Typography for Second Graders

Book Nerd's picture

I've been assigned to teach a one-hour art class to my son's 2nd grade class and I thought it would be fun to introduce them to typography in a very basic way. I'm not a type designer (I design books), but I love type and I'd like for the kids to understand letter forms as art and also as a means to communicate--how different fonts have different functions, etc. Anyway, my plan was to just introduce these ideas to the kids (open their eyes to what is all around them), and then give each of them a letter to design, which I can then take home and turn into a font with SigMaker. Has anyone ever done anything like this with kids? I want to keep it simple so I don't know if I should give them a ton of info--but it seems like I should introduce some basics (such as ascenders & descenders). Any ideas?
Thanks, Sarah

Thomas Phinney's picture

Typography and type design are two different things....

T

Jan's picture

Seems too sophisticated for 2nd graders.

typerror's picture

Come on Thomas, she was asking for help and support not delineations and scolding. Second grade! Please?

Show them some different alphabets.... Cyrillic, Hebrew, Greek, Chinese etc. Show them some outrageous calligraphy. Show them some manuscript pages. And then show them some abstract work.

Michael

typerror's picture

Jan

You would be surprised what second graders can latch on to. When my daughters were growing up I went into the school system all the time to demonstrate calligraphy and letters. Kindergarten to fifth grade!

You underestimate their sensitivity to the graphic environment. My daughter started reading at 3, my son started signing at 18 months, so to say that they are not savvy is erroneous! My kids were the only ones who knew the difference between a 1 and two story a or g.

Michael

Book Nerd's picture

Yipes, Thomas.

Jan, I was trying to think of ways to keep it on their level. I don't expect them to design anything professional--just to think about letters in a different way. My son has atrocious handwriting, but when I told him to think about his letters as works of art that say something about the writer, he improved vastly. That's what gave me the idea. Also, I'm sure none of the kids in my son's class have ever even thought of type design (much less, typography) as something that anyone actually does--so it seems like it would be fun to open their minds to that.

Thanks, Michael. Those are great ideas.

I would guess some of you have kids who have asked you about your work. What have you said to them?

Miss Tiffany's picture

I think you're reading too much into what Thomas said. Thomas has zero attitude. He was simply sayin'. You know. Just sayin'. =)

typerror's picture

Sarah

There are tons of books in the children section of your local Barnes and Noble. I check them out all the time. Amazing illustration and concepts.

One of my favorite memories of my girls growing up was doing covers for childrens books for Random House. The AD of childrens books would let my children chose from my roughs the final for the covers. What trust!

My girls once told me I was nothing until I had done a Berenstein Bears cover. I was on the phone in a minute to secure a cover. When it came out I was the cat's meow!

Good luck

Thomas Phinney's picture

Mostly I was sleep-deprived and ran out of steam to explain. My last night in Europe, and I have a nasty cold.... But now I'm home and have had a nap.

I am curious as to other's opinions, but I think I would try to pick just a couple of typographic concepts to teach them and use as examples, and also to let them know that there are many more such things. Maybe curly quotes vs dumb quotes for one? Serif, sans, script and symbol categories for the other?

I thought of hyphens, en dashes and em dashes, but I think I'd save that for later on.

Cheers,

T

aluminum's picture

Art is for the young. We beat it out of them by the time they hit Junior High. So, I applaud this. The more art and design they get exposed to while young, the better off.

Koppa's picture

Agreed...let them have it. Even if it only resonates with one kid (that kid might have been me...the one who really liked to draw letters and was ready to move beyond cursive), you're doing a great service. I like the idea of showing them different alphabets, but a variety of type faces would be equally as fascinating. From romans to grotesques to calligraphy to displays...and then show (quickly, don't dwell on it) that there are even differences between the roman letters in their textbooks. Just to illustrate that there are 100s of ways to draw something as simple as an a would open lots of doors in their imaginations.

Shoot...now I want to do it!

Jan's picture

The ‘give each of them a letter to design’-part sounded a bit too far ahead. I think it’s a great idea, though.

Also, I’m sure none of the kids in my son’s class have ever even thought of type design as something that anyone actually does
This would apply to most adults as well.

blank's picture

Just teach them to draw cool ampersands. Or show them some of Ale Paul’s work and teach them about swashy letters. The teachers will hate you for it, but the kids will be writing like that for weeks!

typerror's picture

You could even use one of the school computers and sign on to Typophiles and show them the "What are you working on?" type thread or the calligraphy thread.

I think they are both PG rated.

edit: Should have said G rated!

Michael

Ray Larabie's picture

Compare Univers, Futura & Helvetica. Kids can see the difference better than adults can . . . the alphabet is still a novelty to them.

thebullfrog's picture

How 'bout a little history? Explain the basics of old-school typesetting. Go over hot type or how text was set by hand with individual letters blocks, etc.

Maybe show how tracking effects legibility in road signs.

eliason's picture

Have them look at the books they already have in the classroom.

Concepts they might enjoy: single- and double-story a's and g's; teardrop terminals; serif vs. sans-serif.

Have them write in block letters with a thin marker then add contrast with a fatter one.

aluminum's picture

Also...teach them to identify Comic Sans and emphasize that they should feel free to ridicule everyone that uses said font.

That's the only way we'll get these teachers to stop sending home the newsletters set in comic sans.

eliason's picture

From the linked review of "Letter Jesters":

Sidebars on many pages give special information, e.g. why capital letters are called capitals (they were carved on the tops, or capitals, of Roman columns).

?!

jmcharg's picture

Hello --

Sorry to barge in on your thread, Sarah, but Michael Clark's first response hit very close to to answering a question I have and since it's not completely off topic, I'd like to ask it here. My son just started kindergarten and we've been working on writing letters, of course. He's been diligently working on printing his name with the first letter capitalized and rest lower case and it has been a challenge since he got pretty comfortable printing his name in ALL CAPS. He has an 'a' in his name and was working on printing the 'one-story' (thank you, Michael!) form, as found in Avant Garde, for example, as he was taught. I was very surprised then, when he came home with a worksheet on which he'd been asked to copy the word 'bat' and the font used to layout the worksheet used the 'two-story' form. Not surprisingly, his 'a' was about three times bigger than his 'b' and 't' and very elaborate and probably took him twenty minutes of labor and caused him to miss free-play time (not the worst thing in the world, but still). When I asked his teacher about the confusion this might cause a new learner, she agreed and said it is an active debate in early childhood curricula. She considers the issue just one of many confusing things they have to deal with and says it's just part of the process. She calls the one-story form the 'writing A' and the two- the 'reading A' since all grade school story books are printed with a font that uses the two-story form.

Whew. So, here's my question. Can anyone tell me why we have two forms (and is it just 'A' and 'G'), and what they are called so I don't sound like such a eejit when I try to describe the problem?

Many thanks in advance,
Jessica

typerror's picture

Just a simple explanation. The 2 story was the first to appear, the half Uncial, bookhand, Carolingian, blackletter etc. The single story is an evolution of the more cursive versions of the Latin in the Chancery "scripts" and proliferated through the pointed pen forms that succeeded them. Simply a result of time conservation and pen efficiency.

Oh, this is going to come back and bite me on the butt. But that is my story and I am stickin' to it!

Michael

cuttlefish's picture

Whew. So, here’s my question. Can anyone tell me why we have two forms (and is it just ’A’ and ’G’), and what they are called so I don’t sound like such a eejit when I try to describe the problem?

There is also the less common rounded "y" vs. the angular one, descending vs. baseline "J", italic variants, and the whole cursive (aptly named) alphabet.

typerror's picture

Actually Jason it is far more extensive. There are two story r's and k's, and variants on the e, a and f in the manuscripts. The scribes were very ingenious, inventive and territorial.

That doesn't even include the ligatures and what about the ampersand (ET).

Michael

cuttlefish's picture

Oh, of course. My list was by no means meant to be exhaustive. If one looks around hard enough one could find an exception to just about anything, though.

typerror's picture

Sorry Jason. I edited a few seconds later.

Michael

William Berkson's picture

So far as I know, kids have no particular difficulty in learning the one and two story versions of the a and g. Both should be taught.

Book Nerd's picture

Wow. Thanks for all the great advice! I'm going to meet with the teacher and we'll see how it goes. I'll let you all know what happens.

Also, aluminum, you're killing me with the Comic Sans. Too funny.

Jessica, I think I might go insane if my kindergartner had to learn the two-story "a" at this point. It would take him forever to do it since they're just learning to master the simple stuff at this age. I'm curious. I'll ask my son's teacher what they do. We're still on capitals so far, so I haven't gotten any lowercase home yet.

Sarah

blank's picture

I’m just sitting here thinking about how incredibly horrible it must have been to teach kids to write…with pens that had to be dipped in inkwells.

Jessica, I think I might go insane if my kindergartner had to learn the two-story “a” at this point.

I learned the two-story a in kindergarten. Then I switched school systems and my teachers made me change (kicking off twelve years of me never taking most of my teachers seriously about anything). The two-story a really isn’t any more complicated than most of the other lowercase letters, and it’s certainly easier to draw than s!

Book Nerd's picture

Actually, James, you're right. The two-story probably isn't all that difficult for kindergartners. My problem probably stems more from the fact that my younger son is uncommonly lazy. No joke.

Koppa's picture

My daughter just started kindergarden and I learned a few days ago that her teacher told her to stop using the two-storey a in favor of the more visually confusing one-storey a. "WHAT?!" I shrieked, remembering Mr Puckett's comments from an earlier thread. "I was afraid something like this was going to happen!" And she (my daughter) goes, "It's okay, Dad. I don't mind making my a's that way."

Her first step into conformity. *sigh* It'll be fun to look back at this when she's learning more about type as she grows up. I'm pretty sure she's got the bug...maybe worse than I've got it.

Changing the subject...why don't you ask those second graders how they feel about the necessity of letters like c, j, and x?

Ehague's picture

When I asked his teacher about the confusion this might cause a new learner, she agreed and said it is an active debate in early childhood curricula...

Actually there is a fairly clear, pedagogical explanation for all this. In America, there is a trend among educational institutions toward teaching chilren handwriting based on the Zaner-Bloser alphabets, which, in printing, have one-story As and Gs, open 4s, tailed Qs, etc. These forms obviously differ considerably from those used in most text faces, so when possible, specially modified versions of existing typefaces reflecting these forms are used when setting books for early readers. These are often proprietary to the publishers, but Gills Sans Schoolbook and Bembo Schoolbook are similar-enough, publicly available examples.

The shift toward "standard" letterforms usually occurs sometime around the middle of second grade – which isn't to say that no materials intended for children younger than second grade use two-story letters. A lot of publishers either aren't as aware of this issue or aren't as strictly influenced by state adoption practices as others.

Kirs10's picture

I think your idea of a letter spec book is terrific. Just keep it fun for the kids. Too much info and they'll start daydreaming and making paper airplanes. Remember the golden KISS rule (keep it simple stupid - there's probably a more politically correct version but this is how I always remember it).

If there's a computer in the class, show them:

http://www.bemboszoo.com

A very cool animated alphabet.

This is inspiring me to volunteer to speak to my son's second grade class. Let us know how the kid's like it.

Koppa's picture

This trend is a fundamental shame on us. As I understand it, and correct me if I'm wrong, the singular purpose of the two-storey a is to make the letter automatically and easily discernable from all other characters in the alphabet...as in, the one-storey a looks, at a glance, a LOT like an o. It is for this reason that I avoid all type faces that employ the one-storey a...because it's dumb. (Same is true for the one-storey g versus q.)

Only reasonable explanation I can figure is that the one-storey a transitions easier into the cursive a. I'll give it that. But as stated by Mr Puckett, the two-storey a is certainly not a difficult thing to learn to draw, and is easier to draw than an s.

blank's picture

My daughter just started kindergarden and I learned a few days ago that her teacher told her to stop using the two-storey a in favor of the more visually confusing one-storey a.

This is one of those moments that deserves a parent teacher conference in which the teacher is put into a dramatically uncomfortable position.

DrDoc's picture

This deviates a bit from the original topic, but I was musing about handwriting education last week, and this seems a bit relevant. Why do we teach kids handwriting from geometric sans-serifs? The letterforms are unnatural to create by hand, which is why they are geometric and not humanist. Creating a single-story a by drawing a circle and then a line is unnatural and awkward. I suppose the idea is to first teach them to create uniform letter shapes, and then to develop them in to something more natural for them.

But for the first year or two of their handwriting education, kids are forced into creating awkward shapes that aren't the only way to draw a letter. If they don't conform to these letterforms, they get bad grades. I think that handwriting education needs to be reevaluated. It's okay to have an x-height that is not exactly half of the cap height. I think we also need to create a humanist, rather than geometric, handwriting education system. Kids may not learn to write as quickly, but the ones who have terrible handwriting from the start because they can't form perfect circles will probably benefit.

blank's picture

Why do we teach kids handwriting from geometric sans-serifs?

Because someone decided it was a good idea and the idea took root. America’s schools are rarely designed to teach children to think critically, only to memorize without challenging, so now the idea is being protected by generations of mindless pedants. If we change handwriting then who knows what else would come flying out of Pandora’s box? How exactly did Columbus discover America if people were already living here? Does anyone really think that Jefferson’s sex with Sally Hemmings was entirely consensual? Why is Andrew Jackson, an architect of our nation’s greatest genocide, still on the twenty? Opening a door to questions like these is not why American has indoctrination centers, I mean schools, so our absurd handwriting system will have to stay.

William Berkson's picture

Reference to some good research might change my mind, but as of now my feeling is that this mania for the one story a and g only is a product of teachers who think they know better on the basis of nothing.

After all the upper case and lower case forms are already different. Again, is there any evidence that this is a problem?

Just teach the kids both.

What does Sesame Street do?

eliason's picture

What does Sesame Street do?

Looks like Futura for minuscule and Weimaraner for majuscule!

jshen's picture

I think teachers have enough of a challenge in the classroom without worrying about this issue. It doesn't bother me that they prefer to write with the one-story a and that later most book faces will use the two-story a for legibility. And I can understand why they want typefaces that will aid them in teaching writing. A teacher recently told me, and repeated it at a second meeting in case I hadn't gotten it, that her students would laboriously imitate the letterforms they saw in print, down to the serifs. She didn't want them spending time that particular way, so she wanted a typeface with simplified a and g. Where's the sin?

DrDoc's picture

But that's part of the problem; they've been taught to laboriously imitate, rather than to create something that resembles a generally accepted version of that letterform. There are as many different ways to write the letter a as there are people.

jshen's picture

On the contrary, the teacher was not teaching them to imitate the serif typeface. They were doing it on their own. You're not suggesting we should encourage people to throw all norms for the form of a character out the window?

DrDoc's picture

No, I'm not; I'm suggesting that the kids were imitating the serif typeface because that's all they've ever been taught — to imitate directly.

William Berkson's picture

I'm not sure at what stage and in what order things should be taught.

What I do think is that have three different shapes for the A is not a particular problem, even in first grade. They can be draw over a sans outline for all of them, if they want to get the feel. After all they will see them constantly when they read.

And what is so bad about copying serifs? They can to both serifs and sans and recognize the difference.

Since I believe millions of Chinese kids are taught a couple of new characters a day, I just don't see this as a serious problem. I would like to see actual tests before I would be convinced that you have to wait a very long time--say over a year--to introduce variant forms.

David Sudweeks's picture

Hey Sarah! You might also mention to the kids that it's easy (and fun) to make their own fonts online using FontStruct.

type.nasos's picture

Hmm, let them play with inks and pens
and try combine it with history, would be
nice, educational and fun.

Graham McArthur's picture

Michael, stop me before I get myself into trouble.
Good advice from type.nasos.
From my own experience I can assure you all that young kids will love playing with any media and making letters of all sorts. My father began my letter education with a pencil and roman caps, followed by speedball nibs and ink. All this before I went to school or learnt to read. I still love the pencil and roman caps. Get them into it as early as you can [so long as it is fun and full of encouragement].

typerror's picture

No worries mate.

Michael

aluminum's picture

"My problem probably stems more from the fact that my younger son is uncommonly lazy. No joke."

There is 'lazy' and then there is 'smart enough to realize the silly repetitive handwriting exercises in grade school really have little to do with the success or lack thereof in his future'. ;o)

I suck at handwriting, always have, except for those intermediary stints as a draftsman. I'm OK a lettering, but not writing.

Our second grader despised handwriting, but can probably type faster than I ever will be able to already at 7 years old.

Handwriting is a necessary skill, of course, but things like cursive and the like, IMHO, are a colossal waste of time when taught at the gradeschool level. These kids are growing up with keyboards, cell phones, touch screens, etc.

To these kids, having to plow through handwriting class probably seems as pointless as if we having to take blackletter calligraphy classes when we were kids in the 70s/80s.

Not that any of this has anything to do with you teaching type and typography and even lettering. That's important.

Koppa's picture

Regarding any defense of the one-storey as acceptable teaching:

All I'm saying is the two-storey a is not only better (simply because it does not resemble any other letter) than the one-storey a, but it is in fact EASIER to draw than the one-storey a. Therefore, it's stupid that we don't teach it.

Really...how many kids can line up that vertical stroke so that it comes right down perfectly tangent to the bowl of the one-storey a without intersecting it? Whereas with the two-storey a, the counter comes AFTER the vertical stroke, which makes perfect sense. And please pardon my possible misuse of the bowl/counter terminology (I like type a lot, but I don't design it, and my vocabulary is close but not perfect!).

And as far as cursive being a colossal waste of time...I disagree completely. Suck at it or not suck at it, it's good to encourage kids to express themselves with their hands and their handwriting. We are humans, and as much as we're all on the same team, our individuality is an essential part of what makes each one of us beautiful in his or her own way. We are not all Times New Roman or Arial, and not all children have Typophiles for parents.

aluminum's picture

"it’s good to encourage kids to express themselves with their hands and their handwriting"

I agree! That said, forcing them to use a draconian and very specific type of handwriting seems less about personal expression and more about 'just do as I say and shutup'.

And don't get me started on English teachers in highschool who still mark down papers that don't double space after periods... ;o)

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