Education · Handwriting

The Cursive Handwriting Debate Cries Out for a Definition of Terms

"The Hand," Oil on Canvas, Herbert Knapp
“The Hand,” Oil on Canvas, Herbert Knapp

Since this is National Handwriting Day, it seems like a good time to talk about whether or not we should teach cursive handwriting in elementary school. Almost everyone engaged in the debate, whether pro or con, assumes that a “cursive” handwriting style is one in which all letters are joined with swoops and festooned with loops. It is true that this is what millions of kids in U.S. schools have been taught over the years. The variation of looped cursive I was taught (the Palmer Method) looks like this:

Looped Cursive handwriting
Looped Cursive

But “cursive” simply means a “running” hand, in which pen lifts are minimized.  Fortunately, there is a preferable cursive alternative to the familiar looped varieties. For the past several weeks, I have been teaching myself cursive Italic handwriting with the aid of a workbook. This is the system of handwriting that is taught in European schools and in some private and US public schools as well. It is not a new idea, by any means. Italic handwriting has its roots in the Renaissance.  Sometimes the old ways are the best, in this case really old.

There are no loops in Italic handwriting, and not all letter combinations are joined. Yet cursive Italic provides the writer with the means of writing rapidly and consistently.

Italic Cursive handwriting
Italic Cursive

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Italic is that children transition from print to cursive without having to learn a whole new set of letter forms, as they do with a looped cursive hand. Poor little kids. Just when they are getting pretty good at printing, we start all over, usually in third grade, which requires them essentially to unlearn what they ‘ve been doing and learn something entirely different. It’s no wonder that so many opponents of “cursive” are so vehement in their opposition.The printed form that precedes looped cursive involves several pen strokes and is written with the paper held vertically. Sometimes called “ball and stick,” it looks like this:

Ball and Stick handwriting
Ball and Stick

The printed form of Italic, on the other hand, is slightly slanted, just like the cursive form, and many of the letters are formed with only one stroke of the pen. The transition to the cursive form of Italic occurs in second grade when children are taught to join the letter forms they already know. This is printed Italic:

Print Italic handwriting
Print Italic

But why teach cursive handwriting at all? Do we really need it?

This is the argument opponents of cursive handwriting make: They say we don’t need to write by hand because nowadays we almost always communicate written language with the aid of an electronic device.  When we need to communicate by hand, we can just print. We should not waste class time teaching something we don’t  need.

But that is a very narrow definition of “need.” There is some evidence that the fine muscular control demanded of those learning to write rapidly and continuously by hand yields benefits far beyond the ability to produce a grocery list.There is apparently a vital connection between the brain and the hand that comes into play when one writes connecting letters. I think that this is where the most powerful argument for retaining cursive handwriting in the classroom resides.

There is no doubt that the writing of cursive requires different, more complex movements than tapping a keyboard or printing unconnected letters. The personal experience of those of us who write a lot by hand and the experience of many teachers suggest that the ability to write a flowing hand facilitates creativity, helps memory and promotes learning.

So I say let’s get rid of the wasteful practice of teaching ball and stick printing , drop the loop-de-loop form of cursive that has given so many people fits, and introduce a more efficient, simpler way of teaching kids to connect their letters and eventually develop a mature, legible, and graceful cursive hand.

I intend to return to this subject in future posts. I am particularly interested in finding out what research has been done on the brain/hand connection and how it might influence our opinion about the need for cursive writing. If you’d like to follow along, type your email in the “follow” box and you will receive all future posts by email. Or you can bookmark this site and check in from time to time.

And I’d love to hear your ideas about cursive in our schools. Just leave your comment below. For more on cursive handwriting, type the word “cursive” in the search box.

The workbook I am using to learn Italic is Write Now by Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay. It is designed for the use of adults who want to improve their handwriting.

19 thoughts on “The Cursive Handwriting Debate Cries Out for a Definition of Terms

  1. Mrs. Knapp,

    It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that new tricks can’t be taught to this old dog. But, you’re older than I am, and you’re tackling it. I’ll be darned if I’ll let you out-youth me!

    Not only that, but I’ve struggled my whole life with extremely poor cursive skills, with a form so bad that it hurts my hand after writing for a few minutes. So, when I do write, I resort to printing as my cursive is so bad that later on, often I can’t read what I wrote. I print in all upper case, using a double underscore for any letters to be capitalized.

    I’m not sure how much someone my age “needs” to learn better handwriting, but I do enough handwriting, and I’m so bad at doing it, that I think it would be very fulfilling if I can make improvements on what has been one of my weakest skills during my whole life.

    I’m excited about using a whole different approach: Italic Cursive. Because, I really didn’t (and still don’t) see a way for me to get better with the poor job I do with Looped Cursive. Been there, done that for a long time, getting nowhere.

    I purchased the book from Amazon, and I’ll let you know how things go. Who knows? Maybe one day I can actually write you a letter….that you could read.

    Thank you,

    Paul

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    1. How great is this! The student returns for post-graduate work on cursive. I’m delighted that you are going to give italic a try. I honestly don’t know why we haven’t been teaching this way of writing all along. Just be patient. And for goodness sake, slant your paper slightly to the left—counter clockwise (you are right handed, right?) You’ll find before and after pictures of handwriting in the book that will encourage you. And let me know how you get along with it. Best of luck!

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  2. I’m so excited about your blog on handwriting, Italic Cursive and your future research and findings, Mrs. Knapp – may we call you Mary now that we’re all adults? Having always marveled at the complexity of the Japanese Kanji characters and their devotion to the art of calligraphy and the number (in the thousands) of letterforms to master…our written letters should be so easy to learn! But they’re not – just a source of frustration and a sense of failure for some. Italic cursive sounds like a happy medium! Is handwriting obsolete? According to this Discovery Channel blog: “Research conducted using magnetic resonance imaging has shown that handwriting can bolster a child’s ability to form and express ideas, and it might even aid the development of fine motor skills. When children write, enormous areas of the brain that handle our thoughts, language and working (“temporary”) memory light up on brain imagery screens like streetlights at dusk. Another study found that children in early grades tended to write faster, use more words and communicate a broader range of ideas when writing by hand as opposed to using a keyboard. There’s just something about sequentially building words and sentences out of individual letter shapes that sets the brain on fire.” Wow – so glad we learned handwriting and cursive!

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    1. Thanks so much for this information. You’re right; so many people seem to have had really negative experiences trying to learn to write cursive. It shouldn’t be difficult and frustrating. And I don’t think it needs to be. Am looking forward to researching the need for handwriting. Will check out the Discovery Channel blog. Thanks, Edie.

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  3. At last, some common sense and an INFORMED opinion about our handwritten heritage. Why does almost everyone in America think that looped cursive is the original handwriting? It is in fact the left -over remnant of the ghastly copper engraved hand of the 18th century, when the pen was abandoned and the engravers’ burin took over. It was looped because the engraver had to write back to front on the printing plate and would get lost without a continuous line.
    Italic is merely the original Italian hand from which our whole handwritten alphabet originates. Barbara Getty’s books are superb. I can also suggest my own European based book to help adults also available from Amazon
    ‘Improve Your English Handwriting Skills’ by Christopher Jarman

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    1. Thanks! Christopher Jarman is one of the best writers on (and in) italic that I know … I am pleased and amazed that he found the time to stop by and I fully endorse his book recommendations.
      Do you have a web-site, Christopher? When I visited what I thought had been the address of your site, there was nothing there any more. I feared the worst for you.

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    2. Reply to Christopher Jarman: How interesting! I wonder myself why we assume that looped cursive is THE way to write. The more I practice Italic, the better I like it. And I am an accomplished Palmer writer. I write somewhere between 300-500 words in long hand every day. But I think I will eventually make the transition after all these years. I’ll order your book right now and add to my collection Thanks for writing

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    3. The sorry state of handwriting instruction has become an educational battleground. It is heartening to see articles like yours, Ms. Knapp. Italic has been tried and tossed aside too often, only to return to that disastrous print-script-to-loopy cursive. I have been successfully teaching and preaching italic for many years. When an italic program fails within a school there are two reasons. Teachers have had no preparation to teach italic, and it’s easier to fallback on what’s familiar. Administrators are equally in the dark, and succumb to whatever a publisher’s salesperson offers.

      My publications are also available on Amazon or you can have a look at them at http://www.bfhhandwriting.com

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      1. It should be obvious to any educator that attempting to switch children from one set of habits to another after two years of instruction is insane. I really don’t see why this has gone on for so many years. Italic is easy to learn, permits of rapid writing, and is beautiful to boot! Thanks for weighing in. I’ll be sure to check out your materials.

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  4. Very interesting. I can tell you that when I write lyrics I almost always write them in long hand. Very rarely on the computer. And it is a sort of combo cursive/italic that I developed. There is a very real creative flow between the brain and the hand, I have no doubt. There is also a privacy that you don’t get with a keyboard. Having a private conversation with yourself. Sort of like talking to yourself but even deeper and more private.

    I love Herb’s painting of the hand. And hello to Paul and Edie!

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    1. I hadn’t thought of it this way, but you’re absolutely right. I remember when I learned that Barbara Bush wrote her journal on the computer, I thought, “How odd—and how unsatisfactory that would be.” And this is why. Writing by hand puts you more closely in touch with yourself, I think.

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  5. To Kate Gladstone,
    No, I do not support a website anymore, but Google is your friend! There are numerous references to my stuff. Those interested may like to download my free Jarman handwriting font from many websites. It is useful for first-grade teachers who have not yet mastered a flowing hand themselves..

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  6. My thoughts: documents that originally formed the US – the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and all the rest – in two short generations, the original documents will be as unreadable as hieroglyphics…and I rather worry also that the current method of documentation carries far too many editable fields, if you can understand. So, rather than the aesthetic concerns, creative flow, and the other intangibles, mine’s a slightly more political curiosity, if that makes sense. “What history doesn’t teach…”…if the history is rewritten, what happens next? Again, just curious.

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    1. While reading your comment, I thought of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” However, I don’t think that in two or three generations nobody will be able to read the founding documents. I’m told by Kate Gladstone, noted handwriting authority, who comments elsewhere, that it is extremely easy to learn to read cursive if you already know how to read. Not necessary to write it to learn to read it. There will be those who will teach the reading of cursive in the future. This doesn’t mean that the constitution will not come under threat from other directions, however. So maybe your dystopian view is not unwarranted after all.

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      1. I would further point out that parts of the Constitution (and of the Declaration) are written in “Olde English Script” a/k/a Blackletter: a form of writing otherwise seen on the masthead of the NEW YORK TIMES, and vastly different from anything that children today (or at any time within the past several centuries) have been taught to use for handwriting.

        Probably no one reading this message can write so much as “We the People” (or “The New York Times”) in Blackletter script, although we have seen and read these words (in such script) hundreds of times in our lives.
        People who urge a mandate of cursive in elementary school because they suppose that there is only one way to learn to read some particular kind of letter — namely, to have been taught to write it — must therefore explain why they are not similarly, and for the same rationale, urging a mandate of Blackletter. For that matter, they should be further asked why they are not out to require the elementary schools to teach students to print the letter “a” as it is printed in most type-fonts — in this font, for instance — since this too is something that we are not taught to write although we are taught to read it. (Nobody argues that “banana” and “Alabama” are incomprehensible to anyone who has not learned to write an “a” that way.)

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  7. Thanks, Kate. It is strange that this is the first argument most people give for retaining cursive teaching. And it is the weakest argument of all —in fact it is no argument at all.

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  8. Other than the computer, I use no other electronic devices, and I do not use social media. I find that I substitute words, writing phonetically. I was horrified, more than once, to see that I had used ‘your” for “you are,” one of the most constant faults I see in reader comments. How taxing is it to understand a simple contraction? How much more time does it take for that ‘re? Not much.

    The neurophysiology involved in hand to brain, brain to hand, to paper is completely different than fingers to keyboard. Nicholas Carr in his book, “How the Internet Ate My Brain,” is in agreement that there is a loss of brain function when we cease to write by hand. (This poor sentence composition is another effect. It used to be that I knew how to use the language. That’s gone, and not returning). My attention span, which was never noteworthy, is even shorter, although I can write a response like this endlessly…on and on and on and on. (Very egocentric). But to read and analyze mildly complex writing? The mind isn’t there to do it, and that puts my reading and comprehension skills on the order of a two year old.

    I don’t think that William Steig had the abolition of language and thinking in mind when he wrote “C D B.”

    PS You used a denominalization that I abhor, but one that I will, no doubt, find myself using one of these days – “transition” in “that children transition from” aaaaargh

    PPS Think of all the handwriting analysts that will be out of a job.

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  9. I’m joining the discussion late, and honored to be part of this group of commentators who are luminaries in handwriting (Barchowsky, Jarman and Gladstone). I’m grateful for your mention, Mary, of the Getty-Dubay Italic program. I’m sure that Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay would point out how many options there are with learning italic; not just with the excellent programs by Barchowsky, Jarman, Sassoon and Getty-Dubay but within each italic program, the student is in the driver’s seat when it comes to join options and other aspects of writing, unlike conventional cursive programs, which tend to limit student choice, especially when it comes to joins.

    In the typical American middle-school classroom where conventional looped cursive has been taught in elementary school grades, only about 35% of students will continue using conventional cursive, roughly 8% will print (some in all caps — no matter what you tray to do to persuade them otherwise) and the rest (about half) will make up their own handwriting mixing print and letterforms they see in type. 15% of high school seniors use conventional cursive. In what other curriculum is a 15 – 35% retention rate acceptable? Italic is the handwriting style that can serve the majority of students — those who have no interest in joining every single letter — and gives them choice.

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