Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What Does The Death Of Cursive Mean?

As someone who dreaded Penmanship class, and who always–and I mean always–got poor grades in it, let me just say if writing in cursive goes away I’ll be right up there in front mourning the loss.  (Cursive:  flowing letters all connected to make one word.  What we used to call “handwriting”.)

We learned the Palmer Method in grade school, where every letter had to follow a pattern and fit between the lines, and where loops and curlicues had to loop and curl, but not too little or too much.  Just right.

cursive palmer method 

So much pressure!  I choked.  I couldn’t do it.

But some time after the 6th Grade, after penmanship was no longer required and I could relax, I realized that if I could barely read my own writing there was no chance that anyone else could either.  I began looping and curling on my own, starting with row after row of connected capital S’s.  I spent hours over the course of many days looping and curling, not worrying about staying within the lines, and before long I found to my amazement that I was creating letters and then words that were actually legible.   It wasn’t exactly true Palmer Method–it was better.   It was a variation on the theme of Palmer and it was all me.

Maybe it’s because handwriting came so hard for me, I don’t know, but I’ve been taking the news of its imminent demise pretty hard.  I’ve noticed over the years that fewer and fewer people were actually writing in cursive and more and more were printing, but I had no idea there was an entire movement bent on killing off that lovely, traditional form of English handwriting.

In a USA Today article called “Is Cursive’s Day in Classroom Done?” I was shocked to read that 41 states do not require the teaching of cursive penmanship.  When did this happen?  To the casual observer it might seem obvious that cursive should go the way of the quill pen.  It takes up valuable class time to teach it, and, since the advent of the computer and digital keyboards, pecking has already taken over for block printing, which took over for cursive writing.

Nobody wants to actually write anything by hand anymore but when they have to they want it to take longer (In speed trials between cursive and printing, cursive wins, hands down) and look like the plain letters kindergartners use before they’re ready to try real handwriting.   I get that.

There are already young people out there who learned to read and write block print only and can’t read or write cursive.  That’s astounding, but apparently true.  When a witness in the George Zimmerman trial, a friend of Trayvon Martin’s, was handed documents written in cursive she was embarrassed to have to admit she couldn’t read them.

But in a Washington Post article, “Cursive is Disappearing from Public Schools”, there was this:
Deborah Spear, an academic therapist based in Great Falls, Virginia, said cursive writing is an integral part of her work with students who have dyslexia. Because all letters in cursive start on a base line, and because the pen moves fluidly from left to right, cursive is easier to learn for dyslexic students who have trouble forming words correctly.
Another side of it is that there is an art to writing in cursive.  With a stroke of the pen we can set ourselves apart.  Whether our handwriting is beautifully executed or more akin to chicken-scratching, it’s all ours.  Nobody else can do it like we do.

I admit that I do most of my writing on a keyboard now.  It’s so much faster and ridiculously easy to correct.  It has become second nature to think and type at the same time.  I will even admit that electronic word processing has changed my life.   But when I want or need to write by hand I like nothing better than to be creating a sentence that, at least visually, couldn’t have been written by anyone but me.

But in that same WaPo article, here comes this guy:
Steve Graham, an education professor at Arizona State University and one of the top U.S. experts on handwriting instruction, said he has heard every argument for and against cursive.
“I have to tell you, I can’t remember the last time I read the Constitution,” Graham said. [in answer to the claim that if the teaching of cursive dies out there may come a day when people won't be able to read the original manuscript of the constitution] “The truth is that cursive writing is pretty much gone, except in the adult world for people in their 60s and 70s.”
Well that would be me, buddy, but I’m not such a stickler for traditional anachronisms that I want to keep this particular kind of handwriting around for old time’s sake.  (Though, of course, that’s a part of it.)  No, I want to keep it around because to kill it off severs one more part of us that is unique and individual and takes some effort.

We’ve done enough of that already.

Update:  My former friend Frank from the website "Frankly Curious" has taken issue with my piece here and has curiously chosen to take me down a peg or two.  Over handwriting, of all things.   It's here.   Give him a thrill.  Read the damned thing.


  1. As a designer of historical handwriting fonts (www.oldfonts.com), I pore through many old letters and journals, and I can attest that a lot more gets communicated by way of a cursive hand than just thoughts put into sentences. In a flash we can recognize the handwriting of friends and loved ones—the little quirks and peculiarities of their pens. But beyond even these, if you look closely enough at the pressure and slant and size and flourish, you can get a glimlpse inside the minds and hearts and histories of the ones who wielded those pens. Sad to lose these insights.

  2. I still handwrite. With a fountain pen 90% of the time. And yes, I think it is a sorry thing to let it go without a fight.

  3. I write longhand quite a bit. I do my journal longhand.

    Writing in general - cursive or otherwise - seems to be fairly rare these days. I like it because it makes it less likely NSA will have copies of something I've written if it's on a legal pad in my desk.

  4. I love writing with a fountain pen. It's so much different than writing with a ball point for some reason. I used to buy fountain pens and cartridges at K-Mart but they don't sell them anymore. i still have two of the pens and about six cartridges left but when they're gone I don't know if I can find more. I love writing in my journals with them.

  5. Brian, what a great website! Saving and adding to my Constant Commoner blogroll. Love your fonts!

  6. I find cursive slow to write and difficult to read with all its loops and curliques.

    I have an Italic hand -- rather spiky but very quick to write and easy to keep legible under pressure. As much as possible, I write with a fountain pen. Otherwise I prefer pencil over ballpoint, though there are a couple of gel pens that make an acceptable substitute for a fountain pen.

    (FWIW, I'm English -- we're not taught the cursive that's taught in the US in school. Italic was something I taught myself when told that "left-handed people can never write legibly". (Never challenge a left-handed 13yo!)

  7. I don't know what you mean by "italic", Hugh. I love writing with a fountain pen. It's a whole different experience. So is writing in cursive as opposed to block printing. I think it's so much faster writing in cursive because you can write an entire word without ever moving your hand off the page.

    I know it's more difficult for lefties. Two of my children are lefties and they both now print rather than write, even though they both had to learn standard handwriting.

  8. Katy, I do all my journal writing in longhand, too, and it takes on a whole different flavor. If I try to write journal stuff on the keyboard I end up working it like an essay, being careful about sentence structure, etc, and fixing things that need fixing.. All of my professional work has traditionally been done either with a typewriter or a word processor, working the words for public consumption. My journals, on the other hand, are only for me to see and are more spontaneous, without regard to correctness..

    I love writing in longhand with a fountain pen, and if I write letters (not often enough) I do it that way. But to each his own. My brother block prints everything and his printing is individual enough for me to recognize it's his when I see it.


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