The magazine to cross ideas in early childhood education
The teaching of cursive writing at school
Recently, the announcement of the discontinuation or reduction of the teaching of cursive writing by some countries (Finland and some US states1), revived in France the interest in school writing offered to children from kindergarten. On this occasion, too often, the media has confused handwriting (or manuscript writing) and cursive writing. The term "manual" covers any tracing made by hand. We can therefore qualify manual writing not only our type of school writing called "attached", but also capital letters (printed majuscules), or script letters, as long as they are drawn by hand. For its part, the qualifier of "cursive", etymologically meaning "running", is attributed to quickly drawn graphs. Ancient Egyptian scriptures, hieratic2 and demotic, are cursive scripts derived from hieroglyphs that have been simplified, deformed, because they are traced with speed, the signs are often interconnected. It was the same for the Roman capital letters which, traced quickly, reduced the hand raising and rounded angles: "The process of acceleration of the gesture, the simplification of the signs and the speed of the tracing made it possible to respond to everyday uses3."
To close the controversy, we can say that French school writing is a linked cursive writing ("attached") drawn by hand. However, with computer tools, one can easily use fonts that allow a linked writing4. Can they then be described as cursive? The question remains! For convenience, we will keep the term cursive writing to designate school (manual and cursive) writing.
Cursive writing at school
This type of writing, taught in French primary schools for a very long time, is actually English writing adopted in the 18th century, formerly taught leaning to the right5, and then straightened after the Second World War for hygienic reasons. The abundance of curls and rounded shapes characterizes it. The learning of its layout is quite complex because the student must not only learn the singular form of each letter, with rotation directions regularly reversed (rotation to the left for a, o, etc., to the right for s , x, m, etc.), he must also control the proportions of the ascending or descending parts (the "l" does not have the same height as the "d" nor the "t"). Moreover, it must chain the letters to each other, and this according to fluctuating rules. One does not attach certain letters in the same way depending on the neighborhood of other letters.
To these constraints related to the form of the letters, are added the questions of the holding of the tool (one must learn to place one's fingers in a certain way), of the position of the sheet of paper (especially for left-handed people), of the posture (bust, position of the forearms, legs), in short, of many obligations. Thanks to more and more advanced supports and tools- assortment of good quality papers, large variety of tools like fountain pen, classic ballpoint pen or rollerball pen, with thick or fluid inks, fountain pens, hard or soft pencils- it is far from the servitude related to the use of penholder and ink. However, these advances in the field of material innovations, have not translated into a better quality of writing. Indeed, and throughout the schooling, teachers complain about the bad writing of their pupils, the little care given to writing, its sometimes early degradation. It is in nursery school that the teaching of writing begins. The following classes, in elementary school, must perfect these premises to obtain, according to the official curriculum texts, a quick and readable writing. Unfortunately, the consultation on the calligraphy of writing between these two levels of schooling is rare, as if an implicit consensus existed. However, experience shows that few adults really agree on the shape of certain letters, on their height, or the presence of certain appendages (eyecups in some letters, for example), on the hand surveys, etc. This questions the role of teacher education in this area.
Weak points in the teaching of writing
If the question of the difficulties arises, it is necessary to detect its origin, as much on the side of the pupils as the side of the master and undoubtedly also on the side of the legitimacy of the models. Also, finding or recovering the conditions for a teaching that is consistent with the objectives, sufficiently supported, adapted to the pupils and making consensus, is complicated. It must be recognized that the masterful teaching of writing has not been relevant in school for many decades. One could wonder why.
The teaching of writing takes time
The time devoted to this teaching has dwindled over the years: 5 hours a week for pupils from 4 to 6 years old in 1936, it drops to 2.5 hours6 after the Second World War, then to 30 minutes in 1956, then this time does not exist anymore, although the curricula regularly emphasize that it is necessary to write daily and correctly. But specific guidelines for teaching gestures have long been absent or ignored.
In addition, other fields of activity have been introduced in schools, foreign languages, new technologies, experimental activities based on manipulation, argumentation, etc. Moreover, in the field of language, the focus has been on literature, the comprehension of texts, on transversal skills, on oral and written communication, rather than on calligraphy, which is no longer an objective in itself but a means that only requires readability. In parallel with these changes, the weekly duration of schooling has been gradually reduced with the number of school days7. However, teaching the calligraphy of everyday writing requires time and individual support to teach gestures, rectify imperfections, and automate the gesture. Faced with this temporal narrowing, it was necessary to adapt the modalities of this teaching, hence the use of cards and confidence in graphic exercises.
Graphics appeared as an effective but reducing aid
Although the invention of graphic exercises appears around 1930, it was especially after the Second World War that their use became widespread in kindergartens. These exercises were presented as an aid to learning the forms of letters and their ductus8. In addition, requiring little supervision because underestimated, they are executed autonomously and thus free time. The variety and abundance of pre-established and undifferentiated forms simplify teachers' research, which amplifies their use. This graphic favors the repetition of forms, inserted in a drawing to be more attractive. But, for a child, what links can he make between the bars of the lion's cage (vertical), the leaps of a frog (arches or bridges) and the letters p, t, or m, n? In addition, these continuous tracings certainly do not represent the figures of letters nor of words, and French language never requires to write a continuous tracing that is that long. Indeed, the examination of the contour of words reveals the irregularity of the forms that succeed one another.
In addition, to learn the rules and conventions of writing on tracings that are drawings is to bet on a natural transfer of gestures learned out of context, with the aim of writing. However, this transfer does not often occur naturally, children do not always recognize in the forms of writing those they have drawn in graphics. This is normal because, placed in front of a word to copy, a signifying word, children are facing a cultural, social and academic case, which has nothing to do with the series of loops, circles and bridges that have probably only entertained him.
Graphic design can be a useful practice if the teacher identifies the real functions9, if he conducts the sessions rigorously, if he aims at visual discrimination10 through analysis, the description of models, the comparison of forms, if he observes pupils, comments on their actions, verbalizes their practices, proposes other ways of doing things, in short, if this work gives rise to a true teaching. This is the advice given in 2002 in the curriculum: "The development and enhancement of the graphic gesture fall within both a careful process of maturation and the action of the teacher11." Active accompaniment is essential.
The child's grapho-motor development is little or poorly known
Any trace can be made by two different movements, an upward or downward movement for a vertical line, a rotation to the right or to the left for a circle. A spiral can start from the inside or the outside, turning left or right. The plots will be similar. However, a kindergarten child does not distinguish between the gesture and the shape produced; he does not dissociate the two. Through grapho-motor education, the teacher must lead him little by little to dissociate the gesture and the tracing and then establish relationships between thought and action, an essential process for anticipating the form of letters within a word, of which we have seen that they are not uniform.
The objective of the12 grapho-motor development that is essential for the youngest, is not often on the agenda, which is centering on the issues of the read-write reduce the time spent exploring the various forms of grapho-motor actions. Beside, in order to write, the child's hand must not be reduced to the outline of certain forms and the supposedly dominant gestures. For example, the obsession with the rotation of the hand to the left to acquire the "good" sense of writing (for the drawing of the round letters), prohibiting by doing so the movements to the right, considered harmful, and yet necessary for other letters (for example, B, D in capitals, or m, n, s, x in cursive), but also digits, such as: 2, 3, 5, 8... The advice of Liliane Lurçat13 were eclipsed: "Double curvature is the driving condition of writing: some letters like 'a' or 'e' are positive, others like 'me' have negative senses, others like 'y' are mixed: positive sense and negative sense." In other words, all directions must necessarily be worked on, contrary to popular beliefs that favor the supposed "good" sense of writing, depriving the child of the exploration and experimentation of his gestures. Yet, if a child develops a wide range of grapho-motor skills, following the rules of writing will eventually become easier.
The cursive writing required in kindergarten, involves complex motor and perceptual processes, including the coordination of translational and rotational gestures: writing in the left-right direction, while at the same time drawing shapes that require reverse movements, breaks, ups and downs, etc. These functions require a physiological and nervous maturation that is just in place between the ages of five and six years for the majority of children, and will not be fully completed by the end of kindergarten. It must therefore be continued in elementary school.
The teachers’ training to teach writing has declined
Of course, engaging in a rational teaching practice requires time, vigilance but especially scientific support or at least specific training. However, as far as graphic design and writing are concerned, this teaching is practically absent from teacher training, both for initial and continuing training, and has been for a long time. Teacher schools have been training teachers in writing techniques, both pen and chalk on the tables, but after the sixties, this teaching has been reduced and disappeared. The notions of neuro-motor and grapho-motor development, the techniques of learning tracings, the norms of cursive writing, the holding of the tool, cannot be transmitted to the pupils by teachers who ignore them themselves.
Is this situation, due to the rapprochement of the normal schools with the university (1969) or the introduction of new writing tools which then facilitate the writing, give the illusion of facilitating learning? The ballpoint pen tolerated in the sixties, and then authorized around 1970, allowed a more fluid writing than with the pen and ink, the cursive word layout was facilitated and the form of the letters was felt, especially since the official models disappeared, and each teacher was free to propose his own model. Hence the many differences on this subject.
Official curricula have long remained evasive
For their part, official curricula that regularly emphasize the importance of graphic mastery for writing, the quality of the lines and the ease of the gesture, have long remained elusive. The respect of the norm is evoked without ever being defined and the advices are given without descriptions or examples: "As for manual graphics, we will take care of the physical gestures and postures of the child, the way he holds the instrument he uses to write, avoiding the ill-adapted lateralities, all conditions necessary for effective tracing."14 The instructions are brief and mainly describe the skills to be acquired. The lack of an official reference left teachers with their own practices, or memories, watered with "good" tips, often maintained by the nostalgia of the "beautiful" writing of the past, which we know that few pupils actually mastered. This led to tinkering with methods found on the internet, or purchased from publishers. It is this drift that Eduscol underlines in 2016 15: "Resorting to publishers’ suggestions, as well as models drawn from the internet, is to be considered with caution and must be analyzed with rigor before being adopted. Some founding principles must be respected."
Only in the 2015 kindergarten curricula, and more particularly in the accompanying documents, available on the Eduscol website16 , that the description of letters, their ductus, as well as many other aspects are covered (holding of the pencil, vigilance towards the left-handers, form of the letters, writing of capital letters, etc.). In May 2017, still on the Eduscol website, for the first time, concrete pieces of advice are addressed to the 2nd cycle of the elementary school17. However, even if the help provided is interesting, there are contradictions here and there that lead to sowing doubt. For example, why are the 2017 writing templates inconsistent with the models given in 2013? 18 On this same website? Why should you raise your hand after writing the letter "q"? Why is the video presentation showing raised hands after the letter "s", whereas, in the explanations annexed, it is only mentioned in front of the round letters? So many questions that prove of the variability of writing standards.
The customary practices
The teaching of writing is often early in most nursery schools, sometimes even in the first year of kindergarten. But it is especially in the second year of kindergarten that this teaching takes its place, preceded and accompanied by graphic exercises. First, capital letters are discussed. Easier to draw, they allow pupils to quickly write meaningful words, firstly their first name. This passage through this type of writing before addressing the cursive writing required by the curricula19, may seem unnecessary to some, since it will not be the usual writing. However, it offers many advantages, it makes it possible to awaken pupils' interest in the written language, their pride in writing their first name, whose importance is known for the development of the self-image, it facilitates the tests of writing, as it is now required in curricula20 . In addition, thanks to adapted situations, the teacher can lead them to acquire knowledge on the functioning of the written language: respect for the order of letters, trajectory of writing, name and sound of letters, visual discrimination, correspondence between the written channel and the spoken channel, etc.21
Most often, to teach writing, the teacher uses a variety of methods which can coexist. He can use pre-established cards, on which pupils have to go over letters or words, then try to write them themselves. Sometimes, the letter is decomposed into segments that are to be reproduced several times before being assembled to elaborate the expected form. That implies that the process of learning goes from simple to complex and naturally leads to the acquisition of notions. Through these practices, children are given models to reproduce instead of teaching them to encode the gestures that form the letters. However, especially when teaching cursive writing, the teacher is concerned about the gesture, he indicates the movement to be performed by drawing the required form "in the air", by writing on a board and commenting on its gestures, by explaining the forms and movements. He can also hold student’s hand, so that they appropriate the sensations and the movement. The number of pupils in a class and their heterogeneity in learning do not always allow for individualized support. In general, the collective demonstrations and the repetition of tracings on sheet or slate remain the principal approaches.
The results of the survey conducted in 1981 by J. Cambon and L. Lurçat concerning teaching practices revealed two types of activities for the preparation for the acquisition of writing, so-called "direct" and preparations "indirect" 22 preparations. For example, letters made of modeling clay or cut out of magazines, categorized, rearranged into words, etc. We have recently witnessed the return of the pedagogical virtues of exercises based on manipulation, the sensorimotor. A series of researches has shown the beneficial effects of the addition of visual-haptic and haptic exploration of the letters (movement of the hand along the contours of the letter) in the learning of the decoding, in children in the 3rd year of kindergarten (Bara, Gentaz and Colé, 2008 23). This infatuation with the manipulation of mobile letters, or rough letters, showed its limits in the 1970s, when these activities, often autonomous, were not supported by the teacher. In line with experiments of this type, associated, sometimes wrongly, with the Montessori method, we read in a journal 24 the advice of an inspector: "Experience has shown that when the child has walked his fingers with satiety along the contours of a form, it remains in his mind in a firm way the total form that he has thus followed at his ease. Give him a pencil and naturally he will reproduce on paper the outline of the form he has acquired through contact." This "natural" transfer is not always happening, and if the use of mobile or rough letters can be interesting, one must keep in mind that their use can only be in complement of teaching situations. In this same perspective of valorization of motor skills, some methods to learn writing are based on the global body movements that are supposed to register the studied form in the body and then in the consciousness of the children to finally be translated by hand plots on paper. The Jeannot method (1974) is the most notable example: the child is invited to draw on the ground, with the feet, the forms of the letters symbolized by the stylized drawing of a dog: the back (horizontal line), the leg (vertical line), the snout (oblique line), the water jet (circular pattern), etc. It is as if we consider that there is a functional continuity between the movement, the form, and the meaning. The letter, the word are reduced to forms and not to signifying symbols.
Nowadays, other tools have appeared: screens, touch pads which offer a variety of recognition games, word building often in the form of blanks to fill or puzzles. In these situations, the error is immediately reported if the chosen shape does not fit in the right place. Success results from successive trials and the illusion is to think that it is an auto-correction or even a self-regulation25. Some tablets, however, allow a real motor education through the use of a stylus and a program that guide the grapho-engine gesture, evaluate pupils' tests, point out the difficulties, and help them find the right ductus. Without neglecting the interest of all these tools, it is however necessary to relativize the scope and ensure the active presence of the teacher to interact with pupils, relaunch the activity, analyze tests, compare strategies. In conclusion, the choice of situations and supports, the staging of knowledge, the interactions with the teacher, are the very foundations of the pedagogy of writing.
Script or cursive writing?
The question of the choice of the graph does not really arise in the French school since it is the linked cursive writing which is required in the curricula, choice resulting from a cultural context more than from a scientific or ergonomic reflection in this domain.
We often hear that script writing is the writing to "read" while cursive writing is reserved for writing. This dichotomy seems illogical because writing in cursive is also to read, and script writing is the handwriting privileged in several countries of the world. In Mexico, only the script is taught, in Quebec and in the other provinces of Canada, as in most states in the United States, the script is usually taught in the first year of primary school and cursive writing from the second year (this writing style is optional in some states). The script was also taught in middle school in the French schools (it was in the elementary school program in 1950) in conjunction with the English language, and remained optional in the curricula until 1972. For example, we picked up this comment from a French teacher in 1964 26: "We therefore admitted to using a linked script which, although less easy than the full script, still allows the child to quickly enough overcome difficulties." Freinet 27 had chosen the script for the productions of writings, but he militated for a script cursive writing. Moreover, contemporary scripting models offer these connections28 that exist in the current writing for those who adopt this writing. Some think that it would be better to leave teachers the choice of the spelling that suits them best29.
In 1949, two inspectors, Echard and Auxemery pointed out that the ballpoint pen would be suitable for scriptwriting: "Need of our time! Indeed, the characters of script writing suited to the small steel ball which traced the signs of writing without links". This point of view of adapting the form of the letters to the tool was emphasized in a 1965 circular: "teachers will take care of the good use of the various types of instruments (of writing) and will have pupils learn the graphics corresponding to their good use". Matching the anatomy of letters to the nature of the tools is entirely legitimate. The history of writing shows us that the form of the signs and the writing instruments (tools and supports) are closely inter-dependent (clay and beveled reed= cuneiform tracings in Mesopotamia, papyrus, split-slotted calame and ink= hieroglyphs, silk, brush and ink tablets= Chinese calligraphy.) C. Sirat30 (1987) highlights these evidences: "In each of the scriptures, one commonly used writing material and commonly used instruments that have given the forms of writing their characteristic aspects". The ballpoint pen, especially in its beginnings, required a vertical hold so that the ink flows easily on the ball, which favors the short lines of the script forms contrary to the sinuous forms of the cursive writing, that are easier if the tool is inclined. This inclination was quickly made possible with the new, more powerful tools, especially with felt tips
Marie T. Zerbato Poudou
Ph.D. in Education Science
Member of the AGEEM Scientific Council