Writing By Hand

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By Kimberly Bakker, Aspen Country Day School

I remember watching my mother use a dip pen and glass ink jar when she made beautiful signage for her first career as a window designer for a local department store in Holland, Michigan, where I grew up. She was masterful, and rarely made mistakes. It was the 1970s, and most signs for advertisements were made in such a fashion. I used to watch my mother writing notes, cards to family, invitations and even grocery lists in cursive with legible and artistic handwriting. When I am asked if handwriting is a dying art, I note that children are drawn, literally to “draw” and express themselves or just have fun doing what they see siblings or adults doing. What they see us doing is changing, due to our increased use of technology. Children see texting these days more often than they see their parents using paper and pencil.


Of course, children still learn to write. We all use handwriting, some more than others. We leave a note for someone, sign a check, make a grocery list, fill out paperwork and label items. It is true that much of our communication has migrated from paper to digital through email and texts, but we still need to learn to write, and most of us do. So I believe handwriting is not dying, but the art and beauty of it is often neglected.

I remember beautiful invitations for weddings and events in handwritten cursive script or calligraphy. As soon as I saw one of these, I knew I would get to dress up and use my best manners if I was going to attend. Beautiful handwriting is an aesthetic joy to read. With fewer and fewer hand-written works of art showing up in the mailbox, are our children missing out? This experience can be similar to the feeling one gets when looking at a magnificent sunset or painting. 

When handwriting is neat, legible and pleasing, it is not only easy to read, but it often reveals the care and thoughtfulness the writer took to convey the message. Should this art be included in the current rebranding of “soft skills” needed for success?


These days, we hear a lot about the “soft skills,” traits valued in the education and business worlds as “must haves” for success. These include courtesy, communication and responsibility.

In my once-small hometown on Lake Michigan, children were expected to have these “soft skills,” as a part of growing up – not taught in isolation or formally in a classroom, but rather through the community as a whole. Discipline was carried out by any adult who happened to notice less-than exceptional behavior. Good penmanship was the norm, something we valued without necessarily naming it, and I draw a correlation here between this skill and the “soft skills” that employers today say are missing in the new young professionals entering the workforce.

In many cases, we have become more isolated and often not part of a generational community, due to increased mobility, technology, and many other things. It is rare for children these days to be born and raised in the same home or community in which they have grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, clergy and neighbors who are a part of their lives from birth to death. So how can we address these societal changes in the ways we raise and educate children today?


I often think back to the basics of education; Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic – what my grandparents learned in their one-room school in the 1920s. Education at that time was different, but the basics were the same  – they had to be able to read, write, and use basic math to be able to function in their society (my grandparents had between 5th and 8th-grade educations, but functioned and communicated successfully). Education has changed over the years with the needs of technology and our changing world, but many things stay the same.

Cursive handwriting gives us opportunities to practice soft skills, which may be the new “Three   Rs”– courtesy (respect), communication (relating) and responsibility. Courtesy and respect are demonstrated with a beautiful script when writing Thank You notes and greeting cards. Thoughtful communication builds relationships and is practiced when a student writes legibly to a teacher or classmate, for an essay or public presentation. A responsible citizen shows gratitude in any situation, be it the classroom or the boardroom – and we practice this by sending legible and beautiful hand-written thank you notes, as well as cards to grandparents, to a loved one in a hospital, or to a friend who might need encouragement. Using your own writing signifies the amount of thought and care put into the words. Emails are nice, but handwritten notes of gratitude and concern are more heartfelt and meaningful.


I teach cursive in Grade Five at Aspen Country Day School, where I work with the students during the first half-hour of instruction every morning. I received special training seven years ago in “Handwriting Without Tears,” which was developed in the 1970s by a physical therapist who focused on fine motor skills and the development of handwriting techniques that not only support children physically but educationally. It is multisensory, adaptable for many types of learners, and progresses from kindergarten to grade six.

Imagine a quiet and focussed start to the school day. We take five boisterous minutes of sharing exciting news and visiting with friends, then everyone settles down. I play classical music (my other educational love, as I am also the ACDS music teacher). Desks are cleared, chairs positioned properly and the cursive books are gently passed out.  Students progress at their individual pace in the books as I glide from desk to desk, checking letter formation, giving suggestions, or just noticing how sublime the letters look on the page. One of the most beautiful sounds is the combination of Mozart, graphite on paper and thoughtful conversations about precise letter formation.

I plan occasional forays into calligraphy for special projects or holidays and sign-making for school events. We have had cursive competitions in which students submit their best handwriting. When I first introduced this, I thought I might get 5-10 entries, but I was happily surprised when I received over 200! I did not put a limit on how many times students could enter, so the cursive “practice” was amazing and best of all, the students I least thought would enter, were some of my prize-winning selections.

Age 12-18 months: Scribbles

Children naturally begin to gravitate toward scribbling at a young age and will pick up a crayon, marker, or any other tool available to create a mark. (Even shoe polish and a newly painted hallway will do in a pinch!) The basic grip used by children in this stage is called the Palmar Supinate grip, with the palm surrounding the utensil and the thumb on top. 

Age 2-3 years: Scribbles with Symbols

The next stage in development occurs when a child’s pencil grip evolves. The Digital Pronated grip is characterized by a whole hand grip with the pointer finger toward the tip of the writing utensil.  This grip is associated with more control of the pen or crayon, and during this stage, you see the beginning of intentionally directed lines, symbolic of letterforms.

Age 3.5 – 4 Years: Mock Letters

The Static Tripod grip is when 3 fingers are used with the thumb and pointer pinching the utensil. The 3rd finger knuckle is also used for control and balance.  When children want to attempt coloring in a certain space or desire more detail, this grip will be used. You will also start to see letters of various sizes and placement on the page.

Ages 5+  Phase One – Fine Motor Readiness

When a child displays the Dynamic Tripod Grip, you begin to see big leaps in development. The fingers are positioned for precise use, with part of the hand resting on the paper, while fingers work together using fine motor skills to manipulate the writing utensil. This reflects increasing maturity in fine-motor control and seems to arrive in correlation with a child’s ability to think symbolically. Many educators view this developmental milestone as a key indicator of readiness to read.

Phase Two –Symbolic thought

Letter Strings  – moving from left to right, progressing downward.

Groups of Letters – spaces between groups of letters representing words.

Picture Labelling – often using the first letter sound to name an object. Environmental Print  – copying logos and signs, “reading” their meaning.

Phase three –Phonetics

Early Phonetics (left) – the child goes from hearing the first letter sound to hearing the ending letter sound, and will write two letters to represent the object.  Next, they begin hearing consonants in the middle of words, and finally the vowel sounds. When they can link these sounds using letters, they begin forming words, which leads to phrases and eventually to sentences.  Is this the ultimate chicken or egg question? What comes first, the ability to write, or the ability to read?

Ideas for Practicing Handwriting at Home:

Any time writing is needed, a child can help with the process in a way that is fun for them. This can also help a child with organizing thoughts and developing a practice of planning ahead.

• Buy a simple chalkboard, a sturdy eraser and a set of art quality pastel chalk at an art supply store. Children can doodle, make signs and practice letters the old-fashioned way – gaining confidence in a medium that can be erased and rewritten over and over.

• Write a letter to a grandparent on a nice piece of stationery. Pick out a special stamp. Take time to go to the post office together to mail it.

• Write out the family menu. Have fun with fancy lettering as you see at your favorite coffee shop. (Perhaps the child who writes the menu gets to choose a meal or two.)

• Children can make a “Knock First Please” sign for their room so their siblings will respect their privacy.

• Calligraphy dinner place cards for a special event.

• Pick out craft supplies, stickers, markers, and fun paper so children can design their own Valentine’s Day cards to pass out at school or mail to cousins living elsewhere.

• Kids can use 3 x 5 Index cards and packing tape to label toy and clothing drawers so they can quickly find what they need.

• Make luggage tags for an upcoming family trip.

• Collaborate on a chore chart with siblings.

• Work together on your weekly grocery store list.

Kimberly Bakker

Kimberly is a music and handwriting teacher at Aspen Country Day School and has lived in the Valley since 2001.  In addition to teaching music, she teaches handwriting, cursive, etiquette, and beginning piano.  She enjoys skiing, camping, dirt biking, and sailing with her family. When we started looking for an author of our handwriting piece, we learned about Kimberly’s longtime love of calligraphy and her habit of corresponding with students, colleagues, friends and family near and far in her best cursive. Check out Kimberly’s new Kindle Edition children’s book, The Colors.

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