Handwriting matters, but does cursive matter?

A lot of people, lately, have been making a lot of noise about the death of cursive handwriting. They don’t want cursive to die. Handwriting matters … But does cursive matter?

Research shows that the fastest and most legible handwriters avoid cursive. They join only some letters, not all of them: making the easiest joins, skipping the rest, and using print-like shapes for those letters whose cursive and printed shapes disagree. (Citation: Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HANDWRITING STYLE AND SPEED AND LEGIBILITY. 2001: on-line at http://www.sbac.edu/~werned/DATA/Brain%20research%20class/handwriting%20speed%20style%20legibility%20berninger.pdf )

To me (as a handwriting teacher), what’s even more interesting is something that the researcher didn’t mention: this semi-joined, almost print-like style’s very close to the style of the first handwriting textbooks ever published in our alphabet, almost 500 years ago in Renaissance Italy. (That’s right — semi-joined handwriting is a couple of centuries older thn conventional cursive styles with their ceaseless joining. In fact, the style of those early textbooks— called “Italic” from its Renaissance Italian roots — is the oldest handwriting style still in use today for our alphabet. Keep that in mind, if you value tradition in handwriting.)

What about _reading_ cursive? This matters vitally — it takes just 30 to 60 minutes to learn, and can be taught to a five- or six-year-old if the child knows how to read. The value of reading cursive is therefore no justification for writing it.

Of course, there are people asserting that cursive “helps brain development.” In fact the research on handwriting and brain development hasn’t found that these benefits are somehow limited to any one type of handwriting,
True, In some recent instances, those who are strongly invested in conventionsl cursive have at timrs misquoted the research establishing the benefits of handwriting: generally claiming that the research specified cursive as the sole source of these benefits. when in fact the research has not found this. enjoy asserting that cursive “helps brain development.” Those assertions that the cursive style somehow makes you smarter are never accompanied by details, because the research on handwriting and brain development has shown that the benefits of handwriting vs. typing apply to handwriting in _any_ style, not just to one particular style.
True, in some recent instances, people or organizations with an investment in cursive have misquoted the research. I will leave I o thm — and their customers — to ponder possible motives. (What wold we think if the owner of a Persian cat first found some research showing that cats catch more mice than dogs, then told other cat-owners that this meant Persians catch more mice than other breeds?)
Similar to this is the lack of quantitative data attached to media repetitions of the statement about higher scores on the SAT if you write in cursive. To find the details, I phoned the College Board/Educational Testing Service (which creates, administers, and grades the SAT) to ask how large a difference there was. The response: “It’s statistically insignificant — averaging a fraction of a single point on this several-thousand-point-exam. In other words, it’s the same microscopic difference you would expect to find by pure chance between two randomly selected groups of students.” How far does a microscopic difference in scores justify several years of lessons in cursive letter formation?

What about signatures? Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, then 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 all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger’s life easy.

The individuality of print-style (or other non-cursive style) writings is further shown by this: six months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the writing on an unsigned assignment) which of her 25 or 30 students wrote it.

There’s also this to consider: whatever your elementary school teacher may have been told by her elementary school teacher, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over signatures written in any other way. (On this, I could quote legal sources — and lawyers — but that would take more room than a letter permits. So don’t take my word for this: talk to any attorney.)

In short, there is neither common sense, nor fact, nor legal necessity, behind the idolatry of cursive. Remember that research about the fastest, most legible handwriters? Most people who write that way were never taught to do it. Like the rest of us, they’d probably been taught otherwise. They had to stumble on those useful habits themselves, by consciously or unconsciously discarding what didn’t work in the printing or cursive styles they’d been taught, and keeping the best components of what was left — which meant breaking some of the rules they had been taught. But why leave it to chance and breaking the rules? There are books and (in the texting age) software designed to teach those better habits from the get-go and save handwriting for the twenty-first century. (Which ones? A letter like this is not the place for product reviews — though I welcome reader inquiries.)

Yours for better letters,

Kate Gladstone — CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
Director, the World Handwriting Contest
Co-Designer, BETTER LETTERS handwriting trainer app for iPhone/iPad



  1. 0 Votes

    I learned how to write in cursive when I was in grade school, but I never used it as my default writing style. I love writing in cursive because it is beautiful, but I refrain from using that style because it seems like a lot of people have trouble reading it. A lot of people also dislike writing in cursive and/or reading it. I think cursive, if written well, is like an art, something you can admire like chinese calligraphy on a painting. But I don’t think it should be used in our daily lives for completing forms, writing essays, etc because its harder to read and people can read it incorrectly if they are inexperienced with the writing style. Now that so many things are generated on computers, cursive handwriting and penmanship in general isn’t as important as before. In my work, handwriting is not considered official enough. So these days, I type most of everything I want on paper. I still like writing in cursive though for christmas cards, letters, etc…

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