Cursive handwriting belongs in class 1

By Susanne Mai, December 2018

A response to the article “One step at a time. An experience report on introducing cursive handwriting” by Ludger Helming-Jacoby, Erziehungskunst 11/2018.

I read this article on the introduction of cursive handwriting with interest. Because exactly the same question that parents often have was bothering me: “When do we finally start to teach the children cursive handwriting?” The answer given by Ludger Helming-Jacoby, which I have also heard from other fellow teachers, did not satisfy me and so I used my diploma dissertation to investigate the sources. What can we find in Rudolf Steiner about the chronological progression of learning to write? And what do his remarks refer to?

At the time that the first Waldorf school was founded in Stuttgart in 1919, four different scripts were in use and taught in Germany: the Latin cursive script, the Latin block letters, the German cursive script (German cursive) and the German block letters. In the most detailed remarks which Steiner made in his course on practical advice to teachers, we can repeatedly read that the block letters should be developed out of the cursive letters (GA 294). He mentions repeatedly in this respect that the artistic development of the letters out of pictures cannot be done for all letters since this would take too much time. “For if in life today we wanted to construct the lessons in such a way that we developed reading and writing out of drawing, we would need all the time to the age of twenty…”.

It was merely necessary to awaken those forces in the child which they required to be able to go along the developmental path inwardly from the picture to the abstract letter. On the one hand, for Steiner cursive handwriting contained the aesthetic and artistic aspiration which he demanded of the work with pupils. Thus he developed the word “fish” out of the F. Not, as people often think, the lower case Latin block letter but the upper case German cursive letter F (see illustration).



In the tenth lecture he says about the script: “The printed letters have also become exceptionally abstract. They have indeed developed out of the cursive letters; that is why we also have them develop out of the cursive letters in the lesson.”

On the other hand, it later turned out that he did not consider block letters for writing at all. The greater the detail with which we investigate his remarks in the course on practical advice for teachers, the clearer it becomes that he presented all the scripts to the pupils at the same time in the first year. This approach becomes particularly evident in the thirteenth lecture where he explains precisely how the teacher should teach the four different scripts – two sets of block and two sets of cursive letters – to the pupils in the first year. Today we no longer need to concern ourselves with two of them, the German scripts.

Since I am not aware of any passage in Steiner’s works in which he refers to learning to write in any other grade than class 1, I make the assumption that the basics of learning to write should have been concluded in class 1. He keeps repeating that the transition should be from the cursive to the block letters.

Out of his understanding of the human being, Steiner precedes learning to write with a form drawing main lesson. He deals with that in greater detail in the sixth lecture which he gave in Torquay and in which he speaks about the birth of the etheric body at around the seventh year of life. “And you will see that the child feels the urge to make forms which are linked to the interior of the human organism. … That is the inner urge, the inner longing of the etheric body: to draw and sculpt like that. That is why it is very easy to build on this urge, this longing, and in this way develop the letters out of the forms which the child draws or the plastic forms which the child shapes because then we truly construct the lesson out of an understanding of the human being” (GA 311).

That is why I fail to understand why the ability to create forms should only exist at a much later stage. I could imagine that the formative forces of the children have lessened in the last hundred years and that as a result the specific time has shifted. But by taking such a decision we would not work on the causes of why these forces have been lost but on the effect in a similar way to people who want to get rid of cursive handwriting altogether because it is too difficult to write.

Cursive handwriting only in class 3?

If we now reach the conclusion on the basis of this research that for Steiner cursive handwriting was a medium for writing and block letters a medium for reading – even if the children were not to be taught to read without having at least once copied the forms of the block letters by hand – and that the scripts were basically learnt in the first year of school, what, then, has happened in the last hundred years that today cursive handwriting is not meant to be taught until class 3?

We can only begin to find an answer. Caroline von Heydebrand – a contemporary of Rudolf Steiner’s – was the first person I found; contrary to Steiner’s instructions, she moved learning to write to class 2. Erika Dühnfort subsequently followed. If we read her remarks in Der Anfangsunterricht im Schreiben und Lesen (Elementary lessons in writing and reading) of 1971, we can see that in her approach to the introduction of the letters out of pictures she keeps exactly to Steiner’s instructions and quotes him in detail. But when she sets out the chronological progression, there are no longer such statements and quotes. This part must thus be her own ideas.

Looked at from a chronological perspective, Erika Dühnfort sets out the greatest divergence in that she does not introduce learning cursive handwriting until class 3. Her work was widely distributed in Waldorf teacher circles in the mid-twentieth century and thus crucially shaped the current approach to learning to write in Waldorf schools as reflected in today’s established compendia.

Schulze Brüning and Clauss point out in their book that learning cursive handwriting is associated with constant practice. But when is there time for that today? When the children learn cursive writing in class 3 and they develop their own handwriting from class 5/6 onwards, then they have used cursive handwriting in school for a maximum of two to three years. I deliberately write “in school” because according to Schulze Brüning only a fifth of all pupils retain cursive handwriting in the long term.

She says in this respect: “The main reason for this may be that children today first learn block letters. That is the script in which they have their first experience of writing. It is the phase in which an emotional relationship to writing and the letters is established and – what is probably even more important – in which the motor skills of writing are shaped.” We can all try to interpret this statement in the light of our understanding of the human being.

I do not have the many years of experience of Ludger Helming-Jacoby. But after all my research I certainly think it worth considering that learning a beautiful Latin cursive handwriting should start in class 1. Not in order to reach the goal more quickly but to give the children the opportunity to be able to immerse themselves in cursive writing over a long period of time.

About the author: Susanne Mai is a class teacher at the Wendelstein Free Waldorf School.


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