Mourning the Death of Handwriting

By Claire Suddath

I can't remember how to write a capital Z in cursive. The rest of my letters are shaky and stiff, my words slanted in all directions. It's not for lack of trying. In grade school I was one of those insufferable girls who used pink pencils and dotted their i's with little circles. I experimented with different scripts, and for a brief period I even took the time to make two-story a's, with the fancy overhang used in most fonts (including this magazine's). But everything I wrote, I wrote in print. I am a member of Gen Y, the generation that shunned cursive. And now there is a group coming after me, a boom of tech-savvy children who don't remember life before the Internet and who text-message nearly as much as they talk. They have even less need for good penmanship. We are witnessing the death of handwriting.

People born after 1980 tend to have a distinctive style of handwriting: a little bit sloppy, a little bit childish and almost never in cursive. The knee-jerk explanation is that computers are responsible for our increasingly illegible scrawl, but Steve Graham, a special-education and literacy professor at Vanderbilt University, says that's not the case. The simple fact is that kids haven't learned to write neatly because no one has forced them to. "Writing is just not part of the national agenda anymore," he says.

Cursive started to lose its clout back in the 1920s, when educators theorized that because children learned to read by looking at books printed in manuscript rather than cursive, they should learn to write the same way. By World War II, manuscript, or print writing, was in standard use across the U.S. Today schoolchildren typically learn print in kindergarten, cursive in third grade. But they don't master either one. Over the decades, daily handwriting lessons have decreased from an average of 30 minutes to 15.

Zaner-Bloser, the nation's largest supplier of handwriting manuals, offers coursework through the eighth grade but admits that these days, schools rarely purchase materials beyond the third grade. The company, which is named for two men who ran a penmanship school back when most business documents were handwritten, occasionally modifies its alphabet according to cultural tastes and needs.

Handwriting has never been a static art. The Puritans simplified what they considered hedonistically elaborate letters. Nineteenth century America fell in love with loopy, rhythmic Spencerian script (think Coca-Cola: the soft-drink behemoth's logo is nothing more than a company bookkeeper's handiwork), but the early 20th century favored the stripped-down, practical style touted in 1894's Palmer Guide to Business Writing.

The most recent shift occurred in 1990, when Zaner-Bloser eliminated all superfluous adornments from the so-called Zanerian alphabet. "They were nice and pretty and cosmetic," says Kathleen Wright, the company's national product manager, "but that isn't the purpose of handwriting anymore. The purpose is to get a thought across as quickly as possible." One of the most radical overhauls was to Q, after the U.S. Postal Service complained that people's sloppy handwriting frequently caused its employees to misread the capital letter as the number 2.

I entered third grade in 1990, the year of the great alphabet change. My teacher, Linda Garcia at Central Elementary in Wilmette, Ill., says my class was one of the last to learn the loops and squiggles. "For a while I'd show my kids both ways," she says. "But the new alphabet is easier for them, so now I just use that one."

Garcia, who has been teaching for 32 years, says her children consider cursive a "rite of passage" and are just as excited to learn it as ever. But once they leave her classroom, it's a different story. She doesn't know any teachers in the upper grades who address the issue of handwriting, and she frequently sees her former students reverting to old habits. "They go back to sloppy letters and squished words," she says. "Handwriting is becoming a lost art."

Why? Technology is only part of the reason. A study published in the February issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology found that just 9% of American high school students use an in-class computer more than once a week. The cause of the decline in handwriting may lie not so much in computers as in standardized testing. The Federal Government's landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk, on the dismal state of public education, ushered in a new era of standardized assessment that has intensified since the passage in 2002 of the No Child Left Behind Act. "In schools today, they're teaching to the tests," says Tamara Thornton, a University of Buffalo professor and the author of a history of American handwriting. "If something isn't on a test, it's viewed as a luxury." Garcia agrees. "It's getting harder and harder to balance what's on the test with the rest of what children need to know," she says. "Reading is on there, but handwriting isn't, so it's not as important." In other words, schools don't care how a child holds her pencil as long as she can read. (Read "No More Pencils, No More Bics.")

Is that such a bad thing? Except for physicians — whose illegible handwriting on charts and prescription pads causes thousands of deaths a year — penmanship has almost no bearing on job performance. And aside from the occasional grocery list or Post-it note, most adults write very little by hand. The Emily Post Institute recommends sending a handwritten thank-you but says it doesn't matter whether the note is in cursive or print, as long as it looks tidy. But with the declining emphasis in schools, neatness is becoming a rarity.

"I worry that cursive will go the way of Latin and that eventually we won't be able to read it," says Garcia. "What if 50 years from now, kids can't read the Declaration of Independence?"

I am not bothered by the fact that I will never have beautiful handwriting. My printing will always be fat and round and look as if it came from a 12-year-old. And let's be honest: the Declaration of Independence is already hard to read. We are living in the age of social networks and frenzied conversation, composing more e-mails, texting more messages and keeping in touch with more people than ever before. Maybe this is the trade-off. We've given up beauty for speed, artistry for efficiency. And yes, maybe we are a little bit lazy.

Cursive's demise is due in part to the kind of circular logic espoused by Alex McCarter, a 15-year-old in New York City. He has such bad handwriting that he is allowed to use a computer on standardized tests. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that only 0.3% of high school students receive this particular accommodation. McCarter's mother tried everything to help him improve his penmanship, including therapy, but the teenager likes his special status. "I kind of want to stay bad at it," he says. These days, that shouldn't be a problem.



Vivian said...

I still read your blog (after the last blog swap on swap-bot! I'm newbatteri)

I remember 3rd grade was the year we learned how to write in cursive. I still write in cursive to this day!

The Woman said...

Never thought about this, but it's so true!

We're about the same age, so I also learned cursive, but I remember the kids from a few grades down did not lear cursive anymore, they were taught some strange hybrid between cursive and print that didn't make sense even to them.

I myself have always loved to write, but I find myself getting tired when having to write a whole page for example, just because most of my work is centred around a computer.

I really hope the art of handwriting doesn't die out - there's just nothing as special as receiving a handwritten letter.

Anonymous said...

Wow...I never thought of that. Maybe it IS because of computers? My handwritting is pretty bad too. -Meian

anwyn said...

I am another of these who can't write in cursive though i think i was never taught properly. As a primary school teacher i aim toget my kids i can read their writing if it's in cursive thats great. If not i'm not much of a good role model to tell them off.

interesting blog though thanks

jcblink said...

wow, I still remember learning cursive back in private school. I use to hate it so much because we were graded on it and mine cursive writing is horrible. Surprisingly enough, my husband still uses cursive but man is it ugly.

BeckyKay said...

I am absolutely fascinated by handwriting and could go on and on about it, but I won't do that right here! LOL!

Once upon a time, I had very nice handwriting. Then I became a medical receptionist who took hundreds of handwritten messages everyday. My handwriting has never been the same since. In fact, my handwriting has become an office joke in my new career.

I remember that when I learned to print it was in a style called D'Nealian which was supposed to make learning cursive a bit easier, and it made sense.

My son just finished kindergarten. He tends to struggle with not writing the letters just exactly as they are supposed to be. His writing is legible, but doesn't fit the exact mold. I find myself saying, "So what? Is it really THAT important?"

Okay, sorry about the essay! Great blog!

iCandyPhoto said...

I remember learning to write too! Its definitely an art form and i am currently re-learning (if that makes sense) using Heidi Swapps Love your Handwriting book and workbook... This is a really interesting article. Love it. My handwriting is pretty bad but I always had to handwrite all my school projects etcetera so im a little neater than people i live with actually but theyre boys :P
CDonovan - Swapbot

Kiwi Littleoak said...

Excellent article! I've thought a lot about this as well. I'm part of the group that HAD to write cursive in school. I was born in 1990. In second grade, we were taught by a very strict teacher to write in cursive. I believe many of my teachers made us hand in hand-written papers with cursive. By the time we got to junior high, we were all sick of the stupid text because it was so easy to slur words together when you were trying to write fast and print was so much EASIER. But at least we still KNEW cursive.

I have many different fonts. I have my most common itty-bitty font that everyone loves and comments on. I have my font that's closer to calligraphy, with many long drops and loops. I have my upright cursive for people who can only read if it's not tilted, as if it were text. I have my slanted cursive, for my journal and when writing to those I know who do cursive well. I have many others.

I get ceaseless comments on how fantastic my hand writing is. People are in awe over it as they respond with chicken scratch, and they wonder how I do it. It astounds me. It's not THAT hard to have good handwriting--just a bit of practice!

I can adjust my font any time, I just write the alphabet a few times the way I want it to be. I've consciously changed my writing style many times in my life, from my big preppy junior high writing with star i's and glitter pens to my efficient tiny writing with blue ball-point in high school. I type 100 wpm as well, so it can't be said that I communicate worse when it's not hand-written--I grew up learning to spell on a keyboard, so technology couldn't be used as an excuse for me.

It's ridiculous how easy it is to learn handwriting, how USEFUL it is (I was in medical billing--it would have saved SO MUCH TIME and SO MANY MISTAKES if doctor's could just write legibly!) yet how few people bother now. To hear it isn't being taught...that does make me sad, to be honest.

- Kiwi / CarbonxKiwi (SB)

Candice said...

interesting post. The school where I teach just recently began teaching cursive as a part of the curriculum again. Veteran teachers I've talked to say it's one of those things - like phonics for reading - that goes in and out of style.

Angelina said...

I totally agree... I'm around your age... and I never really thought about this, but... as I read this.. I was nodding.. smiling.. chuckling.. TOO FUNNY!!!!

so glad I was sent here from the blog swap from swap-bot!! I enjoy meeting new people!!

lovepossum said...

i had to laugh as i was already subscribed to your blog! I really enjoyed this article and have wondered that the go was for the big change in handwriting! As always interesting and enlightening articles! Keep it up!