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BJU PreCursive and Cursive Handwriting

An Idea That Grew into a Philosophy

Kathy Bell (BJU art faculty) noticed the poor handwriting of her college students, mainly inconsistent slant patterns. So she did some early research on italic writing. She gave remedial handwriting lessons, using italic writing with her students.

This inconsistency was often the result of the way students learned to write. As young children they were first asked to make their letters straight. So for two or three years they endeavored to please their teachers by making perfect "circles and sticks." At age eight, they were required to slant their newly learned cursive letters. Before the 1920s all children learned cursive writing from the start. Our grandparents and great-grandparents never had to make a transition from straight letters to slanted letters.

The Beginning of "Balls and Sticks"

During the Dewey era in this country the idea of manuscript ("ball and stick") writing became popular in our elementary schools for two legitimate concerns. Teachers realized that the children were learning to read and write two entirely different sets of alphabet letters. It made good sense to adopt the new manuscript alphabet, an export from England, so that children could learn to read their own writing. The elaborate cursive handwriting they learned later was also difficult for young children to reproduce. In an effort to remedy these two concerns, educators turned to the oversimplified "balls and sticks," and manuscript writing became almost universal fare in American schools. The English schools, on the other hand, did not make the change.

Another Answer

The English schools adopted a one-stroke, slanted print. This fluent print broke the cursive words into individual letters, maintained the slant, and modified some of the letters so that they looked more like the print in the students’ textbooks. During a teacher’s conference in Michigan, I attended a workshop presented by a young man who taught kindergarten and physical education in a small public school. With no early childhood training to convince him that five-year-olds needed fat pencils, one-inch lines on handwriting paper, or practice in making perfect circles and straight lines, he developed a fluent print that resembled the cursive writing they would later learn. He presented a bibliography listing research and articles on handwriting.

BJU Press Research Began

As the team of writers began to plan the BJU beginning reading program in the late 1970s, much of the research led to methods that tied reading and writing together. To make that philosophy work we looked for a way to help children learn to do both at a young age. We collected articles. The data backed the theories already explained by Kathy Bell. One study showed that students using a smaller pencil were able to attain good handwriting more easily. Other articles studied the natural movements of young children toward the midline of the body when they pretended to write. Their "writing" always slanted, and their attempted "circles" were elliptical. Research on young children’s composition abilities revealed that at the very point when children have the ability to put expanded thoughts into writing, they were confronted with a brand new alphabet to learn.

The Result—BJU Handwriting

We formed a committee (including Kathy Bell) to devise a modified alphabet for the new BJU Beginnings curriculum. The modified alphabet would facilitate early reading by looking as much as possible like the letters in the textbooks the students would read. And secondly, the stroke direction and appearance of each letter was designed to be a stepping stone to the cursive letter the student would learn in the future. Mrs. Bell, a skilled calligrapher, gave advice so that the result would yield a pleasing appearance as well.

The PreCursive and cursive alphabets were then "piloted" in the BJ Elementary School. One of the strongest critics of the new alphabet, a first-grade teacher who had achieved great success in motivating young children to write the manuscript ("ball and stick") letters nearly perfectly, agreed to the trial use of the modified alphabet. That teacher soon became one of the authors of the first-grade handwriting program.

The BJU PreCursive writing had been piloted two years, registered for a copyright, and was in production when Scott Foresman released their slant-print handwriting series. The two alphabets are not identical, but because the philosophy was good for children learning to read, the idea caught on. Scott Foresman’s D’Nealian Handwriting books are included in the state adoption list of all 50 states.

Research led to other ideas that are incorporated into the BJU Press materials. All of the handwriting books have themes that provide interesting activities to do for practice. The fifth-grade theme of "Languages and Letters" displays John 3:16 in 26 languages and also gives the fifth grader the opportunity to learn some alternate English Roundhand upper-case letters if he wants to customize his personal handwriting. The careers theme in the sixth-grade book gives a child the opportunity to write everything from a doctor’s prescription to a check. He finishes the year with a fine calligraphy project since a calligraphy lesson is part of the last lesson in each unit. The calligraphy lessons provide a format for reteaching many important handwriting skills, such as consistent slant, readable spacing, and neatness.

The first goal, that of getting children into reading, was the greatest benefit of the program. As a child is introduced to one of the basic twenty-six sounds of the language, he learns to write the letter that most often represents it. The concept of "reversals" (b and d in particular), once so common in K5 and grade 1, is rare in students using PreCursive writing.

We also learned that because the cursive writing clearly contains the PreCursive letter, young children can read their older friend’s cursive writing long before they are asked to try to write it.

A few years ago I visited a display featuring the United States Constitution. The original documents on display, writings from the early days of our country, were done in what looked amazingly like BJU cursive writing.

Jan Joss is an author of elementary-level curriculum at BJU Press.

Reprinted from Teacher to Teacher, Vol. 5, Num. 1.

 by Jan Joss. Updated October 21, 2015.

© 2016