HANDWRITING: You’re doing it WRONG! Or are you?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

​Once upon a time, there was a world without computers and tablets and phones. Everything had to be written by hand. Machines with buttons that would “write” letters existed and were called typewriters, but they were rare and difficult to use.

Click-Clack-Moo is a great story about a typewriter!

To help speed up writing, students learned a special type of writing called “cursive” or “joined-up writing”. Connecting the letters together, without picking up a pen, made writing faster! But there was a downside to convenience. The joined letters could be difficult to read, and there were often variations between the writing of different people. A messy assignment could receive a low grade if the teacher couldn’t understand the unique writing of a student. Doctors infamously had terrible handwriting, while engineers often rejected cursive and used blocky capital letters to ensure their writing could be read. But everything changed with the dawn of the computer age.

Handwriting might not seem like a dramatic, exciting topic, but it’s changed drastically in the past decade or two, and various debates still haven’t really settled down. As an ESL teacher, it’s important to at least know of the different forms of writing, as you’re likely to encounter all of them, as well as students, parents, co-workers or bosses insisting their way is the best way.

If you attended primary school more than 5 years ago, you probably learned cursive, but before you learned cursive, you likely learned pre-cursive writing, a form of printing that “prepares” students to learn cursive.

The most basic writing is often called printing but might also be known as “block” writing or manuscript. 

It’s most comparable to the writing you read on a screen, a sans serif font. Like digital fonts, basic hand-written printed letters are very straight with very few, if any “hooks” at the end of letters. Since the letters are simply formed with no flourishes, there’s more uniformity between different people’s writing.

There are many “kinds” of manuscript alphabets, some of which are even brand names or tied to a specific textbook. Often, types of printing “prepare” students for learning cursive, sometimes called pre-cursive printing and have cursive versions as well. A popular form is D’Nealian. 

In the D’Nealian print, most letters feature little hooks on the end, ready to join up to the next letter. There’s also fancier variations, more commonly taught in British and Australian primary schools, that have an almost calligraphic look, often with a hook on both ends of the letter. Notably, the lower-case f sometimes dips below the line. This writing also often shows up in Chinese schools, possibly due to the age of materials, as well as the cultural emphasis on calligraphy and aesthetically beautiful writing.

Once students conquer printing they begin to learn cursive or joined-up writing. Often, this happens around the age of 10. In cursive, letters connect to each other, and sometimes feature flourishes, emphasizing precise, beautiful writing. In the US, it has not been included in the Common Core standards, and states are still debating whether or not to teach it–and making different choices. Even where it’s still taught in primary school, students may not use it again, instead favoring typing for lengthy assignments where cursive was once the standard. 

Contrary to those movements, some educators have proposed that cursive is actually easier for beginning writers because it has less variation in strokes, the writing implement doesn’t need to be lifted, spacing is easier to master and some letters like b and d are harder to confuse.

Cursive or joined-up letters can be really hard for others to read or difficult to write neatly. 

Computers have really caused an upheaval, but so did the ballpoint pen. With the accessibility and convenience of typing and printing, some may even claim that the slight speed advantage of cursive is useless to bother teaching. A block-style of writing is easier to write neatly and uniformly, as well as read but increase the importance of clear spacing. Others maintain that cursive is important, in case something digital isn’t close at hand.

How can you correct a student’s work if you’re not sure what type of writing you’re using? A lower-case f should dip below the line, while n, m, k, l, and others should have a very distinct hook. Or maybe, that’s no hook? How can you distinguish between I (that’s an upper-case i) and l (thats a lower-case L)? Should a lower-case y be curved like a u with a tail or look more like a long x missing a leg? Is it just a version of a capital Y moved down by half?

So what’s the current status? Which writing should you use? Which writing should you teach?

The truth is that there isn’t really a right answer, at least not yet. Everything is okay, and everyone will have their own preferences. Different writing might apply to different situations too. Personally, I like a very simple, straight, hookless block lettering. It’s what I use most in class as it’s easier and neater to read and write, but others might complain that there’s no character or it’s too slow. I generally avoid cursive in class, but it’s largely because my own is so terribly messy. Even then, if I’m writing for myself, such as note-taking, then I’ll often write in cursive. No one else can read it, but it does prevent others from stealing my work or asking to borrow my notes.

When students use other writing though, I don’t correct it. Exceptions are made when a letter is difficult to read, such an a looking open enough to be mistaken for a u or a too-fancy r that looks like a v. And, when a parent asks why I’m using block letters or why their Chinese teacher uses such “old” looking writing, I explain the differences until their eyes glaze over, or use visuals to show the differences. Older and more advanced students can also get an explanation, and be introduced to a different style of writing, if they’re interested in learning it. If someone remains firm, I enforce that particular style as much as I can, but only on the student in question. When I’m teaching writing, I use whatever the book I’m using uses, but still don’t correct different styles of individual students, in part because they may have another teacher that requires the style they’re using, without realizing there’s so many variations–and they’re all okay. 

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