Elements of Letters to Manuscript to Cursive Script to Individual Style.

By Julie Bradley 6/2/13 Revised 12/09/17

I have written this as a guide to teaching lettering or handwriting within a school and the progression I find appropriate.  This is from an eclectic point of view as it is hard to rationalise a style or script without being aware of the many contributing factors.

It is helpful to suggest to parents the importance of play and appropriate activities to develop a pincer grip, for example, lots of monkey bars, flying fox, throwing, batting, painting at an easel, lego, building and manipulative equipment, threading, play dough, sand play…  If the children do not have the strength in their hands to hold a pencil they will resort to locking in the joints and using an incorrect grip.  As the fingers are meant to do all the work that is it is a fine motor activity, we then see the movements as gross motor movements using the whole arm with the pivot point being the shoulder, which overworks this joint.

In Kindy until the end of Term 1 Preprimary:  Work towards making sure the elements of letters are formed correctly, especially the down strokes as children who have a retained moro reflex may start these from the base that is, they have not learnt to reverse the movements away from the body.   Check that circular movements go up and around.

Smart Words Level A or B concentrate on the elements for c i l t j, then adego, etc. as on page B4 (yellow section in centre) in Smart Words Level AB book.

These elements also apply to numbers for example 2 is ear, bar; 4 is slope, bar, long stick; 5 I usually do as “straight back, fat tummy, hat on top” (as it is funny, children easily remember it).

Attached are the cues I use for teaching ‘elements of letters’.   It does not matter if you choose to change the wording but colleagues should all use the same verbal cues.  The consistency of the cues makes the learning easier as we work within the memory limits of the child. The alternative is, for example,  when forming an m we might say: “go straight down then go up and around and down and up and around again and down”  versus: “short stick, hill, hill”. For a cursive b it would be “tall stick, cup, smile”. Using language such as “up and around and down” are not only difficult concepts for some children but not specific in their meaning except for the person who is giving the instruction for example: how around is around?  Is it around like in an ‘a’ or around like in a ‘n’.

All elements are relative to the line and their placement and size is determined by the line. The line is absolutely important as it defines the letter.  Writing in the air is non-productive as script is not a gross motor activity and so the sensations will not match that of writing on paper.  Channel writing or rainbow writing both distort the clarity of the visual imprint and are also not encouraged.

If pencil grips in children are poor, colour the pictures for the day in the nursery rhyme book (Smart Words, Read Along, Sing Along nursery rhyme pack), for 5 minutes concentrated effort. The teacher will need to circulate and continuously correct grips during this activity. Until some automaticity is reached we cannot expect children to retain this grip while they are doing maths, writing etc. as their working memory will not allow for it.  Therefore, if they focus on the maths etc. they will not retain a correct grip or if they focus on the grip they will probably make errors (unless they copy!). As the brain only copes with one cognitive activity at a time we need to make the lettering automatic as quickly as we can and this is best achieved by keeping the process simple and not layering it with academic tasks at the same time.

From the beginning of Term 2 Pre Primary to the end of Year 2 a simple manuscript style should be taught to allow for easy decoding and encoding skills to develop in Reading and Writing.  One simple code at this level will lead to automaticity with reading and writing and not interfere with working memory.

Once pupils get to Year 3 they should be working towards a cursive script.  If your children are particularly strong you may consider beginning cursive script during Year 2, but be mindful of keeping it simple by teaching and joining common 2 letters patterns, then 3 letters etc.  7 to 10 minutes a day is all that is needed, that is, short, sharp and dynamic – so do not let it take over your day and if it is such a little time it is probable you will fit it in. Students do not seem to have a problem doing it after lunch as it is a nice, quiet, guided and achievable activity.   We are also stimulating the language centre of the brain when we practise handwriting.

In the middle years, we need to ensure cursive script is mastered so it becomes automatic, legible and efficient.  By the senior years, we should be then hoping to see students using it as their recording method of choice and some individual styles coming forth.

Writing tools will differ according to the needs of the student and hopefully not dictated by a “pen licence.”  Not all pupils work best with a biro, some are better with softer tips and others with varying textures of pencil lead (or whatever pencil leads are now called).  So matching the child to the most appropriate tool for them is far more successful and gratifying for an individual.  Common-sense dictates what tool for which students, ie, it is not a good idea to give a soft tipped pen to a child who pushes down too hard as it will not last long.  These are however ideal for soft/gentle writers.

Always remember to consider the physical skills associated with writing, for example:

Can the child sit still and comfortably in a chair with good posture?

Are they using their dominant hand or mirroring a child opposite?

Have you tested all your students for handedness?

Have you tested all your students’ sense of laterality?

Do they have the upper body strength to use their spare hand to hold the paper (and not their head)?

Can they cross the midline with ease?

Can they visually track across the midline?

Do they position their paper correctly ie at an angle to the body & not straight in front?

Do they have good visual skills including discrimination, constancy, completion?

Are you working with instructions that are within their memory capacity?

Are you using language that the child can understand and follow?

Do they fidget a lot and swing on their chair?

Do they have the visual acuity to cope with written activities and are the eyes able to successfully follow the range of movements made at near point work when writing?

Can they focus and refocus automatically and quickly?

Are they able to process the information they see and respond appropriately to this feedback?

Are you mindful of the time you expect students to remain on task during a writing activity and is it within their capacity?

Have you conducted a WOLD writing assessment to gauge each student’s writing speed and determine if it is grade appropriate?

More importantly, what are you as a teacher doing about it if they cannot?  More practise will not help until you deal with the base issues.  Good foundation skills eradicate the need for remediation and help students to attain mastery of script earlier.

The list may go on but these will give you some of the messages you need to recognise to really help a student achieve the necessary skills and level of competency to develop an efficient, legible script.

It will not matter how brilliant a student is if other people, including examiners, cannot easily read what they have written.  How do students cope when they fail to transfer their knowledge to paper in the time allowed in an exam due to slow, poor lettering?  Many senior students are completing exam papers in manuscript, which at this level is not efficient.   Technology is a wonderful learning tool but it will be detrimental to a student’s academic success if they can not also communicate efficiently and legibly in the manner in which an exam paper is presented.  The level of expertise and speed of writing is not achieved in a short time leading into a major exam.  This automaticity and rate must be achieved much earlier in a student’s education.

Getting it right from the start is essential and saves wasted time and effort (and sometimes money) down the track.   As educators we need to take the time to expose children to a range of gross and fine motor play activities, teach the elements of letters, manuscript then cursive script and lead into allowing students to develop their individual styles.  Remember to retain a manuscript style, including block letters, as these are necessary for filling in forms, labelling, projects, signage etc.  Instructions on forms seem larger and bolder as readers struggle to interpret what an individual has written and need to communicate.

Educators should be attempting to make written communication easy and achievable and suited to the developmental stages that the students are at.  Hopefully, our children will enjoy their educational journey and their ability to write without memory or motor overload.  As teachers, we should be presenting and organising activities at the student’s  level of development and appreciate that explicit teaching along with recognising mastery or the reasons for difficulty should be what guide our programs.

Julie Bradley


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.