Review Essay: Cursive Handwriting, Penmanship, and Learning

If there has been one constant in my 16 years of service in urban schools (besides the gross institutional dysfunction, I mean), it has been the interest in cursive writing among the students I’ve served. Just to make sure the context for this assertion is solid, I’ve worked with kids in grades six through twelve in five different schools–two in Manhattan, two in The Bronx, and one in Springfield Massachusetts. In all these schools, among the students I’ve served, there has been more or less universal interest in cursive–including among the toughest, most alienated kids.

There is much to recommend that teachers yield to students’ interest in cursive handwriting and penmanship. While it appears that one’s signature need not be in cursive on legal contracts, it is still, according to the informative article under that hyperlink, the best approach when inscribing an identifying mark on a legal document. That said, there is a growing body of research on cursive writing that links it with a variety of skills and understandings that make a powerful case for retaining it as a classroom activity, particularly for younger students.

Generally speaking, one need only search (as I just did) a term like “research on cursive writing and learning” to find a plethora of review essays that cite research on the link between cursive writing and learning–particularly learning for retention. For example, this article from three Italian scholars of education reports on links between early cursive training and the development of literacy skills. It should come as no surprise that cursive helps children develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, as this article from Psychology Today reports. From the pages of my union’s magazine, NEA Today comes this squib on teaching cursive–I particularly recommend scrolling down to the bottom of the article and reading the comments, which are in themselves informative. Finally, a scholar at Indiana University, which clearly is a center of this research, named Karin James has done quite a bit of work on handwriting and learning; indeed, she appears to be the go-to expert on the subject.

If you’re looking, however, for a shortcut to understanding the importance of handwriting and penmanship to learning, then you might want to read this article from Steve Graham, a professor of education at Arizona State University (and formerly the Currey Ingram Professor of Special Education and Literacy at Vanderbilt University) from the Winter 2009-2010 number of the American Federation of Teachers Excellent quarterly, The American EducatorI can’t remember where I grabbed it, because I inadvertently downloaded it while researching this essay (after a period of work, I noticed it on my desktop, having no idea where it originated), but this PDF answers the question “Why Teach Cursive?” quite concisely.

The conspectus in the preceding paragraph represents only the most cursory research on my part into the importance of cursive. I took a quick look in ERIC (the Educational Resources Information Center), which featured 51 abstracts on the efficacy of teaching cursive writing as an adjunct to a variety of other means of building literacy in kids. My point here is quite simple, so I’ll stop belaboring it: there is ample research on handwriting and penmanship to support its inclusion in classrooms, particularly in the primary grades.

Then there is simply this: for many of the students I’ve served who expressed an interest in learning cursive, it was the one thing in which they were willing to engage. These are students that if I hadn’t worked up an impromptu cursive curriculum, they would not have bothered to come to school. For many students, the promise of cursive work was what induced them to attend school at all.

There are a number of ways to approach cursive, and I have let students’ interest guide me in my approach to designing a course of study for them. This year, I was surprised that a few students wanted to take a crack at the Spencerian Method of cursive writing. Contrived by a fascinating eccentric named Platt Rogers Spencer (to his credit, he was an ardent abolitionist, which would have been considered an eccentricity in his time), the style is highly ornate and stylized: you know it because the logos of Coca-Cola and the Ford Motor Company are both in Spencerian script.

For classroom use, happily, there are a number of materials available. First of all, while Spencer’s own Theory Book and Copy Books are in print and available (as clicking on that hyperlink will show you) at Amazon, the book is also, because its copyright long ago expired, available as a PDF for free download. There is a very nice lady, with whom I corresponded about including her in this post, named Dawn Nicole who gives away a 30-day supply of Spencerian worksheets, of which I have availed myself and stored on my computer. If you want to be able to make your own Spencerian worksheets, you can buy the font from My Fonts. I did, and used it to make custom worksheets for my students, including this one with the classic pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Unfortunately, outside of Dawn Nicole’s site, there aren’t, as with the other methods of cursive writing detailed below, any make-your-own-Spencerian-worksheets sites, which is why I spent $26 to buy the font.

By the late-19th century, a man named Austin Norman Palmer concluded that the beauty and grace of Spencerian was too involved for the growing population of clerks and secretaries in the United States. So, from his post at the Cedar Rapids Business College, Palmer developed his method, known, unsurprisingly, as the Palmer Method. Like Platt Rogers Spencer, Palmer published an instructional handbook of his method, which is also long out of copyright and available as a PDF for free download.

As with Spencerian, there aren’t any dedicated sites for making one’s own worksheets for the Palmer Method. This site offers what looks like a complete course in the Palmer Method. The short amount of time I spent browsing it revealed, alas, nothing in the way of printable worksheets. It is, however, a very attractively designed site, and worth a look.

In 1874 a new device came to market, the typewriter. While it didn’t supplant handwriting, it did in many respects diminish the importance of handwriting, and especially cursive. 

In any case, by the 1950s, the Palmer Method was in eclipse. The Zaner-Bloser Method, which originates about the same time–1888–as the Palmer Method, supplanted Palmer as the preferred method of handwriting instruction (the company, Zaner-Bloser, to my surprise, still exists). The company’s founder, master penman Charles Paxton Zaner, according to the relevant Wikipedia pages, contrived a streamlined method of Spencerian for use in business. So confident was Mr. Zaner of his method that he founded the Zanerian College of Penmanship, by which he attracted his partner, Elmer Ward Bloser. In 1895, the Zanerian College of Penmanship became the Zaner-Bloser Company–and is now a fully owned subsidiary of that staple of childhood, Highlights for Children.

Happily, I can report that there are a number of sites that one can use to create Zaner-Bloser worksheets, including one from the Zaner-Bloser Company itself. Apparently designed for and aimed at teachers of English as a Second Language, this site offers a very easy-to-use cursive practice worksheet maker for Zaner-Bloser Method. In general, a search that involves the term “make your own Zaner-Bloser handwriting practice worksheets” will bring you a lot of results–and don’t forget to check out Pinterest, which is a great place to look for materials of this sort.

In 1965, Donald Neal Thurber (about whom very little information exists on the Internet), an elementary school teacher, introduced the D’Nealian system of teaching both block printing and cursive.  As is apparent, Mr. Thurber named the system by synthesizing his first and middle names. D’Nealian is the most commonly taught method of handwriting in schools, and there are a number of instructional manuals commercially available. If you go to wherever you buy books online and use Mr. Thurber’s name, or simply “D’Nealian,” and your search will yield copious results.

In terms of making your own D’Nealian worksheets, you’re in luck. A search along the lines of “make your own D’Nealian handwriting worksheets” will bring back, as that one does, tens of thousands of results. I’ve tried lots of these things over the years, and most of them are quite similar to this one. Most, over time, have become cluttered with advertisements, and in particular a PDF generating module. If you can navigate around this dross, most of what you’ll be able to produce on these sites will be gold, particularly self-created worksheets with students’ names, which students, in my experience, enjoy.

The foregoing essay, finally, is really a summary of Kitty Burns Florey’s splendid book Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting (New York: Melville House, 2008), which I highly recommend for a variety of reasons, including Ms. Florey’s warm and edifying style; indeed, the other book of hers I read, Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences (New York: Melville House, 2006) I can recommend enthusiastically as well. I’ll close this essay with this list of handwriting resources that I cribbed from Script and Scribble.

Was this essay helpful to you as a teacher or a student? Please leave a comment with your thoughts on this material. Mark’s Text Terminal requests, asks after, entreats, nags, wheedles, pleads and badgers for your peer review.

2 responses to “Review Essay: Cursive Handwriting, Penmanship, and Learning

  1. Glenda Reilly

    My experience with student desire to learn cursive has been similar to yours and I was planning to teach them how to write their name this year. Your blog timing is very fortuitous! Thank you.


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