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Cursive Handwriting in the 21st Century

Children Writing

There is a lively debate going on in the country about whether, in this age of electronics, cursive handwriting is a necessary skill. Cursive is not required by the national educational Common Core Standards. Many states across the country are removing or reducing cursive instruction from the curriculum while only a few states have deliberated and decided to keep it.

Given these changes, some parents may question why children in Montessori schools are still given so many lessons to prepare them for handwriting and are encouraged to spend time practicing and perfecting their writing, whether it's cursive or printing. Some parents may wish to encourage their children to write more with pencil and paper, especially since keyboards and touch screens are so appealing and easy to use.

Research on Cursive

New research points to the value of cursive writing. One study of elementary children concluded that just 15 minutes a day of cursive writing results in many benefits, including improved motor skills, cognitive development, reading comprehension, and writing skills. A fascinating study of children in second, fourth, and sixth grades revealed that students "wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard."

The Hand/Brain Connection

As a parent, you know how much your children love and need to move and explore. There is an important connection between the movement of the hand and the development of the brain. When children move and use their hands, they are developing pathways in the brain. They are learning! That's why it is so important for children to draw, paint, build with blocks, run, jump, and move rather than spending too much time sitting still in front of screens.

The steps to acquiring the skills of handwriting are much more complex than touching a key on a keyboard. In order to grasp a pencil and draw lines, shapes, and finally letters, children must develop fine motor skills, concentration, and eye-hand coordination.

From Large to Small Muscle Movements

Young children perfect their movements and develop the muscles for fine motor skills (needed to hold and write with a pencil) by starting with large movements. Children love to paint or draw very large letters on an easel, chalkboard, or a large piece of paper.

Montessorian Susan Scheibenzuber has worked with and observed children for over 20 years. In her booklet, Beautiful Handwriting, she noted, "Children travel along the path to becoming a writer at their own pace. We cannot hurry it. Most of them move through the same developmental milestones at their own time."

How to Support Your Child's Writing at Home

In the 1950s, my aunt in Nebraska had never heard of Montessori - yet she came up with a very Montessori-like idea. Searching for a way to help her struggling students form letters, she poured sandy cat litter into a box and encouraged the children to draw letters with their fingers in this material. They loved it!

You can do something similar (and you don't have to use cat litter!) by setting out a tray of cornmeal or sand and showing your child how to make letters by using the index and middle fingers of one hand. It intrigues children to feel the sand as they make letters appear, and then with a gentle shake of the tray, disappear.

When your child shows an interest in letters, you can also:

  • Put out large sheets of paper with crayon rocks or large crayons so your child can write very large letters.
  • Provide triangular-shaped pencils that assist the development of a proper pencil grip.
  • Draw a letter on your child's back and have her guess which one it is (giving lots of clues, of course!) and then invite her to draw a big letter on your back.
  • Ask your child to help you write the grocery list, even just the first letter of each item.
  • Make greeting cards together.
  • Write and send postcards.
  • For more ideas, see our article, How Children Learn to Write.

Your child will discover that writing is a creative and social activity as well as a practical one. Whether or not your children learn cursive in school, or whether you decide it's an important skill for them to know and practice, it is certainly a very different process to touch a key and see a letter appear on a screen, than to write that letter.

It is hard to imagine a world without handwriting in some form. A text message or email often doesn't convey the same personal touch as a handwritten note or card. Those first attempts that children make to write their own name are precious, and who doesn't treasure their child's or grandchild's handwritten notes and cards?

—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 15 years, she has served as a Montessori teacher-trainer for both primary and elementary levels and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS national conferences. Her work with both students and teachers is infused with the knowledge she has gained from her passions: history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, nature, meditation, music, and poetry.

—Originally Published 2013

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