Friday, September 16, 2011

COLLECTION #56: Vintage School Penmanship Books

Do they even do this any more in elementary school? I've heard that cursive writing has gone the way of the dinosaur. Modern children learn to print, but rarely do schools teach the fundamentals of writing in script. I'm sure that's a relief to a lot of children with poor handwriting skills, but it's a shame from a cultural standpoint.  No longer will people have strongly identifiable handwriting. (I love reading my parents and grandparents' writing: letters, postcards and the like. My sisters both have lovely handwriting, distinctive and individual. Lynne's is formal and beautiful, Leslie's is casual and artistic) Can one even tell one printing style from the next? I'm sure there are good reasons to eliminate handwriting (or 'penmanship') from the school curriculum, but I can't think of any. I know computers and spell check have taken the place of handwriting and spelling, but somehow, it's a sad day when the art of the pen is on the verge of being lost forever. And how, pray tell, will the young people who today are not learning handwriting, going to read handwriting in the future? The researchers of tomorrow might have problems reading Abraham Lincoln's writing, George Washington's letters, Great Aunt Wilma's shopping list)

But I digress. These fun little exercise books are memorable for those of us who remember daily penmanship drills.... getting that angle of the paper perfect (and feeling sorry for the left-handers who had to write in a convoluted, backhand kind of way). It looks like the poor little boy who owned this book below struggled to mimic the book's perfect script. I'm sure many of you suffered likewise.


KateGladstone said...

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 )

Reading cursive still matters -- this 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.

A few people still even 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.

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

Stefanie Eskander said...

Well, Kate- you'll probably never read my reply, but I must say, that you don't say anything here that changes my mind that our losing the tradition and practice of cursive writing is a loss to society. Speed, clarity- I'm sure I can print faster than I can write. I personally haven't used cursive since the 9th grade, when I abandoned it as a protest against conformity. But I doubt very much that a five or six year old can be taught to read cursive in 30-60 minutes. Really? If that were the case, we would have started writing & reading cursive in kindergarten.
Oh well, the point of my blog entry wasn't to advocate for cursive writing, but merely to acknowledge the loss of an educational and cultural tradition that seems to have gone the way of the Dodo. And I mourn it.