I know several kids who write very, very slowly. I know others who like to decorate their letters as they write, many who form their letters starting at the bottom rather than the top, and lots who despise the task of holding a writing utensil at all, complaining of tired and weak muscles.

I watched one of these slow writers doing some math the other day.  The speed of her math performance has been a point of concern and discussion in school lately. It occurred to me as I was watching that part of the reason she takes a long time getting through math problems is that she wants the numbers to look nice.  For her, writing numbers (and anything else) is an opportunity to make art.

Artistry is often at work with the letter-decorators I mentioned too, though I’ve also seen letter-decorating used primarily to combat boredom.  Here are two other interesting coincidings: those writers who work from the bottom of the letter also tend to be the ones who would rather be designing and building things than sitting bent over a piece of paper, and the messiest and most apparently tormented or resistant are often the ones to whom the words are the most important.  The writers.

I’ve been observing young writers for a long time, and I was also one myself once.  The year I was eight was significant for me. I spoke in front of a large group of people for the first time, among other things. But the thing that got the most attention that year was my handwriting.  It wasn’t very good. I was in too much of a hurry, the adults told me.  I could do better.

Fortunately, that flurry of concern over my sub-par penmanship didn’t leave much of a mark on me, as far as I can tell.  I know that the parents and teachers who harped on my letter formation back then had my interests at heart and in mind.  I’m pretty sure that if they had realized I was just trying to keep up with my thoughts, they’d have handled it differently. The teachers I know now aren’t as hard on kids about handwriting as the ones I had when I was young, but we still tend to miss the opportunity to learn from what goes on with kids when they sit down to write – not just how the letters look but how kids are about it and what communication there may be for us to receive in the course of watching.

We miss this opportunity for noble reasons; we believe we know how to tell when writing’s going well and when it’s not.  The sight of neat legible letters soothes us, makes us feel as though things will be OK for the child forming those letters.  But too much haste, too little haste, unusual pathways, and general resistance worry us.  The task of writing feels important, so we get rigid and frightened about it and push for the results we know to push for.

But being rigid and frightened makes it hard to see what more there is to see, and it tends to undermine access to the very proficiency we’re after.

Here’s the thing.  The word is penmanship.  As with craftsmanship or sportsmanship, there’s grace and individuality suggested by and allowed for in the word.  Penmanship has come to refer only to how tidily we write, but it didn’t start there and we don’t have to settle for that.  We can ask ourselves more interesting questions about the emerging penmanship(s) of those newest to the tool – the way each one wields his or her pen.  What is there to see in a child’s resistance to writing?  What might it lead to?  Why would a person spend as much time drawing spiraling tails on every letter as choosing the words the letters make up?  Why is the messy writer in such a hurry?

If we ask questions like these, we’ll get insights into the behaviors themselves and also, most likely, surprising causes for further curiosity and even celebration.  And we’ll make lots more room for young people to come to own the work of writing, and to call on it to serve and support them in whatever paths and pursuits they choose.


3 Responses

  1. This was a beautiful post…so many wonderful things to think about. I never thought about penmenship style and what we could learn about the writer that way. I wonder if those who spend a lot of time making their letters beautiful lean more towards poetry in their writing and those who have sloppy handwriting care more about the plot or story for fiction or formulating ideas for nonfiction? My handwriting tends to be messy the more excited I get about what I’m writing. I don’t even like to handwrite that much. Even with journaling or freewriting, I’d much prefer writing on the computer since I can do that much faster than handwriting.

    And writing skills and penmenship skills have nothing to do with each other. When we want to help our children become better writers, it’s silly for us to focus on their penmenship. Them learning how to form letter differently or more neatly won’t help them become better writers. I’m so thankful my kids don’t have to connect how they write their letters with how well they can tell a story or form a sentence.

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. This post has stunning relevance for us these days, so please forgive my going on here at bit.

    Our son Wes at eight has shown only passing interest in writing or reading (though he loves having stories read to him). I have had to fend off the noise in my head so I could allow him to take his time.

    Well, he started out of the blue about a month ago drawing pictures like crazy. He’d spent the last four years mostly building things out of Legos and other materials, more complex and ornate structures all the time. And then one day, the drawings appeared. And very quickly the drawings became as complex and ornate as his Lego creations. No instruction and he was drawing with perspective and texture and with overlapping landscape features and faces with expressions, and coloring the whole page like a painter would. Where did he learn all this?!? I think from building Legos, in part. And I think from watching cartoons too. And I think maybe from looking at paintings in museums. I don’t know. Life, right?

    And then, in the last two weeks he has become fascinated with writing letters — I mean, both the alphabet kind and the kind you mail to friends. I have held my tongue (mostly) about how you hold the pen and whether you start the letters at the bottom or the top, etc.

    What drew him into the writing suddenly is so roundabout and its roundabout-ness is maybe instructive in its own way, so I’ll bore you with it: he loves rings. We were looking at rings online one day and he saw some that were old-fashioned wax seals (like you’d use your ring to seal letters using sealing wax) and that led to asking about sealing wax. And the next trip to the art supply store, he saw a stamp with a gorgeously ornate “W” on it and we got it and some sealing wax. So now suddenly writing alphabet letters and letters to friends is tied up with this gorgeous brass “W” that feels good in the hand as well as lighting matches and burning wax (how fun is that, right?).

    And the next thing I know he’s writing letters to far-flung friends and family and sealing them with his “W” stamp. And he wants to write in cursive, not print, because it’s fancier, but I don’t actually remember how to do cursive all that well. So we go back to print and he decides that’s not fancy enough, so he begins to invent fonts, making specific kinds of curly or runic ornamentation on every single letter, as well as drawing special things around the first letter of the sentence.

    And now the guy who didn’t write, is writing words on signs in his drawings and wanting to know how to spell things and is writing in both fast/plain and slow/fancy ways. His “penmanship” is out of the blue both varied and precise. Why is that? I think it’s because he’s been drawing pictures steadily for hours straight for two months. His fine motor control and his eye have improved enormously over that time, so now doing plain regular letters isn’t complex enough for him, where before just doing the basic letters was too hard.

    I should say the other piece of this is that for the last year or so he’s been a “fox” living in “the fox world” in his pretend play and because he wasn’t interested in writing “real” letters, he invented his own “fox” alphabet (always changing). So while they weren’t “proper” alphabet letters, he’d been practicing writing letters in his own way for a long time.

    And I’m just shaking my head because none of this had to do with any ideas I had about how this might happen or when or with what help. Hah, when will I learn, I wonder?

    • I really appreciated both of these stories. I almost cried over the part about the girl slowly writing her (beautiful) numbers to answer math questions. Also the gorgeous account of Wes finding the architecture of letters, and building his own…wow!
      It seems that learning experiences can be so easily trampled, so it does my heart good to read about people honoring these children’s expressions. Thank you for sharing!

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