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Handwriting: How & Why

"How" is the focus of this article, but first, a quick look at "Why". E-mail is cool. It is also the most impersonal means of communication. It's cold. If a family member is born, marries or dies, please, never send electronic congratulations or condolences.

Technology brought computers into classrooms, which led some educators to throw in the handwriting towel and rely solely on keyboarding. Keyboarding is a blessing for the severely handicapped, but it is not the total answer to written communication.

We need to fill out forms, take notes, answer essay questions and more. Paper, pens and pencils are handy, and they work when computers are down. Some people just prefer the direct contact of longhand.

How can we achieve easy, fluent handwriting?

Give beginners a model alphabet that serves both print-script and cursive. The rest is easy. ("Cursive" need not imply alphabets with loops to make all letters within a word connect. True cursive is simply writing that flows effortlessly from letter to letter.)

Some letters should have exit strokes, so lines flow as rhythmically as a child's natural scribble. The letters c and e have this even in the type you are reading. The letters a, d, h, i, k, l, m, n, t, u and z need exit strokes, flowing little lifts from the baseline. Then the joining between letters in words such as my, dim, hint, etc. happen with little or no coaching.

Sadly, few children start with an effective program. Most model alphabets are incompatible with fluent movement, the development of legibility, and the speed we need in later grades and adulthood. Children are usually required to learn not one, but two ways to write. This is confusing and a waste of time. It affects both legibility and speed.

Most young children begin with either capitals or lowercase letters. Almost all strokes start at the tops of letters, and most move from left-to-right. So far, so good, because it fits with the way we read.

The letters are straight up (no slant), and paper is placed straight up in front of the child. The strokes end with an abrupt stop at the baseline. That's not good. Flowing movement is restrained. Paper for right-handers should be over to the right a little so they can move more freely. The letters will slant forward somewhat as they pull strokes toward their midlines, a very natural movement from babyhood on. Left-handers will hook their wrists to see what they are writing on straight-up paper. Move the paper to the left and they can write with a relaxed wrist.

There are exceptions to the upright letterforms. D'Nealian is one. The basic letters have a forward slant and "monkey tails" that are intended to flow from the baseline. Actually these tails are more drawn than written so they do not move well from letter-to-letter. If one tries to join them, the space between letters becomes excessive.

Many children succeed with the basic print-script, probably because it is thoroughly taught. A teacher needs to get the kids to write early on, but too often there is a lack of understanding as to how to teach the skill so it develops effectively.

Children learn and use print-script for about three years. Habits of movement are well formed. A well-designed beginners' alphabet will become a true cursive as letters join.

But most handwriting programs demand a change. Habits must be undone! Retrained! A 19th century notion prevails that says "real' writing is the traditional "cursive." This is the hand of grandparents and a few parents. If it were truly traditional, it would hark back to when Roman letters became cursive because a scribe was in a hurry to send a message… no time to carve it in stone! That cursive was close to a modern italic. From that time forward handwriting took many twists and turns, mostly dependent on what pleased the eye of the literati…and few people were literate until recent history. In the 19th century men such as Austin N. Palmer simplified Spencerian, the favored hand of the time, and it is essentially Palmer's method that is today's conventional cursive.

Why undo habits of letter formation if print-script can be guided into handwriting that joins up to serve older student and adult needs. Most of you who are reading this probably reverted to the print-script you first learned and made it your own. Maybe it is not too different from that of those ancient Romans!

Many handwriting programs falsely claim minimal "transition." In reality, there is more than meets the eye. With the exception of italic programs, one must learn to change the direction of movement, and start letters from the baseline instead of the tops of letters. Three lowercase letters change their shape entirely: r, f and z. The reason for change goes like this; Words whose letters are totally joined are faster to write, so add loops and change three letters. In my teaching experience it is faster to lift the pen from time-to-time. How about you? Do you, who are reading this, join every letter in every word? A few may. Most do not.

Then there are the capitals, some of which change to rather complex forms. The letter I is the outstanding example because we use it more than any other. I have watched students of an age where their handwriting should be automatic, pause to think about how to write some of the conventional cursive letters. A message formed in the mind should flow automatically through the hand and pen to paper with thought for what is to be communicated only.

If you agree with the "why" we need to write, perhaps you see the value of learning one simple handwriting method that conforms to one's ease of moving a pen.