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Learning to write the manuscript alphabet enhances letter recognition. It also empowers young children to write, which stimulates their interest and skill in reading. Even more important, it promotes "automaticity," the ability to quickly and effortlessly recognize or reproduce the letters in words, leaving the mind free to concentrate on meaning. Viewed from the perspective of reading development, teaching children to write the manuscript alphabet is an essential and time-honored way to nurture literacy.
Letter recognition is an important step to reading success:
First, it has been shown that learning about letters frequently turns easily into interest in their sounds and in the spellings of words. Second, familiarity with letters is strongly related to the ability to remember the forms of written words and with the tendency to treat print as an ordered sequence of letters rather than a holistic pattern. Finally, not being able to recognize or name letters is coupled with extreme difficulty in learning letter sounds and word recognition.
As Adams notes, mastering the abstract, visual forms of 26 uppercase and lowercase letters is not a "snap." The letters of the alphabet are not learned holistically; they are learned through what Adams and other researchers describe as a "visual system" in the brain that breaks down each letter into its parts. To distinguish one letter from another, the brain focuses on the relative differences "working with the minutiae of curves, oblique lines, and horizontal bars" (Adams). In other words, the reader is using the very same types of information taught during handwriting instruction! No wonder Adams reports that "learning to print is a powerful means of developing letter recognition."
Instruction in manuscript writing supports reading by calling attention to the strokes used to form each letter. It actively engages students in reproducing the letter using these strokes. In many methods and materials, the strokes are numbered and described to help students understand and learn them.
In his analysis of the most effective techniques for handwriting instruction, Karl Koenke compared the use of manuscript and cursive, concluding, "one primary justification for teaching children to print is that printed letters look more like the typeset letters found in books" (1986).
While Koenke's point may seem obvious, it is important. Too many discussions about the manuscript alphabet revolve around whether a slanted version of manuscript will help children "transition" into cursive. Research has consistently shown that attempts to speed or improve the learning of cursive with slanted alphabets have not been successful. This attention to transition is misdirected. Manuscript is far more than a steppingstone to cursive. Learning the manuscript alphabet is valuable because it supports young children's reading development with its simple letterforms that closely resemble print. As we shall see, the ability of early readers to recognize letters with speed and ease is absolutely essential for reading success.
Reading requires the ability to extract meaning from print, but before that can occur, letter recognition must become automatic. As Adams explains in her review of reading research:
There exists a wealth of evidence that the speed and accuracy with which young readers can recognize individual letters is a critical determinant of their reading proficiency and future growth.
We already have seen how learning to write the manuscript alphabet focuses children's attention on the relative differences used by the brain to distinguish one letter from another. At the same time, learning to write offers many opportunities for children to become actively involved in meaningful ways with print. Along with reading stories aloud and answering a child's questions about the print, teaching a child to write is a natural path to literacy.
How exactly does letter recognition eventually lead to comprehension?
First, the child is able to focus on the order of the letters and recognize which letters are commonly associated with each other. This is a skill which good readers possess, but poor readers lack (Frederiksen, cited in Adams).
Second, the child is able to learn common spelling patterns and develop the ability to translate spelling into meaning automatically (Adams).
Third, the child is able to break words into syllables more easily, an ability that makes it possible to read long words (Mewhort & Campbell, Seidenberg & McClelland, cited in Adams).
Fourth, the child's mind is free to focus on extracting meaning from print because the recognition of words is automatic (Adams).
How does reading comprehension suffer if a child cannot identify letters quickly and easily?
When a child recognizes the first letter of a word but spends too long identifying the second letter, the benefits of having recognized the first letter fade away (Adams). When a child spends too long identifying a word, the effort expended impedes comprehension (Rosenshine & Stevens, Clay, cited in Adams).
The ability to recognize letters automatically is essential to reading development, and learning to write the manuscript alphabet is a natural way to reinforce letter recognition. As we shall see, the ability to reproduce letters automatically offers similar benefits, not only for writing, but for reading, as well.
Writing is one of the best ways to help children learn basics such as the concept that print is talk that has been written down (Adams). Even more important, for many children, learning to write provides the motive for learning to read.
They start with a strong desire to express themselves in writing and soon delight in reading their own writing as well as the writing of others, such as family members and friends. Their development progresses naturally from "(a) scribbling and drawing, to (b) copying objects and letters of the alphabet, to © questions about spelling, to (d) ability to read" (Durkin, 1966).
While children can begin to write by dictating a composition to a teacher or adult, most are eager to learn to write on their own. They should be supported in the development of their writing skills, including writing the manuscript alphabet. The goal is to help the child become skilled enough to write letters automatically, freeing him or her to focus on the "meaning-making aspects of composition" (Berninger, et al., 1997).
Automaticity in both recognizing and reproducing the manuscript alphabet has the same result. It frees children to think about meaning, whether they are reading or writing.
In a study of first graders, researchers found that when children with poor handwriting received direct instruction, they improved in their writing, and "the sample as a whole improved in word recognition, a skill that was not directly taught" (Berninger, et al.). The researchers were at first surprised, but after considering the implications, they concluded
A characteristic of functional systems that draw on multiple processes is that training one of the component processes may result in gains in other functional systems that draw on the same process.
In other words, the finding that handwriting instruction improves students' reading and writing is consistent with what educators already know about how children learn.
Most educators recognize that reading and writing are interrelated, but they may not be fully aware of the supporting role played by the manuscript alphabet.
Learning the manuscript alphabet involves more than mastering a mechanical skill. Nor should it be thought of as just a way to "transition" to cursive. Instruction in writing the manuscript alphabet helps children focus on the same types of visual information that they use to distinguish one letter from another when they read. It also helps children begin to express themselves in writing, which increases their interest in reading the writing of others. Most important, a good command of manuscript helps the mind to process letters automatically during reading and writing, which frees students to focus on meaning. For all of these reasons, learning the manuscript alphabet can and should support the reading development of every child.
Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Berninger, V. W., et al. (1997). Treatment of handwriting problems in beginning writers: Transfer from handwriting to composition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 652-66.
Durkin, D. (1966). Children who read early: Two longitudinal studies. New York: Teachers College Press.
Koenke, Karl. (1986). Handwriting instruction: What do we know? ED 272 923.