By: Natalie Bluestone, former Children’s House Directress
“Why cursive?” I am often asked. Just recently, I was even asked why we teach handwriting at all, given the prevalence of computers in traditional schools and classrooms. Actually, the question was first asked back in 1873, when the Remington typewriter was invented. Even with the rapidly changing technology of computers and popularity of mobile devices, I cannot imagine daily life without pen or pencil and paper. For instance, it is hard to compare the impact of a beautifully handwritten thank you note with that of a text message that simply says, “Thx.” One comes from the heart and the other is sent with little recognizable thought or feeling.
The once common skill of cursive handwriting is no longer a teaching priority in many of our public schools. Traditionally, the subject was taught in third grade, the age at which children are now starting to learn keyboarding. As the state of Ohio does not requireschools to teach handwriting, and it is not part of the Ohio Achievement Test, we too often see schools simply removing it from their curriculum, along with anything else that is not on the test. Notwithstanding, handwritten essay responses are still required for high school applications, college applications and on ACT and SAT college entrance examinations. Statistically, those who respond to questions in cursive score higher than those who use print.
Current articles and books that focus on the issue of handwriting address the difficulties of teaching cursive when following traditional educational models. Our Montessori program is different in that it is based on the observable, developmental characteristics of children. Therefore, the content and age of introduction often differs from that found in traditional programs. Handwriting, within the context of the Montessori Method, is just one aspect of the language program that includes speaking, writing and reading. When looking at writing, the manual preparation of the hand is interwoven with the need to express thoughts and ideas with written symbols. All aspects of the curriculum are connected and interdependent. I would like to focus primarily on the manual aspects of handwriting.
A look at our Montessori curriculum begins when the youngest child enters our Children’s house classroom at about three years of age. We start by using the Practical Life materials. These Practical Life lessons introduce the child to the things needed to care for themselves, their environment and others. They also begin the manual preparation of strengthening and training the child’s hand for the complex action of holding a pencil and writing later on. The lessons and materials help the fingers develop strength and ability to stay within a certain space. The set-up and execution of these materials reinforces the movement of left to right that is necessary in reading and writing the English language. Examples of the Practical Life exercises include folding, spooning, pouring, dusting, table washing, polishing and cutting.
While working with the Practical Life materials, young children are also introduced to the Sensorial Materials. These materials also help prepare the child’s hands to properly use the pencil. The pincer movement needed to hold a pencil is developed through materials such as the Pink Tower and the puzzle pieces in the Geometric and Botany Cabinets. Lightness of touch is further developed with Touch Boards and Tablets. Agility of the hand and wrist is further aided when the geometric and botanical shapes are traced with the fingers, and later, with a stick that is held the same way as a pencil. In this way, we prepare the child’s hand to write, long before a pencil is given.
After all of the preparation with the Practical Life and Sensorial Materials, the child is ready for the formal language materials. The first time the child is given a pencil occurs with the Metal Inset materials. The Metal Inset shapes are traced and then filled in with a colored pencil using a continuous serpentine line. This is the final indirect preparation for writing. At last, the child is given cursive Sandpaper Letters so that they may begin to connect the sounds necessary for reading with their symbols. The initial consonant and short vowel sounds are represented. From the start, cursive letters are directly linked to the way reading is taught. The flow of the hands on the letters, as well as the auditory sound, makes an imprint on the child’s brain. The circular motion inherent to cursive writing corresponds developmentally to the stages of a young child’s natural movement.
Children in a Montessori environment learn cursive in several, sequential steps. First, the child traces the sounds directly on each of the Sandpaper Letters using the first two fingers of their dominant hand. Afterward, they may form the same letters in a tray of sand. Next, the letters are written on a large chalkboard. Four and five year-olds love filling the chalkboard with the letter sounds they are learning. My chalkboard is almost constantly in use throughout the day. The focus is on form, not size, at this point. The child is then ready for unlined paper. I cut the paper into strips in order to give the child the idea of placing one letter next to another, from left to right. Then, lined paper is introduced and children learn to shape the letters between the two parallel lines and also learn that the letters of words are hitched together.
During the next step, the child starts to express his thoughts and ideas using letters that are cut out of particle board, called the Moveable Alphabet. In this way, they may begin the process of “writing,” or expressing thoughts in written symbols, long before they have learned to independently form all the letters of the alphabet. The child also learns to hook the letters to one another so that the pencil flows along the paper without frequent stopping within, and between, letters.
After the child has begun to form all the symbols and has been writing stories with the Moveable Alphabet, he naturally starts writing words and sentences on the chalkboard and on paper. I can almost observe the thought travel from the brain, down the arm and hand, and onto the chalkboard or paper. The same flow that I observe in cursive writing is not present in manuscript (print) writing when the child is making “sticks and balls.” In print, the stick and ball forms of ‘b’,‘d’, ‘p’, ‘q’ and even ‘a’ are often confused. This confusion does not occur in the cursive form of the letters.
Interestingly enough, a child who is able to read cursive is also able to read manuscript. The reverse is not true, however. In our Children’s House classrooms, children read printed words in books and other prepared materials and write in cursive, thus absorbing both methods of writing simultaneously and without effort. As we often see in traditional schools, the process of transitioning at a later age, from print to cursive, is more cumbersome, less successful and more time consuming, which leads many schools to abandon the effort. It seems more sensible to teach the cursive method right from the beginning, as it developmentally corresponds to the physical and mental needs of the child.
Some reading specialists feel that writing in cursive improves a child’s ability to see groups of letters such as, “ing”, as one sound thus helping the child decode words more easily. This improves their ability to read and spell. In the Montessori classroom, we understand that just as a child who is learning to walk is wobbly on their feet in the beginning, so, too, the early writer may be a bit “wobbly.” Perfection in both skills comes with practice. In Montessori’s terms, we speak of learning “explosions,” which means that often, as if overnight, the child’s writing improves from being difficult to decipher to being very clear, neat handwriting.
Once the child enters the Lower Elementary classroom (ages 6-9 years old), the mechanical skills involved in writing are reviewed. Then, in the spring of third grade, Montessori students are taught how to use the keyboard. Computers are purposely absent from classrooms until the Upper Elementary (9-12 years old). Developmentally, the children are now past the age where they learn through movement and through the senses. They now have the emotional growth and social development necessary to properly use the computer.
While preparing the children with lifelong skills we realize that the computer is a remarkable invention, but, like the typewriter, it has not replaced the need to also express oneself with pen or pencil on paper. Whatever form we use, writing should be automatic so that our brains may focus on the thought, rather than the execution of that thought. Both forms have their place in our modern society. The skill of cursive handwriting will continue to be taught, along with reading, in our Children’s House classrooms. Here, children have a need for repetition and often exhibit great pride and pleasure in their own accomplishments.