Cursive, foiled

Keyboard-happy students aren’t learning cursive handwriting anymore. The National Cursive Handwriting Contest was canceled after 75 years because the entries were “garbage.”

South Carolina, home state of Kimberly Swygert is one of the few that requires children to learn handwriting.

My elementary school didn’t teach cursive till fourth grade, which gave us more time to develop the necessary coordination. But then they required us to use cartridge pens for cursive; no one knew why ballpoints were banned. The cartridge pens leaked and clogged, adding another level of challenge to handwriting practice. Pen flicking, which sent ink flying around the room, was a popular indoor sport. At any rate, I have to say that I love keyboards.

About Joanne


  1. Cursive (and those stupid pens) especially sucked for us elementary-school lefties. I still remeber smearing all the ink over my hands and the paper. Back then I thought it was my fault.

  2. ***Julie*** says:

    I remember learning cursive, and we didn’t use those cartridge pens. I’m not surprised that they don’t teach cursive anymore .. I have high school students who can’t read cursive writing!

  3. Julie,

    Is it only cursive they can’t read? If so, you’re lucky!

  4. ***Julie*** says:

    They can read, but not at grade level, and not cursive. But what is interesting, they want me to write cursive on the board so they can learn it. They (mostly girls) think it is pretty, and want to know how to do it. So, I write the date on the board in cursive everyday — I think I may get a cursive alphabet letter chart to top my white board with. Maybe get them to do more homework with cursive so that they can practice their cursive writing! Anything that works!

    Another thought… didn’t schools start using Denelian so that it would make learning cursive writing easier?

  5. Shouldn’t the title be “Cursive, foiled again”? And yes, this comment is made snidely.

  6. Interesting. My son’s printing was/is almost unreadable. Once he learned cursive in the fourth grade, his work became readable, and his printing improved. He still does most of his work in cursive. During his 5th grade, the teacher only allowed two of her students to use cursive because she couldn’t read the other students’ handwriting.

  7. If you’re left-handed, and you align the length of your paper with your forearm (which is what elementary teachers tell their right-handed pupils to do) your hand will not smear the ink. (And you won’t be crippled by writing, either.)

    I had a monumental fight with my second-grade teacher over this, because she didn’t understand it, and every time she turned my paper the “wrong” way, I turned it back.

    How do you suppose someone gets to be a teacher without having this simple fact pointed out to her?

  8. Back in the ’60s, my mother felt good cursive writing was important, so between her and an insistent teacher I got good at it despite being left-handed (even using those ridiculous cartridge pens). It stayed resonably good until I was doing 90% of my writing using a keyboard. Now I can barely read it myself some days.

    But now I’m back in school, and I have to write some things by hand for instructors to read (exams, labs, etc). Perusing one exam after it was handed back, I really did have trouble reading it myself. I apologized to the instructor for my bad handwriting. She floored me by telling me it wasn’t bad at all compared with much of what she saw, and she didn’t have any trouble with it.

  9. Walter E. Wallis says:

    My Grandpa, born 1877, had beautiful handwriting I believe it was Spencerian, and only 3 or 4 years schooling. I letter so so, not good enough for drafting so I had to engineer. I love the keyboard, but if I had learned touch I might have written the Great American Handbook for Engineers or something.

  10. Anyone remember the last time they needed cursive after they graduated from High School? Everything you ever fill out usually says “Print Legibly” and “Print or Type” and such. I have gotten far more value and use from lettering (design and drafting class) in High School than I ever got from grade school cursive.

    For me, and I suspect for most people, learning cursive was time wasted that could have gone to learning good lettering practice.

    Spencerian script would be nice to learn, but I’d really have to develop my language skills to match it. Then again, since the only value I would have for it is in writing letters, and I really can’t remember the last I snail mailed a personal missive to anyone.


  11. Kilroy has it right. There is only one time I have used cursive writing since leaving high school, and that was for arcane legal documents. (I had to write, in cursive, the words “by law” for my SGLI benefits in the military, for example.)

    My handwriting was always atrocious, but not for lack of criticism or lack of trying. Some people are artists and some aren’t. It seems unfair to penalize students anymore for skills that are really passe if not anachronistic.

  12. Oh, dear. Passé? No. I suggest you get a good fountain pen, good stationery, and start practicing your handwriting by writing letters to friends and relatives. I agree that those cartridge pens were awful, but a good fountain pen is a joy.

  13. I write in cursive all the time. It isn’t a particularly pretty cursive, but it’s legible (at least according to the high school students who have had to read it). And I agree with Michael — a good fountain pen and a sheet of proper stationary are among the best things in life. I type over 100 wpm, but I love using my fountain pens. Sometimes it is good to have the writing hand lag behind the brain a little.

  14. Mike James says:

    An interesting assumption, that one will always have a computer and keyboard with which to do one’s writing.

    If one has a lot of writing to do, cursive is much more comfortable, and can be sustained over a longer period, than printing, as the pen spends much more time in contact with the paper, and thus is not constantly lifted and set down again.

    In addition, the hand which produces an elegant and easy-to-read flow of words evokes in the mind of the reader the image of a writer who is well-educated and intelligent. Admittedly, that is an intangible benefit of training to write legibly, but is a useful result nonetheless.

    Handwriting drill is for most kids an unendurable bore. That is a very good reason to subject them to it, as there is too great a tendency in our society to reward immediate gratification, and not to instill the virtues of patience and diligence.

    Lastly, I do not believe for a minute that there is nothing else in the curriculum, some spectacular PC waste of time and energy, which couldn’t be shoved aside to make room for handwriting drill. Developing fine motor skills is good for children.

  15. Peter Zawilski says:

    I learned cursive in grammar school. However, I was discouraged by teachers who only gave me a “C” grade no matter what the effort–I didn’t follow the models exactly or slant the letters enough. The writing was legible and my mother, who learned beautiful italic writing, said my writing was all right.

    In college, engineering classes required printing. Thus, now I print much faster than I write cursive. Both my daughters have learned cursive–and their writing is beautiful, like their mother’s.

    Of course, in my work, I compose everything on the keyboard.

    The art of handwriting should be taught, just for the aesthetics. Or is handwriting going the way of arts education in this country? This is ironic in that as a nation, we have the most difficult to sing national anthem and our arts education is abysmal.

  16. Kris Hasson-Jones says:

    My kids were taught Italic instead of printing or cursive. It’s fast, easy and clear. (They’re both teens now and you can still read their writing.)

  17. My children are learning to use the D’Nealian alphabet in school. The third grader is now making the simple transition to cursive. At first, I thought the D’Nealian patterns were needlessly difficult for the children, but the ease of the transition to cursive has changed my opinion.

  18. My children are learning to use the D’Nealian alphabet in school. The third grader is now making the simple transition to cursive. At first, I thought the D’Nealian patterns were needlessly difficult for the children, but the ease of the transition to cursive has changed my opinion.

  19. My daughter’s public Montessori school begins cursive instruction for 5 year-olds. Most manage to write fairly well by the time they finish kindergarten or first grade. At 5, my daughter’s handwriting is far neater than that of her father.

  20. After reading the post and all the comments, I have a question–what is a cartridge pen?

    And no, I’m not some young kid, either. I’m 38!!!

  21. Darren: It’s a pen, much like a fountain pen, which uses a disposable plastic ink cartridge instead of a permanent reservoir and pump.

    Run out of ink, put in a new cartridge.

  22. “My kids were taught Italic instead of printing or cursive.”
    What? What is this “Italic”? In my world, you can italicize any type of writing. In HTML, for instance, by doing this.

    Is this “italic” you speak of a term for the hybrid half-print, half-cursive lettering some of us end up using?

  23. Interesting, my son (in college) and I were talking about this. I asked him if he writes in his journal, and he said, “No, I print.” “Does this matter to you?” “Yes,” he replied, “I have forgotten how to write half the letters.”

    The fifth-grader is required to write in cursive for reports and her spelling tests. Extra cookie for that teacher!

  24. I’m still trying to figure out what “spencerian” writing is, let alone D’Nealian. Sounds like some kind of science fiction character on Star Trek.

    I owned a cartridge pen, but never used it except once or twice. There was no point, it was messy and harder to use than a ballpoint or (heaven forbid) a felt tip.

    I think this cursive writing issue is going to be a cry for yesterday by luddites. There is no need for cursive unless you have a penchant for artistry. For practicality, you will only be writing short notes or typing nowadays.

    It’s funny how cartridge pens and fountain pens are being mentioned at the same time as cursive writing as though they are inseparable. It just highlights how irrelevent they both are.

    Also, like I said before, it’s an art form that some people can do well and some can’t. Writing neatly is a skill that some are better at than others, and it seems strange to penalize those incapable of doing it when it is no longer even desirable, let alone practical to use cursive.

    Teaching cursive writing is an indulgence that you can teach your child if you want to pay for it. But then again, that’s another reason why public schools are such a bad idea. If we stop using public funds to educate people, we will no longer have uncivil discussions about what to teach children. If you want your kid to use archaic writing implements like fountain pens, pay for it. If you don’t, then don’t pay for it. Life is so simple when force is removed from our choices.

  25. My daughter goes to a private school where they specialize in learning differences. They teach cursive because children with dislexia are less likely to read the letters wrong.


    P.S. I’ve always had the worst handwriting. I’ve gone back to printing just so I can read what I wrote. The only thing I use cursive for is to write my checks.

  26. I am applying for jobs right now and I write thank-you notes after each interview. Other than that, I don’t remember last time I had a real need for cursive.

    Shorthand is another lost art. We have one secretary who can take shorthand and she is in high demand to go to meetings and take notes. If she is not around and we use a tape recorder instead and there are invariably parts that cannot be deciphered later.

    (OK, moderate demand. But ‘high demand’ sounds better.)

  27. I love fountain pens, but they’re not terribly practical, and the only time my kid has used a fountain pen is when she used my gold-nibbed Mont Blanc across the surface of my antique cherry desk. So, I guess I have paid for it LOL.

  28. You know, there are cursive fonts available…

  29. My brother, my wife, and several other people I have known were all guilty of learning cursive before the fourth grade back in the 50s. All were punished for it, and none ever really recovered the skill.

    I do my writing left handed (altho I am ambisinister on many tasks) and was forced to keep the paper square to the desk and my wrist cocked around to where it cramped. Perhaps, if, like Linsee, I had learned to align the paper more effectively, writing would not have been so trying a task as to make most schoolwork torture for me. At least we were allowed to transition directly from pencils to ballpoints; I doubt I would have squeeked thru highh school if I’d had to use cartridge pens.

  30. Mark Odell says:

    Mike Rentner wrote: I’m still trying to figure out what “spencerian” writing is, let alone D’Nealian.

  31. If the use of Tablet PC’s takes off, we will eventually move away from keyboarding, anyway. The idea is to handwrite, whether print or cursive, and to use hand-gesturing for all other commands. (I’ve used Tablets for more than 4 months and they are fabulous–full fledged computers that are easy to use.) Teaching cursive so that handwriting is legible and fine motor skills are better developed will be a boon. A side benefit–less carpel tunnel with less mousing and keyboarding.

  32. “For practicality, you will only be writing short notes or typing nowadays.” This is all true as long as you are never arrested, in court, or in the hospital … for starters. Additionally, I have known a number of jeffes who did not allow laptops in meetings (except for those making a presentation). Why doddling on a legal pad is more acceptable than playing Solitile, I don’t know, but I don’t question those who sign my checks.

    I know a number of people who prefer not to depose with a laptop because a computer intimidates people in a way that a flimsy notepad does not. This could change with time, but right now it holds.

    I’m still wondering about this “italic” though. Even if I had not know about Spencerian ( or the Palmer method, etc., I could have looked them up. This italics business is haunting my dreams. Damn it – I know typography freaks who have no idea what this means. Help!

  33. Mike Friedman says:

    Interesting side note…

    An important part of learning Chinese for foreigners used to be learning how to write.

    I’m now applying to business school and I’m planning to take business oriented Chinese courses.

    Interestingly enough, they no longer require any kind of handwriting – everything can be typed.

    It’s just more important to teach people how to read and talk about things like profits and business strategies in Chinese than how to write readable characters by hand.

  34. Mike – Yeah, well, China has a very open government so when police offers tell you that the field reports where written by the officer at the scene at the time of the arrest, there’s no reason to doubt that. Especially if they were written in this mysterious “Italic.”

  35. My school taught cursive in the 4th grade. I simply refused to learn it. I figured I’d already gone to considerable trouble over the previous 3-4 years to learn how to write, and I wasn’t going to start all over again from scratch.

    This caused me considerable trouble when I reached adulthood and had to learn enough cursive so as to be able to sign my name on checks and other documents. I was told, correctly or otherwise, that printing my name wouldn’t do. So that answers Mike Rentner’s question of, what do you need cursive for?

  36. Cousin Dave says:

    Here’s my story, take it for what it’s worth: I was born a left-hander, but they switched me in kindergarten. This was back in the early ’60s, where that was standard practice. I always struggled with handwriting, both print and cursive. It caused me lots of problems in school. If I had to write an essay under timed conditions (such as for an exam) I rarely finished in the time allotted, even if I knew the material; it just took me too long to write it out. My writing was so blotchy and compressed that teachers consistently marked me down because they couldn’t read what I wrote. And there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it. Large pencils, small pencils, ballpoint pens, cartridge pens, loose grip, tight grip; nothing seemed to help. Sympathetic teachers tried to work with me, to no avail. Taking notes in class was difficult because I couldn’t keep up with the lecturer; I had to concentrate on my handwriting in order to get the words down, but while I did that I lost the thread of the lecture, and as a result my notes were never complete. Every school day, I went home after school with cramps in my hand. I really grew to hate writing of any kind, and started to think of myself as semi-illiterate. I could read just fine, but writing just seemed to be beyond me. I did have access to typewriters in high school, and with that I got a hint that there might be a better way, but the laborious process of feeding and straightening the paper, setting the margins, and fixing every mistype with correcting tape made it take nearly as long as handwriting.

    My freshman year in college, I finally got my first opportunity to compose a paper on a computer. (It had a daisy-wheel printer, which could produce a decent-looking output on plain paper. I would never have dreamed of turning in something printed by a drum printer on green-bar paper, and any teacher would have been perfectly within their rights to refuse to accept such.) That first paper transformed writing for me. I found that, for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to think about the mechanics of getting ink on paper and I could focus on the content of what I was writing. I was stunned to find, after I finished the first draft, that only two hours had elapsed and I didn’t have headaches or hand cramps. I had plenty of time to read over the paper, make corrections, and print more drafts. It was a revalation — for the first time, writing was actually fun!

    I can appreciate cursive as an art form. And I understand the practical reasons for why it has been taught; until recently it was the fastest way available to most people of getting words on paper. But now that I have a laptop computer that I can take almost anywhere (particularly at work), I have little use for handwriting of any kind. When I write, I want to concentrate on the words, and not on all the individual movements of my hand. I haven’t had hand cramp problems in a long time. True, the day is not quite here yet where there is a computer everywhere you need one, but that day is probably not far away now.

    And for Nancy, in spite of handwriting recognition systems, I don’t think keyboards are going away soon. Handwriting recognition systems are an inexact science (as are voice recognition, retina scanners, etc.), and there is a considerable portion of the population for whom it doesn’t work. And, unless someone invents a radical new form of cursive, it will always be true that a reasonably good typist (especially one that has been trained on a Dvorak keyboard) will always be able to put words on paper faster than the most skillful handwriters. And I don’t see the demand for putting words on paper going down anytime soon.

  37. Hi
    My daughter is dyslexic, and handwritting was very hard for her to cope with. We moved to France less than a year ago, where cursive writting is the norm! so she has had to cope with learning a new language, and a new form of writting in a French school. In this time and with a new style of writing she has improved dramatically well, now we can read her written work with out any difficulty, and her reading has improved a great deal. she enjoyes writting now and practices all the time.
    I think because a lot of dyslexics are artistic this writting is easier for the children to cope with.

  38. Those (such as “j.c.”) who want to know about Italic handwriting will find much useful info on the subject at the URLS below. I learned Italic in adulthood as a diagnosed dyslexic and “hopeless handwriter” who had absolutely bombed with printing *and* with cursive – fortunately, I found that another approach exists. Currently, I teach handwriting (the Italic way) – as with many of my Italic-teaching colleagues, my students range from doctors to [my fellow] dyslexics … and I’ve even worked with some dyslexic doctors.

    URLS for learning about (or learning) Italic: [my own web-site]

    An Associated Press article about Italic handwriting and my work in this field:$rec=119823

    The following news-articles and medical-journal pieces (including one medical blog-site) cover Italic’s increasing use for remediating the handwriting of physicians: 2000/May/21/5-21-00%20E8.pdf 2002/JanFeb/Articles/Weber.pdf

    An Associated Press article on the death and possible rebirth of handwriting, last year, revealed that 7% of USA third-graders currently learn Italic handwriting:

    Some months after that article, further news raised the figure from 7% to 10%:

    I hope this answers the questions of “j.c.” and any others interested in this type of handwriting. For further information, feel free to e-mail me, visit my web-site (above) and/or request my handwriting-help resource-list via e-mail.

    Yours for better letters,
    Kate Gladstone – Handwriting Repair


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