The History and Demise of Cursive Writing

Cursive, the Secret Language of Adults 

Cursive letter

Cursive Handwriting – A Centuries-Old Art1


“For centuries, cursive handwriting has been an art. To a growing number of young people, it is a mystery. The sinuous letters of the cursive alphabet, swirled on countless love letters, credit card slips and banners above elementary school chalk boards are going the way of the quill and inkwell. With computer keyboards and smartphones increasingly occupying young fingers, the gradual death of the fancier ABC’s is revealing some unforeseen challenges.”


Sandy Schefkind, a pediatric occupational therapist in Bethesda, Md., and pediatric coordinator for the American Occupational Therapy Association said that learning cursive helped students hone their fine motor skills.

“It’s the dexterity, the fluidity, the right amount of pressure to put with pen and pencil on paper,” Ms. Schefkind said, adding that for some students cursive is easier to learn than printing.”


Cursive writing has been taught for over 300 years in U.S. schools and was once the principle way of communicating.  The teaching of handwriting in America may be divided into five periods based on the dominant influence or interest. These are:

  • Colonial Period, 1600-1800Closeup of blue inkwell and glasses on table filled with old mes
    • Writing skills were so highly esteemed that it was common to have schools devoted solely to the purpose of teaching this art.  The quill pen required so much of the school master’s time to make and keep them in order. The necessity for setting individual copies also took time that might have been spent in teaching the children to write. Birch bark was often used for copy books because of the cost of paper, and where paper was used it was rough and dark. In many cases, children ruled their own paper with a lead plummet, the forerunner of the lead pencil.

      Nutgalls, produced from excrements by various parasites, from fungi and bacteria to insects, mites, and wasps, are rich in resins and tannic acid and have been used in the manufacture of permanent inks (such as iron gall ink) and astringent ointments, in dying, and in tanning. A high-quality ink has long been made from the Aleppo gall, found on oaks in the Middle East; it is one of a number of galls resembling nuts and called “gallnuts” or “nutgalls”.

      Ink was made of nutgalls bruised in water with rusty nails.  The invention of lithography affected the teaching of handwriting favorably by providing a medium for the presentation of examples of good penmanship. From this time on copy-slips or copy-books of some kind took the place to a large extent of the “copy-setting” by the schoolmaster.


  • Transition Period, 1800-1850
    • Traditional-Cursive-ImageEarly colonists brought with them the hands and teaching methods of their native lands. A variety of hands were taught to be used in various occupations (e.g. law, accounting), or by different groups of people (e.g. university students, women, gentlemen, clerks). Instruction in reading came first; for many who came to the New World, the ability to read the Bible was necessary for all. The ability to write was required only of professionals, the well-born and their secretaries, and merchants and their clerks.There are two traceable teaching influences during this period–First, four or five guiding lines resembling the staff in music were used to measure exactly the height of the letters, and spacing was regulated by vertical cross lines. The elementary strokes as slants, curves, loops, and turns were taught first and identified by number. Second, muscular-movement writing. The manner of writing was of first importance and used in training for the proper movement. B. F. Foster introduced “muscular movement,” derived from Joseph Carstairs in England.  He said the system was “based on the unerring laws of nature as developed in the anatomy of the arms, hands, and fingers.” The fundamental theory is that an easy, flowing hand is only possible by the ease in the motion of the member of the body executing the movement.
  • Period of Independent Elaboration of American Systems, 1850-1890
    • The demand for more efficient writing led to the establishment of specialized writing classes in commercial schools. From these schools there came a number of cursive writing courses for use in public schools. One criticism about these courses was that their authors lacked childhood development awareness and so the courses failed to adapt the work to them.
  • Vertical-Writing Movement, 1890-19003
    • From France and Germany first, came the agitation for vertical writing; i.e., the front position and vertical writing were inefficient in correcting faults with posture or eyestrain and hindered writing speed and legibility. A slanted paper
      position was accepted as more desirable.
  • Combination of Commercial and Scientific Influences, 1900-19163
    • The Palmer Method was the dominant system of the twentieth century. A. N. Palmer introduced his system in the 1880s; by 1928, three-quarters of all school children in the United States were being taught by the Palmer method. The simple, unshaded letterforms were built for speed, taught by drill to establish “kinesthetic memory,” and written with a new technique based on arm movement.
    • Marjorie Wise, an English educator, brought manuscript writing to the United States in 1922, where it was first adopted by progressive schools, and rapidly increased in popularity to the extent that manuscript writing was included in the Palmer company materials. A major advantage of the system was that children could start learning to write at a younger age, with less developed motor skills. With manuscript writing, reading and writing were taught in parallel for the first time. Also, the introduction of manuscript writing was associated with the idea that children want to learn to write to communicate, although creative writing would not be standard until the 1950s.

People with Dysgraphia Encouraged to Use Cursive Writing Instead of Printing 4

Dysgraphia was first diagnosed in people in the 1940’s.  Typically, a dysgraphic person has a combination of fine-motor difficulty, inability to visualize letters, and an inability to remember the motor patterns of the letterforms.  For many children with dysgraphia, cursive writing had several advantages. It eliminated the necessity of picking up a pencil and deciding where to replace it after each stroke. Each letter started on the line, thus eliminating another potentially confusing decision for the writer. Cursive also has very few reversible letters, a typical source of trouble for people with dysgraphia. It eliminates word-spacing problems and gives words a flow and rhythm that enhances learning. For children who find it difficult to remember the motor patterns of letterforms, starting with cursive eliminates the traumatic transition from manuscript to cursive writing. Writers in cursive also have more opportunity to distinguish b, d, p, and q because the cursive letter formations for writing each of these letters is so different.

Art of Penmanship Increasingly Devalued in 19th and 20th Centuries

First typewriter

Christoper Latham Sholes, Inventor

After the first invention of the typewriter in 1867 by Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, typewriters quickly became indispensable tools for practically all writing other than personal correspondence. By the end of the 1980s, word processors and personal computers had largely displaced typewriters in the Western world.

Thus, penmanship became increasingly devalued or even ignored and its importance in the elementary school curriculum has diminished.  The declining emphasis on cursive writing has been attributed to the increasing use of technology, the growing proportion of class time spent preparing for standardized tests, and the perception that the time students spend learning to write in cursive could be better spent on more meaningful educational content. Those advocating cursive handwriting in the elementary school curriculum maintain that tests completed in cursive writing receive higher scores than those completed in block lettering and that learning cursive handwriting helps develop students’ reading, communication, and fine motor skills. They also note that without instruction in cursive writing, students won’t be able to read documents such as the Declaration of Independence, thereby compromising the accuracy of future historical research. And still, studies have shown that bad handwriting has led to lower grades in school; it may cause writers physical pain and mental distress, and an inappropriate grip on the writing instrument can lead to cramps and an inability to write with speed. The inability to keep up with one’s thoughts leads to frustration, which, in turn, can inhibit a child’s learning to compose. Illegible handwriting is a failed attempt at communication.

New Learning and Communications Tools of the 21st Century

With the twenty-first century came many technological opportunities for teachers and children. In decades past, educators and students were often restricted to standard materials such as paper, pencil, pen, school-issued textbooks, a chalkboard, then photocopiers, transparencies and overhead projectors. Today’s classrooms, however, often have a host of new items.  For example, interactive whiteboards or smart boards surpass all of those former tools and open up new educational horizons. Using accompanying Notebook software, teachers create interactive quizzes, games, and demonstrations that allow students to actively participate in the learning processes. The Internet makes everything available now within a finger’s reach!

Those wanting cursive writing gone from the elementary school curriculum contend that it is irrelevant and obsolete and that transitioning from manuscript to cursive writing interferes with the development of students’ handwriting skills. Research findings on the potentially harmful effects of transitioning from print to cursive have led some researchers to question the current system of learning two forms of writing and advocate instruction in only one handwriting style. Most experts agree that students’ skill and fluency in handwriting is more important than the style of handwriting taught.

Surveys conducted to find instructional practices in handwriting in elementary schools across the U.S. have discovered that most schools teach cursive handwriting in the latter part of the second grade or in third grade. Most teachers reported spending 12-15 minutes per day teaching cursive handwriting.  However, across school districts, there were significant variances in the amount of handwriting instruction they provided to students.

And, of course, in addition to the jump to the Internet and new mobile learning technologies within 21st-century classrooms, the 2010 Common Core Curriculum Standards (which is yet a whole other topic for discussion) do not mandate the teaching of cursive writing. And, a side note from a Huffington Post post of June 25, 2013:  “The United States routinely trails its rival countries in performances on international exams despite being among the heaviest spenders on education.” But, the article goes on to say that the U.S. also” was among only five nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a study that cut education funding”.  Add up all of these factors and constraints, and I guess we can see why cursive writing is going by the wayside–Unfortunately for us, just like so many other longstanding societal traditions.


1Katie Zezima, The New York Times, Published: April 27, 2011 “The Case for Cursive.”

2The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Dec. 1917), pp. 280-286; Published by The University of Chicago Press. “History of the Teaching of Handwriting in America,” Author(s): Mary L. Dougherty
Stable URL:


4Author: Ruthmary Deuel, M.D., Betty Sheffield, and Diana Hanbury King. Learning Disabilities of Ontario; “Dysgraphia: The Handwriting Learning Disability

5Gale Encyclopedia of Education:  Teaching of Handwriting


5 thoughts on “The History and Demise of Cursive Writing

    • Absolutely our children need to know how to communicate other than email or text. The best gift b I ever recieved was a hand written letter from my grandson when he first learned cursive. It wasn’t perfect but it was to me. Now I get texting or email. The perfect gift would be another letter, but now that is a lost art. So sad.


      • Thank you Sandra for your timely comment. I have been writing personal messages to my family members that I am including with a box of sweets as my special Christmas gift to them. We now have family spread across the country and there’s no better gift than receiving their personal takes on how life is treating them and responding to their questions about how we are doing.


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