Monthly Archives: June 2019

Review Essay: Handwriting, Penmanship, and Learning

If there has been one constant in my 16 years of service in urban schools (besides the gross institutional dysfunction, I mean), it has been the interest in cursive writing among the students I’ve served. Just to make sure the context for this assertion is solid, I’ve worked with kids in grades six through twelve in five different schools–two in Manhattan, two in The Bronx, and–the worst of the lot–one in Springfield Massachusetts. In all these schools, among the students I’ve served, there has been more or less universal interest in cursive–including among the toughest, most alienated kids.

There is much to recommend that teachers yield to students’ interest in cursive handwriting and penmanship. While it appears that one’s signature need not be in cursive on legal contracts, it is still, according to the informative article under that hyperlink, the best approach when inscribing an identifying mark on a legal document. That said, there is a growing body of research on cursive writing that links it with a variety of skills and understandings that make a powerful case for retaining it as a classroom activity, particularly for younger students.

Generally speaking, one need only search (as I just did) a term like “research on cursive writing and learning” to find a plethora of review essays that cite research on the link between cursive writing and learning–particularly learning for retention. For example, this article from three Italian scholars of education reports on links between early cursive training and the development of literacy skills. It should come as no surprise that cursive helps children develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, as this article from Psychology Today reports. From the pages of my union’s magazine, NEA Today comes this squib on teaching cursive–I particularly recommend scrolling down to the bottom of the article and reading the comments, which are in themselves informative. Finally, a scholar at Indiana University, which clearly is a center of this research, named Karin James has done quite a bit of work on handwriting and learning; indeed, she appears to be the go-to expert on the subject.

If you’re looking, however, for a shortcut to understanding the importance of handwriting and penmanship to learning, then you might want to read this article from Steve Graham, a professor of education at Arizona State University (and formerly the Currey Ingram Professor of Special Education and Literacy at Vanderbilt University) from the Winter 2009-2010 number of the American Federation of Teachers Excellent quarterly, The American EducatorI can’t remember where I grabbed it, because I inadvertently downloaded it while researching this essay (after a period of work, I noticed it on my desktop, having no idea where it originated), but this PDF answers the question “Why Teach Cursive?” quite concisely.

The conspectus in the preceding paragraph represents only the most cursory research on my part into the importance of cursive. I took a quick look in ERIC (the Educational Resources Information Center), which featured 51 abstracts on the efficacy of teaching cursive writing as an adjunct to a variety of other means of building literacy in kids. My point here is quite simple, so I’ll stop belaboring it: there is ample research on handwriting and penmanship to support its inclusion in classrooms, particularly in the primary grades.

Then there is simply this: for many of the students I’ve served who expressed an interest in learning cursive, it was the one thing in which they were willing to engage. These are students that if I hadn’t worked up an impromptu cursive curriculum, they would not have bothered to come to school. For many students, the promise of cursive work was what induced them to attend school at all.

There are a number of ways to approach cursive, and I have let students’ interest guide me in my approach to designing a course of study for them. This year, I was surprised that a few students wanted to take a crack at the Spencerian Method of cursive writing. Contrived by a fascinating eccentric named Platt Rogers Spencer (he was, among other things, an ardent abolitionist), the style is highly ornate and stylized: you know it because the logos of Coca-Cola and the Ford Motor Company are both in Spencerian script.

For classroom use, happily, there are a number of materials available. First of all, while Spencer’s own Theory Book and Copy Books are in print and available (as clicking on that hyperlink will show you) at Amazon, the book is also, because its copyright long ago expired, available as a PDF for free download. There is a very nice lady, with whom I corresponded about including her in this post, named Dawn Nicole who gives away a 30-day supply of Spencerian worksheets, of which I have availed myself and stored on my computer. If you want to be able to make your own Spencerian worksheets, you can buy the font from My Fonts. I did, and used it to make custom worksheets for my students, including this one with the classic pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Unfortunately, outside of Dawn Nicole’s site, there aren’t, as with the other methods of cursive writing detailed below, any make-your-own-Spencerian-worksheets sites, which is why I spent $26 to buy the font.

By the late-19th century, a man named Austin Norman Palmer concluded that the beauty and grace of Spencerian was too involved for the growing population of clerks and secretaries in the United States. So, from his post at the Cedar Rapids Business College, Palmer developed his method, known, unsurprisingly, as the Palmer Method. Like Platt Rogers Spencer, Palmer published an instructional handbook of his method, which is also long out of copyright and available as a PDF for free download.

As with Spencerian, there aren’t any dedicated sites for making one’s own worksheets for the Palmer Method. This site offers what looks like a complete course in the Palmer Method. The short amount of time I spent browsing it revealed, alas, nothing in the way of printable worksheets. It is, however, a very attractively designed site, and worth a look.

In 1874 a new device came to market, the typewriter. While it didn’t supplant handwriting, it did in many respects diminish the importance of handwriting, and especially cursive. 

In any case, by the 1950s, the Palmer Method was in eclipse. The Zaner-Bloser Method, which originates about the same time–1888–as the Palmer Method, supplanted Palmer as the preferred method of handwriting instruction (the company, Zaner-Bloser, to my surprise, still exists). The company’s founder, master penman Charles Paxton Zaner, according to the relevant Wikipedia pages, contrived a streamlined method of Spencerian for use in business. So confident was Mr. Zaner of his method that he founded the Zanerian College of Penmanship, by which he attracted his partner, Elmer Ward Bloser. In 1895, the Zanerian College of Penmanship became the Zaner-Bloser Company–and is now a fully owned subsidiary of that staple of childhood, Highlights for Children.

Happily, I can report that there are a number of sites that one can use to create Zaner-Bloser worksheets, including one from the Zaner-Bloser Company itself. Apparently designed for and aimed at teachers of English as a Second Language, this site offers a very easy-to-use cursive practice worksheet maker for Zaner-Bloser Method. In general, a search that involves the term “make your own Zaner-Bloser handwriting practice worksheets” will bring you a lot of results–and don’t forget to check out Pinterest, which is a great place to look for materials of this sort.

In 1965, Donald Neal Thurber (about whom very little information exists on the Internet), an elementary school teacher, introduced the D’Nealian system of teaching both block printing and cursive.  As is apparent, Mr. Thurber named the system by synthesizing his first and middle names. D’Nealian is the most commonly taught method of handwriting in schools, and there are a number of instructional manuals commercially available. If you go to wherever you buy books online and use Mr. Thurber’s name, or simply “D’Nealian,” and your search will yield copious results.

In terms of making your own D’Nealian worksheets, you’re in luck. A search along the lines of “make your own D’Nealian handwriting worksheets” will bring back, as that one does, tens of thousands of results. I’ve tried lots of these things over the years, and most of them are quite similar to this one. Most, over time, have become cluttered with advertisements, and in particular a PDF generating module. If you can navigate around this dross, most of what you’ll be able to produce on these sites will be gold, particularly self-created worksheets with students’ names, which students, in my experience, enjoy.

The foregoing essay, finally, is really a summary of Kitty Burns Florey’s splendid book Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting (New York: Melville House, 2008), which I highly recommend for a variety of reasons, including Ms. Florey’s warm and edifying style; indeed, the other book of hers I read, Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences (New York: Melville House, 2006) I can recommend enthusiastically as well. I’ll close this essay with this list of handwriting resources that I cribbed from Script and Scribble.

Was this essay helpful to you as a teacher or a student? Please leave a comment with your thoughts on this material. Mark’s Text Terminal requests, asks after, entreats, nags, wheedles, pleads and badgers for your peer review.

Term of Art: Fine Motor Skills

“The use of small muscle groups for specific tasks such as handwriting. Fine motor skills are developmental, with children generally improving in their ability to use writing or drawing implements as the enter elementary school and are introduced to the concept of writing and copying. Deficits in fine motor function can have a detrimental effect on the development of writing skills.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

The Weekly Text, June 28, 2019

If there is anything better than Vermont in the summer, I guess I don’t know what it is. I’ve lived in this state on and off in my life; I’m now looking for a job here, and hope to stay here for the rest of my working life.

This week’s Text is a complete lesson plan on argumentation; more specifically (and as with the other lesson plans on argumentation I’ve posted, this one relies on Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff’s excellent They Say/I Say: The Move That Matter in Academic Writing), this lesson involves students in the use of rhetorical figures in argumentation to enter an ongoing debate. I begin this lesson, right after a class change, with this context clues worksheet on the Latinism nota bene, generally abbreviated as n.b. Users of other context clues worksheets from Mark’s Text Terminal will note that this document is a very slight departure from the usual format. Finally, here is the worksheet that is at the center of this lesson.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

The Leopard

“(II gattopardo, 1958; tr 1960) A historical novel by Giuseppi Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa. It describes the impact of Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily and the subsequent unification of Italy on an aristocratic Sicilian family who had flourished under the Bourbon kings. The novel’s depiction of the failure of the Risorgimento created heated political debates when it was first published. However, the controversy subsided and the book was widely recognized as a penetrating psychological study of an age, written in a highly symbolic and richly poetic style.”

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

Independent Practice: The Reformation

Before I leave for Vermont tomorrow, I need to clear my computer desktop. So, here is an independent practice worksheet on The Reformation if you can use it.

If you find typos in this document, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

The Textbook Hitler

[I grabbed this squib from the book cited below, which accompanies another important book from the National Research Council, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington DC: National Academies Press, 2000). This passage demonstrates the problem with studying history without reaching into conceptual material, particularly concepts like diplomacy, political science, international law, social norms, and philosophy. While this passage is not technically untrue, at the very least it fails to address the norms Hitler violated on his way to power, then in his statecraft.]

“In 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. In elections held soon after he became chancellor, he won a massive majority of the votes. Pictures taken during his chancellorship suggest his popularity with the German people. He presided over an increasingly prosperous nation. A treaty signed with France in 1940 enable Hitler to organize defenses for Germany along the Channel coast, and for a time Germany was the most militarily secure power in Europe. Hitler expressed on many occasions his desire to live peaceably with the rest of Europe, but in 1944 Germany was invaded from all sides by Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Unable to defeat this invasion of his homeland by superior numbers, Hitler took his own life as the invading Russian armies devastated Berlin. He is still regarded as one of the most important and significant figures of the twentieth century.”

Excerpted from: Donovan, M. Suzanne, and John D. Bransford, eds. How Students Learn History in the Classroom. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005.

Word Root Exercise: Gen/o, Gene, and Genesis

Here’s a worksheet on the Greek word roots gen/o, gene, and genesis. They mean–get ready for a list–production, formation, generation, origin, cause, birth, kind, and race.

If you find typos in this document, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.