Education · Handwriting

Rachel Jeantel Isn’t the Only One Who Can’t Read Cursive

"I don't read cursive."
“I don’t read cursive.”

We should not have been surprised when the star witness for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial, a 19-year-old high school graduate, couldn’t read a letter handed to her by the defense attorney because, as she explained, “I don’t read cursive.”  For many young people, cursive handwriting might as well be hieroglyphics. High school teachers say they no longer write in cursive on the board or on student papers because  their students can’t read it. The customer rep at my bank recently told me that she has to print when she writes a note to the tellers.

Where The Teaching of Cursive Stands  The new Common Core Standards, adopted by 45 states, make the teaching of handwriting optional, and sentiment for dropping it altogether is widespread. To their credit, five State Boards of Education—Alabama, Massachusetts, Georgia, California, and Kansas—have included cursive in the standards for their schools, and the North Carolina legislature has actually passed a law requiring the teaching of cursive.

As far as I know, nobody is recommending that we not teach any form of handwriting at all. Typically manuscript printing or what is known as “ball-and-stick” is taught in first (sometimes kindergarten) through second grade. Cursive has then been taught in third though fourth grade. It should be said here that there are different forms of cursive writing. What most people think of as cursive is whatever they themselves were taught, which in the United States is probably a form of what might be called “looped or conventional cursive.” An alternative, Italic cursive, has no loops, is not preceded by ball-and-stick printing, but printed letters that are like the cursive form but unconnected. Many people assume that ball-and-stick, because it looks like print in books, helps children learn to read. 

But What About That? Ball-and-stick was first introduced in the New York City school system in 1922 by Marjorie Wise, a reading specialist. Before then, children just learned cursive from the beginning. Wise herself eventually recognized that there are drawbacks to ball and stick, but by then it had caught on throughout the United States and we were stuck with it. Actually because of the fluid left-to-right movement of cursive and the fact that spaces come between words, not individual letters, it is more helpful to the beginning reader than ball-and-stick.

But why teach cursive at all? In ways not yet fully understood, being able to write fluently and rapidly in a running hand actually helps the brain learn how to work more efficiently. Research suggests that cursive facilitates creativity, helps memory, and gives kids a powerful tool  for learning. What is unique about cursive is the fluidity of movement, which does not happen when one has to lift the pen between every letter or when one is tapping on a keyboard.

Where do we go from here? I’m afraid that saving cursive depends on more neuroscientific research. Only that will convince many teachers and parents that there are benefits to be had from knowing how to write fluently in a running hand that no other form of written communication offers. It will take time, but I’m convinced that will happen. Meanwhile it seems we will be turning out high school graduates who cannot sign their names.

12 thoughts on “Rachel Jeantel Isn’t the Only One Who Can’t Read Cursive

  1. At this very moment my son is in his room writing cursive in his journal—thanks to the inspirational negotiations of his grandmother:) It has gotten easier and faster and I think more fun for him as the weeks go by. My brother in law who teaches High School English thinks that being able to write cursive will, or maybe has already become, a status marker. I told my son that students who wrote their essay questions on tests in cursive got higher grades. I am not sure this is true, but he wrote his English final essay in cursive and scored higher than he ever had on an essay test. Hmmmmmmm. I think he is convinced.
    We should make bumper stickers that say, in cursive, Cursive=Success!


    1. Legible consistent handwriting can’t help but make a difference in how we judge the ideas expressed. Unfortunately, even if they were taught cursive, kids (adults too) often revert to the way they were first taught (printing). Then realizing that joining up some letters makes sense, they create their own special method of chicken scratch. I love the idea of bumper stickers!! Now, if I just had a car.


  2. I was recently involved in helping a friend put on a wedding for her oldest daughter. In an effort to cut down on the cost she had enlisted a tribe of friends to decorate for the reception. Everyone was assigned jobs according to their skill set, and since I am known for my beautiful cursive hand, I was asked to write the signs for the tables indicating where everyone should sit. Gathering my special pen, the list of names, and the card stock tents I sat down and went to work. I was surprised when I looked up to see that a small group of young people–and some not so young–had collected to watch me “do it”. “Where did you learn to do that?” one of the girls asked. “It looks so pretty.” I felt like an artisan with an exotic skill like engraving on silver. I am pleased to report that all the guests appeared to be able to read the table signs. I offer thanks to Miss Welch, my third grade teacher, who preserved me from making corsages or learning how to work the industrial strength dish washer in the kitchen of the synagogue.



  3. This news is just shocking. I had no idea that cursive is no longer part of the grade school curriculum. It’s like finding out that geography is not part of the curriculum. Oh wait–based on national assessment geography scores, it seems teaching geography might be optional as well. Who gets to make these decisions???


    1. State Boards of Education get to decide what is taught in the schools in their state. The “Common Core Standards” were written by representatives from the Governors’ Association and State Boards of Education, and 45 states have adopted them. These standards are very demanding and specific. They do allow, however 15% optional instructional time. The states mentioned have utilized that optional time by including the teaching of cursive in their standards. I don’t know what the standards say about geography, but I do know that the recently-passed North Carolina law not only requires the teaching of cursive but also the multiplication tables, suggesting that the tables are not part of the standards. Don’t even ask me about grammar and spelling. I don’t think I want to find out.


      1. As the English teacher brother-in-law mentioned by Sarah above, I’m happy to second your proposal to begin handwriting instruction with cursive. (Thanks for the mini-history of ball-and-stick instruction, which I was unaware of.) It always confounds me to hear my students who are uncomfortable with cursive claim that they simply find “printing” easier and more efficient — a claim which I’ve never heard from anyone fully proficient in both handwriting styles.

        Not to worry about grammar and spelling being left out of the Common Core Standards: one entire “strand” (the Standards come with their own detailed nomenclature) deals specifically with “Language,” ranging from “Ensure subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement” to “Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in verb voice and mood.” I won’t get into whether or not such a rigorous set of standards is realistically attainable by all (or even most) students, but I can’t say I think it’s essential for American prosperity or cultural vitality that every single high school graduate be able to, say, “Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis” (Reading Informational Text Standard 2 for Grades 11-12). It would be great for any graduate to be able to do that, but for most of them it wouldn’t provide the real-world practical advantage of, well, being able to read and write cursive.


  4. Thanks, Michael. It’s good to have input from someone in the trenches and to hear what some of the specifics of the standards are for Grades 11–12. As a former teacher of this level, I have to say that such a specific, stringent top-down approach seems to me to leave little time for teacher creativity!


  5. In elementary school, the only subject matter where I received Ds was Penmanship (cursive). In truth, I deserved a failing grade. The teacher was being kind because she knew I was giving it my best effort. I just couldn’t do it. And those exercises, drawing loop after loop after loop, and up-and-down lines over and over again, were useless. I think the idea was to train my hand. If so, it wasn’t trainable.

    My saving grace came in high school, where my dad suggested I take a typing course. I wasn’t a great typist either (Cs, again due to a kind teacher who gave me credit for coming back to the typing lab after school), but as a mediocre typist I greatly outperformed my ability to write longhand.

    My manual typewriter accompanied me to college, and it was my best friend. With cursive, I had to spend so much attention trying to write neatly, I couldn’t focus on expressing myself. With the typewriter, putting text on paper was mechanical, freeing me up to think about what I wanted to say and how to express it.

    As for signing names, what I see from most people is something that would be an insult to the word “cursive.” Typically, I’d be unable to read the name unless I already knew the person.

    As an example, when he became Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew had to change his signature, which appears on US paper money. Originally it looked like those repeating loops I described from my elementary school days.


    1. There is an alternative to those curves and loops. In italic handwriting. kids are first taught letter forms that are similar to printing, then when they have mastered that, they are taught to join those same forms. Since it’s the fluidity of movement that’s beneficial, italic makes a lot of sense. It eliminates the ridiculous practice of teaching one way of writing and then when kids have just about mastered that, starting all over with another way, which they often find difficult because they have to unlearn habits used in the first way. Italic is widely taught in private schools and some public schools as well. I’m going to write more about it later; I’m teaching myself to do it now. (Have a workbook) Honestly, it is a lot of fun. I know a lot of people have really negative memories about their grade school penmanship lessons, as you do. And I think (not sure) that they are all referring to “looped cursive.” Good grief, you mean to tell me Jack Lew’s signature is an improvement over what it was before???


      1. Yes, the idea of transitioning from printing to cursive, leveraging the existing skills, makes so much sense. Amazingly, none of my teachers seemed to notice I was holding my hand (I’m a righty) in the same position as lefties. When writing cursive, I have my right arm at a slight angle, and my right hand hooks around, such that my hand is above and slightly to the right of where I’m writing. It was a horrible position, and I still do it that way. No wonder my handwriting is so terrible.

        I might try to relearn this skill. It doesn’t bother me so much that other people can’t read my handwriting, as they’re never my target audience. When I write to others, I print, and I’m very careful. However, my handwriting is so bad that, when reading what I wrote a while back, often I can’t even ready my own scribbling. That does bother me.


      2. Since handwriting is a manual skill, it must be taught with care and attention to individual students, and bad habits corrected before they become–well habitual. I mean it’s one thing to fail to learn the difference between latitude and longitude, for instance—you can remedy that easily at any age. But a bad physical habit is quite another thing.Your story is unusual (usually it’s the lefties who have trouble because teachers don’t tell them to slant their paper clockwise–to the right. So they have to adopt that hooked style. As a right hander, you should slant the paper to the left. Now maybe you do, but the hooked position for a right hander is very odd. (I tried it. I can hardly do it.) It is really a darn shame that your teachers didn’t notice what was going on. On behalf of the teaching profession, I sincerely apologize! The workbook I am using to learn italic wriiting is “Write Now” by Getty and Dubay. I love it, but I am an accomplished Palmer writer who writes by hand a lot every day, so my experience might not be the same as someone in your situation. However, if you’d like to relearn handwriting, this, I think, is a good choice. It is specifically for adults.Thanks for sharing your unique experience!


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