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Developing Elegant, But Practical Handwriting

An Interview with Bruce Smith, Ph.D.


Bruce Smith, Ph.D., creator of the SmithHand Writing Method, taught in a public high school, then served as a college professor in both public and private institutions of higher learning. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in American history at Indiana University in 1975, a Master's degree at Notre Dame in 1987, and a doctorate in American history at Notre Dame in 1991.

An enthusiastic advocate of home schooling, he lives in Michigan's upper peninsula with his wife Natasha. The Smiths have one daughter. More information on SmithHand Handwriting Kits is available on the SmithHand website. Interview by Martha Robinson.

How did SmithHand get started?

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.: I had discovered Spencerian handwriting in my undergraduate history research, and learned to write it from an old textbook. This convinced me that there ought to be a way to create a workable handwriting method for today's writers. After two years of research and development we presented it to the homeschool community and it was an instant success.

We have a nation of illegible writers. Would you give us some history as to how this came about?

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.: Most Americans who learned to write before the 1920s could write beautifully. For the most part, they wrote a Spencerian hand just like they were taught in the handwriting textbooks of their day. Between 1910 and 1920 the Palmer Method began to dominate handwriting instruction in this country, and we date the start of the decline of handwriting from that time. Now that Palmer and its derivatives have been taught almost exclusively for 80 years or more, no one writes it as it is taught, and poor handwriting is widespread. This is not a coincidence. The Palmer Method of Business Writing was designed to be legible, not easy to write. Secretaries of the day worked as hard to produce a correct Palmer hand as business students do today to learn shorthand. Because it is not designed to be written with any speed, once "learned" it must be modified over the course of many years in order to make it workable. This has been going on for so many years, people now believe that inventing their own style of handwriting is the normal course of events. This was not the case when Spencerian and earlier achievable hands were taught.

When should a child begin learning to write? How will a parent know that the child is ready? What might happen if the child is rushed into writing early?

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.: Because writing requires physical skills as well as intellectual ones, and because the physical skills tend to develop more slowly than the intellectual ones, we believe handwriting should wait until the physical skills needed are present in the child. Demonstrating physical skills by means of other activities such as coloring with colored pencils is a good way of determining readiness to begin handwriting instruction in young children. A child who cannot control a normal-sized pencil on standard notebook paper in such a way that marks stay within the lines is not ready to learn to print. Reading and spelling come first, followed in time by writing.

When a child is pushed into writing before the needed fine motor skills are present, he is presented with an impossible task which can only result in failure and frustration. No parent would think of making their child practice being three inches taller and they do not realize that practice won't result in correct letter formation unless the fine motor skills are in place. The use of huge pencils and large lines came about to accommodate the requirement that penmanship be taught in a particular grade, without regard for the fact that few, if any, of the pupils in those grades had the physical ability to print or write. When taught to write too early with improper materials, bad habits often develop which are difficult to shed later. Many children rebel against writing altogether.

Many curriculum vendors are recommending beginning with cursive to help the child avoid reversals and to improve the child's understanding of phonics blends. Do you agree with this approach?

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.: Absolutely not. Cursive writing has nothing to do with learning to understand phonic blends. Very young children are capable of reading fluently without being able to write at all. Cursive writing is about communicating on paper with SPEED. Teaching a child to print first is developmentally appropriate because it allows the child to stop after forming each letter, think about which letter comes next, and think about how that letter should be constructed. In this way it is similar to the way the brain actually works to deliver the needed information to the child's fingertips. It is now in vogue to blame poor penmanship on learning to print first. It is argued that poor penmanship became common only after children were started on manuscript. This is a complicated "chicken and egg" situation that seeks to explain the almost universal problem of bad handwriting. The fact the Palmer method is impossible to write seems never to be considered by these folks. Unfortunately, "cursive first" has been around long enough that we are beginning to see that fail, too.

A big part of a Classical Christian Education includes copying selections from the Bible and other literature. How would a parent model the SmithHand method for the child? What is the difference between copying and handwriting?

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.: The SmithHand method teaches students to construct all letters from four basic strokes. As with phonetic reading, once these strokes are mastered, they can be combined into any letter and any word. The difference between handwriting and copying is that handwriting results from a mental construct rather than copying the shape of a letter already written. Copying a printed sample is actually drawing, and drawing is not handwriting.

Once a student has completed the SmithHand course, he will be able to write any verse of scripture or passage from literature straight from a book or from dictation without a script example to copy. This is actually a more productive reinforcement method as it calls upon the mental formation of the letter needed rather than depending upon being able to refer to a model.

Why do two different writing methods (cursive and manuscript) exist?

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.: If you study the history of writing, you will discover there are hundreds of different methods of constructing letters. For most of history, manuscript writing was the norm. Cursive writing is a relatively recent method which became necessary when the majority of people were educated and the need for extensive and rapid communication became widespread. Early cursive hands were still written slowly because they were written with dip pens, and their speed was limited by the amount of ink the nib would carry. With the invention of the fountain pen a truly rapid cursive writing became possible, but unfortunately the handwriting methods widely taught today were developed for the older technology. They must be written slowly in order to be done "correctly."

When should a child begin cursive?

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.: A student is ready to begin cursive any time after the child prints rapidly and uniformly on standard ruled notebook paper. The age a given child reaches this level varies widely, but girls nearly always develop the fine motor skills needed for cursive handwriting before boys. We most often see this skill in girls in third and fourth grades. Some boys have the needed skills in fourth grade, but most are not ready until fifth, and some are naturally delayed a little beyond the fifth grade. Again, this is a physical skill not an intellectual pursuit.

Does your method work with lefties?

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.: Yes. SmithHand is written with what we call a "color stroke." This is the wrist motion you make when you are shading in a boxed area. This motion is different for everyone and, unlike other methods, SmithHand does not require a certain "correct" hand or paper position. Our paper is designed to train each writer to use the most comfortable paper angle and hand motion and still produce legible, beautiful cursive. If you line up 12 different SmithHand writers, you will see a dozen different paper positions...all of which will be correct. A left-handed writer who begins with SmithHand will find writing just as simple as a right-handed person does because he will be using his own most comfortable hand motion and paper angle.

So many moms I have talked to complain that their children started writing nicely, but now their handwriting is terrible. They feel like the children should just get more practice. Is a year-round handwriting curriculum necessary to have legible handwriting?

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.: This phenomenon results from the fact that the most commonly taught methods today can only be written slowly because they are old fashioned copy hands, not cursive hands at all. When a child is "studying" penmanship, the goal of the exercise is to draw the letters correctly. Anyone with normal motor skills can do this well if it is done slowly. Additionally, children in lower grades are learning many basic things for the first time and tend to do everything more slowly. When a child reaches fifth or sixth grade, and handwriting becomes a tool rather than the focus of the lesson, penmanship quality deteriorates because the method is inadequate to the task at hand. It is the method at fault, not the child. No amount of "correct" or extended practice will convert a copy hand to cursive speed. Girls, more commonly than boys, simply go about the task of inventing their own workable script. Most people eventually develop a rapid writing style they can use but it may take ten or fifteen years and it may not be legible. We believe it is kinder and more efficient to teach a child a method that is achievable as taught and designed to work. With SmithHand, you purchase it once, teach it once and learn it once.

Will your method work for adults who want better handwriting?

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.: SmithHand was originally developed for adults and older students who had tried everything else and failed. A considerable percentage of our sales are to adults who wish to improve their handwriting. An adult, with all the fine motor skills in place, can complete our course in two or three weeks.

Beautiful handwriting is SO rare. Would your method help someone interested in calligraphy or a beautiful penmanship such as Spencerian? How can one achieve truly beautiful penmanship?

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.: SmithHand is itself a beautiful hand, and yet it is fast and legible. Spencerian is a calligraphic hand. Calligraphy means "beautiful writing," and is an art form rather than an everyday tool for communicating on paper. People who master SmithHand sometimes go on to learn Spencerian in art classes, and may enjoy learning other calligraphic hands.

Many thanks to Bruce Smith for sharing his thoughts with us here at!

Related Resources

Review of SmithHand Handwriting
Interview with Michael Sull, Master Penman on Spencerian penmanship's Language Arts Resource Section