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Spencerian Handwriting Review by Deann Hadley

The Complete Collection of Theory and Practical Workbooks for Perfect Cursive and Hand Lettering
Platt Rogers Spencer
Ulysses Press
510-601-8301
PO Box 3440
Berkeley, CA 94703
http://www.UlyssesPress.com

We are a little bit enthusiastic about writing tools and penmanship. We’ve tried many methods of teaching cursive, and we’ve learned a few forms of calligraphy. When we were given the opportunity to review a new book, Spencerian Handwriting, The Complete Collection of Theory and Practical Workbooks for Perfect Cursive and Hand Lettering, my daughter and I were thrilled. We’ve dabbled in the Spencerian method, but never put much effort into it. We were hoping to learn the method, improve our cursive, and give you an idea of how this book could be used in your home.

The Spencerian method was originally printed in a series of books, the first was the primer and the others were workbooks. Spencerian was the handwriting standard in the 1800s. This book combines the primer (instructions) and workbooks in one.

The Theory chapter explains how a teacher should teach a class this writing method, though you can teach individual children easily. It goes through proper positioning of the pen in the hand, the paper on the desk, and how to sit. There are also sections on how to move the wrist, arm, and shoulder. Then it begins to teach proper letter form, and starts with basic lines and curves. It teaches angles and spacing, and then puts letters together in the “Seven Principles,” showing how each letter is formed from these seven strokes. It is a very thorough instruction method, and an older child or teen who is dedicated could learn the method on their own. For younger children it would be better to read and practice the Theory chapter, and review each portion as you teach them. The instructions are written in question and answer form, making it easy to read, and giving the reader plenty of natural breaks to stop and practice.

The practice chapter is divided into four sections. The first is dedicated to small, or lowercase letters. Each letter is described thoroughly, including which principles are used to form the letter and how many spaces high and wide the letter should be. There is a full page of practice lines for each letter, with the first line already printed as an example. Each page has lines for width and height that help you learn to properly form the letter. Letters are taught in a logical sequence, going from simple to more complex, and letters with similar principles are taught together. Numbers are also taught, though there is only a single page for all of them.

Once you have mastered small letters, you move on to Small Letters in Combination. This means simple words and joining letters. Gradually you move away from the extra horizontal lines for height, but retain the vertical spacing lines. Each page continues to include formation tips and tells the principles used.

The third section is titled Practicing Capital Letters with Small Letters. Again, there is a description of how to form the uppercase letter, including an analysis of principles. Because the capital letters come at the beginning of a word, you are continuing to practice lowercase letters. Letters with a unique form teach their different stroke first, such as the curve that looks like a ladle for an uppercase A. After all the uppercase letters are taught, the pages change to single horizontal lines to write on. There are vertical lines so you can keep your words spaced horizontally, but by now you have had enough practice that you don’t need all of the lines to measure letter height.

The final section is Practicing Sentences. This only has horizontal lines with a sentence at the top of the page. You (or your student) should copy the sentence repeatedly down the page. Each sentence begins with a letter of the alphabet, in order, making a total of 26 sentences to practice.

My 9th grade daughter and I both used this book. We would sit across from each other, so we could observe the other person’s posture and movements. We practiced the “Seven Principles,” then we moved on to learn the letters. As we practiced our penmanship, the rest of my children wanted to try it too. (They are in 7th, 4th, and 1st grades.) The most frustrating part of learning this method was also the most helpful part of the method. I’m referring to the proper way to hold the pen or pencil. This book was thorough in describing a proper hold and includes well done drawings so there is no question about if you are doing it correctly. Some of my children have a tendency to grip the pencil so tightly that their first knuckle nearly forms a ninety-degree angle. I have noticed that they tire easily and their fingers slip down the pencil when they do this. Seeing the pictures in this book, and repeatedly practicing what we now call “writing posture” has helped them remember to relax the fingers and hold the pencil correctly. I love the steps the book gives, it is very descriptive about where the pencil should touch the fingers, and where the fingers, hand, and arm should touch the desk. As my oldest child and I practiced across from each other, we would glance across the table and say “wrist,” or “fingers,” or whatever we needed to fix as we wrote.

I will say that I do not follow the instructions exactly, I prefer to tip my hand a little more to the side than the book teaches, and this produces my best lettering. But even I learned some things that helped improve my penmanship, just from the Position and Movements sections!

The book measures 7 ½” x 9 ¼”. It is a good size, but not too large to fit on a desk. The back cover says it has a “lay-flat binding”, but I found it did not lay completely flat and was still slightly bowed towards the binding side of the pages. The pages could be torn out for practice, though they are not perforated for that.

We used a variety of writing tools in this book. When the Spencerian method was used in schools, children had dip pens and ink wells, and the book does mention this. We wrote in the book using a pencil, a mechanical pencil, a gel pen, a fountain pen, and a dip pen. I would not suggest anything that requires pressure to write, such as certain soft lead pencils or a ball point pen, as smooth movements are harder when applying pressure to the page. Our favorites were mechanical pencils and fountain pens, though the dip pen produced beautiful results including the proper shading produced by springing the pen on the down strokes. There is a section in the book that describes this shading, but do not feel like you must use a dip pen! You can learn beautiful cursive from this book with just a pencil.

The paper is a perfect thickness. Most of our inks did not bleed through the page, and see-through was minimal. I was quite impressed at how the pages held up to the dip pen. Drying time was quick but not extremely fast, though that would change according to the ink you use. Feathering was not an issue on this paper with the ink we used. There was only one nib for the dip pen that produced feathering and bleed through, and that may have been because one child lacked experience using a dip pen.

The copyright for this book does not allow photocopying. I passed the book around so each child could try it out, but it would be necessary to have one book per child learning the method. I have seen similarly lined pages at various websites that could be downloaded and printed for extra practice.

I feel like this book is a very thorough cursive teaching method. It works well for older teens and adults who want to teach themselves, and it works well for teaching younger children. Spencerian penmanship has a unique look, and the penman will learn patience as they practice and perfect their skills. I personally feel like this method has a rhythm to it that makes writing much more enjoyable, at least compared to how I usually scribble things down on paper. My children all wanted to learn this method because even they saw the beauty in it, and I think the promise of using mom’s dip pens helped too. Once they saw the letters they could create, they were more apt to continue practicing, and this is coming from kids who already know cursive!

My 9th grade daughter says the book is fun and she’s learned a lot from it. It is challenging to hold the pen the proper way, and to slow down and create beautiful writing, but it is challenging in a good way. She enjoys the book because it teaches fancy writing. Spencerian adds a simple beauty to writing, especially the uppercase letters, that traditional cursive lacks.

-Product review by Deann Hadley, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, November, 2017

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