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by Jane Case-Smith, Ed.D., OTR/L, BCP, FAOTA
Teachers delight when students demonstrate good handwriting and proudly show their handwriting to peers and parents. Students’ success with their first handwritten products is important to building their self-esteem and confidence. For this and many other reasons, learning to write is an important goal of the school curriculum. Teaching children the mechanics of handwriting provides an essential foundation for school success.
The goal of a good handwriting curriculum is to teach children to write letters legibly and efficiently, so that writing becomes fluent and automatic. The program should incorporate evidence-based practices and activities that teach students legible handwriting, including modeling, practice, and self-evaluation. Additionally, the program needs to be developmentally appropriate and include materials and methods that reach students who struggle with handwriting.
The Zaner-Bloser Handwriting Teacher Edition suggests that teachers model letter formation so that students learn the starting point and direction of the stroke. By visualizing how the letter is formed, the student can imitate correct formation and avoid forming bad habits (such as writing letters bottom up).
The program recommends repeated practice of each letter. Practice is critical to learning any motor skill. Because handwriting is, initially, a motor skill, repeated motor practice using correct letter formation is essential to achieving good handwriting.
The Student Edition uses Stop and Checks to remind students to self-evaluate their letter formation. Through self-evaluation, students analyze what they have written and how well it matches the letter model. Once they recognize their best letters, they are more likely to remember how to form the letters correctly. Although the teacher’s feedback on letter formation is also important, the student’s self-evaluation will have a more enduring effect.
Researchers have found that simple, continuous handwriting strokes, such as those used in this program, are easiest for children to learn. Vertical manuscript letterforms place minimal demand on motor memory, allowing students to learn handwriting quickly and to focus on other mechanics (such as spelling and grammar) and composing. Zaner-Bloser’s four basic manuscript strokes—vertical, horizontal, circle, and slant lines—are easiest for students to learn because they simplify motor planning and visual-motor coordination.
As an occupational therapist, I particularly recommend Zaner-Bloser Handwriting for students who struggle with handwriting. The simple continuous stroke vertical manuscript alphabet is easy for at-risk students to learn. The program’s use of visual aids and verbal prompts promotes multisensory learning that engages students and supports individual learning styles. The curriculum’s emphasis on modeling, practice, and self-evaluation is validated by research that has shown these methods enable struggling writers to become legible, fluent writers.
Using a formal curriculum to teach handwriting, a foundational literacy skill, has many benefits for students. It is directly related to their attitudes toward and confidence in writing. Good handwriting is linked to improved fluency in writing, improved composition, and higher test scores. In contrast, students who struggle with handwriting often lack confidence in their written work, avoid writing, and become discouraged about expressing their thoughts in written form. Additionally, these students may face barriers to learning across academic areas due to 1) incomplete work because handwriting takes longer, 2) decreased legibility, or 3) short or simple answers because the physical act of writing is too difficult.
It is particularly critical that children who have limitations in prerequisite skills (such as visual motor skills, motor coordination, phonological and print awareness) receive a research-based, well-structured program. Explicit and well-designed handwriting instruction leads to improved legibility, higher quality writing, and positive attitudes toward writing.
Occupational therapists find that when students receive a well-designed handwriting program, such as Zaner-Bloser Handwriting, we receive many fewer referrals for our services. Therefore teaching handwriting is cost effective! Most importantly, this program enables students to express their ideas, share their stories with a public audience, and develop enthusiasm for the lifelong skill of writing.