The New War: Handwriting

By Ingrid Sherwood

Casualties of the Reading (phonics versus whole language) and Math (traditional versus reform) Wars linger in our minds while our attention is being diverted to a new front: the Handwriting War (manuscript versus cursive / manuscript only / who needs handwriting anyway?).

The Core Curriculum states that, starting in Kindergarten, students will “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose and narrate…” However, the Core Curriculum does not address handwriting. In many states, which have adopted the Core Curriculum, the decision whether to teach manuscript, cursive, both, or neither has become a local decision.

In the early twentieth century, cursive handwriting was taught first. The practice of teaching manuscript first was started in the latter half of the twentieth century. Since most of us were taught manuscript first, we have accepted manuscript as our first and default handwriting. Because we also type, tap, and text on keyboards, except perhaps for signing our names, we adults do not need cursive.

My argument is that young children need cursive. Because cursive is a gross motor skill, it is perfect for young muscles. Manuscript, being a fine motor skill and requiring more controlled movements than cursive, is too much to expect of many primary level students. Cursive is to manuscript as sucking is to chewing.

Consider the notion that we have been teaching cursive at exactly the wrong time. Just when we expect students to become more fluent in their writing (around Grades Two, Three, or Four), we’ve been discrediting their years of effort to learn manuscript by teaching them a new handwriting: cursive. That bogs down the fluency of their mechanics as well as the fluency of their thoughts. Hence, the hybrid mixture of manuscript-cursive-uppercase-lowercase handwriting that so many of us use is constantly re-invented.

After teaching manuscript to primary students for many years, in 2009, I made the decision to teach cursive to the Kindergartners in my Montessori 3-6 classroom. The primary reason for my decision was to support our school’s Orton-Gillingham program, which uses cursive only. Secondary reasons included the facts that young children scribble in cursive and cursive is easier to teach because all lowercase cursive letters begin on the baseline. I was trained as an AMS teacher and was advised to follow the norm of the school in which I worked. I had the flexibility to teach manuscript or cursive. The result of teaching cursive to my Kindergartners: JOY!

Unfortunately, when many of my Kindergartners moved to Lower Elementary, they did not use the beautiful cursive which they had been using in our classroom. I reevaluated my practice of teaching cursive to my Kindergartners only. Since I always have fifteen 5–year-olds and many fewer 4s and 3s, I considered that I had not spent enough time on cursive Sandpaper Letters and chalkboard handwriting with my younger students. This year I am attempting to work more intensively on cursive with my 4s and 3s. The result of teaching cursive to my younger students: JOY! In addition, I am making an effort to write only in cursive in front of my students. I have taken the time to write in cursive with permanent marker on the backs of many of our works which are in manuscript.

Among the advocates for teaching manuscript first are M.J. Adams, Karl Koenke, Betty Duvall, Eunice Askov and Michaeleen Peck. An argument for teaching manuscript first is that manuscript helps children learn to read because printed letters look more like letters in books.

The advocates for teaching cursive first include Samuel Blumenfeld, the International Dyslexia Association, Philip Mcinnis, LITHBTH Educational Services, and AMI. Interestingly, the advocates for teaching cursive first state the same reason for learning cursive first as the advocates for teaching manuscript first state the reason for learning manuscript first: cursive helps children learn to read. Advocates for learning cursive first assert additional reasons.

Conventional wisdom says that children who write in cursive would have difficulty reading manuscript. There is no evidence to support this opinion!

Feland Meadows, head of the Montessori program at Kennesaw State University, reported that “…evidence based upon 15 years of research, experimentation and practice in the development of language and literacy in English, French, Japanese, Nahuatl, and Otomi has demonstrated that: 1. It is more effective to teach children cursive long hand first. 2. Children learn to read more easily if we teach them to write first.”

Specific reasons why cursive helps reading include:

Cursive helps reading because blending of sounds is more apparent with connected letters

Cursive shows words as wholes

Specific reasons why cursive helps writing include:

All lowercase cursive letters begin on the baseline, reducing the need to pick up the pencil, to remember where each different letter begins, and to decide where to replace the pencil, thereby reducing the potential for errors and reversals

Cursive letters all flow from left to right, while manuscript letters flow from different directions

Cursive helps word spacing

Writing from the bottom-up is more natural than writing from the top-down; writing from the bottom-up often helps left-handers

Cursive is different from manuscript, not just because letters are joined but, because cursive uses a different flowing, fluent process than manuscript

Children who print first often hold their pencils straight up and exert much pressure, and they often have difficulty transitioning to the less-vertical, more-relaxed pencil grip needed for cursive when they are in later grades

Writing cursive develops parts of the brain in ways printing manuscript cannot.

Although the title of this essay is “The New War,” the intent is not to create disharmony, but to promote peace-building (thank you, Rebecca Janke). It must be acknowledged that handwriting, while being an academic endeavor, is also an emotional endeavor and that, hopefully, everyone can find JOY in handwriting. Teachers who have experienced students’ success with handwriting in one form or another need not be convinced to do otherwise.

I do believe that we should follow the child who writes effectively in manuscript and/or cursive. However, we should employ metacognition when determining which form(s) of handwriting to teach, especially which form to teach as children’s “native” or “primary” handwriting. As Montessorians, we give students choices. We also prepare our environments. Whether to prepare the environment with manuscript, cursive, or both forms of handwriting is a decision which rests heavily on the shoulders of the primary teacher.

When I was stuck in the manuscript paradigm, I never dreamed of teaching cursive to young children. Then I learned that AMI supports using cursive for 3-6. The argument for cursive first is here eloquently stated:

AMI is highly supportive of using cursive as the primary mode of writing in the Casa. Using cursive instead of ball and stick print is not an antiquated notion but a developmentally appropriate method of writing for children under the age of six. All children starting from around the age of two-and-a-half scribble using broad, loopy, continuous motions that are similar to the motions used in cursive writing. By introducing cursive instead of print, Montessori guides are matching the child’s natural movements rather than the unnatural, straight marks needed in ball and stick style writing. Unlike printing, cursive appeals to the child’s innate tendency towards perfecting his/her movement and refines fine motor skills, manual dexterity, and hand-eye coordination. In addition, cursive letters are easy for children to learn and difficult for them to reverse. Whereas the ball and stick letters “b” and “d” are easily confused and reversed, the cursive letters “b” and “d” are much clearer. Children are also better able to read cursive words because they are joined together creating a clear distinction as to where a word starts and ends. Printing does not provide this control of error. It has also been observed by multiple Montessorians that children who begin writing in cursive have little to no difficulty deciphering other forms of writing, including handwritten printing and words printed from a computer. Children who begin with printing, however, have a rough transition into cursive and do not seem to recognize it as legitimate writing. With a foundation in cursive, children in the Casa are able to adapt to any writing style with ease.

May handwriting bring you harmony and JOY!


Simplifying the Writing Process by Philip Mcinnis Spring 1995 www.nathhan. com/mcinnis.htm

“How Should We Teach Our Children to Write? Cursive First, Print Later!” By Samuel L. Blumenfeld

From the 2011 book, HYPERLINK “ books?id=Oo6fLE-JYywC&pg=PA44 &dq=ami+montessori+why+cursive& hl=en&ei=1lJ3TqmtO4P30gHixLnYD g&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result& resnum=1&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAA” \l “v=onepage&q=ami%20montessori%20 why%20cursive&f=false

Montessori for You and Your Child: Frequently Asked Questions of Parents and Grandparents Considering AMI Primary Montessori Education for Three to Six Year Olds: admin’s blog: Bergamo Academy, Denver, Colorado