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Solving the Handwriting Puzzle With Swansbury

by Nan J. Barchowsky

A wake-up call resounds throughout current media. In recent decades educators gradually shoved handwriting skills into a dark closet until the requirement for a handwritten essay was introduced into the SAT. Students have a limited time to write, and the reviewers have no time to decipher illegible writing.

An essay written so slowly that the content is incomplete, or so rapidly that it is illegible, can tip the scales for college admission.

To all who come to me with, "My teenager has terrible handwriting," there is a solution! That teen is conscious of the problem. He or she already knows the tedious chore of writing an acceptable paper by hand, and the difficulty of taking notes. Understanding the problem is a large part of the solution, and the root is the way they were or were not taught to handwrite.

Most children are taught two ways to form letters, print-script first, conventional cursive later. Young children are eager to learn everything, so the habit of forming almost all letters from top-to-bottom, and left-to-right is instilled over their first two to three years. Then the tables are turned. Lowercase letters are written from the baseline up, loops are added, and letter formations change. That well-instilled habit of movement must be retrained. It is a time-consuming, often unwelcome task. The result can be garbled scrawl.

Those children who learn conventional cursive from the beginning usually have neater handwriting, but the lack of rhythmic movement as one draws loops to join every letter in every word, multi-syllabic ones, is slow.

An effective program for beginners, with letterforms that evolve into a true cursive without changes to fine motor habits is the sensible plan. One cannot roll back the years, but one can build on whatever was first learned.

It is commonly thought that children between the ages of about eight to ten or eleven have established fine motor habits that are hard to change. My own classroom observations confirm that this is a difficult time for remediation. New, more interesting things, academic and otherwise, attract student attention.

However -- a significant "however" -- students who are just a bit older realize that grades are affected by illegible handwriting. Note-taking is an issue; notes are either illegible when written at speed, or too slow to cover content. The inability to write fast enough and clearly, is a lifelong problem for many. It need not be.

Older students are aware of the SAT requirements, and may be even more concerned than their parents. Teens become aware of goals, cause and effect.

At the present I am tutoring sixth, seventh and eighth graders. The greatest stumbling block to gaining fluency is pen hold. It is tense. Handwriting is a physical skill that transmits thoughts from mind to paper. I like to relate the action to whatever physical activity engages a studentís interest. The correlation works well.

For a gross motor example: If one is playing basketball, a move is conceived in the playerís mind. The body is in a specific, but relaxed position to shoot a basket. A fine motor example might be musical where fingers move fluently to touch keys on a piano.

In sports, music, and dance, students are coached in posture and movement. Unfortunately, similar coaching is lacking for handwriting. Tense, awkward pen holds are difficult, but not impossible habits to break. I show students a "cool, new" hold for a pen or pencil. It is not really new, but is easier to introduce than to reform the usual tripod hold.

Too often a baby hold persists into adulthood. Many young children draw and write before they have developed sufficient muscular strength to hold a crayon or marker properly. The thumb is strong and wraps around the fingers. The third finger finds its way to the top of the pencil shaft and the palm closes. The index finger is tucked out of the way instead of being up front to take control. The palm closes and the hold is tense.

The "cool" hold places the pen between the index and third fingers, and it rests in the web between those fingers. Pencils and gel pens work better than ballpoints in this position. The index finger is on top to control the action; the thumb and third finger support the pen. The fingers should be about 7/8 inch, or 2.22 centimeters from the point; a left-hander may place the fingers slightly higher on the shaft. Try it. It becomes comfortable within ten minutes.

Paper placement is critical too. The right hand will move more freely with the paper over to the right of the body. Tilt it slightly so the upper left corner of the paper is toward the left. A left-hander should never place the paper straight in front. The student will hook the wrist in order to see the writing. Put the paper to the left of the body with the upper right-hand corner tilted to the right; the wrist and hand will relax.

If any of my descriptions are hard to visualize, email me at and I will send an illustration.

In a surprisingly short time handwriting can become fluent for teens. Remediation sessions should be frequent, but no longer than ten to fifteen minutes. Scribbling with the eyes closed is a good warmup before practicing letters, words and sentences. It encourages focus on a relaxed pen hold and overall good posture. Occasionally write words with the eyes closed.

A majority of students revert to the print-script they first learned. The trick is to make that print-script flow while retaining legibility.

Look around at the writing of adults you see everyday. If their hands and fingers move efficiently, they are probably joining up some of the print-script letters. They have adapted to their needs. Unfortunately, this does not always come naturally. Many lowercase print-script letters end abruptly on the baseline, but students can learn to let their pens drift rhythmically up off the baseline to join to a following letter, or to let the writing line flow from an o, v or w to other letters.

Join all letters within each word. That is the common instruction for conventional cursive. I disagree. This cursive evolved from writing in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries when pens were frequently lifted. Emphasis was on downstrokes; pressure opened the nib a bit to let more ink flow to paper. It helps rhythmic flow to emphasize downstrokes and to drift upward between them. This applies to any method of writing. Conventional cursive is slowed by its lack of rhythm.

Look for, and try to understand, the source of habits. Why is there a death grip on a pen? Is print-script the real preference, or does the student think conventional cursive is expected of him or her? Are there indications that a print-script has some joins that are just happening naturally? Build on them. Can the conventional cursive writer find ways to have clear and consistent slant and letter size by lifting the pen to de-emphasize the interfering loops more often? -- Nan Jay Barchowsky