Saturday, January 23, 2010

Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting (TOS Review)

Today, January 23rd, is National Handwriting Day.

Do you enjoy writing by hand?

We have been reviewing three products from Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting.

But let's go back for a minute to a turn-of-the-last-century couple named Bridges. Robert Bridges was a poet laureate. Mary Monica Waterhouse Bridges (otherwise known as M.M. Bridges) was an expert calligrapher who wrote A New Handwriting For Teachers. You can read some of her notes and see images from her book on the Ambleside Online website.

Charlotte Mason appreciated what "Mrs. Bridges" was trying to do in both simplifying and beautifying the handwriting that children were being taught:
"A 'New Handwriting.'--Some years ago I heard of a lady who was elaborating, by means of the study of old Italian and other manuscripts, a 'system of beautiful handwriting' which could be taught to children. I waited patiently, though not without some urgency, for the production of this new kind of 'copy-book.' The need for such an effort was very great, for the distinctly commonplace writing taught from existing copy-books, however painstaking and legible, cannot but have a rather vulgarising effect both on the writer and the reader of such manuscript. At last the lady, Mrs Robert Bridges, has succeeded in her tedious and difficult undertaking, and this book for teachers will enable them to teach their pupils a style of writing which is pleasant to acquire because it is beautiful to behold. It is surprising how quickly young children, even those already confirmed in 'ugly' writing, take to this 'new handwriting.'"--From Home Education (Volume 1) by Charlotte Mason, pages 236-238.
Although I know there are many styles and systems of handwriting out there, and that several of them have worked well for CM homeschoolers, this is the first one that has appealed to me enough to want to take it on with one of my children, and the first one I've seen that seems to have both the sense of "beauty" that Charlotte Mason wanted, along with an acceptably contemporary style. That may sound funny considering that the Barchowsky style is less "loopy" than even my school-taught cursive, but a simpler style can have its own gracefulness. And who's to say that every letter in a word has to be hooked up to every other letter? (The Barchowsky method suggests a break after every four or five letters, to increase legibility.) There are a lot of handwriting ideas that I've taken for granted ever since my own school days, but they're not necessarily the only way to do things.

Years ago, The Apprentice tried out an italic system of printing; her handwriting still shows the scuff marks of that battle. Since then the Squirrelings' copywork has been rendered in their version of Mama Squirrel's best "painstaking and legible" fifth-grade-style cursive. For actual handwriting instruction, we've used a very standard workbook series and some online freebies. Still, our results have been something short of "beautiful," especially outside of handwriting lessons.

But it was time to try again.

I have to say that Barchowsky isn't an open-the-book-and-teach program. And what makes it especially difficult to start a whole new handwriting system is that most of us already write some other form of cursive--so when you're first checking out the program, you're having to retrain your own brain as well as figure out what your student is going to do. At first it seems that there are no set lessons--it's designed that way so that it can be useful to students of all ages and be used at your own pace, which makes it flexible but a bit confusing at first. The teacher has to do some homework ahead of time; but there are ways to get started without too much pain--see below.
We received all three Barchowsky products, and at first I wasn't sure what to do with the BIG package of wipe-off practice sheets. (They're coated so you can use them with a wipe-off marker.) My youngest is in the third grade, after all. But one of last year's Review Crew mentioned that she had used them with an eight-year-old, so I decided to give them a try along with the main program. We use the suggested little chants (things like "down, bounce up, down, bounce up") to get the feel of the letters, and we're just working through them, one per lesson. (We're a bit beyond the suggested cornmeal and shaving cream activities, but they'd be helpful with younger ones.)

This manual is the key to the whole program--especially the CD-Rom included in the back of the book (one each for Windows and Mac). The theory of the program is all in the manual; but the worksheets--a great variety of them, some of them customizable--are on the CD-Rom, and we've been combining those with the large Beginners sheets. There are also brief videos of students' hands--both right and left handed--writing, holding pencils, etc., along with comments about what they're doing correctly and what could be improved. The book itself contains lots of ideas and examples for continuing handwriting practice, which will probably make more sense once you've gotten started. You can also order a download of the font itself, which would allow you to make your own worksheets.
So although you'd have to buy both the Beginners and the main package to get this combination, I think it's a good option if you have a mid-elementary-age child AND you need a kickstart to begin teaching with the program. Younger children would probably be fine with just the big sheets--you do get a helpful little teacher's guide with them, and I've been using that more than I have the main book.

We also received the "adult" or "remedial" package, Fix It Write. The Apprentice had been asking me if I could find her something that would help her write her high school notes faster and clearer, and this sounded like a good possibility. Between end-of-semester exams and everything else lately, she hasn't had much time to do more than look through the package; I think I'm going to have to write a separate review for that one. She did comment that she also would have liked to see more reproducible pages instead of instructions to draw lines so-far-apart on paper and then practice patterns on those. I told her that there were probably some sheets she could print out from the CD-Rom that would make it easier--but again, this is going to have to wait until chemistry and physics are done. UPDATE: there's a special Fix It Write site with sample pages and some interesting animation.
The price of all this: BFH Fluent Handwriting Manual with CD-ROM (the main package) is US$65.95. Beginners' Handwriting with Teacher's Guide (the booklet I mentioned) is $29.95. An extra set of large sheets, sold only with the purchase of a complete Beginner's set, is $20.00. (One comment--I don't understand the reasoning behind that. If our sheets were worn out after one child and I wanted to buy another set a couple of years down the road, why couldn't I buy just the sheets?) Barchowsky Exemplar Fonts (Download) are $25.00. Fix It... Write (the adult program) is $19.95.
Final Take: I'm happy we got to try this--this seems to be the year of improving our spelling, improving our handwriting. I wish Crayons would have had the chance to start it a couple of years ago, but since she is still only partway through learning the "regular" cursive letters, I don't think she'll have a problem trying to relearn some of them--and in fact, the hard ones are the ones that Barchowsky simplifies (like lower-case S). I'm not sure how I feel about the price--it sounds high, but it's probably comparable to other complete programs out there.

Dewey's Disclaimer: These products were received free for purposes of review. No other payment was made. The opinions expressed in this review are our own.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I do not like to write by hand. Firstly, the methods that were taught when I was in second grade did not work well for me, or any other left-hander in that school. Basically, if I did it their way, I consistently went home with ink on the heal of my hand, a smeared paper, and a poor mark. Secondly, my teacher said aloud to me when we started this painful business: "Another left-hander? I hate left-handers." (Well I hate her too, and still do to this day everytime I have to sign a document).

I therefore spent my college years printing so that I could decipher my own notes. Since the advent of reasonably priced laptops and my diagnosis with RA, I write only to sign my name. Period.

Those people who are handwritten letter snobs never get anything in the mail from me. ;) Those who are not can read anything i send them.

Mama Squirrel said...

Two of the Squirrelings are left-handed. One of them actually does most other things with her right hand, but writes with her left.