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Teaching of Handwriting

The Eighteenth Century, The Nineteenth Century, The Twentieth Century, Manuscript Writing and Other Systems

Since the advent of the typewriter, penmanship has been increasingly devalued, even ignored, in the curriculum. Despite the ubiquity of computers, handwriting is still an important means of note taking and communication. Bad handwriting, it has been shown, leads to lower grades in school. Bad handwriting skills may cause the writer physical pain and mental distress. An inappropriate grip on the writing instrument may lead to cramps and an inability to write with speed. This inability to keep up with one's thoughts leads to frustration, which may, in turn, inhibit a child's learning to compose. Illegible handwriting is a failed attempt at communication.

Qualities sought in penmanship are legibility, speed, ease, and individuality. Handwriting is a physical skill that is best learned early, and requires "a competent level of instruction in the components of the physical task." (Alston and Taylor, p. 2). Extra help given to those having trouble at an early stage can often prevent failure in later years. Unfortunately, modern teachers are not usually taught how to teach handwriting. Nor do they have enough class time to work with children individually, which is the proper way to diagnose individual problems and counter them.

Penmanship was, with the rising importance of commerce in the eighteenth century, and before typewriters, an essential job skill. The teaching of handwriting was a major task of education. It is helpful to look at the changes in styles, materials, and teaching methods over time to see the evolution of the current state of handwriting in American education.

The Eighteenth Century

Early colonists brought with them the hands and teaching methods of their native lands. A variety of hands were taught to be used in various occupations (e.g. law, accounting), or by different groups of people (e.g. university students, women, gentlemen, clerks). Instruction in reading came first; for many who came to the New World, the ability to read the Bible was necessary for all. The ability to write was required only of professionals, the well-born and their secretaries, and merchants and their clerks.

Teaching was accomplished by the rote copying of exemplars set for each student by the writing master. As demand for training increased with the burgeoning economy, a lack of skilled masters lead to the use of printed exemplars.

Late in the eighteenth century, a backwoods American teacher named John Jenkins revolutionized the teaching of handwriting by breaking all lower case letters down into six principal pen strokes, which were learned separately and then combined into letters. This method, plagiarized and modified, was used for decades, both in the United States and in Europe. The hand was still the basic English Round hand (often termed copperplate), used throughout Europe for commercial purposes since the mid-seventeenth century.

Jenkins's analytical system also required the student to memorize a dialogue about the principal strokes and the letters formed from them before actually writing letters with ink on paper. This memorization persisted through much of the nineteenth century; decades later, Platt Rogers Spencer would still require students to memorize an oral analysis of letters. Another of Jenkins's innovations was the inclusion in his writing manuals of detailed recommendations on teaching methods.

The Nineteenth Century

Copy slips, with each exemplar printed on a separate piece of paper, grew into copybooks, with blank lines below the text for the student to imitate the exemplar, thus requiring a new book for each student. By the 1870s there were graded series of books, with accompanying teacher's manuals, wall charts, and other teaching aids. Competition intensified in the nineteenth century, as city, town, or state school boards began selecting textbooks, including penmanship systems, for entire school systems.

An ever-increasing emphasis on speedy handwriting for commercial needs was met by modifications to the letterforms taught and the introduction of new methods of movement. Fewer hands were being taught by the beginning of the century. By 1805 beginners started with a large-sized Round hand, then moved into a running hand, similar to the Round hand but faster, because every letter within words was joined. Also offered was a miniaturized version of the cursive, thought suitable for girls.

The letterforms would degenerate throughout the century in two conflicting streams: the stronger current moving toward simpler, faster, more colorless letterforms; and a contradictory cross-current created by the exploration of the decorative possibilities inherent in the use of the flexible steel pen point. These pens, which replaced quills for general use in the 1830s, made possible the extreme thick-and-thin lines in mid-century letterforms. Spencer was the most famous exponent of these attenuated forms.

B. F. Foster introduced "muscular movement," derived from Joseph Carstairs in England, into the classroom in the 1830s. This technique depended on forearm movement, although finger movement was allowed after the student reached a certain level of proficiency. From this point, handwriting practice became more group-based, involving classroom drills.

The famous Spencerian handwriting and the similar system of Spencer's main competitors, Payson, Dunton, and Scribner, returned to the more logical combined use of arm, forearm, and hand movements. These systems still relied heavily on classroom drills and timed instruction.

All the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century systems were taught by copying and correction, so that each student would achieve an exact imitation of the style being taught. Teaching individual handwriting style was not an issue until the typewriter took over business writing and made handwriting newly personal.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, doctors in Europe, concerned about what would now be called the ergonomics of writing, grew disturbed with the postures and methods of penmanship. A new style, Vertical Writing, unslanted and with simplified letterforms, was introduced to the United States from England and widely adopted by all the publishers of penmanship manuals, including the heirs of Spencer. The copybooks claimed that it was natural and more like print, and so it served as a foreshadowing of manuscript writing.

The Twentieth Century

The Palmer Method was the dominant system of the twentieth century. A. N. Palmer introduced his system in the 1880s; by 1928, three-quarters of all schoolchildren in the United States were being taught by the Palmer method. The simple, unshaded letterforms were built for speed, taught by drill to establish "kinesthetic memory," and written with a new technique based on arm movement alone (i.e., no finger movement). Unfortunately, while the students remembered the drills all their lives, their handwriting was not particularly successful. Tamara Thornton suggests that the penmanship drill was used especially in cities as lessons in conformity, to assimilate immigrants into mainstream citizenry.

Manuscript Writing and Other Systems

In 1913 the English calligrapher Edward Johnston gave a lecture at a teachers' conference in which he recommended that the student use a broad-nibbed pen and, starting from simple, rounded, Roman letterforms, achieve a formal italic hand, which would develop into a decent, useful, everyday handwriting. Inspired by the lecture, a group of educators developed manuscript writing (also known as ball-and-stick or print-script), simplified letterforms based on circles and straight lines. This system was, however, not quite what Johnston had in mind.

Until this time, it should be emphasized, children started writing a cursive script from the beginning. Marjorie Wise, an English educator, brought manuscript writing to the United States in 1922, where it was first adopted by progressive schools, and rapidly increased in popularity to the extent that manuscript writing was included in the Palmer company materials. A major advantage of the system was that children could start learning to write at a younger age, with less developed motor skills. With manuscript writing, reading and writing were taught in parallel for the first time. Also, the introduction of manuscript writing was associated with the idea that children want to learn to write to communicate, although creative writing would not be standard until the 1950s.

There is still controversy over manuscript writing in the early twenty-first century; advocates say it is closer to modern type styles and so easier for the beginner to learn; critics point out the difficulty of transition from print-script to cursive, or the disadvantages of never taking up cursive at all, a system which also has its advocates. There is a wide variety of manuscript writing programs and styles. The early ones had the disadvantage of pairing their geometric print-scripts with contemporary cursives (Palmer in the United States and Vere Foster in Britain), which were quite different. Schemes were developed with more developmental logic between print and cursive, including Marion Richardson's in the United Kingdom and Donald Neil Thurber's D'Nealian in the United States.

Some advocate starting with cursive, citing advantages for early writers in not needing to think where to start each letter, and a clearer division between words. This new idea (which is, of course, an old one) is the standard method in France and Germany. In France's carefully thought-out system, children start preparatory exercises at age three, and are surrounded by signs and texts in a nationally standardized script, all of which help the student learn handwriting earlier and with more success (but less individuality) than American practices.

Calligraphers and other historians of letterforms, including Alfred Fairbank in England, Paul Standard in New York, and Lloyd Reynolds in Oregon, have been advocating italic forms since the 1930s. Italic forms have the simplest transition from basic letterforms to mature cursive writing, and allow for considerable individualization.

Participants in the debate over handwriting education in the twentieth century included not only calligraphers and publishers of the educational materials, but also academics, including statisticians and psychologists. The scientists developed quantitative handwriting scales to evaluate handwriting starting in 1909, but their advice that handwriting required the use of not just Palmerian arm movements, but also the coordinated movements of finger, hand, and wrist, were ignored for decades.

Throughout the twentieth century, both publishers and researchers concentrated on reading rather than writing. Classroom teachers, often left with little official encouragement and training, pursued their own ways.

Contemporary handwriting research has focused on issues such as type of script, the use of evaluative scales, handedness, ergonomics (grip and posture), tools (writing instrument and paper), and, occasionally, teaching methods, including teacher training and use of pre-writing activities. While no one writing style or approach has been shown to be "the best," consistency of model through early grades does appear to be important, as long as the system is well thought-out.

Left-handedness is no longer disapproved of; instruction in this field concentrates on the different techniques needed to aid the left-handed writer, especially with appropriate grip and paper position. Some individual variation in grip is now considered appropriate for both right-and left-handed writers; however, it is important for the teacher to know which grips will lead to handwriting dysfunctionality, including cramps and lack of speed.

A variety of writing implements is also now considered appropriate, with the student and teacher choosing the one that feels best. Fat pencils used by early writers may lead to an inappropriate grip. Rubber or other pencil prosthetics may help students trying to overcome a bad grip.

Much work has centered on the use of lined versus unlined paper; there is some suggestion that first writers work best with unlined, but there are a variety of research results supporting other opinions.

A variety of pre-writing activities have been recommended, including drawing, painting, threading beads, building blocks, and play dough, aimed at encouraging better pencil hold, and helping to develop isolated finger movements, kinesthetic memory, and upper limb muscle tone. Montessori methods, including writing in sand, tracing letters on sandpaper, and other sensory techniques, have also proved useful.

Much attention has been paid to the handwriting training of dyslexic and learning disabled (LD) students, who need more early intervention to prevent formation of bad writing habits. It has been suggested that it might be easier for these students to start with cursive rather than manuscript writing, both because it is easier physically to write joined letters, and to forestall the switchover from print to cursive. Inconsistent models and teaching methods within a school make progress particularly difficult for less able children.

Handwriting continues to be an important skill, a building block for success in personal expression. Teaching the teacher to diagnose and remedy problems is vital. Individual attention to students, although often difficult or impossible given large classes, is necessary to achieve good results–pupils with writing that is legible, flowing, and individual.


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