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Charles Lehman,

A way of Learning Handwriting as a Craft

For small children, mastering of various skills of handwriting is serious work and requires much practice. But too often their need for practice of skills is misunderstood by their teacher as a need for handwriting drills, that is, the churning out of a quantity of letter models, or worse yet, repetitious drawing of letter parts. This is certainly a form of mindless drudgery. Thoughtful practice centers on a clear idea of the goals of handwriting and then proceeds carefully with time for review of the results. For example, a student must learn which tools give the best results, which paper works best for clean results with a certain pen. Then there is the main event: the number, sequence and direction of the strokes used to make each letter and all the other designs for numbers and punctuation.

Pen vignette

A pen flourish, turned into a flower ornament.

The task of learning all these things well depends on a simple, time-honored method of learning which the calligrapher/teacher Lloyd Reynolds called the “Perennial Pedagogy.” (The steps of learning are much more simple than the title):

 1 Get the idea of what is to be learned (the “formative image”).
 2 Concentrate (serene open awareness - try softer, not harder).
 3 Get the feel.
 4 Practice, practice, practice.
 5 Take it easy (Easy does it.).
 6 Get the swing of it.
 7 Be in good form.
 8 Get lost in the work.
 9 Let IT do it.
10 Work for the work’s sake.
11 Don’t sell out.
12 Do it the right way.
13 Keep to your calling.
14 Teach. (Share your skills.)

Besides the advantages of the traditional way of learning and working described above, there is the issue of selecting the best model of letterform for handwriting. Since handwriting is a centuries old traditional craft in western civilization as well as the rest of the literate world, it has its own criteria of excellence. Specifications of letter slope, spacing, size and shape are requirements for the writer to perform efficiently and become ultimately the rule for evaluating the results. The best option in our culture for the making of ordinary handwriting is the model known as Italic. It is a simple cursive letterform derived from the historically sound sixteenth century Renaissance work of master penmen. The Italic hand meets all classic criteria of traditional handwriting: letters slope slightly to the right, feature branching strokes and occasional joins. They are written in compressed patterns to form words which are themselves tightly spaced. Capitol forms are structures made of assembled strokes rather than the rhythmically written dance of the pen used for lower case letters.

Schools that use Italic begin with simple unconnected letters in the first grade and then continue with the same forms through the following grades. As children develop muscular and visual skills needed for the work, they are encouraged to naturally join letters together that are safe to do so. “Safe” means structurally designed to send and receive a joining stroke. For example, the letter “n” which begins on the left and exits on the right can both receive and send joining strokes without jeopardizing the basic structure of the letter itself due to errant strokes written too rapidly. Continuity of learning is critical for small children. As the child begins, so he or she is allowed to continue.

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Established 9 August 1997 - Updated 10 January 2002, September 2007