Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting

The Clear Path To Handwriting
By Nan Jay Barchowsky

Learn to write for lifelong pleasure and reward. Learn to write logically. Learn to write in a linear manner. Start with basics. Then, progress steadily to fluent, legible handwriting. What are the basics? Capital letters? No. Lowercase letters? No. What then?

There are two essentials for good handwriting: Posture and rhythm. Young children can learn both of them in playful activities. Posture relates to the appropriate position of the body for any physical activity. For handwriting, as with playing the piano for example, it is important that the arms, hands and fingers be relaxed in order to move effectively. Rhythm evolves from focused, yet relaxed movement.

Of course, it is best to start learning with a sound, logical program as a young child, and follow it through to the development of a fluent hand. It is also easiest to define a linear program as it moves smoothly from pre-writing activities to learning to make the characters to fluency. We will go there first, and then address the path for the older student.

There are many activities that help develop good posture. Some are play, and some may be chores that are presented in a way that children are helping with a grown-up project.

If children are taught letters before they have the hand strength to use handwriting tools effectively, they will develop an inefficient hold on pens and pencils. Young children are usually eager to please a teacher, and fascinated by the written communication that they see grown-ups doing. They note the pensive look of a parent while writing a grocery list, or the apparent importance of writing down a phone message. It means that here is another intriguing discovery of the grown-up world to be made.

Let children imitate with free scribbles; with no instruction other than to keep the scribbles on paper and off the walls, a crayon or brush will be held without tension. Provide lots of activities to strengthen hands before real writing starts. Avoid the excessive tension that leads children to grip a pencil too tightly as they strive to master fifty-six letters and ten numerals.

Children often use a fist-like grip, or the thumb dominates the writing. A baby’s thumb is strong, but fine motor tasks are best done with the more sensitive forefinger (I call it the writing finger). Both thumb- and fist-holds on pens or pencils are inefficient. Later when students write for extended periods an awkward, tight grip will be painful. Don’t let a bad grip become a habit.

Hammering with a wooden mallet or an old metal spoon may test a parent’s patience, but it’s fun for the child and instructive. Children are learning rhythmic movement. The object will probably be held in a relaxed manner, appropriate to the tool, but differently from the way a pencil should be held. No matter. The hand will be strengthened. There are so many playful activities that work to develop hand strength and dexterity. Make marks in sand or mud with a stick. Collect tiny objects. For the objects they will probably use thumb and forefinger in the same way that they should hold a pencil.

Encourage children to help with household chores that require fine motor skill. In the kitchen stir a pot, or peel a potato (Use a safe tool, of course!). Movements are rhythmic. Stir while saying, “stir around and around.” Peel while saying, “Get off and get off,” or maybe the child will think of a song to accompany a movement.

Reinforce rhythm with spoken directions. Children should chant or sing directions with a parent or teacher. Auditory input is a huge advantage to learning first the rhythm, and later the correct movements for letter and numeral formations. The Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting program includes rhythmic exercise patterns that relate directly to the strokes we need to form letters and numerals.

Reinforce patterns, and then letters and words by writing with the eyes closed. Visual distraction is shut out. Students begin to understand that they write from mind to arm to hand to fingers, and the eyes can only review the trace made by the pencil. It’s fun too! Children often squeal with surprise at what they wrote.

It is difficult to state an age at which letters should enter the picture, as every individual develops different skills at different stages. “Picture” is an apt word -- allow for all the drawing and painting children want to do. Perhaps introduce a letter, and let them illustrate it with whatever that letter means to them.

From our adult perspective, we tend to think of capitals as the simplest letters, and often introduce them to our children first. I am not sure why. Logically, lowercase letters should be taught first. They are the ones we use most. Look at this page and you will see only a few capitals. Lowercase letters are easier to write. Historically that is why they evolved from capitals. Pick up your pen and write a print-script A, E and H. Now write a, e and h. The first three should have three or four strokes per letter. The second group should have one stroke per letter. In addition, lowercase letters can, and should have more inherent flow.

The BFH, or Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting program organizes letters in groups according to consistent movement of strokes. All vowels except i move counterclockwise, so short words with strokes moving in the same direction can be taught more easily.

Develop the physical ability to handwrite. Learn lowercase letters, capitals and numerals. Next, keep the learning logical and linear with lowercase letters that can join from one to the next, flowing into a true cursive.

In my experience, italic-based letters result in the most legible writing, and can be written at age-appropriate speed without sacrificing clarity. There is no disruptive change from print-script letters to conventional cursive letters. Children form early habits of moving from top-to-bottom and left-to-right for the basic letters. Because the BFH letters never change shape or formation, there is no need to relearn letters to make them join, as with conventional cursive. So many handwriting problems stem from the attempt to teach children new fine motor habits for lowercase letters that move from the baseline up, and to form some characters differently. It is not easy to change habits. It is neither logical nor linear.

As I wrote the first draft of this article by hand, my thoughts went down on paper with ease. My handwriting long ago became automatic, so I need not think of letter formations, only context, and an occasional pause for correct spelling. This is the meaning of fluency in handwriting.

Older students with handwriting difficulties are clearly less advantaged than the young child who learns to write in a linear manner from the get-go. Students of about eleven years through adulthood must backtrack, rethink and undo habits that cause problems.

The relearning need not be daunting. Most often pen or pencil hold needs attention. It is easier to learn to relax one’s hold in very short practice sessions. For older students hand strength is not often a problem; it’s just poor habits that became ingrained over time. The BFH rhythm patterns work as well for older students as for young children. There is no need to think about letter formations and legibility. Meanwhile the rhythmic patterns will directly affect consistent size, shape and slant of letters, and the spacing between them and words, as one progresses from patterns to separate letters, and then to truly cursive, fluent handwriting.

If practicing alone, chant the actions you are making, such as, “down and down and . . . ” you might feel self-conscious talking to yourself in a crowd! Play music that has an even beat at a pace compatible with your own writing speed. And, write with your eyes closed.

For young and older children and for adults, the procedure is similar. It’s a transition from posture and rhythm to the end goal of fluent handwriting that’s useful, rewarding, and to be enjoyed for a lifetime. NB



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