D’Nealian vs. Zanerian: Difficult Choices in Penmanship Education

By February 29, 2016 BlogPost No Comments

In the United States most first and second grade students are taught handwriting using either the D’Nealian or Zanerian systems. Here you find a brief history of the two systems of teaching handwriting as well a brief introduction of a third form, Sunform.

Arguably the best school name in the history of the English Language

Arguably the best school name in the history of the English Language


Charles Zaner had the noble title of Master Penman when he opened the Zaner College of Penmanship in Columbus, Ohio, in 1888. The purpose of the college was to teach the arts of penmanship, engraving, and engrossing. Engrossing was a specialized form or handwriting used for diplomas and certifications. Before the distribution of the typewriter penmen were the ones that drafted all the correspondence for a company or government, and penmanship was considered a skilled trade. They produced correspondence, internal memos, and ledger work. The penman was faster than typesetting a document and was less expensive. The title of Master Penman was given to those with advance skills in penmanship arts. Charles Zaner sold a block of stock to Elmer Bloser the institution they built remains as Zaner-Bloser, a company that produces materials for handwriting instruction. They are owned by the Highlights Company which many of you may recognize as the magazine aimed at children and often found in dentist waiting rooms. Did you ever find all the differences between the two pictures on the back?

Charles Zaner published the groundbreaking book The Zaner Method of Arm Movement Writing. This method or writing was developed by Zaner after he studied research on a child’s ability to complete tasks more easily if allowed to the full range of their arms. This book proved to be very popular and was used in classrooms across the united states. The Zaner Method of Handwriting or Zanerian Method is focused on the development of letter shapes in manuscript and cursive forms that use straigh lines, circles, and arcs. The students learn the 26 letters of the alphabet in manuscript form and then move on to the cursive form. The Zanerian script resembles the the font Arial in Microsoft Word.

A classroom poster showing the Zanerian Method letterforms.

A classroom poster showing the Zanerian Method letterforms.



The D’Nealian system arrived in classrooms much later. The D’Nealian Method was developed by Donald Thurber and it was introduced to classrooms in 1978. He came up with the name by combing his first name, Donald, with his middle name, Neal. How creative! *yawn* He developed this method based on the Palmer Method which emphasized arm movement over finger movement in handwriting. It should be noted that the Palmer Method was designed for speed so all of those penman from earlier could keep up with the speed of the new fangled typewriter machines threatening to make them obsolete.

The identifying characteristic of the D’Nealian Method is the addition of “monkey tails” to the manuscript letterforms. This is part of the root ideas behind the creation of the system, to smooth out the process of children switching from manuscript to cursive handwriting. D’Nealian has fewer letterforms with differences between the manuscript and cursive letterforms.

A classroom poster showing the D'Nealian manuscript letterforms. See the curved "monkey tails" on the letters?

A classroom poster showing the D’Nealian manuscript letterforms. See the curved “monkey tails” on the letters?


The new kid on the block (and Chicagoland creation!!!) of handwriting education is Sunform which was developed by Mary Lou Sunberg, an elementary and special education teacher for over thirty years. Sunberg attended Northwestern University where she received a Masters Degree in speech pathology. Sunform uses mnemonic devices and pictures to teach children the alphabet and handwriting at the same time. Remember those old “C is for Cat” flash cards? Well, children are learning to write the letter “C” and then turning that letter into a picture of a cat. Sunform claims to improve literary rates in every population betwen Pre-K and adult learners.

This is a new addition to penmanship education, and it is not yet as widespread as the other. However, Sunform is investing heavily in research that suggests Sunform the quickest and most effective form of teaching writing. As schools use more classroom time preparing for standardized tests a faster way to teach kids how to write could become quite attractive.





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