D’Nealian Handwriting Method Abandons ‘Ball-and-Stick’ Approach

By Debra Viadero — October 06, 1993 8 min read
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In the old days, they called it penmanship. It was that part of the school day set aside to hone handwriting skills. For most of this century, it was pretty much the same in classrooms everywhere.

To make a “d,’' students were told to draw a circle and add a stick to it. An “a’’ was a circle with a shorter stick, a “b,’' another circle and another stick.

That was the way Donald N. Thurber learned to write. If he made a mistake, the nuns at the Catholic school he attended would either rap his knuckles with a ruler or force him to miss recess until he got it right.

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 one-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. Mr. 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--31 in all--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 Mr. Thurber calls “broomsticks,’' went into the trash can.

Mr. 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 about it.

Making the Change

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 taught 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 Company, which publishes Mr. Thurber’s program, D’Nealian handwriting is being used by schools in 22 cities and by all of the schools operated here and abroad by the U.S. Defense Department.

Moreover, growing interest in the concept of “continuous stroke’’ writing has prompted several publishing companies and local school systems to devise their own methods. While not identical to D’Nealian handwriting, many of these systems 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 J. Latvala, the supervisor of instruction for public schools here in Prince Frederick County. “We tell kids writing is to communicate and, if we can’t read it, you haven’t communicated.’'

The Prince Frederick school system adopted the D’Nealian method in 1978. Neighboring Prince George’s County, looking to save money, chose another means to the same end: Educators there created their own continuous-stroke alphabet.

But Ms. Latvala, who has worked in both systems, says she prefers the D’Nealian method.

The switch from traditional “ball-and-stick’’ printing to D’Nealian was, nonetheless, controversial in Prince Frederick, a county wedged between Baltimore and Washington that is just now making the transition from farmstead to suburb.

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.

Students “won’t be able to make beautiful charts,’' another parent said, according to Ms. Latvala. A few teachers objected to having to learn a whole new writing system.

“It’s simply because they don’t like change,’' says Ms. Latvala. She says the complaints, which never numbered more than a handful, have all but disappeared now.

“My parents like my writing,’' says Dawn Herring, a 2nd grader at Calvert Elementary School here. 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. Dawn likes the feeling of “flow’’ she gets from making the letter.

If this child had been a student in Prince Frederick 20 years ago, Ms. Latvala notes, she would have been told to draw a circle, lift her pencil off the paper, and then draw a straight line down.

Letters With ‘Tails’

Dawn is among 22 students practicing handwriting on a morning early in the school year in Dona Ostenso’s class. On the front wall of this bright-colored, portable classroom hangs an alphabet chart, not entirely unlike the long, thin, green alphabet charts that hang above blackboards in classrooms nationwide.

On closer examination, however, differences between this chart and more traditional charts become clearer. All of the letters, as Dawn pointed out, have tails--an innovation that is meant to ease the eventual transition into cursive writing.

The “k,’' however, is probably most distinctive. It has a loop, rather than a straight line, pointing upward.

On this 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?’' Ms. Ostenso asks a student. “Joyce, did Damian bring his ‘w’ way up to that imaginary dotted line?’'

Ms. 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 Ms. 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.

The D’Nealian system is as new to Ms. Ostenso as it is to her students. In education school, Ms. Ostenso was taught to teach her students to write using a ball-and-stick program.

“This is so much quicker,’' Ms. Ostenso says of continuous-stroke writing. “Wherever I go I seem to print this way.’'

What Ms. Ostenso and her students like most about this method, however, is its resemblance to cursive writing.

The students here consider mastering cursive writing an educational milestone and they are eager to learn it. Several boast that they can do it already.

By the end of this year, for example, all of the students in this class will be able to write in cursive, Ms. Latvala predicts. Under the old system, that switchover would not have occurred until 3rd grade.

Another unanticipated benefit to 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-and-stick methods. And students often confuse them, placing the stick on the wrong side of the ball.

In D’Nealian handwriting, however, the two letters are drawn completely differently from one another. The “b,’' for example, is made by starting at the top line, making a vertical stroke downward, easing 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.

Mr. Thurber also claims that making the letters nearly normal-sized, rather than an inch tall, helps with reading comprehension.

“It’s hard for a kid to say what he sees when it’s such a long span,’' he says. “He fixates on one part of a word.’'

Defending Tradition

Mr. Thurber’s system has its detractors as well, however.

“I always say to people, ‘Where else in the whole wide world is your 1st-grade child going to see this writing?’'' Clinton S. Hackney, the author of a rival writing program, says of D’Nealian handwriting. Mr. Hackney’s program, published by Zaner Bloser, is widely considered to be the industry leader.

Zaner Bloser--a Columbus, Ohio firm--publishes a more traditional writing program but, in the last decade, has also begun offering a continuous-stroke alternative for children who find it easier. The company, however, prefers to refer to its methods as “traditional manuscript’’ rather than ball-and-stick.

There are good reasons for teaching children to write with traditional vertical, rather than slanted, strokes, Mr. Hackney says.

“In all books, on environmental signs, on children’s TV programs, the letters are all vertical,’' Mr. Hackney says. “When children come to school they are already familiar with that alphabet or they may already be writing it.’'

Moreover, Mr. Hackney points out, children need learn only four types of strokes--diagonal, vertical, horizontal, and circle--to use his method.

Looking Back

Zaner Bloser has been selling handwriting programs since 1888. And, like the company, traditional printing has deep roots in American classroom culture.

As a teaching method, Mr. Thurber says ball-and-stick printing was first imported to the United States from England at the turn of the century.

Even then, however, some educators raised some questions about it.

“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,’' Maria Montessori, the prominent Italian educator, wrote in 1912. “Is it necessary to begin writing with the making of verticle strokes? A moment of clear and logical thinking is enough to enable us to answer, no.’'

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

Nevertheless, Mr. Thurber 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,’' Mr. Thurber says. “You can’t always have a computer with you.’'

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 1993 edition of Education Week as D’Nealian Handwriting Method Abandons ‘Ball-and-Stick’ Approach


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