Archive for the ‘Teaching Writing Skills’ Category

Teaching Cursive Part 7 (of 25): How to Teach Correct Forward Slant

January 8, 2016

 

Turn the paper while writing in order to get properly slanted cursive.

Turn the paper while writing in order to get properly slanted cursive.

 

Correct positioning for left-handed writers to obtain the forward slant.

Correct positioning for left-handed writers to obtain the forward slant.

 

This post is both for parents and for teachers who may be called upon to teach cursive, but need help with how to teach the correct slant.  For examples of correct slant, see this post.

The way to get a slant is to TURN THE PAPER (or notebook). Instead of having the paper directly upright in front of you, rotate it about 45° COUNTER-CLOCKWISE, so that the upper right corner is in the 12:00 position (and lower left corner is in 6:00 position). Then write normally on the page, and the writing will have the proper slant.

The paper should be turned on an angle to write for one’s entire life–it is the correct way–it is not something one does while learning as a child, and later on reverts back to using a straight paper.  No one can write with a proper forward slant if the page is not turned on the desk

A helpful hint for teachers and parents is to cut a thin strip of paper (I used to use a 1/8th-wide strip cut from red construction paper, but any paper will do) and tape it to the desk or table where your student is working. The bottom edge of his paper should rest on that line. As a third-grade teacher, I taped these red lines on each desk before the first day of school. (I also did it when I taught Kindergarten for three years.) How did I get the idea? My own teachers did it when I was a child.

Line taped on edge of desk for slanted cursive writing.

Line taped on edge of desk for slanted cursive writing.

If you would like to try the taped line method (highly recommended), here is how to put it in the right position:

Steps for Correctly Positioning the Taped Line on the Desk

It’s important to WATCH your own children or students work, for several weeks or months, until they develop the habit automatically. It feels very awkward at first since they have most likely learned incorrectly. They might need constant reminding every two or three minutes at first.  As a teacher, it was easy for me to keep constant watch in the classroom and remind students all day long, “Turn your papers,” or “Papers on the red line.”

How to Move the Paper Up and Down While Writing

Once students start writing, there will naturally be some students whose writing is not slanted enough, and others whose writing is too slanted.  At that point, tell those individual students to habitually turn their papers more, or less–whatever is required–in order to arrive at the correct amount of slant.

 How to Adjust Student Papers Later On

My hope is that these instructions will help parents and teachers understand how to teach cursive slant with excellent results.

Teaching Cursive Part 6 (of 25): WHY Correct Cursive Slant Is Important in American Writing

January 7, 2016

Cursive Slant in American Writing

Why is cursive slant still important?  American society still makes judgments about people based on their handwriting, and slant is one of the strongest criteria used.   Most people make these judgments subjectively and subconsciously every day.  However, employers and bank officers are just two examples of those in the power structure who employ professional handwriting analysts to make judgments about prospective employees and about people applying for loans.

In the photo above, I have written out some examples of various slants, as well as how they are perceived.  As a teacher, when I introduce cursive writing, I actually write samples like this on the chalk board to show them to students, and explain what people might think about others based on the slant of their handwriting.  So I encourage them right from the very first day that our goal is to try for an average forward slant, shown in the last example in the photo above.

One other example did not fit on the page, so here it is:

Variable slant

Our slant, like other aspects of our handwriting, will change from day-to-day, but we should generally try for a correct forward slant.  This can be obtained by turning the writing paper 45° counterclockwise (subject of the post following this one, Part 7).

Countries and cultures, when compared with one another, also tend to have typical characteristics.  For example, British “reserve” as compared with American “friendliness with strangers” can be seen in typical handwriting slants from each culture.  Vertical, or even backslanted writing is more common in British culture than in American.  If we move to North Africa, we find people generally suspicious and distrustful of others, and as expected, backslanted writing (in Western languages) is most common of all.

If you are from outside the United States, you should be all right using the slant which is most common in your own culture, and no one will judge you negatively.  But if you are living or working in America, you should be very aware of this and of the impact it could have on your personal life or career with any of the undesirable slants discussed above.

My next post will explain, with photos, how to position the paper to get a correct forward slant.

In case anyone has had trouble reading the cursive in the photo, here is a typed version:

Cursive Slant for American Writing

In American culture:

A vertical slant is not considered desirable; you are judged to be too logical, too cold, and without feeling.

A backslant is to be avoided at all costs; you are judged to be  emotionally suppressed, possibly with some kind of ecret emotional trauma in your background, difficult to approach,and someone who maintains a shell around themselves.

This is too much forward slant; these people are judged as being far too emotional, of making all of their decisions based on feelings.

This is the minimum acceptable forward slant.

This is an average/normal forward slant, which is considered most desirable in America.  This slant, to Americans, indicates a balanced person who uses good judgment between logical decisions and emotion in their decision-making.

A variable (frequently changing) slant indicates moodiness, instability, and a frequently changing picture of oneself, as well as trouble making decisions.

 

Why Reading Levels Continue to Decline–PART I (of 2)

April 30, 2015

Students who still can't read

The problem of students who are unable to adequately read their grade-level textbooks is not new; the problem starts in early elementary school and only gets worse as students move up in grade levels.  Unfortunately, the rise of the internet in the past twenty years has only exacerbated the problem.

Let’s look briefly at the pre-internet reading situation in middle-class schools and above (poor schools have additional problems which will not be treated in this particular article).  Looking back, the most important function of the school library was to be filled with books to be used for school research projects which were at the correct reading levels for students.

Primary School Libraries

Not only were grade-level books provided, but there were plenty of below-grade-level books on every topic available to readers who were still below grade-level.  For example, a middle-school student with a lower reading level could still find good primary-level books on any research topic assigned. There used to be hundreds of books available through publishers, on every conceivable topic, for school libraries and public libraries to choose from.  Bookstores made them available to the general public.

Today, funding priorities are focused less on providing new books for the school library–partly because of the explosion of new topics and knowledge in our modern world, and also because of the explosion of information on the internet.  Now funding must be divided between  books, and new library computers.

The market for children’s non-fiction has plummeted since 2005.  Sales to both libraries and bookstores have dropped substantially. Therefore,  fewer nonfiction books for children are being written and published.  Publishers and booksellers decided to drop most nonfiction, and focus primarily on children’s fiction–for which there does continue to be a market.

Desirable Non-Fiction Book Topics

 The lack of nonfiction is particularly damaging for boys.  They tend to prefer autobiographies, nonfiction, newspapers, and realistic topics. Ever since 2005, as the internet has become more powerful, children’s nonfiction has declined.  This decline is preventing many boys from developing as readers. National standards in Britain and America drive the decline even further, “…as the strictures of the national curriculum have driven many publishers to stop producing anything very original, and how many books on Vikings and rainforests do we really need?”

Starting in middle school–most commonly Grade 6 and above–teachers now direct students to the internet for research, instead of to school libraries. One reason is that science classes are now often researching topics which are not even available in books in the school libraries–things such as genetics, and various types of cells–and this is happening in Grades 6, 7, and 8.

Students are now being asked to research obscure people for reasons of diversity in the classroom, rather than famous people.  This means that the information can only be found on the internet.  Students are now expected to use the internet for all research.  This is now true even in elementary school.  Students may be assigned reports on animals, for example.  Perhaps there are perfectly good books in the school library at the right reading level; however, it has now become “too much trouble” to even check , when one can “just look it up online.”

Using online sources creates a much worse problem–aside from the problem of whether a source is reliable, biased, or incomplete–that is, the problem of reading level!

Below is reading sample from a Grade 5 science text which more than half of students (even in good schools) might find too difficult to read without the teacher’s help.  Why?  Because students are now used to reading only fiction in reading class.  They are not used to the vocabulary in non-fiction; nor are they used to reading expository sentences..

Levers text

 

Not only have student reading levels declined in real terms, but the sources students are now attempting to use are usually written at far too high of a level for their age.  Students in middle school and high school usually go first to Wikipedia (and are often specifically told to do so by their teachers, particularly in international schools that have much less access to English-language printed material).  Unlike school library books or school text books of old, vocabulary is not controlled for difficulty.  Sometimes the articles are poorly written, and written by scholars who are just trying to impress other scholars with their difficult vocabulary.

Below is a section of what one of my 7th-graders attempted to read for a report on glial cells last year, using Wikipedia.  Most students now need adult help to translate and explain what they are trying to read.  To a poor reader, this may as well be in Chinese:

Glial cells text from Wikipedia

Those students who can afford it hire private tutors.  My students show up and say, “I have a project or report due next week on glial cells (or guard cells, or an obscure historical figure).  Can you help me?”  Students arrive knowing nothing about the topic, and are expected to research on line, and write a report listing their sources.  So, together we look on line and usually find very scholarly articles, which I, as an excellent reader in my 60s with a graduate degree and decades of experience teaching, sometimes have trouble understanding!  So we pull out little snippets of information from various articles, which I explain in plain English and then mark our source.  Even many Wikipedia articles are written by scholars, seemingly just in order to impress other scholars!

Hiring a private tutor

I learned a great trick years ago when I was in a professional writers’ group.  If you need good, concise information on an area or a subject, one of the best ways to find it is to go directly to children’s books, where you can find the information thoroughly distilled and written in clear, easy English.  I use this same strategy now and show students how they can search on the internet using the search terms “my topic + explained for children.”  It doesn’t always work, but it often does.  Sometimes we arrive at a website where something has been clearly explained at a reading level appropriate for middle-school students.

The thing which most excited me about the internet when it first began, especially as an overseas teacher with little access to English-language reading materials, was its potential as a world library at our fingertips.  Sadly, much of this potential is being lost for two reasons.  First, children are not developing adequate non-fiction reading abilities to function in society.  Second, most of what is available on the internet is written at far too high of a level for students to be able to benefit from it.

In most American schools, for the past several decades, the textbook has been seen by teachers as only one resource of many for classroom use.  In fact, years ago, over-reliance on the textbook was almost seen as the mark of a lazy teacher, within the teaching profession.  Unfortunately, the current result of this attitude has now led to teacher over-reliance on the internet, with students who are unable to understand either their textbooks OR the internet!  I personally have come around 180° to the view that students would be better served if they learned and discussed in class everything which is in the textbook.  Now, however, there is a new problem!  Many schools are now moving entirely away from textbooks as a way to save money, and teachers are mostly downloading random worksheets from the internet. Unfortunately, it is students who are again losing out on their education.

Part II of this series will discuss what parents, schools, and teachers can do to address these problems.

–Lynne Diligent

Students Mourn Never Learning Cursive

April 3, 2013
Cursive - the new undecipherable secret code script!

Cursive – the new undecipherable secret code script!

Cursive was taught in my school until four years ago.  When I left, the school discontinued it as a regular subject.  Now those students are in upper elementary and early middle school, and can neither read nor write in cursive writing.

Among my tutoring students, several of them have expressed to me their sadness that their older brothers and sisters can read and write in cursive, and they cannot.  Still being in the first few classes not to learn cursive, they feel babyish and incompetent.  Perhaps in subsequent years, this embarrassment will disappear when none of the new students  have older brothers and sisters who know cursive, when they don’t.  In another six or seven years, no one will know it, and it will seem normal to upcoming students.  It’s only those in these transition years who will feel the loss.  But they will feel it for the rest of their lives.

How many adults remember the childhood feeling of waiting to learn “grown-up” writing, or scribbling to other young friends (at the age of five or six) on a paper and bragging, “I know how to write in cursive?”  Of course, at that age, no one knew, so your friends believed you, because they couldn’t read it, either!

When I tutor these students, I have to slow down and print (much more time-consuming).  Of course these students also will never be able to read historical documents or even old family letters. Furthermore, most European and Latin American countries don’t teach printing at all–they teach only cursive script starting at the age of five.  I feel this bodes poorly for a future globalized world.

I’d be happy to teach cursive to these students (being an expert cursive teacher), but that is not what I’m being paid to tutor in–we generally spend the time on math, science, reading, and writing. Furthermore, teaching cursive at an older age can be done, but it is not generally enjoyable as it is for children.  It makes children feel grown-up, and they enjoy learning it.

–Lynne Diligent

Young Student Remembers Past Life?

January 20, 2013

Soldiers

Several years ago, while teaching third grade, the school asked me to have students write stories.  One of my third-grade boys (age 8) wrote a story unlike any I have ever seen in all of my years of teaching.  Instead of writing about the usual kinds of stories which children do, he wrote about his experience as an adult man during war.

His story was about trying to save his family while he was being called off to war.  He was rushing to hide them in the basement and get them necessities, while trucks of soldiers were coming by to pick him up and take him with them off to war.  It was in Europe, and there were trucks.  It’s been several years, and I no longer recall all the details, but the essence of the story has stayed with me ever since.  Out of all the stories my students wrote over the years, it is the only one I can clearly remember today.

As someone who believes in reincarnation, I’ve always wondered if, in fact, this child’s story was a past-life memory.  It was shocking to read.  It sounded like one of the World Wars.  His concerns sounded just as if an adult man of 35 was speaking about his feelings.  There are a number cases now researched and published of young children who remember past lives, and even past lives in wars.

I mentioned the story to his mother, and she responded, “I know.  He’s just like an old man, in a little boy’s body.”

–Lynne Diligent

Is “Handwriting without Tears” a Good Program?

August 1, 2012

The Handwriting without Tears curriculum  is currently being implemented in many schools throughout the United States.  Is it a good program?  I have been asked to give my opinion.

I am an expert teacher of handwriting, and have over 20 years of experience in teaching both printing and cursive at both the Kindergarten and Grade Three levels.  So the opinions below are my impressions from what I can gather about the program from the Handwriting without Tears website and from online information (at present I live and teach overseas, and have not seen or used the program myself, nor ever heard of it, before being asked for my opinion).

This Program Directly Addresses a Major Problem

One of the main problems with teaching handwriting (both printing and cursive) is that most current teachers have never had any instruction themselves in how to teach these skills.  This program takes students from Pre-Kindergarten through Fifth Grade.  It appears that the program is well-thought-out in terms of appropriate motor skills for preschoolers.  Specifically, it appears that the program TEACHES THE TEACHERS HOW TO TEACH IT.

In order to teach cursive writing well, teachers need to be more competent and confident in their skills than this

In order to teach cursive writing well, teachers need to be more competent and confident in their skills than this

It is not so important which program is used in teaching handwriting (although I personally found D’Nealian more difficult than other styles to teach well).  The important thing is, does the TEACHER feel confident in his or her own handwriting skills, and with the methods to be used in communicating and practicing those skills with students?  These days, most teachers do not feel confident with these skills (either because they were never taught as students themselves to the point of mastery, or because they had no instruction in how to teach it, and they don’t remember it from when they were young).  This program DIRECTLY addresses these problems, which I would say is a big plus.

The other big plus with this program is that all teachers in the same school are being trained in use of the SAME program.  It can be frustrating and confusing for students when they go from class-to-class, and each new teacher has a completely different type, standard, method, and approach to teaching handwriting.  So this factor is especially helpful for students.

Handwriting Standards By Grade Level

This programs sets in place standards to be achieved between Kindergarten and Fourth Grade.  Frankly, these standards do look a bit low to me, speaking as a veteran teacher of many years.  However, their video (on home page) mentions that the program only takes ten minutes a day.  Looking at it from this perspective, the standards are good.

Writing Style

Printing Style for “Handwriting without Tears” (as found on the internet).

This printing style is the same as traditional printing, as it was taught before D’Nealian style (slanted, with tails on the ends of letters, which most probably CREATED all the handwriting “tears”).  This vertical block printing is both the most legible, easiest to master for the student, and easiest to teach for the teacher.

Desk strips in the new “Handwriting without Tears” cursive style.

I do not like the new Handwriting without Tears cursive style at all; in fact, I find it quite ugly.  It is completely vertical, and devoid of both lead-in strokes or tails (lead-in strokes are used in the traditional cursive methods, while tails replaced lead-in strokes in more recent methods such as D’Nealian).  My thoughts are that the vertical style was adopted in this method to do away with the need to turn the paper.  Slant is not very difficult to master on a sheet of paper, but is nearly impossible in a workbook, such as is used in this program (and other recent programs).  No doubt a simplified style was adopted to help students with dysgraphia.

Conclusion

In recent years, it seems that the major problem in teaching handwriting has not been whether the students learn cursive at school; it has been whether the students’ writing is legible at all!

Speaking as a veteran expert cursive (and printing) teacher, looking through the program, it seems very expensive with many unnecessary bells and whistles (expensive manipulative and workbook materials and expensive workshops).  None of these things are at all necessary to teach cursive effectively.

Preschool manipulatives for the Handwriting without Tears program.

For teachers who have no idea how to teach cursive, and who have never been taught, this program does offer good support.  The use of manipulative materials can be fun for students and give new teachers of handwriting confidence in what they are doing.  (I was fortunate to recall how I was taught as a child; I also had the support of another cursive teaching expert, a generation older than myself, who still happened to be teaching in the same school).

Overall, I would come down in favor of this program because it addresses the following issues:

1.)  Handwriting instruction IS being given to students, with a focus on at least achieving legibility.

2.)  Teachers ARE being given good support and training.

3.)   The program seems to be well-thought-out over several years, and all teachers in the same school are being asked to use the same teaching methods, and same style of printing and cursive.

4.)   The program maintains an emphasis on the positive and fun aspects of handwriting, with students and parents,  through use of manipulatives, and by working only ten minutes a day (according to the video.

–Lynne Diligent

How to Help Students Improve Their Topic Sentences

June 8, 2012

Writing a good topic sentence is surprisingly still a problem for many middle-school students. Students usually have one of two problems. The first problem is that many students write an incomplete phrase as a topic sentence, putting a period at the end. These students are confusing titles and topic sentences. The second problem is that the topic sentence students write is not general enough to the whole paragraph and should really be another supporting sentence.  This post will only deal with a solution to the first problem.

I discovered an easy one-on-one method to help students work on the problem of confusing title phrases with topic sentences. I suggest having a long list of about fifty simple essay titles prepared. Point out that titles are not complete sentences. Ask the student who has trouble to change the title phrase into a complete sentence. Many students will immediately change it into a question. While a question can be used as a topic sentence, I don’t them use questions, because this doesn’t solve their basic problem; it allows them to get around their basic problem.

If the student just cannot change the title into a declarative topic sentence, then help him. Give him three or four examples; then move on to the next example. This technique works even better with two or more students in a small group. Ideally, the group should be composed ONLY of students who have the same problem. (It’s of no help to anyone to be placed in a competitive group–or class–with others whose level of competence far exceeds their own.)

Points can be kept with a tally-mark system of who can come up with the best topic sentence. I also give students a chance to change and adjust their answers (after hearing another child’s answer) before I choose whose answer is best. If they are all equally good, I give points to each child.

Here are two examples:

Title 1: How Technology Affects People’s Lives

Example Topic Sentences:

A. Technology affects people’s lives in many ways.

B. We would be lost without technology in modern life.

C. Technology can have either a positive or negative influence on our lives.

Title 2: Comic-Book Heroes

Example Topic Sentences:

A. My life as a child was filled with comic-book heroes.

B.  Comic-book heroes inspire us in real life.

C.  Real-life heroes are better than comic-book heroes.

The second student problem, that of using as a topic sentence one which should really be a supporting sentence is a little more difficult to solve, and requires more one-on-one work in a different approach.

–Lynne Diligent