Students typically learn the print script, known locally as “manuscript” or “printing”, in first grade, followed by a slanted continuous cursive model in late second or third grade.
The education system in Canada is decentralised, and each province and territory is responsible for the funding, organisation and curriculum of its own public schools. Regional authorities also select, approve, purchase and distribute textbooks and other learning materials to schools. While education is generally compulsory from ages 6–7 to 16 years old, some provinces choose to make it mandatory from pre-school onwards, or extend it until students turn 18 years old.
There are two official languages: English and French. Most schools have English as the main language of instruction, however in most provinces and territories, it is possible to choose francophone or bilingual schools. In Quebec, the language of instruction in elementary school is French.
Handwriting education is usually a multi-stage process that begins in the first grade (6–7 years old). Students start with uppercase letters in print script style (locally known as “manuscript” or “printing”). Cursive writing is taught either in the late second grade (7–8 years old) or in the third grade (8–9 years old). The system closely resembles what is followed in many schools in the United States. Although the general practice is to teach both print script and cursive in Canada, this may vary by region, school or teacher.
During the 20th century, the advantages and disadvantages of teaching print script and cursive writing were hotly debated in Canada. Owing to issues of motor complexity and the cognitive load on students in learning two distinct styles, print script prevailed in most regions in the 1990s and cursive writing fell out of favour. Even today, writing is viewed largely from the perspective of text production and communication, and recommendations about letter shapes are limited to comments regarding legibility and character recognition. Consequently, curricula and related resources do not provide directions about using specific styles for handwriting instruction. In recent years, this state of affairs has come to be scrutinised by authorities and schools. There have been failing handwriting standards and a decline in the quality of written production by students. Since the 2010s, there has also been a global push towards cursive writing by neurocognition experts, and its strong influence continues to be felt in Canada. Consequently, some provinces have reinstated cursive writing.
In seven provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island — cursive writing is a mandatory requirement between third (8–9 years old) and sixth grades (11-12 years old). While in British Columbia, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador, teaching cursive writing is not mandatory, though teachers may choose to do so.
MacLean’s impact on handwriting education
MacLean’s Method of Writing is the traditional method of handwriting instruction in Canada. It was developed by educator Henry Boyver MacLean (1884–1976), between the 1920s and 1960s in Victoria. Building on letter shapes devised by Austin Norman Palmer (1860–1927) in the United States, MacLean introduced several adaptations to suit the needs of school instruction, such as modifications to teaching methods and addition of motor preparation exercises. By the 1960s, he also incorporated American print script style into his system to serve as the first letters introduced to students.
MacLean’s approach was influential in the country until the end of the 20th century, and was at the time the official method for handwriting instruction in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and in English-speaking Catholic schools in Quebec, Manitoba, and British Columbia.
Even though his books have not been used in Canada for several years, the structure of the MacLean’s letter shapes — Palmer-based slanted, continuous cursive — survive in schoolbooks published by regional governments, such as those of Prince Edward, and private publishing houses. Consequently, they are widely used in the majority of Canadian primary schools.