Handwriting: Why It Matters and How to Teach It

The following excerpt is from the chapter on handwriting found in The Roadmap to Literacy: A Guide to Teaching Language Arts in Waldorf Schools Grades 1 through 3 by Janet Langley & Jennifer Militzer-Kopperl. This 628 page resource book, which is written for Waldorf class teachers and Homeschooling parents using Waldorf methods, covers every aspect of teaching language arts skills in the early grades and can be ordered through www.waldorfinspirations.com.

Note: this article was contributed to the Earthschooling blog by the authors themselves and is being posted with their permission. They would like to get the word out about their wonderful book and we fully support them and hope to get more people interested in their work. If you want to share this article please send your friends a direct link to this blog with all the information about their website listed above. Please do not share without also including their website information.

The Importance of Handwriting

In the age of word processing, voice-to-text, and touch screens, why is it important to teach handwriting? Modern researchers, observation, and Rudolf Steiner provide reasons why handwriting is still important.

In the New York Times article “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades,” Maria Konnikova examines several studies that demonstrate the value of handwriting. Researchers have found that handwriting is important at various stages of education. Beginning students show differences in brain activity based on how they generate letters. Students who had not yet learned to read or write were asked to make letters three ways: trace the image, type the image, or write it freehand.

When students formed a letter freehand, they exhibited increased activity in three of the areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write. This effect was significantly weaker when they traced or typed.

Handwriting also affects composition in Grades 2–5. Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, found that printing, cursive writing, and typing are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns and that students with better handwriting had increased activation in the reading and writing networks of the brain. In addition, students wrote more when they used handwriting than when they used a keyboard, and they composed more quickly. Finally, the students expressed more ideas in their writing when they wrote by hand.

Handwriting remains important for high school and college students. Researchers, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, found that students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. It turns out that writing by hand allows the students to process the lecture’s content and then reframe it. This process of reflecting and manipulating the information leads to better understanding and recall.

Steiner brought one final reason why handwriting is important: It educates the will of the child. He indicates that handwriting is a physical activity and that students should write with an eye towards making their writing beautiful (i.e., that it should bring them aesthetic pleasure) (Trostli 2004, 137). He urges teachers to “accept no laziness in detail with the children” when it comes to handwriting (Trostli 2004, 142).

Handwriting is vital at every stage of a student’s education. It helps students learn their letters, enables them to write better compositions, and improves learning in high school and college lecture classes. It also helps shape their will. If parents question Waldorf education’s emphasis on handwriting over keyboarding, educate them on why handwriting is important. Handwriting makes learning language arts skills easier.

The Ergonomics of Handwriting

Handwriting is vital, but students will be reluctant to engage in the process if it is uncomfortable. Enter ergonomics. Ergonomics refers to aligning the bodily aspects of physical work to the task at hand to make it easier to accomplish. As you introduce letters and practice handwriting, make sure students write correctly so they can enjoy many years of effortless writing free of sore wrists, arms, shoulders, and necks. Consider five points: 1) sitting position; 2) pencil grip; 3) paper position; 4) modifications for cursive; and 5) left-handed students.

Sitting Position

Pay attention to the desks and chairs. Check that the students have the correct-sized chairs. Each student should sit with feet firmly on the floor with upper legs elevated just a little so that the knees are the highest point, thereby ensuring proper blood flow. The students’ desk height should allow the student’s forearms to rest comfortably on the surface. A good rule of thumb is this: a desk is at the correct height when the surface of the desk is even with the child’s bottom rib when she is seated. Since children continue to grow throughout the year, check this periodically.

Pencil Grip

Make sure that your students use the proper (tripod) pencil grip while forming their letters. The tripod grip allows students to most effectively use their hand muscles. As a consequence, students’ hands and arms will not tire easily when they hold the pencil, and they will be able to write with reasonable speed and accomplishment.
Here is a verse that Patti Connolly used to reinforce the correct grip:

Thumb and Pointer work together
To hold the pencil fast
Pencil sits on fingers three
With baby Pinkie last.

Make sure that the students grip the pencil gently so as not to squeeze it too hard. (It hurts, you know!) Using an oversized pencil along with oversized lines can help students learn to relax their grip. You can also demonstrate that when you are holding a pencil correctly, someone can effortlessly pull it out of your fingers. If that person cannot, the pencil is being held too tightly.

Note: Go to the website http://www.ot-mom-learning-activities.com/pencil-grasp.html for guidance on teaching proper pencil grasp.

Paper Position

The paper should be directly in front of the student. Right-handed children place the upper right corner slightly higher. Left-handed children tilt the paper so that the upper left corner is higher, sometimes dramatically so. The left-handed students need to keep their wrists straight, their writing hand below the words they are writing, and their writing arm perpendicular with the bottom of the page. This keeps them from succumbing to the dreaded hooked wrist syndrome. In both lefties and righties, the non-dominant hand holds the paper steady. It can be anywhere along the margin of the side of the paper, from the top corner to the bottom corner.

Modifications for Cursive

When teaching cursive in 2nd Grade, teach the students to angle their paper or main lesson book even more than they do for printing. They should hold the paper with the non-dominant hand. The angle of the paper needs to follow the natural curve of the writing hand.

As students write, they should cross the midline freely. Their writing hand should be able to go into either side of the paper without the need to move the paper over. If they struggle, do exercises to address the midline such as Take Time, Brain Gym, or Bal-A-Vis-X (see chapter 6.6 #5).

Left-Handed Students

Left-handed students benefit from instruction from left-handed writers. If you are not one yourself, see if you have a left-handed colleague who can introduce pencil grip and paper position to this select group of students. Have this person demonstrate proper technique with scissors at the same time. The introduction will be more authentic and effective. Your students’ wrists will thank you.

Sacred Nothings

Sacred Nothings are teaching practices that have found their way into numerous Waldorf classrooms. These particular practices do not have their origin in Steiner’s teachings and are of questionable value at the least and may even be detrimental to students. There are a number of Sacred Nothings found in the realm of handwriting. They fall into five categories: 1) supplies; 2) form drawing; 3) left-handed and ambidextrous students; 4.) the expectation that students use their best handwriting all of the time; and 5) borders.

Supplies

Many Waldorf schools use art supplies such as colored pencils, crayons, and blank white paper in lieu of writing supplies such as graphite pencils, erasers, and lined paper. This practice is a modern Waldorf tradition.

Many Waldorf teachers have their students write in crayon or colored pencil on blank, white paper in a bound main lesson book. These traditions did not have their origins in Steiner’s time. In an unpublished paper entitled “The Teaching of Handwriting,” long-time Green Meadow Waldorf School teacher, Gisela O’Neil, writes: “If you look at the notebooks in use at the original Waldorf School during Rudolf Steiner’s time, you will be amazed! They used small, thin, lined notebooks. Crayons for writing in the lower grades, and unlined paper for writing, are both later traditions” (O’Neil n.d.). Both the change of writing instrument and paper present their own set of problems.

Crayons and colored pencils make poor writing utensils. First, students cannot erase when they make a mistake when they are writing with crayons and colored pencils. Second, the act of writing is more difficult with art supplies. Both crayons and colored pencils have wider tips that make fine motor control more difficult and make it difficult to print in standard-sized letters. In addition, students have to use more pressure to get colored pencils to show up well on the page. Excess pressure contributes to writers’ cramp and undermines the loose grip necessary for effortless, fluid writing. Graphite pencils resolve all three problems.

White paper is just as bad as crayons and colored pencils. In “The Educational Practice of the Waldorf Schools,” past Director of the Pedagogical Section of the Anthroposophic Society, Christof Wiechert writes: “For younger children the main lesson book [white pages bound together in a book format] can almost represent a threat on account of its defining character: every mistake is written permanently, is there for good, can no longer be put right. The white sheet can instill fear. In the first few years of school there should be main lesson books with removable pages or else a system consisting of loose leaves” (Wiechert 2010, 6)..

Many teachers ask, “Can’t I have my students draw their own lines in their main lesson books with either pencils or block crayons?” The Roadmap to Literacy does not recommend it. Contrast the following main lesson pages made by the same student using self-made lines, no lines, and lined paper. The student-drawn lines lack uniformity and for good or ill, the lines then go on to influence the form of the letters. Without lines the student is totally at a loss. The lined paper provides the student with needed guidelines to help her work on letter placement. (Note: If the lined paper also provided dotted mid-lines, she would have been able to place her letters even more accurately.)

2nd Grader (self-drawn lines and crayon)

Same Student 3rd Grade (no lines, colored pencil)

Same Student Two Weeks Later (lines and graphite pencil)

The first two examples exemplify Gisela O’Neil’s warning: “Sloppy writing is not helped by unlined paper” (O’Neil n.d.).

Some teachers think that having their students draw their own lines uses economy in teaching in that it forces the students to cross their horizontal midline, thus helping to erase the barrier to left/right brain integration. The goal is laudable, but this solution is seldom effective. Students who have retained a midline barrier use all kinds of avoidance techniques to keep from crossing the midline: they turn the book page vertical to draw lines from top to bottom, they turn themselves to face the side, or they move the paper under their crayon. If overcoming midlines is an issue for your students (and it is for most), there are more effective movement activities you could employ such as the bean bag exercises in Take Time, Brain Gym exercises, or Bal-A-Vis-X exercises (see chapter 6.6 #5).

Our recommendation: Use the right tool for the right job. Use art supplies for the initial artistic introduction of the letter in 1st Grade, but then use graphite pencils for all follow-up writing. Choose paper to match the task. For the initial artistic introduction of a letter (i.e., the very first experience of a letter that comes the day before students learn to print it), using unlined art paper and crayons makes sense; however, once students start practicing the printing of letters, use graphite pencils and handwriting paper with guide lines and dotted midlines. These supplies provide students the necessary guides to learn proper letter position and size, and they allow students to make corrections easily.
Main lesson books are not yet widely available in this format. Therefore, you could use practice notebooks with lines or use loose sheets of handwriting paper with lines for most of your writing work. When it comes time to write in the main lesson books, here are some recommendations:

1. If you have a small class, draw lines into the main lesson books. Get parents to help draw these lines.

2. If you have a large class, make liners for each student. Take a blank sheet from a main lesson book, draw the desired-size lines on the sheet with a thick, black marker, write the student’s name in the corner, and then laminate it. This liner would then be placed behind the main lesson book page and used as a guide for letter placement.

3. Tape or paste the students’ writing into their main lesson books.

Form Drawing

The second Sacred Nothing is starting 1st Grade with a form drawing block. According to Christof Wiechert, Rudolf Steiner never intended for form drawing to be taught as a block in the 1st Grade. In his article “The Educational Practice of the Waldorf Schools,” he writes: “Painting and drawing are activities that always take place once or twice a week. . . . However, it ought never to be the content of an epoch [block]” (Wiechert 2010, 7). Wiechert shared with the authors that it was Steiner’s intention that form drawing (the straight line and the curved line) be one of the focuses of “the first school lesson not the first school epoch [block].”

In his lecture series Practical Advice to Teachers (lecture 4), Steiner gives very clear instructions on how the very first lesson of 1st Grade should be conducted. In this lesson, teachers introduce the straight line and the curved line. Since all written letters, or graphemes, are made up of these two lines, learning how to form them prepares students for all subsequent writing and reading lessons.

Just because form drawing is not the subject for the first block does not mean that you should throw the baby out with the bathwater. This important art form should be an integral and ongoing part of your students’ curriculum. Be sure to incorporate form drawing into your weekly practice class schedule as a class in its own right like painting or Eurythmy.

In 1st and 2nd Grade, use form drawing exercises to prepare the students for the handwriting instruction that is coming in the next week. For example, in 1st Grade, include an exercise in your weekly form drawing class where the students work with curved, sliding (diagonal), standing (vertical), and resting (horizontal) lines as needed to prepare them for the upcoming letters you will be teaching them. In 2nd Grade, practice running forms with loops and curves prior to introducing cursive letters. In this way, you can use fun and engaging form drawing exercises to prepare students for handwriting.

Note: A good source for form drawing lessons is the book Form Drawing by Niederhauser and Frohlich published by Mercury Press.

Left-Handed and Ambidextrous Students

Another Sacred Nothing is that Steiner encouraged left-handed students to write with their right hand. Daniel Hindes explores this issue in “Rudolf Steiner on Teaching Left-Handed Children” in Research Bulletin Autumn 2006 volume 12 #1. In summary, he states that Steiner’s indications are hard to document as they are buried in transcriptions of spoken advice which was specific to particular students and situations. Therefore, he suggests that the indication not be taken dogmatically. However, a few things are clear:

1. Steiner advises that ambidextrous children younger than nine should be encouraged to write with one dominant hand, preferably the right. (In this case, ambidextrous refers to those children who have not yet established a dominate hand.)

2. True left-handed students who are left-side dominant (i.e., dominant eye, ear, hand, and foot are all on the left) should remain left handed.

3. Any switching should never harm the student. A teacher must pay close attention to the student before, during, and after the intervention to properly evaluate the effects. (She should also be in communication with the student’s parents about her plans in this area.)

Not only is it not necessary to switch left-handed students, it is often not desirable. Ambidextrous students who have yet to establish a dominant hand are another matter. Students need a dominant hand for writing. If you have ambidextrous children in your class and wish to learn more about supporting them, you could study the work of Dr. Michaela Gloeckler, head of the Medical Section of the Anthroposophical Society, and Audrey McAllen. They give helpful suggestions for working with these students’ parents and the students themselves.

Expectation:Students Use Their Best Handwriting All of the Time

There are teachers who have the expectation that their students give their best efforts at writing all of the time. In her article, Giselle O’Neil writes:

To ask children every day to do ‘their best’ is a standard impossible to maintain. Once a week, perhaps on a Friday (“test day”), the class can be asked that each child do his very best. To confirm his utmost effort, after he has filled a page with writing, the student can put a star in the upper corner… [The teacher can then] give individual help by showing small steps, one letter at a time, towards improvement (O’Neil n.d.).

Giselle O’Neil also reminds readers that if teachers wish the children to write carefully, they must give them sufficient time. “If quality is the goal, then quantity must be limited” (ibid).

Most of the time, students should use legible handwriting. They will be doing a lot of writing, and their focus should be on spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc., not on how beautiful their handwriting is. Save the expectation that students use their best handwriting for copying final drafts into their main lesson books and handwriting test day.

Borders

The use of borders has become almost ubiquitous in Waldorf main lesson books; however, according to Christof Wiechert (and we agree) they are a Sacred Nothing.

Borders in Grades 1–3 tend to be made with block crayons. Including such borders in all main lesson book work is a Sacred Nothing (see chapter 2.2 #1). In addition, it is good to question the use of the elaborate hand-drawn borders that are common in main lesson book entries in Grades 3–8 as well. Do they advance the objective(s) of the block? If so, how? Might the class time be better spent in other pursuits?

The following are three good rules of thumb for using borders:

1. Borders should be the exception, not the rule.

2. Include a border when it serves a purpose in addition to beautification of the page. For example, a border that is based on a recent form drawing, if done well, practices that skill in addition to beautification. A border that that illustrates the content of a student’s main lesson book entry also would add value. For example, a drawing of a ruler could make a fine border for an entry in a Math main lesson book about measurement.

3. To be included, a border should serve more than one purpose, occupy only one side of the page (preferably opposite the fold), and not require too much class time.
If your border’s only purpose is to beautify the page, skip the border and use the class time on an activity that furthers the development of literacy skills or that teaches new artistic skills.

When teaching handwriting, keep its value in mind. Use ergonomics to help children write with ease. Consider Sacred Nothings when you form your curriculum. By following these steps, you can help your children develop good handwriting.

Sources:
O’Neil, Gisela. “The Teaching of Handwriting,” unpublished paper, 1993 teaching binders, Rudolf Steiner College Library, Fair Oaks, California.

Trostli, Roberto. 2004. Teaching Language Arts in the Waldorf School: A Compendium of Excerpts from the Foundation of Waldorf Education Series. Fair Oaks, CA: The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.

Wiechert, Christof. 2010. “On the Question of the Three-fold Structure of the Main Lesson.” Translated by John Weedon. Journal Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum #38. Easter 2010: 4–12.

Wiechert, Christof. 2010. “The Educational Practice of the Waldorf Schools.” Translated by John Weedon. Journal: Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum #39. Michaelmas 2010: 4–15.

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