Thursday, December 6, 2007

Rationales for Cursive First Penmanship Instruction

Fitzgerald, Elizabeth. "Rationales for Cursive First Penmanship Instruction."


Although the United States today surpasses other nations in economics, manufacturing, technology, scientific research, and political power, her citizens suffer from a dangerous and crippling deficit: we are an illiterate people. Even the briefest survey of our national history reveals that this was not always the case. While the youth of the past was given the tools to reach his goals, today’s children flounder in an educational system which increasingly fails to provide even the most basic of skills. America is a nation at risk, and something must be done to revive the teaching methods that once produced a well-educated and literate society.

The purpose of this chapter is to discuss the rationales for teaching children cursive as the primary method for penmanship instruction. Topics to be discussed include today’s literacy and penmanship failures, the history of handwriting, how our educational system changed with regard to the teaching of reading and writing, and how returning to the method of cursive first will be a step toward solving some of these problems. The necessity for handwriting instruction in our computer age will also be addressed. The goal is that the teacher will be better equipped to understand and explain the rationale of this superior method.

Our Nation's Literacy Failures

Our population today is poorly equipped to handle the typical reading and writing requirements in our society. Today’s failing literacy rates contrast sharply with those of previous centuries. Not only has the literacy rate dropped substantially, but so has the definition of literacy itself (Gatto, 2001). Lack of handwriting skills also contributes to our literacy failures. Platt Spencer, creator of the Spencerian method, wrote of the importance of penmanship:

Writing is almost as important as speaking, as a medium for communicating thought. For this reason it is said that writing is a secondary power of speech, and they who cannot write are in part dumb. Scrawls that cannot be read may be compared to talking that cannot be understood; and writing difficult to decipher, to stammering speech (Spencer, [n.d.]).
Our nation’s declining handwriting skills signify a deplorable failure in our communicative abilities.

A Brief History of Handwriting

In order to understand where we are and how we got here, we must look to the past and see from whence we came. Betty Edwards, in Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain, recounts: “In past centuries, handwriting was considered an the nineteenth century much time and attention was consumed in perfecting the extravagant loops and swirls of Copperplate script” (Edwards, 1989).

By the late 1930s, the ball-and-stick method for printing lettering was introduced with an intended transitional period around fourth grade to “real” writing or cursive. The shift from cursive to manuscript was also based on the philosophies of the progressive education movement. Typical of the modern movements of the day was a sweeping attitude of “out with the old and in with the new,” regardless of logic or prior success.

Philosophical Changes in Reading Instruction

Prior to the 20th century, reading was always taught by way of phonics, since English is an alphabetic writing system. In the 1930s, phonics was replaced with the whole-word method (also called look-say or sight-word) as if English were an ideographic writing system like Chinese. Gallaudet’s [whole-word] ideas were touted by John Dewey, the leading philosopher of the progressive education movement, and were given the needed scientific sanction by psychologist Edmund Burke Huey’s book The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading (1908). Through such literature, teachers and principals were convinced that the new and radical methods were educationally sound (Blumenfeld, 1995).

The motivation for changing the learning foundation was based on a shift in basic ideologies regarding the value of individual thought and intelligence. The plan was to delay formal reading instruction until the child was eight or nine years of age, the same age by which researchers today are warning us a child must have mastered this skill or face severe challenges (Lyon, 1998).

At the time, some voiced direct warnings about this change in direction, but were not only ignored as having valuable insight, but were denounced by the teaching profession, the university professors, and the book publishers who backed the International Reading Association, the world’s most powerful professional lobby for the advocacy of the look-say method.

Over the years, despite repeated warnings, the proponents of the whole-word method were blind to the faulty methodology. Samuel Blumenfeld explains, “In many ways, the whole-language juggernaut is like a computer virus wiping out all past knowledge and practice of traditional, time-tested reading instruction" (Blumenfeld, 1995). Fortunately, educators and researchers are now rediscovering the direct relationship between instructional methodology and success.

The Introduction of Manuscript

In the same way that reading methodology changed, directly affecting the ability of children to learn to read, handwriting methodology was altered, with its resultant decline in skills. Unfortunately, few people today remember the way penmanship was taught prior to the progressive education movement, and the misguided belief is that manuscript-first is the method of choice because that is the method that has always been used.

The first rationale proposed for primarily teaching ball-and-stick print was the idea that the first grade child did not have the fine motor skills or muscular dexterity in his fingers to be able to write elaborate cursive (Blumenfeld, 1997; Joss, 2001). It was believed that manuscript would be developmentally best for young children. Contrary to this theory, children prior to the 1930s never had a problem learning cursive in first grade, their manual dexterity never interfered, and they were well trained in cursive penmanship (Blumenfeld, 1997). In fact, experts in the field of dyslexia are now contending that cursive is actually more developmentally appropriate and easier for the child to learn.

Educators turned to teaching manuscript first for another reason directly related to reading. The goal was to teach children to write in the same style which they would read in books, thus reducing the confusion between the two alphabets and enhancing their ability to read. The belief that teaching manuscript first would help reading proved defective for several reasons.

Thinking that children cannot recognize a cursive letter “a” because it looks different than a manuscript or bookface letter a is as ridiculous as thinking the child could not recognize the color blue outside of his initial learning context.

Other educators have also noted that teaching cursive does not impair a child's ability to read. McInnis further attested to children's ability to recognize letters formed within various fonts and stated that as long as both cursive and manuscript forms of the letter are taught, children have no confusion in learning to read them. He further proposed:
Conventional wisdom says that children who write in cursive would have difficulty reading manuscript. There is no evidence to support this opinion! In fact, the only country in Europe which does not teach cursive first is Great Britain. The literacy rate in the European countries does not suffer because of the introduction of cursive. In the 1950's French educators attempted to improve their educational system by shifting to manuscript. Within three years they realized their error and immediately changed back to cursive (McInnis, 1995; emphasis original).
Problems Related to the Transitional Process

In spite of the theory that manuscript should be taught to children first, it was never intended to be an adult hand, and a transition to cursive around the third or fourth grade became necessary. Requiring a child to transition to another writing style once the primary system has been automated creates many problems. Following are several reasons why this transitional process prohibits the development of a good cursive hand.

The transition from one writing style to another constitutes flawed teaching. As Gladstone aptly points out, “We do not allow this artificial split to be created in any other area of education. It would be considered ridiculous to teach math entirely in Roman numerals up into third grade, then drop it all for modern Arabic numerals....and we don’t teach English by starting off with Chinese” (Gladstone, 2000).

Experienced educators understand that instruction should build upon itself rather than working against future teaching. Blumenfeld asserts,

That is why it is so important to teach the basics in the right manner from the very beginning, and why I advise parents that there are two very important no-no’s in primary education. Do not teach anything that later has to be unlearned, and do not let the child develop a bad habit. Instruct the learner to do it right from the start (Blumenfeld, 1997).

Blumenfeld further warns, “Children will only make the effort to learn one primary way of writing which they will use for the rest of their lives. They don’t need to be taught three ways, two of which will be discarded” (ibid.). A Beka Books agrees, “By starting with cursive writing rather than manuscript printing, we help the child develop good writing habits from the very beginning. This means that habits acquired from manuscript printing do not need to be unlearned” (A Beka, 2003).

Children struggle through the transition process because the grip used for manuscript writing differs significantly from that used for cursive. Manuscript writing requires more of a vertical hold, which children do not change when they attempt cursive. Blumenfeld attributes the failure of many to successfully transition from manuscript to cursive to this problem with the pencil grip (Blumenfeld, 1997).

Another problem with the transitional process is that it discredits the work children have done for three to four years to develop their writing. More importantly, the transition process interrupts the child’s ability to write at all, just at the time he is expected to put expanded thoughts into writing (Joss, 2001). A ten-year study on handwriting by Berninger and Graham revealed that the speed and legibility of third grade children reverted to first-grade levels. The authors credited this regression to the transitional process (Gladstone, 2000).

The transitional process fails because third and fourth grade teachers do not have the time to devote to handwriting instruction that teachers in kindergarten and first grade have.

Parents often question the idea of not teaching children to print, citing job applications as examples where print is needed. The student does need to learn to print, though not as his primary hand. Traditionally, print was taught as an art form in high school. There is plenty of time for a student to learn print before he applies for his first part-time job.

For reasons already mentioned, the student often fails to complete the transition process, which in turn can affect his ability to read cursive. The experience among secondary teachers at the school is that students, particularly those with special educational needs, have difficulty deciphering teachers’ handwriting.

Children asked to transition from manuscript to cursive often develop a writing style which is more of a hybrid of the two forms.

Lack of Instruction

American children’s penmanship has also suffered from inadequate, inconsistent, and in some cases a complete lack of instruction by our nation’s teachers.

Advantages of Cursive-First Instruction

Discussion thus far has addressed the history of reading and writing instruction, the reasoning behind the manuscript-first methodology, the faults with the transitional process, and the lack of teacher instruction. These weaknesses are resolved by returning to the cursive-first approach, the advantages of which will be discussed below.

Cursive writing involves a flowing, uninterrupted movement which reinforces the left-to-right directionality of our written language. The connected writing allows for continuous flow of thought and thinking ahead while writing. It also reinforces the beginning and ending of words, with proper spacing of letters, unlike manuscript.

The flowing nature of cursive virtually eliminates reversals, a common occurrence in manuscript writing. McInnis stated, “Each time the writing implement is picked up from the paper the potential for error is increased” (McInnis, 1995). To illustrate, a musician might make an error in the middle of a performance were he to move his hands too far from the instrument’s frets or keys. Mosse cited that confusion over similarly formed lower-case letters is eliminated with cursive (Mosse, 1982). Blumenfeld explained that with cursive, children do not confuse the letters because the movements of the hands make it impossible. He also affirmed, “...this knowledge is transferred to the reading process. Thus, by teaching children the distinctive differences between letters, learning to write cursive helps learning to read print” (Blumenfeld, 1997).

As Blumenfeld has pointed out, several educators and publishers are now recognizing that teaching cursive writing from the beginning actually facilitates the reading and spelling processes. ABeka Books states, “We also strengthen the child’s reading skills. By joining letters, cursive writing reinforces the blending of sounds within words” (ABeka, 2003). Blumenfeld credits cursive with aiding the spelling process.
[Cursive] helps the child learn to spell correctly since the hand acquires knowledge of spelling patterns through repeated hand movements. This is the same phenomenon that occurs when pianists or typists learn patterns of hand movements through continued repetition (Blumenfeld, 1997).
As already noted, children who are taught manuscript only and who struggle with the transition process often fail in their ability to read the cursive writing of others. On the other hand, when cursive is taught first, the student is able to read what others write, limited only by his own reading ability rather than the handwriting style of the writer.

The advantages of cursive writing also extend into other areas of the curriculum. Thomas found that French teachers find a direct connection between handwriting instruction and art, PE, and music (Thomas, 1997).

Experts in the field of dyslexia and reading disorders are recognizing the advantages of cursive instruction. As McInnis began examining the handwriting problems of students, he contended, “It became apparent that the sequence utilized was incorrect. It became increasingly clear that cursive was the preferred pattern.” According to his research, cursive-first is the preferred method for remedial students (McInnis, 1995). Nelson also notes, “There are a number of reading specialists who are now convinced that cursive should be taught in the beginning. They believe that it offers advantages over printing for reading skill development” (Nelson, [n.d.]). Finally, the experts are returning to the time-tested and solid methodology of cursive first. Unfortunately, more educators need to understand the value of this approach and teach it first, before the reading and writing disabilities develop.

Penmanship Instruction in the Computer Age

The question often arises as to the need for penmanship instruction at all in view of our current “computer age”. The rationales for continuing to teach penmanship, despite technological advances of the day, are numerous. Of primary importance is the sensory input involved in the writing process and its crucial relationship to learning to read. Blumenfeld propounded:
[The child] must get used to the idea that reading and writing are inseparable skills. One goes with the other.... Thus, reading and writing, or decoding and encoding as the linguists prefer to call it, are two parts of one skill, and should be learned simultaneously. The learning of one reinforces the other (Blumenfeld, 1973).
It is obvious that penmanship instruction is vital to the student’s ability to learn to read and write, regardless of his computer skills.

The ability to write remains critical in our computer age. The need to write by hand will always be with us. Everyday tasks such as sending cards, writing “to do” lists, adding names to an address book, taking notes from a phone message, etc., require the quick use of a pen or pencil, not a computer. Pens and pencils are affordable to the average person whereas the cost of computers prohibits their use by everyone. There are still schools that cannot afford computers for student use. The pencil does not require electricity or backup battery power. Perhaps most noticeable of all the needs for penmanship is how it provides a personal expression of the individual.

Call to Action

America is a nation at risk for failing communicative abilities. History reveals that this was not always the case. Philosophical changes in reading and writing instruction have led to a deplorable decline in the abilities of this nation’s school children. The methodologies thought to be developmentally appropriate for children have served only to handicap them and cause learning disabilities in shocking proportions. The transitional process required with the manuscript-first approach has resulted in the failure for most to successfully master the cursive hand. Adequate instruction when children are expected to learn cursive has been found wanting. Despite the promises of the computer age, penmanship skills remain a high priority for all well educated individuals. The cursive-first methodology of penmanship instruction and explicit phonics for reading instruction offer the beginning of a solution to our nation’s literacy crisis. It is my hope that those embarking on the awesome responsibility of teaching the most basic skills to our children would be encouraged to lay a worthy foundation, beginning by teaching cursive first, and to use the ideologies and methods that once made this nation great.


A Beka, 2003.

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Gladstone, Kate, “Handwriting Repair”, 2000. Ms. Gladstone works nationwide to help people improve their penmanship. Like me, she is a firm believer in the one-tiered method for penmanship instruction--as opposed to teaching one style and then a different one later. Our application of this instructional methodology differs, however, in that Ms. Gladstone is a proponent of the Italic method of penmanship.

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