This month I'd like to focus on what I call the Four Pillars of education: handwriting, spelling, grammar, and punctuation. These four uphold every other area of education. They are essential, like the framework of a building upon which hangs all the other subjects. With the Bible as the solid foundation for education and learning, these four pillars are the 2 x 4s, the framing, that sets on the foundation. Or in ancient architectural terms, they are the supporting pillars with handwriting and spelling being the corner pillars and grammar and punctuation being the supports between them. I hope in the next four weeks to show how critical these four language skills are and why they must not be overlooked as unimportant.
Handwriting begins when a child is just starting out on the educational journey. It is a difficult motor skill involving dexterity and control. It feels awkward, as any new skill does at the beginning. Like learning to play the piano, it requires teaching, coaching, and lots of practice. As homeschool parents, we first teach: showing how something is done; then we coach: coming alongside them day by day to observe, correcting errors and instructing in how to improve; and we provide exercises along with scheduled, set-aside time for them to practice. No skill is learned well and performed beautifully without some form of these three educational necessities: teaching, coaching, and practice.
And handwriting is, in a sense, a performance. It is the skill that displays their work and is given to others. Some have argued, and many public schools and even homeschools have embraced this line of thinking, that with the advent and cultural takeover of computers, handwriting is no longer important. But no matter how much of our writing is now done on computers, handwriting still has to be done in some—even many—contexts. We will never fully get away from that. And there is no substitute for a real handwritten note or card or letter.
There are three primary goals we should keep in mind and establish for handwriting: legibility, speed, and beauty. If a child's handwriting is not legible, or if it is difficult to decipher, the whole point of handwriting has been lost. Handwriting is for the purpose of communicating; it is for others to read. In this sense, legible handwriting shows consideration for others. Legibility demands neatness and consistency.
In order to achieve legibility, care must be taken to form the letters with precision. I like the teaching model of using a clock: letters a, d, g, etc. start at 2 o'clock, go around the clock backwards and back to 2 to connect before completing the letter. The letter e starts at 9 o'clock, goes to 3 o'clock, then up and around the clock to end at 5 o'clock; and so forth.
Neatness and consistency also involves proper letter heights and slants. For young children, lined paper with a dotted line in the middle helps to give them parameters and teaches them the difference in letter heights. To have even lettering (which is important for legibility), the letters must touch, but not go beyond, the lines appropriate to them. That takes a lot of hand-eye control! At least for the first two or three years of handwriting practice, use a colored pencil or pen to review their work, circling the places where their letters did not touch the lines or where they went below or above the lines. Also, draw vertical slant lines that match the slant of their letters to show slant inconsistencies. This type of "grading" is the coaching part of education. You're taking their work and showing them how to improve, keeping their attention focused on what they need to practice.
Handwriting at this stage is s-l-o-w and tedious. But neatness and consistency must come before speed. Again, using the analogy of learning to play the piano, a child doesn't start out playing a new piece up to speed. Rather, they take it quite slowly at first to make sure they are playing the notes and rhythm accurately. Gradually, when notes are rhythm are learned correctly, they work up to the proper tempo. It is the same with handwriting. Keep it slow at first, checking for accuracy.
As the skill of proper letter formation, height, and slant are mastered, speed will follow. This type of legibility extends to numbers as well as letters. Don't urge speed until accuracy is achieved. But once their letters and numbers are being formed consistently well, encourage speed. When speed is achieved, the time needed for completing homework in every other area of study picks up as well. Then your homeschooling can really take off.
Lastly, strive for beauty. Beauty is a matter of style and will vary from child to child. Handwriting really reflects the individual. There are many different styles of handwriting, as demonstrated in the hundreds of computer fonts, and they are all (or most all!) legitimate. As long as they maintain legibility and consistency, let each child develop his or her own style. But cast a vision for stylistic beauty in their unique handwriting personality.
Studies have shown that employers, when reviewing applications to hire new employers, will tend to give interviews and favor those whose handwriting on the application is neat and legible. It shows discipline, that care has been taken to learn an important skill that impacts others. If the application can't be read, there's not much an employer can do with that. Like it or not, handwriting does reveal character, at least to some degree.
Good handwriting is not learned in a day or even a month. It will take much practice to become skilled at this. Skills are always hard work at first, and hard work is . . . well, HARD! And all of us tend to buck at hard, tedious work. We like things that come easy. But it takes putting in the hard work—the practice, practice, practice—for the skill to finally become easy. When a skill becomes easy, we suddenly enjoy it! So expect some push back until the skill is learned well. Once the skill of handwriting is mastered, every other subject will become easier. Think of it as a two- or three-year project before it begins to get easier. But keep bringing it to their attention every time they write, so they continue to improve. Good handwriting is one of the most important educational gifts we can give to our children. It sets them up for life.