Once the student has learned to grasp and hold a pencil properly and has learned to make various types of strokes smoothly across the page, the task of learning to write fluently will be much easier. These tasks were outlined in Part 1 of "Developing Fluent Handwriting Skills" in the previous issue of Practical Homeschooling.
Learning to Print
Most children learn to print before they begin to learn cursive writing. In some ways, printing is more difficult than cursive writing because its movements are less fluid. The student has to lift and place his pencil much more frequently when he prints than he does when he writes. This can make staying on the lines and keeping regular spaces between letters more difficult.
The first task the child has to learn is the starting point for forming each letter. Sometimes children start at the bottom of the letter instead of starting from the top. Most letters, whether they are upper case or lower case, are started from the top. In printing, only the upper case M and N are started from the bottom. In cursive writing, both of these letters are started from the top. In printing, all of the other letters are started from the top. In cursive writing, only the upper case G, I, and J are started from the bottom. All others, whether upper or lower case, are started from the top. So generally speaking we can teach the child a rule that says that when we are making letters we almost always start at the top.
In teaching a child to print, it can be very helpful to mark the starting point with a ball and indicate the direction of the stroke with an arrow. If the child has to lift his pencil to make a second stroke to complete the letter, such as in printing the letter k, a second smaller ball and a direction arrow are used to direct his stroke.
There are choices to be made as well. Consider teaching a child to print the upper case letter B. The child will start at the top and make a downstroke to the line. At this point, the child has two options. He can either retrace the downstroke back to the top and then begin to make the loop for the top part of the letter or he can lift the pencil to the top of the stroke and make the upper loop. This may sound like nitpicking until we consider cursive writing of the same letter. If the child learns to retrace the downstroke and then make the loops for the upper case B, he will be more closely approximating what is required for writing a cursive upper case B. This also works for the upper case letters P and R.
See/Print vs. Think/Print
It is easier for children to learn to form letters when they have a model to work from. In the early stages, it is best to have young children trace the letters. They see the letter as they produce the letter. The critical task is to see that they are starting in the correct position and tracing in the right direction. It does not help if the child is left unsupervised to trace the letters incorrectly by starting from the bottom and going the wrong way.
When students can trace letters quickly and easily, they can begin to form them without tracing by using a model which has the ball to mark the start point and the arrows to indicate direction. Students should be able to produce 100 symbols per minute as they use the model. Once the child can readily produce the letters using the model, he can begin to write or print letters and numbers from memory. Now he can think about the letter, recall it accurately from memory, and create it correctly.
Reversing Letters and Numbers
Many parents become concerned when their children write their letters and numbers backwards. The most common letters that children reverse are C, L, P, S, and Z. With numbers, 3, 5, 7, and 9 are most often written backwards.
The reason that this happens is that the student has not been given sufficient prompts about where to start and which direction to go. The parent should either use the system of balls and arrows to direct the student or they could use a hand-over-hand technique and help the student to form the letter using the correct strokes. With some children, it may take many hundreds or even thousands of repetitions to correct the problem, especially if they have been doing it the wrong way for any length of time.
Students who write letters and numbers backwards should not be mislabeled as children with perceptual or learning problems. It is much more likely to be a child who simply needs much more careful instruction and a great deal of monitored practice.
Some letters are never written backwards. Because they are mirror images when reversed, it is impossible to write some letters backwards such as A, H, I, M, O, T, U, V, W, X, and Y. That makes the task of learning to write them somewhat easier.
Once a student can form the letters correctly, the next task becomes learning to do so quickly and accurately. To develop fluency with number writing, students can print the numbers 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 in rows over and over again for 30 seconds. Count the total number of digits written. Circle any that you could not read if it were written on a price tag in a store. Subtract the errors from the total. Multiply the total by two to get a count per minute. Children in the primary grades should write 100 digits per minute. Children beyond the primary grade should write between 140-160 correct digits per minute to be considered fluent writers.
To determine fluency with printing or writing letters, it is best to give the student something to write that will require little or no concentration so that you get a pure measure of the fluency which is not confounded by having to look at or remember what they are writing. For that purpose, I suggest that you use their first names. The student writes or prints his name as many times as possible in a 30-second period. To determine fluency, count the number of characters in the name. Multiply that number by the number of times that they wrote their name. Double that number to get a count-per-minute score. Again, children in the primary grades should write or print 100 characters per minute. Children beyond the primary grades need to produce 140-160 characters correctly to be deemed fluent.
With older children, parents can use the classic sentence, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog," as a way to include all 26 letters of the alphabet into a single sentence.
Children who become fluent cursive writers are able to finish assignments more quickly, more neatly, and with fewer errors. As the workload increases, this can be a real benefit for everyone. Teaching your children fluent cursive writing skills is a worthwhile long-term academic investment.