One step at a time. An experience report on introducing cursive handwriting

By Ludger Helming-Jacoby, November 2018

Maria-Anna Schulze Brüning and Stephan Clauss have published a heartfelt plea calling for the preservation of cursive handwriting. Their conclusion is devastating: every sixth pupil no longer has usable longhand. How, then, can children learn good handwriting and when is the right time to introduce it?

Photo: pylonautin / photocase.de

I am sometimes asked at parents’ evenings: “When are you finally going to start with joined-up handwriting? Our other children started much earlier!” In “explanation”, I then tell the following story about the fourteenth century prankster Till Eulenspiegel: 

One beautiful day, Till Eulenspiegel was on his way to the next town, carrying his bundle of possessions on his back. Suddenly he heard the rapid approach of hooves and a coach drew up next to him. The coachman was in great haste and called to him: “Tell me – how far is it to the next town?” Till Eulenspiegel responded: “If you drive slowly, then about half an hour. If you drive fast, it takes two hours longer, sir.” – “You fool,” the coachman called out crossly and drove his horses to a fast gallop as the coach disappeared from view. Till Eulenspiegel continued leisurely on his way along the road, which had many potholes. After about an hour, he saw a coach lying in the ditch just after a bend. The front axle was broken and, lo and behold, it turned out to be the coachman from earlier who, swearing loudly, was setting about repairing the coach. 

The coachman gave Till Eulenspiegel an angry and accusing look, whereupon the latter simply said: “I told you, if you drive slowly, half an hour …” 

The whole person writes

After the introduction of the alphabet, the children write in block letters in the first two years of school. Cursive writing is not introduced until class 3. The educational reason for doing it at this late stage, which might seem unusual for some parents, is that the ability to shape forms, as is practised in form drawing, should first be fully developed. Eurythmy and handwork help to develop the dexterity of the fingers and the assured movement required for joined-up writing. 

Rudolf Steiner emphasised in his lectures on education the importance of writing as the foundation for learning to read: “Above all, we should [...] recognise that we should not advance learning to read before learning to write, for in writing, particularly when it is developed out of painting drawing and drawing painting, the whole person is actively involved. The fingers are involved, the position of the body, the whole person is involved. In reading, only the head is involved. And we should only bring to the child at the latest possible stage [...] those things that only activate a part of the organism and ignore the other part. The most important thing is to begin by setting the whole person in motion, in activity, and then a single part.” 

How to start?

I did not start, as recommended for example by Rolf Rein in an article in Erziehungskunst, with the simplified German starting script because it seemed to me to be artificial and lacking in harmoniousness; this decision was subsequently confirmed by the above book. The good old Latin starting script seemed best to me for developing properly shaped individual handwriting. 

It is naturally a prerequisite for the introduction of cursive handwriting that the class teacher themselves should have a sure command of the chosen script in the form that the children should learn to write it; the teacher must also – since they are used to writing in their own individual handwriting – learn it anew. That may require a bit of practice! 

By way of introduction, I explained to the children at the blackboard that a cursive script is block letters which are made to flow; it is easy to let the children experiment with that on sheets of paper. 

Latin starting script

German simplified starting script

The first lines of our writing course

Each day the children wrote the new letters or letter combinations with wax crayons on large sheets to familiarise themselves with them; then the practice words with a soft blue pencil into their practice jotters with their three-coloured lines. These words were written several times and the most successful is circled so that the children learned to look more precisely at the shapes of their letters. An important part of practising the letters is that they should not be written on their own but in combination with others. 

I encouraged the children in class and at home to look for words which contain the letters they have already worked on; some of them did that with great enthusiasm. I then wrote these words on the blackboard as additional tasks for those who had already finished their work. 

There were also nouns among the words to be written which the children, however, wrote without capitalisation since they had not yet been introduced to capital letters [translator’s note: nouns are capitalised in German]. But I pointed out that these words should be capitalised. That some letters occurred in the practice words which had not yet been introduced was not a problem. On the contrary – the children looked forward to learning these letters soon as well. 

Once the children had familiarised themselves with the capital letters too, they wrote all the first names in the class for further practice. The children were allowed to choose a name if letters occurred for which no one had a name in the class. I had brought a dictionary of names and the children amused themselves by searching of the most obscure names. This culminated in writing a poem in which all the capital letters occurred once, but in alphabetical order, and all lower case letters occurred at least once. 

Then I still had the children write a poem on a large sheet as a gift for their parents. In this way they could show what they had learnt and could see that cursive handwriting can be made good use of to create something beautiful. The lower and upper case letters of the alphabet were displayed on the wall for the whole of the school year for reference. 

In the next subject block (as a rule handwork), the children wrote their texts using colour pencils and became ever more assured in the use of cursive handwriting. I used lined sheets for that because it seemed to me that the handwriting often slopes without such assistance and the children then become dissatisfied with the appearance of what they have written; primarily, however, some pupils had a tendency to make their handwriting too small and scrawly without a lined sheet and leave too little space between the lines. 

Then I wanted to progress to fountain pens. But beforehand, as part of the handwork block, the children learned about the profession of scribe, which had been of such importance in earlier times. Thus I told them about the monks who spent their lives writing out the Bible and showed them some examples of such book pages. 

After that we began by writing a practice text on white sheets using a goose quill and blue ink, as in ancient times, then a nice verse on parchment-like paper to keep or give away as a gift. Most of the children wrote in block letters; writing in a cursive script with a goose quill turned out to be quite difficult. Some nevertheless wanted to try and succeeded quite well. The last time I did this, it was an Irish blessing which they put to paper. 

After this experience, the children learnt to value the fountain pen all the more! Once the children have used cursive handwriting for a while in their lesson books and have familiarised themselves with it, it would also be possible to read a book with them in cursive script. I had some good experiences with that. 

In middle school there was a (brief) refresher writing course to counter the general tendency for hasty and scrawly writing. I had the whole class do this course; this had the benefit that no one needed to feel themselves picked out as a scrawly writer. 

There are many roads to Rome – I hope that the above remarks can be of help to teachers and parents in finding a practicable way for learning longhand. 

About the author: Ludger Helming-Jacoby worked for 27 years as a class and English teacher. Now retired, he works as a mentor and gives seminar courses. 

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