Students only learn to write with cursive letters. They start in preschool and by fourth grade, are expected to have well-formed letters and good quality handwriting.
The Ministère de l’Éducation nationale de la Jeunesse et des Sports, or Ministry of National Education, Youth and Sports, oversees the education in France, and is responsible for setting education policy, designing curricula, and regulating schools. The system is structured into three levels: enseignement primaire, or primary; enseignement secondaire, or secondary; and enseignement supérieur, or higher education. Enseignement primaire is provided to children between the ages of 6 and 11. It is aimed at developing foundational skills in reading, writing, and math. Enseignement secondaire is further divided into lower secondary, which lasts from ages 11-15, and upper secondary, which lasts from ages 15-18. Education is compulsory for children between 6 and 16 years old. Public schools are predominant, but there are private schools that are mainly attended by children from wealthy families.
Since 1882, primary school education has been mandatory in France, and this has made handwriting teaching accessible to all children, who have since been taught writing when they 5–6 years old. In the last year of preschool, known as grande section (5 years old), students master the movements needed for writing and stroke formation, and begin to write letters and small cursive words, like their first names. Specific handwriting activities are introduced in the early years of école primaire, or elementary school, and students practise cursive writing between the ages of six and ten. By the time students reach the fourth-grade, they are expected to have handwriting of good quality.
Although the Ministère has established handwriting learning goals for students in its official curriculum, teachers in France have the freedom and flexibility to choose their own teaching methods and handwriting models. Children are only taught cursive writing, a system typically known as “cursive first”. The most popular style is the traditional French cursive, which features a highly ornamental upright cursive hand with round foundation forms.
The evolution of écriture cursive
The écriture cursive, or traditional vertical cursive, is the most used approach to handwriting teaching in schools in France. Its forms are inspired by the Lettre Ronde, originally written with a broad nib pen and ink. Today it is written using a pencil or ball-point pen, losing the contrast between strokes. The capital letters in this style are ornate and complex, and often abandoned for more simplified letters during high school.
Students learn écriture cursive by writing letters over Séyès lines, which are introduced during grande section. Created in 1892, Séyès lines are a system of horizontal and vertical guidelines that govern the proportions of letters, and their ascending and descending strokes. Short lowercase letters (a, o, e, i, c, m, n, s, u, v, w, x) are the height of a one-row space. The ascenders of the d and t extend to a two-row space, those of b, f, h, k, and l go upto a three-row space. Below the baseline, the descending strokes of f, g, j, p, q, y, and z occupy two-row spaces.
In an attempt to reform and modernise handwriting teaching in schools, the Ministère released two digital typeface families in 2013 — Écriture A by Laurence Bedoin-Collard and Heloísa Tissot, and Écriture B, by Marion Andrews. Both fonts are available for free on the Ministère’s website, along with information for teachers about the shapes and proportions of letters, and how to connect them to form words in the most logical way possible.
While Écriture A is modelled on the traditional, full cursive style with loops, Écriture B draws from contemporary cursive approaches and favours pen-lifts and contextual joining of letters. Despite these differences, the two models harmonise with each other, and their letterforms have similar shapes and proportions. Both have an upright, Romain, and slanted, Italique, variant each. The slanted option is for educators who prefer that style for teaching since it can help with faster writing speed. In addition, both variants of Écriture A and B offer an option with more cursive uppercase letters, called Orné.
Pages from Modèles d’écriture scolaire, Document d’accompagnement, showing the development of the Écriture A and B models
The teaching methods and timelines used for these are the same as écriture cursive, except one key point of departure: Séyès lines are abandoned in favor of a new, fractional grid system that results in smaller ascenders and descenders, and more consistent vertical proportions.