The teaching of handwriting has a low priority among educators these days. They believe that handwriting is passé and that in the future everyone will be using word processors to do their writing. But have you noticed how easy it is to make errors when writing an email?
Homeschooling parents can be quite confused by the subject of handwriting. So whenever I lecture at a homeschool convention on the second R, I always ask by a show of hands if parents think that handwriting should be formally taught. Usually the response is unanimously positive. "So you agree that teaching your child to write is an important part of your homeschooling curriculum." The next question I raise is: "If you believe that handwriting should be formally taught, do you believe that your child should be taught manuscript - also known as "ball-and-stick" - first or cursive first?" Most parents assume that ball-and-stick should precede cursive, because that's the way they were taught in school. Besides, it is supposed to be easier that way.
But then I tell them that when I went to primary school in the 1930s, like their grandparents, we were all taught cursive handwriting, or what was then known as penmanship, using pens dipped in real ink. That was before ballpoint pens were invented. We were actually taught in the first grade that there was a correct way to hold a pen so that we would be able write with ease and facility without tiring. Thus, in those ancient days, an important part of the primary curriculum was the development of good handwriting, and we were given plenty of drill to make that possible.
This surprises most parents who assume that print script always preceded cursive writing. But when I tell them otherwise, I then have to explain why cursive should precede print script and not vice versa.
If you teach a child to print for the first two years, that child develops writing habits that will become permanent. Thus when you try to get your child to switch to cursive in the third year, you will find resistance to learning a whole new way of writing. That child may continue to print for the rest of his or her life. Some children develop a hybrid handwriting consisting of a mixture of both print and cursive. That seems to have become the dominant form of writing in America. And there are those children who develop a good cursive handwriting because they've always wanted to and practiced it secretly on the side.
Thus, experience clearly indicates that if you teach ball-and-stick first, your child may never develop a decent cursive handwriting, while if you teach cursive first, your child can always learn to print very nicely later on. In other words, cursive first and print later makes good developmental sense.
An important and frequently overlooked benefit is that cursive helps a child learn to read. With ball-and-stick it is very easy to confuse b's and d's. But with cursive, a b starts like an l, and a d starts like an a. The distinction that children make in writing the letters in cursive carries over to the reading process. In addition, in writing print script, the letters may be all over the page, sometimes written from left to right and from right to left. In cursive, where all of the letters connect, the child learns directional discipline. This helps in learning to spell, for how the letters join with one another creates habits of hand movement that automatically aid the spelling process.
Of course, your child should also be taught to print. That can easily be done after your child has developed a good cursive handwriting. Another important benefit of cursive first is if your child is left-handed. A right-handed individual tilts the paper counter-clockwise in order to give one's handwriting the proper slant. With the left-handed child, the paper must be tilted in an extreme clockwise position so that the child can write from the bottom up. If the paper is not tilted clockwise, the left-handed child may want to use the hook form of writing. This usually happens when the child is taught ball-and-stick first with the paper in a straight up position.
If you consider good handwriting or fine penmanship a desired outcome of your home teaching, then you must teach cursive first. There are a number of good cursive programs on the market. The Abeka program from Pensacola Christian College is probably one of the best currently available.
I am often asked if Italic is a good way of teaching a child to write. Italic script is more in the class of calligraphy than handwriting, and therefore takes longer to learn and requires more skill than a standard cursive handwriting. So, simply learn this simple principle: cursive first, print later.