- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2003

Jan Olsen of Cabin John couldn’t bear to see her son shed tears over his poor penmanship. So Ms. Olsen created Handwriting Without Tears 26 years ago to help her then-6-year-old boy and other children get a handle on handwriting.

Her method still helps some students write their ABCs, but today’s students also might use any number of other methods, from “ball and stick” to D’Nealian.

The goal remains the same: to help tiny hands begin the handwriting process.

For Ms. Olsen, an occupational therapist, the call to arms came when she realized her son’s teacher wasn’t specifically trained in dealing with children who don’t quickly master the regular handwriting regimen.

“That was a real eye-opener. I assumed every elementary teacher had training,” she says.

She used her background in therapy and child development to create her own system, which is used in school districts nationwide.

Her system has children first tackle the relatively easy task of making capital letters, which emboldens them to take on the more difficult lowercase ones. The method also lets children trace letters on a chalkboard with a wet sponge and then a dry cloth.

“If they do it with their own hands, they’ll remember it more correctly,” she says. “I teach it with consistent habits. Then, children can forget about the writing process and think about the content. It should become like tying your shoes.”

School districts didn’t always draw from a potpourri of training methods to teach handwriting. During the early 1900s, the Palmer method ruled the educational scene, forcing children to write rows of ovals and perform other drills to reinforce its uniform style of cursive writing. Left-handed students were told to use their right hands with the system, which slumped out of favor as the decades passed.

Other methods still in use include ball and stick, in which letters are created from a series of lines and circles; the D’Nealian method, in which letters are formed in one continuous stroke; and the Getty-Dubay method, in which children write in an italics-based system.

Sheryl Leeds, a Title One supervisor with the Arlington County School District, says children typically are taught manuscript-style writing through second grade. At that point, some students are ready to leap into more complicated cursive writing.

For that reason, since the early 1990s, her district has been using the D’Nealian method, Mrs. Leeds says, which makes for an easier transition between the two handwriting styles, she adds. According to www.dnealian.com, 87 percent of D’Nealian lowercase letters are the same as their cursive counterparts.

Students who struggle mastering their handwriting assignments can switch to a more tactile approach, she says. They can trace letters in sand or with shaving cream to reinforce existing lessons.

Some educators buck the notion that children should be in at least kindergarten before starting their writing careers. Mary Hoover, a professor of reading at Howard University, says newer studies show some children begin learning to write as early as age 2.

Ms. Hoover says Howard University recently earned a grant from the Head Start program to further study early literacy benefits.

Parents can gently start the process by teaching their children the alphabet, casually, and then having them try to write the letters themselves.

“If the kids are having trouble, teach writing along with the reading so it becomes a language-arts process,” she says.

Jacqueline Comas, professor of literacy education at George Washington University, says children often begin learning to write without any prompting. It could start on the playground, with a child tracing shapes in the sand, or on a clean sheet of paper.

“A child who’s been in a home where lots of writing utensils are made available and had an opportunity to be read to regularly will have picked up on those things,” Mrs. Comas says.

At that age, a child’s hand dominance and muscle dexterity will have an impact on whether he or she can begin the learning process.

“If you just set them up in a corner of their room or a play area with writing utensils and paper, they’ll pick them up and start their own writing,” she says. “If you’re a wise parent, you don’t want to inhibit the growth.”

Often, she says, the first letter of a child’s name is the first one he or she writes.

“Eventually, without any formal instruction, just out of nowhere in so many instances, the first letter of their name will appear,” she says. “They’ve been listening.”

But even students who master their handwriting lessons might grow out of them one day. Kate Gladstone, owner of Handwriting Repair in Albany, N.Y., says she helps iron out problems adults have with their handwriting.

“One common thing I see is people who are so obsessed with the notion that every letter must be ornamental, but you can’t read any of the letters,” Ms. Gladstone says. “You see this with the MDs a lot; their capital [letters] must look fancy.

“Another common problem is people often don’t know how to make them distinguishably,” she says. “They’re rushing along so hard, they don’t have the time to relax their hand muscles when making curves.”

Some experts say that even in a computer-driven world, handwriting overall hasn’t suffered as one might think. Ms. Gladstone says people have been predicting the demise of handwriting since the dawn of the typewriter in the 1870s.

“Even though a lot of things go onto the computer, keep in mind that a lot of stuff doesn’t go into the computer,” she says.

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