As students begin to learn basic academic skills, they are called upon to learn to print and to write. There was a time when penmanship was considered of sufficient importance so as to be included as part of the regular curriculum. For the last forty years however, the advent of discovery learning methods of instruction has had a significant influence on curriculum. Any curriculum which had repeated practice elements was considered to be "drill and kill" and was largely abandoned. Along with learning math facts, reading word lists, and memorizing poetry or passages, printing and writing strategies almost completely disappeared from the syllabus. As the pendulum swings back from the disaster that was discovery learning, some of these abandoned practices are being restored as skills that students need to learn well.
As printing and cursive writing skills re-emerge, different people are approaching the subject in different way. Some homeschoolers and/or classroom teachers prefer to skip teaching children to print and go directly to teaching cursive writing. (See Sam Blumenfeld's column in PHS #63, for example.) Others take the more traditional route of teaching printing skills first and then teaching cursive writing. I have not been able to find any conclusive studies to demonstrate that one approach is more effective or efficient than the other. Until such data demonstrates the superiority of one or the other strategy, parents should do what they feel is easiest for their child. Ultimately we learn both to print and to write cursively, so in the final analysis the order in which we learn may be a moot point.
Pen and Pencil Holding
I have been able to observe the different printing and writing skills of literally thousands of children over the past 30 years in my learning centers. The first thing that strikes me about proper printing and writing is the way in which different children grasp a pen or pencil when they begin to write. The proper grip is with the thumb on the one side of the pencil and the index and middle finger supporting the other side of the pencil. The majority of children do hold a pencil in this way. There are a variety of other ways in which I have observed children holding pens and pencils. Many children will curl the index and middle finger over the top of the pen or pencil and hold the pencil between the middle and ring finger. This makes it awkward to write or to print and results in students writing more slowly and with less precision.
Correcting Pencil Holding Positions
Typically once a child begins to learn to print or write using a position other than the correct one, it becomes well-learned and is often difficult to change. There is one simple effective strategy with which I have had success. Take a blank sheet of lined paper. Place it in front of the student so that it is in a comfortable writing position. Draw an outline of a pencil on the right hand side of the sheet of paper where the child normally sets the pencil. If the child is left-handed, draw the outline on the left side of the sheet. Ask the child to place the pencil on the outline. Then ask the child to pick up the pencil and make a slash mark on the first line of the paper. When the child has made the first slash mark, ask him to set the pencil back down on the outline and to release the pencil from his grip. Each of the slash marks should be the height of the line on the paper and should be one of a group of five. To make them easier to count, the fifth slash mark should be a horizontal line drawn through the previous four slashes (e.g., ////). Now ask the child to repeat the task as many times as possible for a period of thirty seconds. The objective is to have the student repeat the task at a rate of 40-50 slash marks per minute. Each individual mark requires them to pick up the pencil, make a mark and return the pencil to the outline on the paper. On each subsequent attempt, the child is likely to become more proficient at making slash marks. The only way in which they reach the objective of 20 marks in 30 seconds is to pick it up between their thumb and index finger. There is insufficient time to wrap their fingers around the pencil in any other way and still reach the objective. By the time the student is able to make 20 lines in 30 seconds, they will have changed the way in which they now grip the pencil. With practice this new way of picking up the pencil will become their preferred way of holding any writing instrument. (The parent does have to monitor the student to see that once the child has picked up the pencil properly, that they do not readjust their grip to their old method.)
If your child does not hold a pen or pencil correctly, try this strategy for a couple of minutes each day. Sometimes using a writing accessory which places the child's fingers properly on the pencil will also help. These devices are generally made of soft rubber and slide over the shaft of the pencil or pen, guiding the student as to where to place their fingers.
Tool Skills for Developing Writing
One of the first tasks is to get the child's hand moving smoothly from left to right over the page as he prints or writes. The tried and true traditional penmanship courses included exercises to achieve this objective. The student is given a variety of different patterns to write. Each pattern must remain within the lines and have equal spacing and slope. These are considered to be tool skills which will assist in the formation of letters once the student has developed a fluent motion writing patterns across the page.
Unfortunately these traditional approaches to teaching writing skills never specified the pace or quality of the exercises they developed. There was no standard of excellence against which to measure a student's performance.
We now know from our Precision Teaching research that students can make 200 such marks per minute and that they should not make more than two errors per minute. Errors would be any part of a pattern which goes above or below the line, is not equally spaced, or does not have the formation of other members of the set.
Usually these tool skill practices are timed for thirty seconds to keep the child's fingers from developing fatigue or cramps. A student may be practicing several of these patterns daily as part of their writing program. Doing a daily timing and charting their scores gives both parent and child an indication of progress and of any problems.
The Left-Handed Student
Each child develops a preferred writing hand. Sometimes the preference is difficult to determine in younger children because they color or scribble equally well with either hand before they finally become consistent in using one hand or the other. Most children are right-handed, a few are left-handed, and even fewer are ambidextrous. Children who are naturally left-handed sometimes have more difficulty learning to print or write. This is especially true if the curl their hand over the pen or pencil as they write. In my experience it is almost impossible to get such a student to change their grip. This unique grip makes it more difficult for them to move their hand easily from left to write across the page. They almost always require extra practice on the movement exercises described above to develop fluid movement and attempt to increase their pace of writing or printing. As they attempt to write faster, they may tend to curl their hand even more than usual. I have seen no solution for this behavior. The practice of trying to switch them to their non-preferred hand has not shown any remarkable results. Fortunately left-handed students do tend to become fluent writers, albeit in a completely different way than right-handers, so it should not be a major source of concern for parents.
In Part 2 of this article, we will consider some of the other practices that help students to become fluent cursive writers.