A friend asked me a question today that I have been asked many times: why does Montessori teach cursive first rather than print?
First, I’ll acknowledge that some Montessori schools do teach print first. But every Montessori school I’ve been in that is faithful to Dr. Montessori’s research results starts by teaching cursive.
Second, let me state that I honestly don’t think it’s that big of a deal either way. There are pros and cons to both, and children will learn how to write one way or another, sooner or later. For me, I decided to go along with the Montessori theory that it’s better to teach cursive first.
There are several reasons behind that theory:
Natural writing motions. Have you ever noticed that when young children are first learning to write, they’ll fill whole lines with one long, squiggly text? I know I have pages of my own “writings” like that from my childhood, and Drama Queen is at that point right now. Dr. Montessori noticed that as well. Cursive writing is much more like the “writing” a child naturally does, as opposed to short, choppy lines and circles.
d, b, p. Those three letters can be so confusing to young children. As they’re learning about the world, they learn that an object is an object no matter which way you turn it. A book is a book, a doll is a doll, a sock is a sock, a car is a car, a rectangle is a rectangle, even if it’s upside down. Then along come these little letters. Suddenly Mommy, Daddy, and Teacher are very adamant that this little shape is NOT the same when you turn it around! What?! Some cursive letters are similar to each other, of course, but cursive does alleviate some of the reversal confusion. Overall, cursive letters are easier than print letters to differentiate from one another.
One continuous movement. The shape of the letter allows the hand to just make one continuous movement, left to right. The child doesn’t need to pick up her pen, with few exceptions (dotting the “i” and crossing the “t”).
Beauty. Cursive writing has a beauty to it that is appealing to children.
Consistency. All letters begin on the base line and move up, toward the right.
Difficulty. Okay, this one may sound strange: cursive letters are more complicated to learn than print. So why start with it?? At five and six years old, the child is in a perfect culmination of three Sensitive Periods: SP for Small Detail, SP for Refinement of Movement, and SP for Language. This unique combination of spontaneous interest is the ideal time for the child to learn to write in cursive. During this period, the child is eager to learn to write, and is able to naturally learn cursive writing. Around third grade, when cursive is typically taught in traditional schools, the child is past that sensitive period and the task is more difficult. So it’s wise to take advantage of this easier learning period to teach the writing style that could be more difficult.
Transition. Once children have learned cursive, it is very easy for them to learn print. The reverse is more difficult. Also, a child who writes in cursive can also read print, but a child who only learned print cannot read cursive.
When it was time for me to first start working on Sandpaper Letters with Drama Queen, it was easy to make the decision to start with cursive; I had been convinced of the benefits in my Montessori course. However, I was still curious to see how it would all work out. I quickly began observing something another friend who begins with cursive had experienced: while Drama Queen was learning cursive letters in our lessons, she began writing capital print letters on her own. I never spent a minute teaching her print letters, but it wasn’t long before she was fully writing in capital print letters. I wondered if I was wasting my time with cursive since she never did that on her own, but I stuck with it. It was just this past summer that she started writing her name in cursive rather than print. When she is writing a note to someone, she usually asks me to write it on a piece of paper, then she copies it on her card. Always before, she wanted me to write it “the way I write,” as she said it. A few months ago, she switched to wanting me to write in cursive for her to copy. All of a sudden it seems like, everything she writes is in cursive. She absolutely loves any cursive handwriting assignments I give her, and even asks for more. If it was up to her, she’d spend all our school time doing handwriting work. There were a few times recently where before our official “school time” started, she was already in the room, hard at work on some writing.
copywork phonogram word list (She was copying from a list of print
words. Also she got distracted and left off the “t” in “feat”!)
In her continent book, she chose to write in cursive. Thanksgiving card (how do I turn this around??)
For us, I feel like following the cursive first philosophy has paid off. Drama Queen is developing beautiful cursive handwriting, out of her own internal drive. Plus, she easily learned print without any direct instruction, so at 5 years old, she can write and read in both.
Mr. BANG has learned all of his cursive Sandpaper Letters and recognizes all print letters as well. Again, I haven’t intentionally taught him print – he’s just picked up on it. Next week I’ll let him start his handwriting lessons, which will be cursive. At this point, he hasn’t tried writing any letters of either form.
Which path have you taken? What has been your experience either with cursive first or with print first?
Montessori For Everyone has a good post on this topic, including a great series of comments giving perspectives and rationales for both sides of the cursive vs. print “debate.”
Update: I’m reorganizing my teacher cabinet and just ran across an article I printed last year but apparently never read. It’s fascinating! It’s written by a Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrician and explains the importance of waiting until both the left and right sides of the brain are formed before teaching children to read and write. Also, she weighs in on this cursive vs. print topic from a scientific perspective. Her comments are really interesting:
It makes more sense first to teach children to write the small letters of the alphabet in cursive before teaching them to print these lower case letters. When doing form drawings or writing in cursive, the right and left hemispheres are both active and working together. Printing of the lower case letters is a more abstract and advanced developmental task that requires the left hemisphere, which often isn’t developed enough for this task until seven to nine years of age. Girls may be ready to do this task by age six while boys often can’t do this task until after nine years of age.
She touches on handwriting again in her conclusion:
First grade is the time to introduce form drawing, learn the capital letters (as pictures that children can draw), and practice cursive writing. As the majority of children in the classroom strengthen their proprioceptive skills and integrate their right and left hemispheres (as evidenced by their ability to stand on one foot with their eyes closed, remember the shapes that are drawn on their backs, jump rope forward and backwards by themselves, and easily perform the cross lateral skip), then children can be more formally taught to read, and to learn how to print the lower case letters.
I definitely encourage you to take a few minutes to read the article, it’s very thought-provoking. It definitely backs up Charlotte Mason’s philosophy that very young children need to be outside playing, not spending time in academics.