Common Questions about Peterson Handwriting

Can students learn Peterson Handwriting after learning D’Nealian?
Should I make my students write cursive?
What about “monkey tails” for transition?
Won’t students learn to write automatically?


Our students have already learned to add monkey tails. Can we still use the Peterson Handwriting system in later grades?

This is really two questions in one. First, can your school continue to teach D’Nealian in the early grades and expect all the benefits of Peterson Handwriting if you only use it in the later grades? No. Peterson Handwriting teaches skills that flow, sequentially, one into another. Peterson Handwriting’s commitment to flow begins early, which is why students are taught to make manuscript letters with their individual parts—their individual sticks and “c’s”—instead of beginning by making letters without lifting the pencil. The act of making letters without lifting the pencil is called “threading” letter strokes and is more complex than the skill of making letters one stroke at a time. After students learn the motor control and spatial orientation skills developed by letters with their individual parts, they are ready to begin Peterson slant print, in which the paper is rotated, the same physical motions used, and the letter strokes threaded (where some “italic” programs begin). By taking time to develop skills sequentially, Peterson Handwriting greatly simplifies and accelerates the process of learning to write.

Second, is it too late for students who have learned D’Nealian to learn cursive using Peterson Handwriting? Not at all. Since some students who learn D’Nealian early inevitably develop a “handwriting hiccup” when transitioning to any system of cursive, it may be best for you to work first to unlearn the poor pattern of adding a tail. (A “handwriting hiccup” is visible when the connecting strokes between letters show an upward motion and then a stop—like a miniature letter “i” without the dot—before continuing to the next letter.) This pattern can be unlearned most easily by flattening the tail of manuscript letters, so the tail is added extending along the baseline without rising, after the downstroke stops. While this extension is not part of the Peterson Handwriting system, practicing it can enable students to merge the muscle pattern they have learned (the harmful “monkey tail”) into a more effective pattern that stays on the baseline, ready to transition to the next letterform.

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My students complain about having to write cursive. Should I make them write in cursive, anyway?

Usually, when students complain that cursive is difficult or inefficient, their cries are interpreted as a call to abandon cursive. Since few teachers’ colleges still include training in handwriting instruction, however, most teachers don’t know how to teach handwriting. Perhaps you find yourself in a position similar to that of the dance instructor mentioned earlier—provided only with some “models” of letters and perhaps even some misinformation that how students make their letters doesn’t matter. For less than $100, if you can gain your administrator’s permission and maintain other teachers’ goodwill, you can outfit your first- through eighth-grade classroom with 24 pupil books, 24 paper position guides, alphabet wall cards, an audiocasette of handwriting songs, handwriting reproducibles, handwriting skill posters, a “neatest writer” poster, and a teacher handbook for you, with a “sequence of skills” monograph included. (Kindergarten and high school materials vary.) Special education teachers can often outfit a lab for even less. For individual students, tutors or home school parents can purchase inexpensive Peterson Handwriting Home School Kits.

To teach the movements of physical language, you must understand how to make them; workbook models are not enough, nor is handwriting instruction that doesn’t emphasize placing the hand beneath the line a student writes on. Many students see writing cursive as a “rite of passage” and only want to abandon it if it doesn’t “work.” If your students have learned the Peterson Handwriting system, you're unlikely ever to have to “make” them write in cursive: they’ll want to. Peterson Handwriting works.

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What about putting “monkey tails” on print letters? Doesn’t this help students' transition to cursive?

No. In fact, adding “monkey tails” to manuscript letters requires students to practice finishing a letter—and then pausing—above the baseline. Prior to the early 1990s, adding monkey tails may have seemed logical to encourage the “flow” of adult cursive. We now know better. Peterson Handwriting's emphasis on “pause points” on the baseline has since been validated by computer tests of more than 104,000 students, dwarfing studies of any other handwriting or fine-motor development program to date. Though as brief as 60 milliseconds each, when internalized as part of a writer’s muscle memory of each stroke, these brief pauses make execution of subsequent movements much more quick, easy, and accurate.

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Why all this emphasis on handwriting? Won’t students learn to write automatically?

Students may learn to write automatically, but they will not learn to write well without instruction. Good handwriting demonstrates the “Seven S's & Three P's.” And good handwriting doesn’t just happen… it must be taught.

Publishers of basal readers have advertised for a long while that a “whole language” approach does away with the need for phonics instruction and makes learning to read more natural and easy. Similarly, publishers of expensive handwriting workbooks (some D’Nealian, some italic) have advertised that a workbook approach does away with the need for handwriting instruction and makes learning to write more natural and easy. Unfortunately, neither advertisement is well grounded.

While spoken language is natural, written language is not. Written language is an artificial system; hence, reading and writing must be taught. None of the realities of our artificial system, including its left-to-right flow, unique letterforms, and dependence on spacing to separate words, are “natural.” A minority of the world’s populace, in fact, uses left-to-right language as its primary mode of written communication. The conventions of our language were taken into account long ago when our handwriting forms were conscientiously designed. Peterson Handwriting has been refining its own system of instructing writers in these forms since 1908 and has been on the forefront of graphonomics research since the early 1990s. There is no current system of teaching handwriting that has close to the longevity, logical sequence, and scientific support of Peterson Handwriting.

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