Share this article

print logo

WILSON KINDERGARTNERS SKIP PRINTING, START OFF WRITING IN CURSIVE STYLE

There is a quiet revolution going on in this peaceful lakeside village.

The weapons of choice are No. 2 pencils and wide lined writing paper.

The warriors in the trenches are elementary school teachers.

Their ammunition is an educational program known as ARL, Assured Readiness for Learning. They are teaching kindergarten pupils how to write in cursive. No printing allowed.

Developed by school psychologist Phil McGinnis more than 20 years ago, ARL is based on child development and the cultural history of handwriting.

Sandy Trauscht, director of special education in Wilson, said, "In looking at children, he was looking at things that were developmentally appropriate. In studying early children's scribblings on paper, he found that they tended to be connected and joined."

Mrs. Trauscht said, "Back in the 1800s, most countries used the cursive form of writing. Then, with the printing press and more availability of books, it was decided that we were confusing kids, since the books were all in (printed) manuscript, so we switched."

Proponents of ARL believe that switch was a step backward, and they would like to see it corrected. They say children began to form letters the wrong way.

"Kids aren't getting a sense of words, because sometimes when they get sloppy with their manuscript, the letters separate, not necessarily into words, but into parts of words. It causes all kinds of confusion," said Mrs. Trauscht.

The answer? McGinnis "developed cursive as a portion of the initial writing process for children right in kindergarten," said Mrs. Trauscht.

It is a modified cursive, not the decorative Palmer Method taught in schools in the 1950s.

Mrs. Trauscht said the modified cursive removes some of the extra humps from letters, which are formed with a couple of basic strokes. "They called one the rocker stroke, which is sort of a downward sloping stroke, and the other one was the rainbow stroke, which went in the other direction, so when you go to do an 'a,' you do the rainbow to go up over the circle," she said.

The ARL program is designed to help young children organize themselves. By learning about vertical and horizontal lines in preparation for forming cursive letters, they automatically learn about upper and lower, middle, right and left.

"You have a tic-tac-toe matrix. Children would organize their papers based on that matrix, so if you told the children to write their name in the upper left-hand corner of the page, you don't even have to think -- the children all know where the upper left is," she said.

Learning cursive writing at an early age also teaches children basic shapes like circles and ovals, she said.

Some exercises to practice finding the various spots on the paper are done with blindfolds on. "They could find the spot on the paper without having to see it. They were visualizing it in their minds," said Mrs. Trauscht.

McGinnis wrote that children who read well tend to visualize or get pictures in their minds from what they are reading. Children who don't read well don't develop this skill. These early exercises in the ARL program serve the same purpose and help prepare children to be better readers.

The ARL philosophy contends that teaching children to print first and then expecting them to learn cursive writing later is a developmental disservice.

Children traditionally learn how to write in cursive in the third grade, a time McGinnis says they aren't ready for new learning.

"If you switch your communication process from one form to another, you slow the children down," said Mrs. Trauscht.

Mary Martin, a third-grade teacher in Newfane, respectfully disagrees.

She uses a traditional handwriting workbook published by Zaner-Bloser.

Mrs. Martin agrees with McGinnis that the ability to write cursively is developmental, but she says it is more appropriate when taught at a third-grade level.

"We have kids that take to it immediately and then we have kids that need more help and practice. We found a lot of our kids were ready to do it in third grade."

Mrs. Martin expressed concern that when the formal penmanship training stops, youngsters begin to develop their own styles. "They pick up their own quirks -- you know, the hearts over the 'i' and things -- and then nobody can read it."

A quick survey poll of some schools in Niagara County revealed that Wilson appears to stand alone in its devotion to ARL.

Barker used it for a while years ago, but has since returned to more traditional methods.

Wilson students may learn cursive writing beginning in kindergarten but where and how they learn manuscript is another issue.

"What the teachers do is when they present anything, they present it in both forms. If they're learning the letter 'a' they'll write a manuscript 'a' next to a cursive 'a'," said Mrs. Trauscht.

This prevents any confusion children might have when they are asked to write in cursive but read in manuscript.

Wilson students learn manuscript in the third grade, but not in the traditional, Zaner-Bloser fashion. They learn how to form letters in art class.

"Manuscript has a specific purpose," said Mrs. Trauscht. "You fill out an application. You do a chart or a map or a poster and you want the lettering to be in manuscript, so we teach manuscript as an art form."