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Cursive handwriting - a dying art or an essential skill? By Meghan Hicks.

Sandpaper Letters

 

Image credit Nienhuis

In Montessori classrooms the world over teachers debate the merits of teaching cursive handwriting first to the children in their environments. In non-Montessori settings the discussion is a moot point, as most traditional schools have phased out the teaching of cursive entirely and have either adopted a ball and stick print, or a blend known as italics. But many parents are not aware that cursive handwriting is an essential part of the Montessori experience, and although some believe with the advent of the digital age that handwriting should take a back seat in favour of keyboarding and word processing skills, good Montessori teachers know that learning cursive is so much more than just the letters on the page.

First, a little background about the language curriculum in a Montessori classroom. We use language for two basic functions: it helps us to communicate with one another, and it provides a system of symbols for our thoughts. When creating the Montessori curriculum, Dr Montessori founded all of her lessons and materials upon several key characteristics of the children she observed.

  • Children have the power to educate themselves

  • Children learn best when they do so at their own pace

  • Children need to make their own discoveries

  • Children learn when they are interested

  • Children need to develop the ability to concentrate

  • Children learn by doing

  • Children need acknowledgment and internal feedback, not rewards or bribes

  • Mistakes are an opportunity for learning

  • Repetition is important

  • Children learn best when they have chosen the activity themselves

In language development, Dr Montessori was very clear from the beginning...children with sufficient sound- symbol knowledge will find it easier to write down their own thoughts as a first step, rather than read the thoughts of others. In The Discovery of the Child she says, “Writing is developed in the small child easily and spontaneously, in the same way as speech, which is also a motor-translation of sounds which are heard. On the other hand, reading forms part of abstract intellectual culture which is the interpretation of ideas represented by graphic symbols, and is acquired only much later.”

In plain English, when we write, we start with something that we want to write. We start with something that we know. When we read, we look at the words that have been written by someone else. We start with something unknown. Talking and writing are part of the same brain processes, both are concerned with the expression of your thoughts.

Initially the child will use the moveable alphabet to “write” their thoughts down. They have learned the symbols and the sounds they make and can break up the word they want to write into its sounds and place a symbol for each sound they hear. But as they progress in this work of writing their thoughts they will want to explore their ability to write by hand. The preparation that has taken place up to this point with the Sandpaper Letters (used to develop muscle memory for the shape of each sound) and the Metal Insets (used to provide creative opportunity for the development of fine motor coordination and pencil grip) will now be combined with their sound-symbol knowledge and will explode into writing.

Good handwriting relies on a few environmental factors. Good posture, with the writing surface at the right height for clear vision, and feet touching the floor is important for stability. Writing tools that provide sensory feedback to the hand are important as well, so chalk, pencils, crayons are all great while textas or felt-tips are not so good. Fine motor control (and pencil grip) complete the picture. The most important part of writing is finding a personal style in which the hand remains relaxed and does not feel tired. The fine motor skills associated with handwriting are not fully developed until the age of ten.

So why cursive handwriting, specifically? Beyond the aesthetic reward of handwriting that is beautiful to look at, there are several practical and scientific arguments for teaching cursive writing.

  • Cursive develops motor skills, hone dexterity and fluidity. When done correctly, cursive does not pick up the pencil until the end of the word, contributing to a more fluent process. This also encourages the writer to think of the word as a whole.

  • Cursive has four basic strokes to it, which are used at the onset of a letter as well as throughout the letter, and subsequently a word. This makes it much easier to analyze and learn.

  • Cursive activates unique areas of the brain, and helps children to develop skills in reading, spelling, composition, working memory and critical thinking.

  • Cursive requires activity from both brain hemispheres

  • Cursive allows for faster, neat handwriting

  • Cursive all but eliminates letter reversals and mix-ups, which has enormous implications for children with dyslexia and other language based cognitive differences.

Ideally, your child will learn to write in cursive during their sensitive period for using the Sandpaper Letters, however some children may enter the 6-12 environment without cursive skills. What can be done to assist the child who has not learned cursive, for whatever reason, but who is beyond the sensorial stage of the 3-6 classroom? Maria Montessori spoke of this issue, saying “The problem often presented itself of children who came to school when already in the second age group. The tendency of the teachers was to make them go through all of the successive steps and apparatus used with the first group. As they lacked the incentive given by the urge of the sensitive periods, the children were bored.”

Children who enter the classroom with a deficit in skills are aware of that difference from their peers and may have a loss in self-confidence. Either they have come through the 3-6 environment with the tools of language but without the means to use them, or they have entered Montessori after the 3-6 period and then neither have the tools nor the means. We must help these children acquire the most basic level of skills they need as quickly as possible and without drawing any attention to the fact that they are different. We must ensure that their lack of skill in writing does not affect their ability to participate in every other aspect of classroom life. If we approach the child honestly and with a sense of cooperation rather than coercion, we will enlist their help in their progress. Often the older child will come to reading before writing, if the language skills have not developed in the earlier plane.

To finish off, the most important part of the writing process is finding reasons to write. Children are experts at detecting a “lesson” and will often run in the opposite direction or dig their heels in when they sense that we are steering the ship. Providing a home environment in which writing is modelled, celebrated and useful, gives the child a reason to want to write. This is more valuable than any lesson on letter formation. So creating writers the Montessori way is about preparing the mind, preparing the hand, preparing the environment and then stepping back and allowing the child to do their work. As long as there is a reason to write, to write purposefully, to write beautifully, the child will meet you right there. 

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