical, moving to a goal of both short and long term success.

    Nan Jay Barchowsky Handwriting Specialist; PO Box 117, Aberdeen, MD 21001-0117 e-mail:;