Writing is thinking in slow motion. What is written can be given endlessly and yet retained. . . . Writing is magic.
—Walter Kaufmann in Tragedy and Philosophy (1968, Doubleday)
Writing is one of our greatest gifts. It enables us to communicate across distances and over time. Writing can convey a simple greeting from one person to another or carry complex knowledge from one generation to another.
Many of today’s students, however, don’t see writing as magical—they view it as diabolical. They avoid writing whenever possible and struggle when required to express their thoughts on paper. To address this problem, we must begin with the most basic skill involved in the process—handwriting.
Handwriting is important for two reasons. First, writing is a hierarchical skill that starts with learning the correct way to write letters. Proper letter formation is quick and efficient—and speed is essential for note taking. Note taking increases in quantity as course content increases in complexity, and students are expected to keep up, no matter how quickly the teacher speaks.
The second reason to stress the importance of handwriting is student success. Studies show that legible papers receive higher grades than do illegible ones. Therefore, those students who don’t master neat letter formation are at a disadvantage.
Quick, efficient, and clear handwriting results from direct teaching. This means showing the proper letter formation and monitoring students until they have achieved mastery. After demonstrating how to make a letter, the teacher observes the actual forming of the letter, not just the finished product. When a student uses improper formation, the teacher demonstrates again, guiding the student’s hand, if necessary. This approach is time consuming but worth it: students who have mastered letter formation don’t have to think about the formations later on—the strokes are automatic. Students’ mental energy can, instead, be used on the higher-level skills of spelling, content, and expression.
Students should receive direct teaching for both manuscript and cursive writing. Students learn to print through a variety of approaches, but some specific suggestions can simplify the process. Students should minimize the number of times they lift the pencil or pen from the paper, for example. Forming manuscript letters with one stroke whenever possible increases speed and efficiency.
Indeed, all manuscript letters can be made with one stroke except the two-stroke letters f, k, t, and x and the dotted letters i and j. Even the letter y can be made with one stroke by forming the letter v, then retracing down the right side of the letter to form the tail. Keeping the pencil in contact with the paper as much as possible reduces the number of interruptions in the writing process.
Cursive writing has the advantage of a continuous, uninterrupted flow. However, direct teaching and monitoring are still necessary. For example, some students slow their writing by stopping in the midst of a word to cross the letter t and to dot the letters i and j, rather than completing the word first and then going back to cross the t or dot the i or j. Teachers should observe students when writing words with these letters so they know when to provide direct guidance.
When teaching students cursive letter formations, teachers should also make sure students start all letters with lead-in strokes that begin on the baseline. The formations of a, c, d, g, o, and q are simplified if they begin with the pencil on the baseline like the other letters. The student doesn’t have to think about where to place the pencil if all letters start at the same place. The lead-in strokes help students learn how to connect most cursive letters.
One final concern is that students often choose to write in manuscript style because it is familiar and habitual. Teachers should require that students use cursive so that this writing style becomes automatic. At first cursive writing feels awkward and looks sloppy, but it becomes comfortable and neat with practice. The long-term advantages of cursive over print are speed and efficiency.
There are some practical issues to consider before teaching handwriting. One is the thickness of the pencil or pen. Often educators choose thick pencils for small hands, thinking that children can better control such pencils. But most small hands manage thin pencils far more easily.
A related issue is the proper grip. An easy way to teach the correct grip is to use Jane Healy’s approach of first pinching the pencil between the thumb and forefinger, then adding a “shelf” with the middle finger. Children can learn to say to themselves, “Pinch, then add a shelf,” as a way of reinforcing the appropriate technique.
Another issue is whether or not to use erasers. Erasing undesirable marks takes time and breaks the mental flow that contributes to smooth writing. It also often smudges or tears the paper, creating a messy product. Finally, when we encourage eraser use in our perfectionist society, we send the message that mistakes are bad. Yet we learn from our mistakes—they offer the hope of growing, learning, and improving. Teachers should give students pencils without erasers and show them how to cross out their mistakes neatly with one or two lines. The finished product is much cleaner and neater than a paper with smudges and tears.
Students practice a lot when learning letter formation. The goal is for the efficient movements to become automatic, aiding in speed and clarity. Using strokes that minimize wasted, extraneous movements helps to protect the hand muscles from writer’s fatigue and muscle cramps. However, practicing the same letter over and over can backfire if the practiced motor pattern is incorrect. Every time a student forms a letter in a laborious, inefficient way, the improper motor pattern becomes further ingrained. Breaking long-standing habits is tedious; it’s much easier to learn the proper way from the beginning.
GIVING HANDWRITING ITS DUE
Children better understand the value of handwriting if there is school wide consensus that it is important. Expectations that vary from teacher to teacher and from year to year frustrate children. They benefit when teachers decide as a team how students will form letters and when they will introduce cursive writing. Uniform expectations support learning throughout the school for all students.
If we want to aid students in becoming strong writers, we must start teaching handwriting in kindergarten and early grades, and we need to teach that skill until it is automatic. Even in this technological era, handwriting continues to be an important part of our lives. We are obligated to our students and the students of future generations to ensure that they continue to appreciate the magic of writing.
(Carol S. Woods, ‘The First Year of School’)