I wasn’t all that good with the cursive anyway

Finding My Fountain PenI was driving my mom downtown the other day. She needs a chauffeur since her fall at Thanksgiving necessitated the donning of a huge neck brace that makes her move like a robot.

She was trapped with me in the car, so of course I introduced a topic I knew would get her goat start an interesting conversation.

“I showed Colin what someone had written in a Christmas card the other day and he couldn’t read it,” I said.

“What?” She tried to turn her whole upper body to face me. I don’t think it’s necessary to maintain polite eye contact with a driver, but I appreciated the effort.

…domo arigato, Mr. Roboto…

“They don’t use cursive in school anymore, and he’s not all that good at reading it.”

“That’s what I’ve heard,” she said. “Such a shame.”

I remember a teacher I had in eighth grade who would agree. Mrs. Wolfe had a tight, curly perm and stern look. Penmanship was part of the curriculum. During spelling tests she would monitor the class for proper penmanship posture: back straight against the chair. Both hands on the desk. Both feet on the floor. During the test she would call out when she saw someone break one of her posture rules.

“Hands,” she’d say, or “feet,” and make a mark on the chalkboard.

There was supposed to be a prize for the class that could get through a spelling test with no marks on the board. We never found out what that prize was. Someone always screwed up.

Urban legend also had it Mrs. Wolfe used to make students say “Good morning sunshine,” enthusiastically to her bright yellow chair. That was until district officials were said to have come in and told Ms. Wolfe that respect was something a chair, even a bright yellow chair, had likely not earned.

So it’s possible the perm was a little too tight.

I never mastered cursive. I think I received a markdown on one or two high school papers for writing in block letters, which is about the time I started typing my assignments. We’d all taken keyboarding classes with IBM Selectrics, each as big as a ship anchor. That keyboarding had to be good for something, after all.

Even though I knew what my mom was implying about the demise of cursive handwriting and agreed with her to some degree, I still had to goad her. Because that’s my thing.

“Why would that be a shame?”

“Because cursive is an important skill to have,” she said.

Was an important skill to have,” I said. “So was the ability to churn butter, once.” I’m so clever.

“It’s not the same thing. Learning cursive is an important skill.” Mom said.

She went on to describe an episode of The Twilight Zone or some other show she’d seen where someone had retained the ability to do math in his head, when everyone else used calculators. Then the authorities were after him, because the math thing was now supposed to be verboten in this dystopian setting.

“Well, the ability to read cursive isn’t the same the ability to do basic math in your head,” I said. “You build on math skills to do other things.”

I don’t know what other things exactly. I guess counting change or figuring out a tip at a restaurant, or estimating how much mulch you’ll need deposited in your driveway without overshooting it, thereby ending up with enough to spread in the neighbor’s garden and the yard next to hers and then filling a couple of garbage bags and storing them by the side of the garage until stuff starts growing out of the bags and you toss them over the back fence.

Not that I’d ever had a problem with that, per se.

See, that’s where this kind of things leads me. I start out poking my mom into an argument, and I end up defending math. I should know better.

And I’m a fine one to argue. I’m the one who learned calligraphy in ninth grade and ended up being the go-to person for making table place cards, prep-squad posters and signs for parade floats that made everyone squint.

I totally appreciate the fine art of penmanship, and have always been in awe of the fact that everyone up to my parents’ generation has the exact same, precisely angled, looped and whorled method of written communication. My grandma got to a point where she couldn’t remember my name anymore, but she could still write perfectly.

I still write in block letters.

“Look, schools are cutting things like PE and art and music, these days. I don’t suppose there’s much call except nostalgia for holding onto an outdated skill like cursive,” I said. “It’s not going to be on any standardized test or anything.”

But this is not an argument anyone is going to win any time soon with my mom.

“Cursive is just an important skill,” she said.

“To do what?” I said, “read Christmas cards from grandparents?”

“Something like that. Yes.”


If you happen to be glad you could read this whole thing without squinting, the favor of a vote would be most appreciated. Thank you.


Photo by: Charles Kenny

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  1. My handwriting is a sort of combo deal. I intermix print and cursive all over the place (and it ain\’t pretty). I feel bad for anyone who tries to make sense out of my chicken scratch. Sometimes I can\’t even read it!

  2. I don\’t think I even know anyone who writes in cursive anymore!
    I often write like kdkol who commented above, mixing print and cursive. I can usually decipher my own writing, though. My problem is my personal shorthand. I often write in code and acronyms, but later I can\’t remember what I meant by MC 7 or bring s fr M&D.

  3. That is so interesting that cursive is kind of fading out!! Weird. Maybe it will become like \”short hand.\” I don\’t write in cursive too often, but it\’s nice to write in cursive when I\’m in a hurry or have a lot of things to write! I usually write in block letters too, which probably isn\’t the best way to write. Oh well. It\’s fascinating that our world is turning more to computers and technology and less on old fashioned writing.

    1. I just wish I had more of a flourish for signing Christmas cards for the family. Beyond that, I never use it. I remember one boss I had early on who never learned keyboarding because she said at the time, all women who learned it were destined to be secretaries. By the time she was my boss, nobody had secretaries, so she had to do her own typing. It is interesting how things like that change.

  4. Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The research is surprising. For instance, it has been documented that legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility. (Sources for all research are listed below.)

    More recently, it has also been documented that cursive does NOT objectively improve the reading, spelling, or language of students who have dyslexia/dysgraphia.
    This is what I\’d expect from my own experience, by the way. As a handwriting teacher and remediator, I see numerous children, teens, and adults — dyslexic and otherwise — for whom cursive poses even more difficulties than print-writing. (Contrary to myth, reversals in cursive are common — a frequent cursive reversal in my caseload, among dyslexics and others, is “J/f.”)
    — According to comparative studies of handwriting speed and legibility in different forms of writing, the fastest, clearest handwriters avoid cursive — although they are not absolute print-writers either. The highest speed and highest legibility in handwriting are attained by those who join only some letters, not all: joining only the most easily joined letter-combinations, leaving the rest unjoined, and using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

    Reading cursive still matters — but reading cursive is much easier and quicker to master than writing the same way too. Reading cursive, simply reading it, can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds (including those with dyslexia) once they read ordinary print. (There\’s even an iPad app teaching kids and others to read cursive, whether or not they write it or ever will write it. The app — “Read Cursive” — is a free download. Those who are rightly concerned with the vanishing skill of cursive reading may wish to visit appstore.com/readcursive for more information.)

    We don’t require our children to learn to make their own pencils (or build their own printing presses) before we teach them how to read and write. Why require them to write cursive before we teach them how to read it? Why not simply teach children to read cursive — along with teaching other vital skills, such as a form of handwriting that is actually typical of effective handwriters?
    Just as each and every child deserves to be able to read all kinds of everyday handwriting (including cursive), each and every one of our children — dyslexic or not — deserves to learn the most effective and powerful strategies for high-speed high-legibility handwriting performance.
    Teaching material for practical handwriting abounds — especially in the UK and Europe, where such handwriting is taught at least as often as the accident-prone cursive which is venerated by too many North American educators. Some examples, in several cases with student work also shown: http://www.BFHhandwriting.com, http://www.handwritingsuccess.com, http://www.briem.net, http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com, http://www.italic-handwriting.org, http://www.studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/curriculum.html )

    Even in the USA and Canada, educated adults increasingly quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers across North America were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37% wrote in cursive; another 8% printed. The majority — 55% — wrote with some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive.
    (If you would like to take part in another, ongoing poll of handwriting forms — not hosted by a publisher, and nor restricted to teachers — visit http://www.poll.fm/4zac4 for the One-Question Handwriting Survey, created by this author. As with the Zaner-Bloser teacher survey, so far the results show very few purely cursive handwriters — and even fewer purely printed writers. Most handwriting in the real world — 75% of the response totals, so far — consists of print-like letters with occasional joins.)
    When even most handwriting teachers do not themselves use cursive, why glorify it?

    Believe it or not, some of the adults who themselves write in an occasionally joined but otherwise print-like handwriting tell me that they are teachers who still insist that their students must write in cursive, and/or who still teach their students that all adults habitually and normally write in cursive and always will. (Given the facts on our handwriting today, this is a little like teaching kids that our current president is Richard Nixon.)

    What, I wonder, are the educational and psychological effects of teaching, or trying to teach, something that the students can probably see for themselves is no longer a fact?
    Cursive\’s cheerleaders (with whom I’ve had some stormy debates) sometimes allege that cursive has benefits which justify absolutely anything said or done to promote that form of handwriting. The cheerleaders for cursive repeatedly state (sometimes in sworn testimony before school boards and state legislatures) that cursive cures dyslexia or prevents it, that it makes you pleasant and graceful and intelligent, that it adds brain cells, that it instills proper etiquette and patriotism, or that it confers numerous other blessings which are no more prevalent among cursive users than among the rest of the human race. Some claim research support — citing studies that invariably prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

    So far, whenever a devotee of cursive claims the support of research, one or more of the following things has become evident as soon as others examined the claimed support:

    /1/ either the claim provides no source,


    /2/ if a source is cited, and anyone checks it out, the source turns out to have been misquoted or incorrectly paraphrases by the person citing it

    /3/ the claimant correctly quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.
    Cursive devotees\’ eagerness to misrepresent research has substantial consequences, as the misrepresentations are commonly made — under oath — in testimony before school districts, state legislatures, and other bodies voting on educational measures. The proposals for cursive are, without exception so far, introduced by legislators or other spokespersons whose misrepresentations (in their own testimony) are later revealed — although investigative reporting of the questionable testimony does not always prevent the bill from passing into law, even when the discoveries include signs of undue influence on the legislators promoting the cursive bill? (Documentation on request: I am willing to be interviewed by anyone who is interested in bringing this serious issue inescapably before the public’s eyes and ears.)
    By now, you’re probably wondering: “What about cursive and signatures? Will we still have legally valid signatures if we stop signing our names in cursive?” Brace yourself: in state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)
     Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, the verification of documents, etc.) inform me that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if they follow the rules of cursive at all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger\’s life easy.

    All handwriting, not just cursive, is individual — just as all handwriting involves fine motor skills. That is why any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the print-writing on unsigned work) which of 25 or 30 students produced it.

    Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.


    Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

    /1/ Arthur Dale Jackson. “A Comparison of Speed and Legibility of Manuscript and Cursive Handwriting of Intermediate Grade Pupils.”
    Ed. D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1970: on-line at http://www.eric.ed.gov/?id=ED056015

    /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May – June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf

    /3/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
    JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September – October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

    Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at http://www.hw21summit.com/media/zb/hw21/files/H2937N_post_event_stats.pdf

    Ongoing handwriting poll: http://poll.fm/4zac4

    The research most often misrepresented by devotees of cursive (“Neural Correlates of Handwriting\” by Dr. Karin Harman-James at Indiana University):

    Background on our handwriting, past and present:
    3 videos, by a colleague, show why cursive is NOT a sacrament:



    (shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) —

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone
    DIRECTOR, the World Handwriting Contest
    CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works

    1. Wow. That was the most comprehensive comment I think I\’ve ever had, and interesting, too. I agree that teaching kids to read cursive still has its place, but writing it, not so much. Thank you.

  5. My handwriting is a mix of both printing and cursive. I mean, I don\’t think it\’s absolutely necessary for kids to learn cursive because checks are becoming obsolete and typing is becoming the method for most papers and homework…I do think that learning cursive would be nice, though. I would really rather print, but I guess just because I learned it I want my kids to learn it too.

    1. I\’m in that camp often myself. I\’d also like them to learn math the way I did, too. These days I\’m zero help with the long division. I don\’t know what the heck they\’re doing now, but it\’s not the way I was taught. And don\’t get me started on shoe tying.

  6. My oldest son has a grandmother and great grandparents who love to send him letters in cursive that he can\’t read.

    Bonus for me, I know everything they say to him, but yeah, it\’s a skill that\’s being lost. And to be honest, I don\’t miss it.

    Then again, after years of trying to read doctors handwriting, I kind of wish everyone could just type everything all the time.