ERIC Identifier: ED409589
Publication Date: 1997-00-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and
Communication Bloomington IN.
Six Questions Educators Should Ask before Choosing a
Handwriting Program. ERIC Digest.
Educators involved with young children who are just beginning to write have a
very important job. As with all emerging skills, what is learned right from the
start will shape lifelong habits and abilities. Writing is a skill used to
express thoughts and communicate. A fundamental part of writing is the learning
and forming of letters.
With the teaching of any skill there are choices to be made regarding the
method(s) of instruction used. When teaching handwriting, is it better to teach
using the vertical manuscript letterforms, such as the Zaner-Bloser method of
handwriting, or is it better to use a slanted alphabet, such a D'Nealian. What
ware the differences between the methods and how do those differences affect
children who are learning to write?
How educators answer these questions and the course of action they take
regarding handwriting instruction may, indeed, affect their students for life.
So it would be wise for educators to think carefully, examine all their options,
and be certain their choice of handwriting instruction is based upon the most
current research (Dobbie & Askov, 1995).
VERTICAL VS. SLANTED: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
writing was brought to the U.S. from England in the early 1920s by Marjorie
Wise, a specialist in teaching handwriting. Manuscript caught on as an initial
writing style because the letters are formed from simple strokes that are easy
for young children to understand and write. The discussion of vertical vs.
slanted handwriting instruction commenced in 1968, when the first slanted
alphabet was created--the debate has been ongoing ever since.
Seen as a bridge between manuscript and cursive, the slanted alphabet uses
unconnected letterforms like the traditional, vertical manuscript, but its
letterforms are slanted like cursive. Thus, the slanted alphabet seems easier to
write than cursive, yet is similar enough to cursive that children don't have to
learn 2 completely different alphabets.
Using this logic, teaching a slanted alphabet to young students seems a good
idea. However, after several years of use in some schools, research has found
surprising answers to some key questions in the ongoing debate of vertical vs.
1. Which alphabet is developmentally appropriate?
Farris (1997) maintains, "By age 3, children produce drawings that are
composed of the same basic lines that constitute manuscript letters: (1)
vertical lines, (2) horizontal lines, (3) circles...Because of such early
experience, most 6-and 7-year-olds can create these vertical and horizontal
lines more easily than the relatively complicated connections associated with
D'Nealian manuscript or cursive handwriting. Because vertical lines are made
with a straight up-and-down motion and horizontal lines by a left-to-right
motion, they rely predominantly on already acquired gross motor skills."
On the other hand, modified italic letters use very complicated strokes for
young children. When examined closely, slanted letters are actually cursive
letters without beginning and, in most cases, ending strokes. Graham (1992)
states that "The writing hand has to change direction more often when writing
the [slanted] alphabet, do more retracing of lines, and make more strokes that
occur later in children's development."
2. Which Alphabet Is Easier to Write?
The popularity of the vertical manuscript alphabet is a direct result of its
being an easily learned system that relates closely to initial learning. Because
there are only 4 simple strokes that make up the vertical manuscript alphabet,
writing the letterforms is quickly mastered by young children.
Slanted manuscript, however, was created to be similar to cursive. Because of
this, children must learn 12 different strokes. Educational researchers who
tested the legibility of slanted manuscript found that children writing vertical
manuscript "performed significantly better" than those writing slanted
manuscript. The writers of the slanted alphabet "produced more misshapen
letters, were more likely to extend their strokes above and below the
guidelines, and had greater difficulty maintaining consistency in letter size"
3. Which Alphabet Is Easier to Read?
Vertical manuscript letterforms are more easily read than other styles of
writing. This is why highway signs and other public signs are most often printed
in vertical letter styles. Newspapers, novels, textbooks, computers, and
television also make use of vertical manuscript letters because people must be
able to read the messages quickly and without confusion. Indeed, advertisers and
designers who use type for visual communication favor manuscript and avoid
italic because italic is difficult to read. Wherever readability is important,
manuscript letters are used.
Because italic writing is more difficult to read, it interferes with
comprehension and speed. In a classic study, Tinker (1955) found that italic
print was read 4.2% to 6.3% more slowly in 30 minutes of reading. This is why
most literature, especially literature for beginning readers, is published using
4. Which Alphabet Is More Easily Integrated?
Handwriting is not an isolated part of the language arts. Young children who
are learning to write are also learning to read and spell. Letter recognition is
the first step, and when the letters children are learning to write are similar
to those they use in reading and spelling, success in all 3 skills comes more
easily. Kuhl and Dewitz (1994) state that "Since letter recognition is one of
the most critical skills for early readers' success, having difficulty with this
skill can have a damaging impact on early reading achievement."
Modified italic letterforms are not consistent with the letters used in
reading and spelling books; therefore, children must learn to write using one
set of symbols and to read and spell using a different set of symbols. Barbe and
Johnson (1984) state that the introduction of a style of letters unlike the
vertical print found in children's books is likely to confuse the child and may
in fact hamper reading ability, especially when the unfamiliar symbols are
introduced too early. Kuhl (1994) cites her own classroom experience: "As my
kindergarten students began to learn the alphabet and learned to write [using a
slanted D'Nealian manuscript adopted by the school], I noticed problems they had
[when] learning to recognize letters. They consistently had difficulty
identifying several letters, often making the same erroneous response to the
same letter. As I recorded all responses in an attempt to analyze what they were
doing, I began to notice patterns from child to child. D'Nealian manuscript
appeared to be harder to learn."
Upon making this discovery, Kuhl and Dewitz (1994) went on to examine the
research to find out why this confusion was happening. They found that letter
symbols are learned upon repeated exposure to predictable, distinctive, and
constant features. In other words, children experience success when learning to
read and spell because the features (shape, angle, etc.) of the letters they are
learning do not change significantly from one situation to the next. As children
learn to write using the slanted D'Nealian manuscript, they are also reading
traditional manuscript letterforms in books and environmental print. The
difference in the letterforms between what they are learning to read and what
they are learning to write is often substantial, causing great confusion for
some children. Children who learn to write using vertical manuscript avoid this
confusion. They are learning to read, write, and spell based on the same,
Hildreth (1963), in a study on early writing as an aid to reading, also
pointed out the relationship of manuscript writing to beginning reading and
suggested that these areas should not be separated but are in fact mutually
reinforced. It is logical to teach children to write letters that are similar to
the letters they are learning to read.
5. Which Alphabet Is Easier to Teach?
Graham (1992) states: "Before starting school, many children learn how to
write traditional [vertical] manuscript letters from their parents or preschool
teachers. Learning a special alphabet such as [slanted] means that these
children will have to relearn many of the letters they can already write." The
vertical manuscript alphabet is easy to teach because there is no reteaching
involved. Children are already familiar with vertical letterforms--they have
learned them at home.
6. Does Slanted Manuscript Help with Students' Transition to Cursive?
Proponents of modified italic letterforms say that initial instruction in
their alphabets will facilitate the transition from manuscript to cursive
writing, but there is no research available to support this claim. In fact, in
an extensive study of the available research, Graham (1992) finds no evidence
substantiating claims that using a slanted manuscript alphabet enhances the
transition to writing with cursive letters.
After examining the available research and
answering the most common questions in the ongoing debate of vertical vs.
slanted handwriting instruction, educators are left with one final question:
Which alphabet will I teach my students? There are 2 choices: The vertical
alphabet which, according to research, is more developmentally appropriate,
easier to read, and easier to write for young children as well as being easier
for educators to integrate and teach; or, the slanted alphabet, which was
originally designed with the good intention of moving children more quickly and
easily into cursive, but has been shown by research and experience to not only
have fallen short of its original goal, but also to have created some problems
for young children. The alphabet teachers choose should aid the teaching and
learning process, not cause unnecessary difficulty, now or later. After all, in
the final analysis there is one true measurement of whether a skill has been
mastered or not--student success.
Barbe, Walter B. et al. (1983). "Manuscript Is
the 'Write' Start." Academic Therapy, 18(4), 397-405. [EJ 289 876]
Dobbie, Linda, and Eunice N. Askov (1995). "Progress of Handwriting Research
in the 1980s and Future Prospects." Journal of Educational Research, 88(6),
339-51. [EJ 519 072]
Farris, P.J. (1997). Language Arts Process, Product, and Assessment (2nd
edition). Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark.
Graham, Steve (1992). "Issues in Handwriting Instruction." Focus on
Exceptional Children, 25(2), 1-4. [EJ 455 780]
Hackney, Clinton S. (1991). Standard Manuscript or Modified Italic? A
Critical Evaluation of Letter Forms for Initial Handwriting Instruction.
Columbus, OH: Zaner-Bloser, Inc.
Hildreth, G. (1963). "Early Writing as an Aid to Reading." Elementary
English, 40, 15-20.
Kuhl, D., and P. Dewitz (1994). "The Effect of Handwriting Style on Alphabet
Recognition." Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association
Meeting (New Orleans).
Tinker, M.A. (1955). "Prolonged Reading Tasks in Visual Research." Journal of
Applied Psychology, 39, 444-445.