We tend to think that if instruction isn't rigorous and difficult, it's not really instruction; or, we go to the other extreme and assume that everything in the world needs to be easy and fun, and that anything which doesn't fall into both categories should be avoided like an active volcano. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle, a fact easily demonstrated by the "right" approach to teaching handwriting.
Kids learn best when instruction is organic. That doesn't mean you have to be a vegan, just that you don't need to turn every skill (no matter how "academic") into a formal school subject. Penmanship involves a lot of skills just as easily acquired through everyday activities, and while putting them together to form the specific ability known as good handwriting requires concentrated effort, giving your kids the building blocks can be far less structured and a lot more fun for everyone involved.
For instance, holding a pencil or pen correctly requires specific motor skills that aren't necessarily intuitive (a lot of kids start out trying to hold their pencil like the hilt of a sword). However, picking up small objects is intuitive, and can be a great way to hone your child's ability to operate his or her hand properly when learning to write. Some educators even encourage parents to start this process with babies as young as nine months.
Learning good penmanship is more than just learning the right motions. Children also need to absorb the names, character, and shapes of each letter of the alphabet, a far more intellectual activity than learning how to hold a writing implement. But even here, they can be taught these things while playing with blocks or letter magnets, while coloring or drawing, and even by making letters out of playdough. (Studies indicate that children who draw a lot end up with better handwriting than those who don't "practice" in this way.)
But why teach handwriting? many will wonder. My child will just grow up typing, anyway; she'll have no need for penmanship skills. Unless the world becomes entirely automated and paper is outlawed by all the governments of the world, that's simply not true. Adults write all day—memos at work, shopping lists and phone numbers at home, even a husband's short love notes to his tired and stressed-out wife. If kids never learn to write by hand, and to write legibly by hand, how will they be able to communicate with others (or even themselves) later on?
Current research shows that simple handwriting instruction, specifically cursive instruction, actually aids academic study and advancement. Because, as much as some would like everything to be simply practical and expedient, academic study and success are important elements in the development of children. To some extent, if we want our kids to be good readers and mathemeticians, we need to make them good handwriters.
Handwriting development doesn't just help a child's academic progress, however. It helps them become detail-oriented, to understand the need for clarity, and gives them something to practice which can be tangibly measured in terms of progress. Yes, good penmanship takes effort and is often frustrating, but the rewards it yields are worth the initial hand cramps and scribbled letters.
In the end there isn't really a "right" way to teach handwriting, or to introduce any of the little helps that reinforce the appropriate skills and get kids interested in penmanship through different avenues. There is a right attitude, though, one which sees a child's development as a holistic process of which handwriting skills are an integral part, and which takes every available opportunity to teach those skills.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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