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A New Slant On Penmanship

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After he grew up and became a 1st grade teacher in Rockford, Mich., he taught his own students to write in much the same way--although he never actually rapped any knuckles himself. And, like his own teachers had done, he gave his pupils thick, round pencils and asked them to make their letters 1-inch high.

Then he got a better idea.

"I thought, Why am I teaching children to write this way when a 2nd or 3rd grade teacher would have to teach these kids to write cursive?'' he says.

That was in 1965. Thurber spent two years pondering the problem and then came up with a writing system designed to help his students move easily to cursive writing. Under his method, students could draw nearly all of the 26 letters of the alphabet with single continuous strokes and barely lift their pencils as they went. Rather than write oversized, straight-up-and-down letters, students were told to slant their letters and make them normal-sized. And those big, round pencils, which Thurber calls "broomsticks,'' went into the trash can.

Thurber dubbed his system D'Nealian handwriting--the "D'' for Donald and "Neal'' after his middle name--and he set out to spread the word.

Now, 28 years later, D'Nealian handwriting is hardly a classroom fixture. But then neither is penmanship. As the school curriculum becomes more crowded, handwriting rarely is taught past 3rd grade, if at all. But among schools that use a formal system for teaching handwriting, the D'Nealian system finally appears to have made a dent.

According to a recent tally by Scott, Foresman and Co., which publishes Thurber's program, D'Nealian handwriting is being used by schools in 22 cities and by those operated here and abroad by the U.S. Defense Department.

Moreover, growing interest in the concept of "continuousstroke'' writing has prompted several publishing companies and local school systems to devise their own methods. While not identical to D'Nealian handwriting, many employ some of the same basic principles. At bottom, the idea is to make writing less arduous and more efficient for students while, at the same time, maintaining legibility. "It's not an art lesson anymore,'' says Carma Latvala, supervisor of instruction for public schools in Prince Frederick County, Md. "We tell kids writing is to communicate, and, if we can't read it, you haven't communicated.''

The Prince Frederick school system, located in a swath of communities separating Baltimore and Washington, switched from traditional "ball-and-stick'' printing to D'Nealian in 1978. The change sparked some controversy. One mother, expressing a preference for having her daughter taught in block letters like those found on computer keys, pulled her child out of the program. Another complained that students would no longer be able to make beautiful charts. A few teachers objected to learning a whole new writing system. "It's simply because they don't like change,'' Latvala says. The complaints, which never numbered more than a handful, have all but disappeared.

"My parents like my writing,'' says Dawn Herring, a 2nd grader at Calvert Elementary School in Prince Frederick County. She knows, however, that she makes her letters differently than her parents do. "They don't put tails on them and stuff,'' she says.

Dawn's favorite letter to make under the D'Nealian system is the "a.'' To make it, she starts at the halfway point between the lines on her paper and draws a so-called "tummy.'' She closes the loop and draws a tail without taking her pencil off the paper. She says she likes the "flow.''

Dawn is practicing her handwriting with the other 22 students in teacher Dona Ostenso's class. On the front wall of the bright-colored, portable classroom hangs an alphabet chart, not entirely unlike the long, thin green charts that hang above blackboards in classrooms nationwide. On closer examination, however, differences between this chart and more traditional ones become apparent. All of the letters, as Dawn points out, have tails--an innovation that is meant to ease the eventual transition into cursive writing.

On this early autumn day, the students are using their fingers to trace letters on a partner's back. "Megan, did David make a high 't' with a little tail?'' Ostenso asks. "Joyce, did Damian bring his 'w' way up to that imaginary dotted line?'' Ostenso also incorporates handwriting practice into a lesson on antonyms, asking students to use their "very best handwriting'' to write the opposites of words on the blackboard and on their papers.

"For kids to just sit there and do handwriting has no meaning,'' says Ostenso. This attitude, while not unique to the D'Nealian system, is typical of newer views on teaching handwriting in the classroom. The subject now is more often taught in context. Gone are many of the handwriting workbooks in which students once laboriously copied letters.

What Ostenso and her students like most about this method, however, is its resemblance to cursive writing. The students here consider mastering cursive an educational milestone, and they are eager to learn it. By the end of this year, Latvala predicts, all of the students in this class will be able to write in cursive. Under the old system, that switch over would not have occurred until 3rd grade.

Another unanticipated benefit of the new method, Prince Frederick County educators have found, is that fewer students are reversing letters. The letters "b'' and "d,'' for example, are drawn similarly under traditional ball-andstick methods, and students often confuse them. In D'Nealian handwriting, however, they are drawn completely differently from one another. The "b'' is made by starting at the top line, making a vertical stroke downward, easing up into the "tummy,'' and closing the loop. To make the "d,'' the writer starts at the halfway point between the lines on the paper and draws the "tummy'' first.

Thurber also claims that making the letters nearly normalsized, rather than an inch tall, helps with comprehension. "It's hard for a kid to say what he sees when it's such a long span; he fixates on one part of a word,'' he says. "There's no reason kids can't write in almost standardized print from the start.''

Of course, Thurber's system has its vocal detractors.

"I always say to people, 'Where else in the whole wide world is your 1st grade child going to see this writing?' '' says Clinton Hackney, author of a rival writing program published by Zaner Bloser. Hackney argues that there are good reasons for teaching children to write with traditional vertical, rather than slanted, strokes. "In all books, on environmental signs, on children's TV programs, the letters are all vertical,'' he says. "When children come to school, they are already familiar with that alphabet, or they may already be writing it.''

According to Thurber, ball-andstick printing, also known as "traditional manuscript,'' was first imported to the United States from England at the turn of the century. But even then, he notes, some prominent educators raised questions about it.

Italian educator Maria Montessori wrote in 1912: "It does not seem natural that to write the letters of the alphabet, which are all rounded, it should begin with straight lines and acute angles. Is it necessary to begin writing with the making of vertical strokes? A moment of clear and logical thinking is enough to enable us to answer, No.''

Years later, as attention to handwriting dwindled in the classroom, questions about the best way to teach it became practically moot. By the mid-1960s, when Thurber began looking for research on teaching handwriting, he could find nothing.

Nevertheless, he and other educators insist, handwriting is an important lifelong skill, even in an age when most writing is done on computers. "Typically, what happens now is that a teacher will tell a kid, 'Take this paper back and do it in your best handwriting,' but they don't tell them how,'' Thurber says. "You can't always have a computer with you.''--Debra Viadero

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