Cursive First : The Montessori Approach

“Must one begin with strokes? The logical answer is “No.” These require too much effort on the part of the child to make them. If he is to begin with the stroke, it should be the easiest thing to execute. But, if we note carefully, a straight stroke is the most difficult to make. Only an accomplished writer can fill out a page with regular strokes, whereas a person who is only moderately proficient can cover a page with presentable  writing.”

– Dr. Maria Montessori, ‘The Discovery of the Child’, Clio Press Ltd, 193

Cursive handwriting was always the form taught by Dr Montessori because it was the script that adults communicated with in her day. When the tools for writing were pointed nibs affixed to the end of sticks and feathers cut to become quill pens, the cursive advantage was actually a necessity. These tools produced blotches instead of strokes when a little downward pressure was applied. Cursive shapes were produced by sliding the pen sideways. Our cursive alphabets were an ingenious design allowing us to take advantage of the writing tools of the time.

Writing with an ink pen took a certain degree of physical skill to form the letters neatly. The invention of the pencil changed things dramatically. Inkwells, blotters and nib pens disappeared and the effort for physical skill development was pretty much forgotten as teachers discovered that the pencil allowed kids to function with little physical training.

Prior to the 1940’s virtually all children in public and private schools were taught cursive in the first grade and virtually all learned to write very well. By the 1940’s, the preference for cursive slipped away, along with the physical skill for fluency, as penmanship training was slowly eliminated from the school curriculum.

There were, however, many benefits for cursive penmanship that were lost, not the least of which is the movements of cursive writing are more natural and easy to form. The hardest movements for the hand to make are a perfect circle and a perfectly vertically line. These are the components that make up printed script. Dr Montessori chose lower case cursive because the gentle curved lines are an extension of the natural movement of the child’s hand.

By requiring students to learn the ball-and-stick formation of letters first, we create obstacles to the development of a good cursive script. I believe that ball-and-stick handwriting approach has produced a huge handwriting challenge for our children. When schools finally get around to teaching cursive in 3rd grade it is too late.

Writing habits are so fixed that the children resent having to learn an entirely new way of writing. The 3rd grade teachers do not have the time to supervise the development of a good cursive script, and the students are usually unwilling to take the time and do the practice needed to develop a proficient cursive handwriting. The result is that many youngsters continue to print for the rest of their lives or develop a hybrid handwriting style consisting of a mixture of print and cursive.

The Cursive Advantage

✴ Cursive writing eliminates the necessity of picking up a pencil and deciding where to replace it after each letter. This continuous motion is related to all cursive letters except for the letters t and x, which require the child to remove his pencil from the paper twice. Even with these two letters the writing process does not involve relocating any given point to complete the letter.

✴ Cursive consists of only three movements: the undercurve, the overcurve, and the up and down.

✴ Each letter starts on the line, thus eliminating a potentially confusing decision for the writer.

✴ Cursive also has very few reversible letters, a typical source of trouble for young children learning to write. In cursive there is a big difference between a b and a d. In cursive writing a b starts like an l while a d begins like writing the letter a. In cursive handwriting children do not confuse b’s and d’s, because the movements of the hand make it impossible to confuse the two letters.

✴ The knowledge acquired by the hand is transferred to the reading process. Thus, learning to write cursive helps learning to read print, especially regarding letter recognition and avoiding letter reversals.

✴ Cursive handwriting eliminates word-spacing problems and gives words a flow and rhythm that enhances the writing and reading process.

✴ Children who learn to read cursive words first make a very quick transition to reading print. The cursive handwriting process offers a means of informing the child that certain parts form a whole. The blending of the sounds is made more apparent by the joining of the letters.

✴ Cursive helps the child learn to spell correctly since the hand acquires knowledge of spelling patterns through hand movements that are used again and again in spelling.

✴ Most children have an innate curiosity about all forms of lettering and an enjoyment in puzzling out the unusual alphabetical signs that are presented in cursive letter formation.

✴ Starting with cursive eliminates the traumatic transition from manuscript to cursive writing.

The Ball and Stick Disadvantage

✴ It is difficult, if not unnatural, for children to draw straight lines and perfect circles, which is required in ball-and-stick letter formation.

✴ When printing the letter A the child must use three different motions as well as relocate the starting point of the printed letter in order to complete it. In cursive writing the A can be formed in one continuous motion. When writing the printed alphabet, A to Z, one researcher found that the child has to remove his pencil from the paper and relocate the starting points no less than 55 times.

✴ When taught to print first, the writing instrument is held straight up with three or four fingers in a tight grip with great pressure being exerted downward on the paper placed in a straight position. When these children are then taught cursive in the third grade, they do not change the way they hold the writing instrument because a motor or muscular habit has been established that is not easy to alter. This is why so many children develop poor pencil grips.

✴ Print letters do not offer a means of informing the child that certain parts form a whole. The blending of the sounds is not made apparent by the joining of the letters.

✴ In ball-and-stick, some children write the letters backwards, and often the spacing is so erratic that you can’t tell where one word ends and another begins.

✴ Manuscript does not teach spatial discipline and makes it more difficult for the child to see each word as an integral unit.

✴ When writing ball-and-stick so many letters look alike (such as b’s and d’s; f’s and t‘s; g’s, q’s, and p’s ) that children become confused and make many reversals. This also promotes unnecessary reading errors based on poor letter recognition.


The Differences Between Cursive and Print

There is more to the actual difference between print and cursive then what most people think – joining versus not joining.

The difference between cursive and print styles lies in the movements used to create the forms, known in the lexicon as start-point and directionality. The difference is in the production process. When choosing between print and cursive the decision is not just a simple choice of letter shape. It is a decision to promote good writing process and fluency. We want our child to be able to use handwriting as a tool – put thoughts on paper quickly and easily. Cursive is the handwriting process that works the best.

By giving attention to fluency through cursive handwriting, we provide a means for allowing children to not only learn how to draw letters more easily, but also develop reading skills, bring awareness to spelling patterns and provide physical training in penmanship that lasts a lifetime.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s