Are slanted manuscript alphabets superior to the traditional manuscript alphabet?
The teacher went on to explain that the D'Nealian program did not use the traditional manuscript alphabet, which is characterized by round, upright letters that resemble type. Instead, they would use a modified script in which the manuscript letters are slanted and most of the "small" or lower-case letters resemble their cursive counterparts. She then showed the parents a chart containing the D'Nealian alphabet, emphasizing that the modified manuscript letters make the transition between manuscript and cursive writing easier and quicker for young children.
While most of the parents were unfamiliar with the D'Nealian alphabet or the concept of slanted manuscript letters, only a few voiced any comments. One parent noted that it seemed a waste of time to learn a new script when her child could already write most of the traditional letters "quite well." Another parent, however, indicated that her older child had learned to write using D'Nealian, and that it was "simply marvelous." After hearing the first two comments, a third parent asked the teacher to "please tell us again why you think this new alphabet is better."
The teacher related many of the claims made by advocates for the newer, slanted manuscript style (Coon & Palmer, 1993; Thurber, 1993b). She reiterated that the new, slanted manuscript alphabet made the transition to cursive writing easier, saving a considerable amount of instructional time. She further indicated that the new, slanted alphabets, such as D'Nealian, used continuous strokes to form manuscript letters, resulting in better rhythm, greater speed, more writing and fewer letter reversals. She also stressed that this type of alphabet was better for children with learning disabilities and other handicaps.
As she repeated and expanded her rationale, the teacher did not refer to the research that addresses whether slanted manuscript alphabets are superior to the traditional ones. And none of the parents thought to request evidence to support the claims. This paper examines the merits of the claims made by this 1st-grade teacher and the other advocates of slanted manuscript alphabets.
Prior to the 1980s, the most critical issue involving handwriting script centered on whether to teach both manuscript and cursive writing. Some educators challenged the desirability of teaching both types of writing, recommending that only manuscript be taught (Groff, 1964; Templin, 1963) or making the more controversial suggestion that only cursive be taught (cf. Early, 1973). Neither of these recommendations generated enough support to seriously challenge the traditional approach of teaching manuscript in kindergarten through grade 2 and cursive in grade 2 or 3. Advocates of teaching only manuscript were unable to overcome tradition. Proponents for the cursive-only approach were unable to effectively counter evidence that manuscript writing is more legible than cursive writing, leads to greater gains in reading achievement, can be written as fast and is easier to learn (Askov & Peck, 1982; Graham & Miller, 1980).
During the 1980s, this debate declined in the United States and educators turned their attention to other styles of print (Askov & Peck, 1982), such as italics and the D'Nealian alphabet developed by Donald Thurber (1983). Interest in the use of alternative alphabets as a means to facilitate the transition to cursive writing was strong enough that two publishing companies developed handwriting programs that centered around the concept of slanted manuscript letters--the D'Nealian method, published by Scott, Foresman (Thurber, 1993a), and the McDougal, Littell (1993) program.
The development and commercialization of slanted manuscript alphabets has been accompanied by a variety of enthusiastic and optimistic claims regarding their superiority over traditional print (cf. Coon & Palmer, 1993; Thurber, 1983). While the issues surrounding the comparative effectiveness of slanted manuscript alphabets are relatively simple and straightforward, evaluation of supporters' claims has been complicated by three factors.
First, advocates for the new, slanted manuscript alphabets have made a surprisingly large number of frivolous claims (Graham, 1992). For example, supporters typically fail to make a distinction between claims for slanted alphabets and claims for the methods used to teach them (cf. Ourada, 1993; Thurber, 1993a). Although the procedures used to teach the alphabet are important, they do not justify using a particular style of script.
Second, an emotional and almost evangelistic fervor has at times characterized the debate, further clouding the issues. Supporters of slanted manuscript alphabets often use the provocative phrase "ball and stick" to describe traditional manuscript (cf. Coon & Palmer, 1993). Also, the developer of the D'Nealian alphabet (Thurber, 1983) indicated that traditional manuscript "resulted in schools producing a nation of rather poor writers", and that this style of printing may hinder beginning reading development. Evidence to support this claim, however, does not exist.
Third, there has been very little scientific interest in slanted manuscript alphabets and all the studies that have examined their effectiveness contained methodological problems. Almost uniformly, researchers have failed to control for differences in teaching methodology when studying the effectiveness of slanted versus traditional manuscript alphabets. In the typical experiment, one group of students is taught slanted manuscript letters using the Scott, Foresman handwriting program, while traditional manuscript is taught via the popular Zaner-Bloser handwriting program (Hackney & Lucas, 1993).
Any conclusions regarding the effects of manuscript style in these studies must be tempered, therefore, by the confounding influence of teaching methodology. Moreover, neither instructors nor students were randomly assigned in most studies. Thus, several competing explanations are possible for any differences between the groups. Finally, the reliability of the handwriting measures used in most studies was not established, jeopardizing the validity of both the assessments and the findings (Graham, 1986a, 1986b).
In order to identify the most salient claims for using a slanted manuscript alphabet, this author examined the claims of various advocates, the available research literature and current handwriting programs. Two basic claims were identified: 1) slanted manuscript makes the transition to cursive writing easier and 2) slanted alphabets are superior because the letters are formed using a single, continuous stroke. Each of these claims is examined in turn.
Claim 1: Slanted Manuscript Alphabets Make the Transition to Cursive Writing Easier
The basic claim made by developers and advocates of slanted manuscript letters is that such alphabets do a better job than traditional manuscript in facilitating the transition to cursive writing (McDougal, Littell, 1993; Thurber, 1993b). If this claim is valid, students who learn to print using a slanted manuscript alphabet should become better cursive writers than those who learn to print using traditional manuscript.
Farris (1982) examined this issue in a longitudinal study. At the beginning of the school year, she randomly assigned 86 kindergarten students to two treatment groups. From kindergarten to the first part of 2nd grade, one group was taught slanted manuscript using the D'Nealian program; the other group was taught traditional manuscript using the Zaner-Bloser program. During 2nd grade, each of the two groups made the transition to cursive writing using their respective handwriting programs.
Near the end of 2nd grade, a sample of the students' cursive writing was scored using 15 separate criteria (no information on the reliability of the scores was provided). Overall, students who had been taught traditional manuscript produced more legible cursive writing than students in the D'Nealian group. Students in the D'Nealian group were more likely to misshape cursive letters, extend strokes above and below the guidelines and vary the size of letters. Consequently, in this study the production of cursive writing was not enhanced by D'Nealian instruction.
Similarly, Trap-Porter, Cooper, Hill, Swisher and LaNunziata (1984) compared the cursive writing of 134 1st-grade students who had been taught traditional manuscript using Zaner-Bloser and 112 1st-grade students who had been taught slanted manuscript using D'Nealian. Each student copied the lower-case cursive letters from their respective programs. There were no differences between the two groups of students in the number of cursive letters omitted when copying or, more important, in the number of cursive strokes made correctly. Again, the production of cursive writing was not enhanced by the use of the D'Nealian method.
Finally, in a study by Ourada (1993), 45 3rd-grade students were divided into two groups on the basis of academic skills and behavior. None of the children had previously been taught cursive writing. One of the groups spent four weeks learning to write slanted manuscript letters using the D'Nealian alphabet, followed by eight weeks of cursive writing instruction using the same program. The other group followed the same schedule, but reviewed how to write traditional manuscript letters and learned cursive script using the Zaner-Bloser program.
A cursive writing sample collected at the end of the 12-week instructional period was scored for overall legibility as well as letter formation, slant and size (information on reliability of scores was not provided). Unfortunately, Ourada (1993) did not use statistical procedures to analyze the obtained scores. As a result, this author conducted a series of chi-square analyses to determine if the cursive writing of the two groups differed (see Graham, 1992). He found no differences between the two groups in slant (X =.94) or size of cursive letters (|X.sup.2~ =.38, df=1). While students in the D'Nealian group were more likely to produce papers with acceptable letter formation (|X.sup.2~ =4.2, df=1, p |is less than~ .05), this proved to be a minor distinction. The overall legibility of the papers written by the two groups did not differ significantly (|X.sup.2~ =.91, df=1).
Analysis of the available research shows that whether slanted alphabets or more traditional manuscript letters were taught, the resulting quality of children's cursive writing was the same or exhibited only minor and unreliable distinctions. It is possible that slanted manuscript alphabets did not lead to superior cursive writing because they do not facilitate the transition to cursive to the extent claimed. Developers of the D'Nealian (Thurber, 1993a) and McDougal, Littell (1993) handwriting programs have argued that because their manuscript letters are slanted and closely resemble cursive letters, the transition to cursive writing is simple--mainly a matter of adding connecting strokes.
In an analysis of the D'Nealian and McDougal, Littell handwriting programs (Graham, 1992), the author found that almost half (46 percent) of the cursive letters in each program are substantially different from their manuscript counterparts. An additional 21 percent of the cursive letters in D'Nealian and 26 percent of those in the McDougal, Littell program involve small changes in letter formation, such as tightening a curve or shortening a line, in order to add a connecting stroke. While lower-case letters are more constant than upper-case letters, approximately 70 percent of all manuscript letters in either program require some modification for cursive writing beyond simply adding connecting strokes. Consequently, students have to learn not only all of the upper- and lower-case manuscript letters, but a modified or completely different form for most of the cursive letters. Learning cursive writing in these programs is not a simple transition.
It has also been argued that slanted manuscript alphabets facilitate the transition to cursive writing by saving instructional time. For example, Thurber (1983, 1993a) has claimed that D'Nealian cuts in half the time needed to teach cursive. The basis for claims of this nature, however, is unclear. Both the D'Nealian and the McDougal, Littell programs introduce cursive writing one-third of the way through 2nd grade. By the end of the year, all of the upper- and lower-case cursive letters are covered.
Using the more traditional alphabet, the Zaner-Bloser method provides two options for making the transition to cursive writing. One of the options mirrors the approach taken by D'Nealian and McDougal, Littell: students make the transition to cursive early in 2nd grade and cover all of the cursive letters by the end of the year. With this option, there is no difference in transition time between the two types of manuscript letters. With the second option, cursive writing is introduced in 3rd grade. Although students spend an extra year working on manuscript, the amount of time spent making the transition to cursive is again about one year.
In summary, the available evidence failed to substantiate the claim that the transition to cursive writing is enhanced by using a slanted manuscript alphabet. Programs using either slanted or more traditional manuscript letters produced no reliable differences in children's cursive writing.
Claim 2: Slanted Manuscript Alphabets Use Continuous Strokes To Form Manuscript Letters--Resulting in Better Rhythm, Greater Speed, More Writing and Fewer Reversals Than Traditional Manuscript
Most manuscript letters can be formed by using either a single continuous stroke or two or more basic strokes (e.g., horizontal lines, vertical lines, slant lines, circles, parts of circles). The developers of the two slanted manuscript programs intentionally designed the majority of their manuscript letters so that they could be formed using a single stroke. They claim that this feature of their manuscript alphabet results in writing that is more rhythmical, faster and less directionally confusing.
It must be noted, however, that the continuous stroke method also can be used to form traditional manuscript letters. The Zaner-Bloser program, for example, provides two options for producing manuscript letters. One option involves using four basic strokes to form letters. With this option, the pencil is lifted from the paper when forming three out of every five manuscript letters (e.g., T, t). A second option involves using a single stroke to form manuscript letters. With this option, the pencil is lifted from the paper when forming less than half (44 percent) of the manuscript alphabet. In comparison, the pencil is lifted when forming 33 percent of the manuscript letters in the D'Nealian alphabet and 39 percent of the manuscript letters in the McDougal, Littell alphabet.
The differences between continuous stroke manuscript options are even smaller when just lower-case letters are considered. With the D'Nealian and McDougal, Littell programs, only six lower-case letters (f, i, j, t and x) require a pencil lift. Only two additional letters (k and y) require a pencil lift with the Zaner-Bloser's continuous stroke option. Neither of these letters is particularly common in English words (Zetterson, 1969).
Regardless of the similarities or differences between various handwriting programs, any claims regarding the advantages of a continuous stroke method, for either slanted or traditional manuscript letters, must be considered premature at this point. Beyond testimonials collected by publishers (cf. Coon & Palmer, 1993), no evidence exists that children write more rhythmically, faster or more as a consequence of learning a manuscript alphabet based on continuous stroke letter formation. These claims have simply not been investigated by researchers.
The only issues that have been addressed by researchers involve the effect of continuous stroke letter formation on frequency of reversals and quality of manuscript writing. In a Master's Thesis (Oglesby, 1982) cited by Thurber (1993b), 12 underachieving 2nd-graders were randomly divided into two groups that received nine weeks of manuscript instruction using either the D'Nealian or Zaner-Bloser method. Students assigned to the Zaner-Bloser group used the traditional manuscript alphabet without the continuous stroke option. Every three weeks, the quality of students' manuscript writing (e.g., legibility, letter formation, spacing) was assessed by four teachers (no information on reliability of scores was provided).
Although the overall results of the investigation favored the D'Nealian group, scores on specific handwriting measures were extremely erratic across the three testing sessions (unexplainably going up and down or vice versa). Therefore, the reliability of the teachers' evaluations, and ultimately the validity of the study, must be questioned.
In the only other study located, Farris (1982) examined the manuscript handwriting performance of 1st-grade students who had used either the D'Nealian or Zaner-Bloser method since kindergarten. Again, students in the Zaner-Bloser group used the traditional manuscript alphabet without the continuous stroke option. Manuscript handwriting samples collected at two points during the year were scored using 15 separate criteria (e.g., letter formation, spacing, slant). No information on the reliability of the scores was provided. Farris found no significant differences between the two groups of students on any of the criteria, including the number of letters reversed.
Farris (1982) may have failed to find an advantage for the D'Nealian manuscript alphabet because slanted and continuous stroke letters may require a greater degree of fine-motor control than the letters in the Zaner-Bloser alphabet without the continuous stroke option. This issue was addressed by Duvall (1985), who assessed the difficulty of the lower-case manuscript letters in these two programs. She found that the letters in the D'Nealian alphabet involve more motions that occur later in children's development, require more retracing of lines and force the hand to change direction more often. In contrast, when using the Zaner-Bloser alphabet without the continuous stroke option the writer has to pay more attention to visual information, such as where strokes begin and meet.
Last, supporters of slanted manuscript alphabets have argued that their continuous stroke letters are especially helpful for students with special needs, reducing frustration and increasing writing fluency (Coon & Palmer, 1993; Jordan, no date; Thurber, 1993b). The author found no scientific evidence, however, to support these claims. As Brown (1993) noted, "No research has been found that would support the use of one system of handwriting over the other in remedial and special education".
A slanted manuscript alphabet may not be the best choice for young children for several reasons. First, there is no credible evidence that these alphabets make a difference in children's handwriting. Making the transition to cursive writing does not appear to be enhanced by using a special alphabet like D'Nealian. Similarly, claims that slanted manuscript alphabets are superior because most of their letters are formed with a single, continuous stroke have not been validated.
Second, the use of slanted manuscript alphabets creates several practical problems for teachers. They have to respond to questions from parents who are worried because the new letters do not look "like print" (these alphabets are unusual enough that even the publishers use traditional manuscript in student workbooks). Teachers also have to learn how to write the new letters themselves in order to appropriately model their formation during instruction.
More important, many young children already know how to write to some degree before starting kindergarten or 1st grade. The letters that they learn how to write prior to starting school are, usually, the traditional manuscript. Learning a special alphabet like D'Nealian means that many children would have to relearn letters they can already write. As a result, a "hidden" transition takes place for children who are taught a slanted manuscript alphabet during kindergarten or 1st grade. This transition is also required of children who have been taught traditional print, then transfer to a school using a program such as D'Nealian. Given the lack of supportive evidence and the practical problems involved in implementation, slanted manuscript letters cannot be recommended as a replacement for the traditional manuscript alphabet.
Askov, E., & Peck, M. (1982). In H. Mitzel (Ed.), Encyclopedia of educational research (pp. 764-766). New York: Free Press.
Brown, V. (1993). D'Nealian handwriting: What it is and how to teach it. In G. Coon & G. Palmer (Eds.), Handwriting research and information: An administrator's handbook (pp. 62-71). Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
Coon, G., & Palmer, G. (Eds.). (1993). Handwriting research and information: An administrator's handbook. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
Duvall, B. (1985). Evaluating the difficulty of four handwriting styles used for instruction. ERS Spectrum, 3, 13-20.
Early, G. (1973). The case for cursive writing. Academic Therapy, 9, 105-108.
Farris, P. (1982). A comparison of handwriting strategies for primary grade students. Arlington, VA: ERIC Document Reproduction Service (CS 209 360).
Graham, S. (1986a). A review of handwriting scales and factors that contribute to variability in handwriting scores. Journal of School Psychology, 24, 63-72.
Graham, S. (1986b). The reliability, validity, and utility of three handwriting measurement procedures. Journal of Educational Research, 79, 373-380.
Graham, S. (1992). Issues in handwriting instruction. Focus on Exceptional Children, 25, 1-14.
Graham, S., & Miller, L. (1980). Handwriting research and practice: A unified approach. Focus on Exceptional Children, 13, 1-16.
Groff, P. (1964). Who are better writers--The left-handed or the right-handed? Elementary School Journal, 65, 92-96.
Hackney, C., & Lucas, V. (1993). Zaner-Bloser handwriting: A way to self-expression. Columbus, OH: Zaner-Bloser.
Jordan, D. (no date). Research: Handwriting issues and special needs. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
McDougal, Littell (1993). Handwriting connections. Evanston, IL: Author.
Oglesby, B. (1982). A comparative study of the difference in the manuscript handwriting performance of six below-average second-grade students who experienced the D'Nealian method of handwriting instruction for a nine-week period when compared to six below-average second-grade students who experienced the Zaner-Bloser method of handwriting instruction for a nine-week period, as measured by four judges' scores on a teacher-made checklist. Unpublished master's thesis, University of North Florida, Jacksonville.
Ourada, E. (1993). Legibility of third-grade handwriting: D'Nealian handwriting versus traditional Zaner-Bloser. In G. Coon & G. Palmer (Eds.), Handwriting research and information: An administrator's handbook (pp. 72-87). Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
Templin, E. (1963). The legibility of adult manuscript, cursive, or manuscript-cursive handwriting styles. In V. Herrick (Ed.), New horizons for handwriting research (pp. 185-200). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Thurber, D. (1983). D'Nealian manuscript--An aid to reading development. Arlington, VA: ERIC Document Reproduction Service (CS 007 057).
Thurber, D. (1993a). D'Nealian handwriting. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
Thurber, D. (1993b). How D'Nealian handwriting meets the needs of all writers. In G. Coon & G. Palmer (Eds.), Handwriting research and information: An administrator's handbook (pp. 50-61). Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
Trap-Porter, J., Cooper, J., Hill, D., Swisher, K., & LaNunziata, L. (1984). D'Nealian and Zaner-Bloser manuscript alphabets and initial transition to cursive handwriting. Journal of Educational Research, 77, 343-345.
Zettersten, A. (1969). A statistical study of the graphic system of present-day American English. Lund, Sweden: Studentlitteratur.
Steve Graham is Professor, Department of Special Education, University of Maryland at College Park, College Park.