The Lost Art of Penmenship

JoAnna Hofstaedter

Qs were my least favorite. To a third grader re-learning to write the alphabet in cursive, the capital letter, which looked eerily similar to the number two, seemed confusing and unnecessary. Why did we need a whole different alphabet anyway? Print had worked just fine for me up until that point. Still, I labored over my handwriting workbook, determined to perfect my loops and swirls, because my teacher warned us that once we got to middle school and high school, we would have to write every single assignment in cursive. That empty threat ended up being one of the biggest lies of my childhood. Never again was I required to write in cursive after elementary school aside from penning my signature. Instead, all my papers were turned in typed 12 point Times New Roman font double-spaced. My experience is not uncommon. The movement away from cursive is a national trend. When the SAT added a writing section to the College Board exam, it became quite obvious that high school students preferred print to cursive. Only 15% of those taking the exam used cursive (Cassidy). So what does this trend mean for the future? Reflecting the changing technological landscape and educational ideals, the shift away from cursive may have unintended academic, social, and physical consequences.

One could argue that the shift away from cursive is not a shift at all but a natural progression, a continuum of our historical need for speed. After all, the sinuous font has its roots in time efficiency. Cursive reduces the number of pen lifts in writing as each letter flows into the next. This quality was particularly advantageous when the quill pen was the primary writing instrument. In order to form the strokes and loops that characterize the font, the pen had to be held at an angle and slid sideways, which prevented unsightly ink blotches from forming on the paper. Less pen lifts also meant less down time between letters, increasing writing speed. Both of these advantages are commonly linked to the origins of cursive (Nelson). In 1870, Austin Norman Palmer developed the Palmer Method, a type of penmanship instruction that emphasized speed to accommodate the “quickening pace of business in America” (“Palmer Method of Penmanship”). The simplified cursive produced by this method could be written more rapidly than the previously popular ornate styles and the time-consuming block print. As a faster alternative, Palmer cursive quickly gained popularity in school curriculums across the country.

When the personal computer stepped onto the scene in the 1980s, a technological revolution was underway. Compositions could be created with unparalleled swiftness and ease on the computer, and handwriting was beginning to fall out of favor. Even for so-called slow typers, there could be little dispute that when it came to shifting sentences and rearranging text, the computer reined supreme (“Cursive, Foiled Again”). Thus, it was in the editing process where the keyboard finally proved itself mightier than the pen. Today, typing is widely regarded the most efficient form of writing. Cursive was an advancement over block print, and now typing has surpassed cursive in the speed hierarchy. A form of handwriting that was originally developed for its efficiency is now being ousted for the same reason. Here stands the argument that our timesaving logic has not changed – just our technology.

Our thinking has changed though. Yes, efficiency has always been important to us, but our desire for quickness has taken on a whole new flavor. Immediate gratification is the new mindset. It has gotten to the point where most people have zero tolerance for even the slightest delay. Handwriting is a slow and deliberate process. Many people lack the patience to sit down and write a letter when an email or text can get the same job done with just a few clicks on the keyboard. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration reports that 90 percent of American school age children use computers, and most are able to “type 20 or 30 words per minute by the time they leave elementary school” (Konrad). With such technology at our disposable, it is hard to convince the younger generation of the merits of handwriting. Why spend an hour handwriting an essay when the same assignment can be completed in half the time on the computer?

Some psychologists have theorized that our computer dependency is actually altering the way we think and rewiring our brains. CIBER deep log studies have collected data that suggests a growing trend researchers call the “anthropomorphization” of technology. In other words, people expect technological devices to respond with the same immediacy as another human being (Williams and Rowlands). And while there is currently no scientific research to back up the claim, an article published in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” proposes the idea that the transient nature of surfing the internet has caused individuals to lose the ability to focus when reading large chunks of text. Instead, many people simply skim over lengthy articles or books, unable to concentrate for an extended period of time (Carr). Harvard professor of psychiatry, Dr. John Ratey, coined the term “acquired attention deficit disorder” to describe the phenomenon (Brissman). So perhaps the movement away from cursive and handwriting in general should be viewed from the opposite end: instead of an increased sense of efficiency, maybe the shift simply reflects a loss of patience.

While computers have definitely reshaped our lifestyles, many argue that the shift away from cursive instruction is not so much a consequence of technology, but a result of a change in educational values. With high stakes testing and AYP goals, teachers are under intense pressure to meet state standards. Often times, standardized test preparation chews up the instructional time for subjects that do not appear on exams such as physical education, music, and art. A survey of elementary school principals’ perceptions of the academic value of different subjects found that art ranked last on the list. Math, science, and language arts were the highest rated (Siegel). It’s no surprise that these are the subjects most commonly tested on state exams. Handwriting would most likely fall under a category similar to art, a portion of the curriculum first on the chopping block when other higher priority subjects take the spotlight. A frequently cited study by Vanderbilt’s Steve Graham found that grade school teachers reported spending and average of 14 minutes on daily handwriting instruction, “far shorter than the 45 daily minutes recommended in the 1960s and 1970s, and slightly less than the 15 minutes mandated in the 1980s” (Harris). The reality is there just isn’t enough time to devote to cursive instruction like there used to be. Jill Kennet, a veteran teacher of 23 years, sums up the general sentiment within the education community when she laments, “We have so many requirements that we have to teach, that I’m afraid [cursive is] going to go by the wayside…[it] is kind of sad. It used to be an art form” (Cassidy). Unfortunately, artistic expression has been removed from the classroom as other subjects have taken precedence.

Handwriting no longer holds as powerful as an influence in today’s society. As artist Michael Sull puts it, “Penmanship these days is thought of as a vestigial organ because it’s not translated into dollars, like computer skills” (Konrad). Good penmanship used to be an asset in the business world, but now companies want employees who can type fast with expertise in programs such as Word and Excel. Schools have responded by adapting their curriculums to include keyboarding instruction. In 2009, the Common Core Standards Initiative was introduced as a framework of the knowledge and skills all students should have acquired by the end of their high school careers in order to “succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs” (“About the Standards”). Keyboarding proficiency is included as an objective in the standards while handwriting is noticeably omitted. At this time, forty-five states have adopted the standards. For states such as Indiana, Illinois, and Hawaii who have eliminated cursive from the mandatory curriculum, the decision to include handwriting instruction is up to the discretion of individual school districts and principals (Hawaii). As penmanship is increasingly perceived to be an arbitrary skill, it seems it won’t be much longer before it is completely erased from American school curriculums.

With states across the nation eagerly adopting these new guidelines, Texas stands as a dissenter. As one of the few states that has yet to adopt the core standards, it is also one of the few states that continues to require cursive instruction in grades first through third (Garner). Why would a state still endorse what is widely considered to be an anachronism in modern society? Supporters of cursive instruction worry about the implications of losing a time-honored skill. Aside from the demise of an art form, failure to be able to read/write in cursive could render some historical documents indecipherable to a new generation. A whole trove of primary sources might lose meaning to scholars unable to make sense of the fancy script. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are both important relics of United States history. As such, they have both been transcribed numerous times and are available in print and online. But do we lose part of our culture and our identity if we cannot read the documents as they were originally written?

As our relationship to our past wanes, our personal relationships also take a hit. An email does not convey the same sense of sincerity as a handwritten letter. Computer-generated text is devoid of character and personality with its neatly spaced rows and uniformly perfect letters. On the other hand, handwriting can reveal a lot about a person. Psychology has made a science out of the meaning behind the way a person slants his/her words across a page or dots the letter “i”. Some graphologists can even extract gender, age, and socioeconomic status from a writing sample. Each person’s handwriting is as unique as his/her fingerprint, the slight nuances providing a window into his/her soul. You could equate the slight variations of handwriting to body language; without it, there is a lost depth to interaction. Thus, it widely viewed as disrespectful to send something as important as condolences over email. There is huge margin of difference in candor between the mailbox and the inbox, and yet, more and more of personal correspondence is becoming electronic. Prizing content over style, communication is being reduced to the message alone.

In addition to social repercussions, the death of cursive may also have unintended consequences on physical development. Cursive is naturally a more complex form of penmanship than block print, requiring the “maturation and integration of sensorimotor, perceptual, and cognitive skills” (Ikonomakis). Even a child who writes in beautiful print starts off writing in cursive with a shaky hand, comparable to a newborn gazelle testing out its legs for the first time. It is a completely different, and arguably more challenging, form of writing to master. It follows that in school districts where it is no longer taught, clinics have seen a soaring increase in occupational therapy referrals for children who lack the vital fine motor skills necessary for handwriting (Cassidy). This deficiency can have detrimental effects in performance in other areas where children need to be able to manipulate small objects. If we look to the future, it is possible that the physical component of writing may be eliminated entirely. We may only have to speak our thoughts out loud while a computer transcribes our words for us. It is not a farfetched idea stolen from the pages of a science fiction novel. The technology has already been created and is available in the form of an app on smartphones. The demise of penmanship could portend bad things for the future of physical development.

So perhaps cursive isn’t as arbitrary in today’s world as it seems. Maybe we should take the time to slow down. Perfect those loops and swirls. Send a letter through the snail mail. Try and remember what our third grade teachers taught us. The movement away from cursive reflects advancements in technology as well as new educational standards. However, it is also reshaping our lifestyles in ways we could have never imagined. Whether the shift is for the better or for the worse, it can be safely assumed that the trend will continue in this direction, away from pens and paper and towards keyboards and printers. But at least for now, the lost art of penmanship isn’t lost yet. It appears that the confusing cursive capital Q still has a few years of life left to torment ten year olds in their handwriting workbooks. So here’s to you, Mr. Q. Despite the grief you gave me, I am grateful I still remember a form of writing that might soon go the way of hieroglyphics, an true art in its own right.

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