Penmanship: The Art of Teaching Handwriting
As a child I remember Mrs.Thompson, my first grade teacher, gently putting her hand over mine and guiding me in the formation of letters. We wrote on green, lined paper with dotted lines down the middle, and only after we had practiced for a whole week were we allowed to use white paper to prove how beautiful our handwriting had become. We learned that almost every letter is made up of sticks in balls, and soon we were writing beautiful print letters.
When I taught in Costa Rica, I learned different methods for teaching cursive. We learned not to go from "a" to "z," but to start with strokes. The letter "c" was no longer a mere letter, but an ocean wave, and as we learned each letter we began to put them together to spell words. It was here, in Costa Rica, that I fell in love with handwriting and teaching it to children.
Since then I have taught many children how to write, and have gone from just paper and pencil to activities that involve texture, artistry and physical movement. Below are some great lessons and activities when it comes to teaching penmanship. This article will also include a section on the art of teaching cursive, and a section on teaching students to read cursive.
Lessons and Activities
1. Cursive Letters in the Air (Or on Your Partner's Back)
One great activity is to practice writing a particular cursive letter in the air while pointing to that letter on the chalkboard
Writing in the air helps the children internalize the motions involved in making the letters. Saying the sounds aloud reinforces the letter sound relationship and will help them as they learn to read and spell words.
- Write the cursive letter in the air with very large motions, say the sound of the letter.
- Next, find a partner and write the letter on each other's backs.
2. Cursive Letters on Paper
Give each of the children a chance to write a letter on the board. Check each of the children individually to make sure they have understood how to form the letters, and that they start at the bottom line, touch the middle line and then curve back down to the bottom line (depending on the letter).
Those who are able to form the letter in question correctly are allowed to take a paper and pencil and practice at their desks. Those who are having difficulty work longer with me at the board.
3. Practice Cards
Laminate cursive cards and have your students practice their cursive by tracing the letters over and over again. Once they have learned to form these letters, you can begin to combine them to form words.
If your child is having trouble with letters "o," "b," "w" and "v," consider making your own laminated cards with words such as "look," "book," "love," "wool," "broom," "vroom," "woven" and "wrote."
When it comes to printing cards, I particularly love Jan Brett's beautiful illustrations, and the children love the animal themes.
- Copy (or print) each letter of the alphabet onto card stock.
- Laminate the cards.
- Have the children practice tracing the letters using dry erase markers or grease pens.
4. "Handwriting Without Tears" Curriculum
Handwriting Without Tears is a method of teaching print letters, both capital and lower case. There are four magnetic pieces that can be used to make each of the capital letters in print and most of the small letters. The children are able to manipulate the long and short lines, as well as the small and big curves to make different letters.
Note: I have to say that I have mixed feelings about including Handwriting Without Tears in your penmanship curriculum, since it seems to be a dumbed down version of the beautiful cursive that I grew up with. Still, many have mentioned it, liked it and swear by it. It is a transition cursive that makes learning to slant and swirl more difficult than necessary.
5. Chocolate Pudding
Another way to make learning fun and exciting is to practice using unexpected materials. Chocolate pudding, for example, is just the right consistency for practicing handwriting. It's also fun to lick your letters off of your fingers when you're done.
Practicing your cursive letters in chocolate pudding spread out on a cookie sheet may seem messy, but that can be just the thing to get some kids motivated to practice their handwriting. With a thin layer of pudding, the children can slip their fingers through the pudding, revealing the tray below and forming the letter he or she is writing.
Make a mistake? Letters don't seem to be formed correctly? Just wipe it smooth again with a spatula and practice your cursive letters again.
Note: I usually allow the kids to make their own pudding so that they get a chance to practice measuring and fractions, thus covering math as well as handwriting.
6. Japanese Zen Garden
Japanese zen gardens have sand that is raked into beautiful patterns. Set up a miniature Japanese zen garden where children can write their letters in the sand. Hang a poster of a zen garden over the activity center as an example.
- Pour a thin layer of sand on a cookie sheet or tray.
- Shake the tray so that the sand lies evenly across the tray.
- Offer children the choice of writing with their fingers, a stick or a small rake.
When transitioning from print to cursive, children need to learn to write whole words without picking up the pencil. In this exercise, children are given the opportunity to draw a picture without picking up the marker from the page.
Children love to practice these motions over and over as they create unique works of art. The control needed to scribble like this is the same that is needed for penmanship. Without even realizing it, your children will be improving their handwriting.
Be sure to provide lots of paper and a variety of markers in different shapes and sizes.
Many children love to use play dough. This activity reinforces the idea that the letters are made with one continuous line, and that the letters are connected within a word.
- Roll out long snakes of play dough, bread dough or clay, and use those snakes to form the cursive letters and words.
- Once the children have been introduced to most of the letters, practice spelling and word formation.
- Some children like to write words in cursive clay. Take pictures of them and use them as covers of the books and stories they write.
9. Wooden Trains
Do your students love to play with trains? If so, this is a delightful way to learn cursive: Ask your students to put train tracks together to form letters. Then, your child can repeat the sound of the letter as he or she drives a train along the letter tracks.
10. Glitter and Glue
Have your students swirl the glue in delightful curves on a piece of paper, practicing the art of creating perfect letters that flow across the page. Then, sprinkle glitter on top of the page.
Writing with glitter and glue is a fun and artistic way to practice cursive. Also, the control needed to write in glue and glitter will help improve the handwriting of your students.
Note: Avoid buying glitter and glue that is already mixed. It is good practice for your students to write with the glue, adding the glitter after.
Using sandpaper, trace the shape of a letter and cut it out. Then, glue the sandpaper letter to a sheet of heavy card stock.
Once the sandpaper has adhered the card, have your students close their eyes and run their fingers over the letters, guessing which letter is which. I have found that children love doing this activity, especially in pairs.
When the snow is a few inches deep and it's easy to pack down, you can make cursive "Fox and Geese" games.
Stomp down the path of the letter you are working on, then start chasing the geese while following along the path. Each time a goose is caught, shout out, "This goose was caught in the letter ___!"
This is a fun way to practice cursive while running around in fresh snow!
Traditionally, words are written on cakes and cupcakes in fancy and swirly cursive. Encourage your students to practice their cursive with frosting as they decorate various treats and desserts. What a fun place to practice their handwriting! Not to mention, when they are done, they will have something sweet to eat as a reward.
14. Wikki Sticks
Wikki Sticks can be shaped to form letters, and they easily stick without glue.
My students enjoy constructing cursive letters using Wikki Sticks, and this activity helps them focus on the shape of each letter in detail. Often this concrete, tactile activity helps children internalize the actual shape of the letters.
- Create index cards with the letter or word your students are learning.
- Have your students stick the Wikki Sticks onto the cards, as if they were tracing.
Note: Because the Wikki Sticks stick to the cards, they are a better option than pipecleaners.
Did you know that you can use chalkboard paint to turn any surface into a blackboard? Simply roughen the surface with sandpaper, then brush or spray with chalkboard paint.
At first you might try rectangular pieces of wood, which resemble a blackboard. After you're comfortable with the process, let your imagination run wild. How about covering a teapot with blackboard paint? You could write the kind of tea being served in cursive, or cover jars with blackboard paint for storing spices.
Exposing your students to cursive will help them learn to recognize and write letters and words.
My children always loved writing in the damp sand at the beach, but if you can't go to the beach another fun way to practice your letters is to write them with your fingers in a tray of sand or salt.
- Choose any shallow tray and cover the bottom with a liberal sprinkling of sand or salt.
- Use the pointer finger of your dominant hand to write the letters you are practicing.
17. Lined Paper
Mrs. Thompson always had us practice each new letter over and over again on green, lined paper. Only when we were confident in writing each letter, were we allowed to use white paper.
This method encourages practice, with mastery as the reward. Consider using lined paper as you teach your students how to write in cursive or print.
18. Finger Puppets for Halloween
Slip a bat finger puppet on your finger and practice your penmanship as the bat swoops through the air. This is a fun way to practice your cursive as Halloween approaches.
Practicing the motions in the air helps children to develop a smooth motion when writing. As they write each letter, they should say the motions out loud, making each letter in big swooping motions.
When they go back to their seats to practice with a pencil or pen, they can imagine the tip of their pencil as a swooping little brown bat.
The Art of Teaching Cursive
While the lessons and activities above are great ways to encourage your students to practice their penmanship (whether it be in print or in cursive), the guide below will explain my tried-and-tested methodology when it comes to teaching cursive letters.
Contrary to popular belief, starting with the letter "a" and ending with the letter "z" is not the best way to teach your students how to write cursive letters. By following the guide below, your students will learn cursive more quickly than if you were to follow standard, and often ineffective, teaching methods.
Which Letters Should You Begin With?
When planning a lesson in cursive, I always begin with the letters "u," "i" and "t." This is because they are easiest to form, and so much fun to dot and cross. After these, I teach my students the letters "e" and "l." These are great choices because of the amount of words that can be formed using only these letters. When I practice these letters with my students, we always use lined paper, making it easy to reference the "bottom line," "middle line" and "top line."
No matter which letters you choose to start with, think about the words that could be formed with them.
Once your children have mastered all five letters above, they can write the words:
After this lesson, I begin to teach my students the letters "c," "a" and "d."
Finally, we go on to letters "n" and "m." These letters are confusing for children because they have one more hump than they do in print.
After learning all of these letters, I have my students try new letters that combine the shapes they have already learned, such as "f," "h," "k," "q," "r" and "s."
At this point, all the letters 'reach their hands out' at the bottom to 'hold hands' with the next letter in the word. Now, we go on to the letters who hold hands with the next letter near the top line, letters such as "b," "w," "o" and "v."
Forming Individual Letters
The Letter "e"
I explain that the letter "e" starts at the bottom line, curves to to the middle line and then curves back to the bottom line.
The Letter "l"
When it comes to teaching the letter "l," I teach my students to start at the bottom line, swoop upwards toward the top line, and loop back down to the bottom line before reaching out for the next letter. It is a great idea to teach the letters "e" and "l" together, as they are very easy to connect in one fluid motion.
The Letter "c"
I tell the children that the letter "c" looks like an ocean wave, and as we form the letter we chant "ocean wave." I also have them notice that the letter "c" starts at the bottom line, curves up to the middle line before tracing its way back along the first line, then continues down to touch the bottom line before reaching for the next letter.
The Letter "a"
The letter "a," as I explain it to my students, is just like the "c," except before reaching for the next letter, I tell my students to finish by connecting the lines at the end, almost as if creating a circle.
The Letter "d"
The letter "d" is just like the "a," but it continues up above the middle line and calls for a loop much like the "l."
Note: The letters "d" and "t" both stop halfway between the middle line and the top line, and are the only letters to do that.
The Letter "f"
One of the most difficult letters for students to form is the letter "f." The key is to make sure that it has a long, straight back. There are so many curves in cursive that people tend to curve the back and then wonder why their cursive looks odd or babyish. Notice how the letter "f" is formed on the chart below by Jan Brett.
Letter Formation According to the Palmer Method
There are several different styles of handwriting that have traditionally been taught. Many use the D'Nealian or Zaner Bloser methods, but one of the most elegant methods is the Palmer Method. People who learned with the Palmer Method have beautiful handwriting. Perhaps when teaching your students how to write cursive, you will introduce this attractive method.
See examples of letters written according to the Palmer Method in the video below.
Whatever method you choose to teach your students, the cursive alphabet worksheet below can serve as a helpful classroom aid. The worksheet shows both the capital and lower case forms of each letter, along with arrows indicating the order of pen strokes students should follow in order to correctly form cursive letters.
Teaching Students How to Read Cursive
Not only do children need to learn to write in cursive, they need to learn to read in cursive as well. Writing at least part of the morning message in cursive will help children become familiar with the way words look when written in cursive.
As I begin to teach my students cursive, I slowly begin to write more words on the board in cursive script. Usually, I start with the words, "Good morning." These are words that the children have come to expect at the beginning of the morning message each day, so they easily recognize and read them.
This is one simple way to introduce students to cursive, but there are many more methods and lessons you could try out in order to familiarize your students with this type of script.
Activities for Teaching Students How to Read Cursive
- Make a set of color matching eggs. For each egg, write the color in print and create a matching egg with the color written in cursive. Have your students make matching pairs.
- Laminate the eggs and play games such as Concentration or Go Fish in order to practice reading the words in cursive.
- Allow your students to color the eggs, reinforcing the skill of reading in both print and in cursive.
Questions & Answers
© 2009 Evelyn Saenz