The Death and Rebirth of American Handwriting

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The Death and Rebirth of American Handwriting


If human prehistory [1] is the period from our beginning until the invention of writing systems, and if history begins with writing, what will we name the time period after the end of handwritten records and the loss of the ability to write by hand?

We have been crossing this threshold slowly since the introduction of mechanized communication by the telegraph, fax, typewriter, telephone, and the record player. But in the last several decades the speed has increased, and it is no longer mechanized, but digital, and no longer physical, but virtual.

With that increasing speed of digital communication, people now use smartphones to communicate with texting, posts, emojis, images, and short videos. Instead of typing in the letters for a text, people use the voice-to-text features. If voice-to-text is faster and more accurate than manually inputting it, whether on handheld devices for everyday communication or even on a regular computer for academic papers, then do we really need to write or type at all any more?


I entered kindergarten unwillingly. I remember that on the morning of my first day of school, I clung to the pale green cinder block corner near the entrance to the room. I cried. I screamed as my mother uncurled my hands, pulled me to the door, and tried to quiet me. I remained disconsolate for days and weeks, but the year improved thanks to Mrs. Mitchell.

In the first grade, my world opened up and improved (thank you, Mrs. Klump). I remember mostly staring at the front of the room, looking at the chalkboard lessons and green alphabet cards [2] and participating in the spelling bees. Yes, I enjoyed most the spelling bees, where the class sat in a large circle of chairs, and we advanced one seat each time we spelled a word properly. I had a crush on the best speller in class, Judy Kim, so I practiced with great fervor so we could sit together. I can remember now, even, the almost physical pain I felt at being 15 seats away, and the long fight of letters to get closer to the front. Winning first place or losing and being second always put me where I wanted to be.

I also followed Judy on the playground, traded coats with her, and even donned her white rabbit fur hat while she wore my navy blue snorkel parka with nylon coyote fur. That winter, we rubbed our noses together for “Eskimo kisses” which I will admit I liked more than spelling.

My writing was less joyful than spending time with Judy. Instead of being able to recall any specific moments about my penmanship in school, all I can truthfully relate are my bad habits. As a left-hander, I angled my arm, contorted my body in all manner of desks, attempted, but failed, to write neatly. My hand dragged through the moist ballpoint pen ink, so it was forever smearing across the page even as my reading improved each year.

In fourth grade, I got my lowest grade in all of elementary school, a B-, in penmanship. That grade probably reflected my battle with the teacher. Yes, I was the uncooperative child with the poorly scribbled words. Yes, I remember standing up to unload my pocketful of allergy-mucus-soaked tissue into the grey metal garbage pail. If graphologists [3] were to assess my personality at the time, they would have found me to be a stubborn and unhappy B-. For anyone keeping track of Judy Kim and my spelling, well.... Judy Kim had moved across the valley by then. I had moved from a faltering interest in spelling to a joy of dictionaries.

Despite my struggles in fourth grade, by fifth grade, I had made a decision to commit fully to the pencil as my implement of choice, as it smeared less than pen. I didn’t write with a light and smooth hand. I incised my letters into the paper. I crinkled the first sheet as well as those below it in a looseleaf binder, and rather than ruin two or three sheets, I used single sheets on the formica desks.

While writing on the large library tables, my heavy hand transferred my squiggles through paper and into the grain of the wood, so that my writing was clear even when the paper was removed. I broke all sharp pencil lead, so I stopped sharpening my pencil altogether and let the point get duller and duller. When the graphite wore low enough that I was scraping the writing paper with the wood of the pencil, I would rotate it. When that didn’t work any more, I raised the elevation of the pencil and wrote more vertically.

My last step was to use my thumbnail to splinter off the wood around the point of the pencil until I could write freely. I whittled most pencils one chip at a time until they were so short I could no longer hold them, and I carried several in my front pocket for years of school.

Mechanical pencils didn’t last one stroke. The minute I pressed the lead onto paper the lead snapped, so any mechanical pencil that I ever borrowed, from my father or a friend, was immediately returned. My high school friends tried to rescue me and my No. 2 with pencil sharpeners. But I had my own way. It worked.

My high school teachers indicated that I would need to return to pen while in college, as pencil was not acceptable. But I took my dulled pencils off to college anyway, and no one seemed to care. The pencils served me well in notes for poetry, English classes, and even economics. And as it turns out, the pencil was not my enemy. My writing, the dreaded poor writing itself that had not improved much from fourth grade, was my downfall.

Reading my notes in my college French classes in my third year, I had no idea what I had written. These were not even letters or words. Out of the context of a language that I knew, they were only shapes I had to guess at.

My immediate reaction was to sharpen my pencil, write with a lighter hand since I needed to erase much more often, and to form my letters with a precision and grace unlike any of my penmanship before or since. My friends and professors began to comment on my neat writing.

On typed papers, I used black pen to write in the accents for French letters. Erasable typing paper allowed me to replace letters with black pen. My new skill at imitating the typewriter font and the guillemets (French quotation marks, see unicode U+00AB [4] and U+00BB [5]) prompted the chairman of the department to ask me if I had a special French typewriter. Eleven years after my fourth grade humiliation, I had finally learned to write well.


In the late 1990’s, while I was in the prime of my career teaching English, I took a vacation to visit my sister and her family. On the second day there, I sat at the kitchen table to watch my niece labor over her homework. She was learning to write a new way because her teacher told her that the method taught the year before was wrong.

I showed my niece how I learned to write. She told me I was not writing the old way or the new way. Worst, I was not even forming my letters properly. She explained I didn’t know how to write at all.

Two years later, I returned, and I approached my niece with great caution. I was afraid of being judged as writing improperly; however, my sister allayed all my feelings of self-consciousness. Her words to me were something like this: “Don’t worry about it. They stopped teaching the students the new way and went back to the old way. The kids are confused and it’s a disaster. After wasting three years, no one knows how to write at all now.” While my niece was still no fan of my writing, she seemed to accept mostly my work, and she, dealing with her own suffering, certainly criticized me less.

If I only knew then that those were the good years. More recently, I have certainly made less of an attempt to write neatly. I tend to think that nowadays no one, not even myself, will try to later read anything I write for more than the few seconds I need to type the name of a person or book into an online search engine. So I write awkwardly sideways in the newspaper margin or on an old receipt I pull from my wallet. My worst habit, honestly, is to write on the brushed aluminum of my laptop. When I’m done with the task, I rub off the pencil notes off the surface with my thumb. No eraser required.

I have decided that my own decline, and the even worse habits of those around me deserve a deeper look, and so I have taken the time to find out if everyone’s writing has always been dreadful, or perceived as such.


In colonial America, "no systems of education were established by the colonial governments; instead, individuals were required to provide training to those who were dependent upon them....The master, in addition to teaching a trade, was usually required to teach his apprentices reading, writing, and arithmetic. For those masters who could not satisfy this requirement, separate schools were established to which apprentices could be sent." [6]

According to the Catalogue of the Boston Public Latin School, the first public school in America was erected in Boston in 1645. A resolution was passed in 1648 [7] that provided the reasons they should teach Greek and Latin in grammar school:

“It being one chief project of the old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as, in former times, by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so, in these latter times, by persuading from the use of tongues, that so at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded by false gloss of saint-seeming deceivers; now, that learning may not be buried in the grave of our fathers, in the Church and Commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors."

It was ordered by the General Court that all of the townships within its jurisdiction with 50 or more households should have a school, and even the “Indians’ children were to be taught freely.”

And so public education began. Apparently, the Americans can thank John Cotton [8], educated at Trinity College in Cambridge, England, for helping conceive of this in our own Boston here in America. It was Queen Mary, in 1554, who is to thank for the idea of creating a free grammar school--also classical in its focus--in Boston, Lincolnshire, England.

Boston has a particularly long history of writing instruction that has carried on for hundreds of years. Here is a piece of Abiah Holbrook, who likely used it to inspire his students. [[9]]


In the centuries since 1648, most things have changed. However, complaints about penmanship and the systems used to teach it are almost universal, and were very common throughout these years. In 1833, William Alcott [10] proposed some new ideas, and he even thought he could save 33,000,000 hours of time badly spent by schools. As some opine lately, things have gone downhill and writing and education [11] continue to get worse.

The signs of the end of civilization are everywhere. They can be glimpsed in a friend’s sincere note in which your name is misspelled. A co-worker states plainly that he cannot read his own writing or tell his letters from his numbers--so it is better if you write the software license code down yourself. And the final, deepest pain comes when you try to read your own writing and have no idea what it says either. It’s incomprehensibility must mean that it no longer matters, and so you toss it away. It won't even be accorded the honor or being found, like a message in a bottle. [12] Its secrets will be lost to the paper shredder or the municipal garbage dump. A scribe will never, ever, be required to rewrite your words onto vellum and bind it in a codex. At best, your written words (or edits) might end up on Wikipedia or maybe as Cornelia Parker’s embroidery [[13]], the Magna Carta. [14] It's likely your emails, texts, and writing will become digital dust.

Will religious people and others who may reject technology have written information that will be useful in centuries to come? Will the children of the poorest people, writing on paper, have written memories of their families in letters and diaries, while the rich, with their smartphones will have nothing?

Regarding the production of books, we cannot forget that all books used to be handwritten by scribes and others trained to write. In history, we have seen the beauty of humanistic minuscule [15] and work even in the 20th century by artists like Pye [[16]]. Meanwhile, many comics [17] still continue to be hand lettered. (That is, when it is not the computer font comic sans. [18]) But when was the last time you read a comic book or the funnies? It’s more likely that you have watched a Marvel or DC movie lately. Is the handwriting gone, or just alive in words we now see and hear?


Writing by hand with a tool and handwriting with a pencil [19] [20]or pen [21] [22]are part of history. They have played a part in business for a long time. In ancient times, merchants and accountants used cuneiform clay tablets [23]

In colonial America, "business classes were the first vocational education courses introduced into the curriculum of American schools. Starting with the instructions of the Plymouth Colony in 1635, which was concerned with the teaching of casting accounts, the teaching of business subjects over the years gradually spread throughout the country." [24]

In nineteenth century America, simple account books and ledgers gave way to new forms of accounting taught in commercial schools, where penmanship was also valued. "Many of America's finest calligraphers taught in the penmanship departments of the business colleges, and students often studied ornamental penmanship and other styles of calligraphy, in addition to basic business writing." [25] Writing and business have been inseparable.

Lettering and script fonts have had their own typographical connection to business. We can see this in the logos of closed department stores, [26] the Spencerian style Coca Cola, [27] [28] Ford, [29] "created by Childe Harold Wills, a draftsman for Henry Ford" [30] GE, [31] and Kellogg’s, [32] to name a few. But now such logos are nostalgically collected on Pinterest [33] as are wine labels. [34]

Businesses use handwriting in an animated visual medium to promote ideas, such as in the video narrated by Sir Ken Robinson, [35] and handwriting and paper sell diabetes medication for Toujeo. [36] Companies like Disney use psychology to make their font appeal to consumers. [37] Lettered advertisements are even chalked on sidewalks. [38]

Despair not for the lowly pencil, for at Faber Castell, [39] the sale of pencils has been at an all time high. And hard to believe, it’s an industry that creates good jobs in Germany. Who is to say that handwriting isn’t part of the future?

In the last few years, handwriting has become so unusual that it carries more weight in mailed items than previously, and it is even a profitable business at a company called Bond [40]to have a computer do all of your own handwriting for you--yes, in your own handwriting style. So while I would like to argue that handwriting is alive and well, it is more exact in this case to say that robotwriting [41] is well, and that it will likely persist long into the future.


Will the situation for students become worse, when they become an average adult who "hasn't written by hand for 41 days"? [42] Will we have a "nation of adults who will write like children"? [43] "Has technology ruined handwriting?" [44]

Writing is no longer dictated by the hegemony of penmen, model pages of a copy book, or some dotted line to trace on a page as it used to be when writing was the pedestrian skill formerly taught in schools and used for communication. Who needs handwriting? [45]

Handwriting isn’t prescribed by most schools nor included in national exams. It is no longer valued for its exactness or form; for itself, as writing, [46] for knowledge and learning, [47]; for use in math, [48] for business transactions, [49] for receipts, [50] for legal matters, [51] as a means to improve oneself, [52] or to convey social standing or class. Oh, pedants, [53] be gone!

But it is not quite the end of the world, or the end of all writing. The pace of handwriting may have slowed to a pencil-grinding halt, but people still do write, and handwriting is still in the world around us. Even if you do not write, you must learn to sign your name.


It is easy, as an older person, to think that everyone can sign their own name, and that the days of using an "X" are over. [[54]] Although we might be able to debate the differences between digital and handwritten signatures [55] the fact that young people cannot sign their names has become news in New York [56] Canada, [57]and beyond.

Here are some words of warning to first graders (and their ambitious parents). If you grow up and become a writer, [58] an entrepreuer [59] or decide to run for president, people may still judge you based upon how you sign your name. [60] Maybe young people can be encouraged to cultivate a signature so that it can become one of the coolest signatures of all times? [61]


Despite the claims that we are witnessing the death of handwriting, we are, in fact, seeing the rebirth of handwriting. It has been reborn as a form of individual expression, not in the “Me generation” [62] of the baby boomers, but in the Me Me Me generation [63] of the millennials and those who are even younger, and more “me” in their me-ness. In print and script, writing now finds its inspiration and flows from the inner the soul of the individual, and that expression is nurtured by mothers everywhere.

Handwriting is now a largely personal activity, or for sharing with only a few, in the most temporary of ways.


Mothers and fathers write their child’s name on a brown paper bag, and with the dessert they sneak in a note: “I love you. You are special.” The child is not expected to write a heartfelt response, but rather to place the bag and note in the cafeteria’s recycling bin. But from time to time, young people do write notes to their parents, and (note to future paleographers) in 2015 and beyond, expect writing and emojis and a hashtag [64] to be intermixed with words, as reported in the Huffington Post.[65]

Temporary writing is not just on paper. One finds it on a whiteboard in a family’s kitchen announcing the schedule for the week. A birthday card from the greeting card company has a prewritten text to which one adds a few words and signs one’s name. Friends scrawl a mention about your car’s flat tire on a napkin and leave it under the wiper blade. Newlyweds are treated to a heart and their names or “Just Married” [66] in soap on their windshield.

Secretaries and teachers use a sticky note to jot down a phone number or a few quick keywords. Business people pull out their pens when their laptops or cellphones are without power, or perhaps, in that rare circumstance when they want a note that is secure from all possible electronic intrusion.

In all cases, the quality of the paper, the form of the letters, the spelling, accuracy are of lesser value than ever before. And the longevity? Probably seconds, minutes, hours or days. But probably not weeks. This is because we are all awash in information and communication — from cellphone photos, text messages, maps, internet access, websites, and apps, to other mediums of streaming videos, television, music, Skype, and voice. The written word — or any word, for that matter — is just another channel: imperfect, but almost always precise enough to use to verify a fact or to be able to search and find a detail through some other means.

What was once written has now become visual or auditory. Public presentations more often have a sign language interpreter than a phonographer [67] or stenographer. [68] Events and meetings stream live on the internet or are recorded in audio or video, and there they are rewatched and monetized with ads and whole companies are now founded on this material. Information once transmitted in handwriting is no longer of much use. Like smoke signals or the telegraph, it is now a medium of the fading past, and manuscripts are now kept in library collections as a piece of history, but they are not read.


Given the lack of its necessity, writing is now a personal recreation and art — on a par with knitting and painting with watercolors.

Young children enthusiastically write their names in colored chalk on sidewalks. Families use a finger or toe to write their names in sand at the beach. Children regularly deface the walls in their bedrooms or playrooms by writing their names, words, and phrases. (Even mothers who want their children to express themselves will follow afterwards and scrub off the crayon, colored markers, and pen.) Young people now go to tattoo shops and choose a design that might be a symbol from another culture or words from a language they do not speak or read. As for those who get such a face tattoo, Mike Tyson describes them as "really weird people." [69]

Street artists and graffiti writers [70] never seem to tire of investing their money in spray can colors, throwing up huge bulbous or angular letters of endless variety that sometimes only they or their friends can read. Or maybe it is art. That argument aside, “American writers really want to be loyal to Rusto,” Caleb Neelon says, because “Rust-Oleum is like the Ford F-150 of spray paint. It’s the workingman’s paint.” [71]

Stodgy hieroglyphics,[72] petroglyphs, [73] and even arborglyphs [74] and their carvers be damned. They have been supplanted by those with a teenage crush and wet concrete. [75]

Word art calligraphy [76] abounds, with artists like Michael Volpicelli.[77]

Interestingly, college students and young professionals have emerged as a passionate group that fancies unique paper, a dozen or more inks, pen nibs, and favorite brands of glass, metal, wood, and plastic pens. Many of these newly enamored calligraphers and artists celebrate their work on Fountain Pen Day,[78] begun in 2012.

Digital tools have helped spawn new possibilities in the last few decades. Typographers and laypeople alike have created their own fonts that can be downloaded from the internet or found in print on demand books. True, there has also been the return to handwritten fonts, as digital typographers glean them from old manuscripts and then resell an old hand as new.

From the young and inventive child to the college student, professional typographer, and weathered tattoo artist living off donations from passersby on the street, there are many people who now express themselves through existing or newly invented writing styles. Fonts from homeless people [79] have emerged as part of a marketing campaign to lift them, in their uniqueness, out of the moneyless shadows and into the light of commerce.

Canada now has a "unified typeface" that incorporates aboriginal languages, thanks to the efforts of Raymond Larabie [80]

And maybe--just maybe--everyone will use a (manuscript) "universal typeface" if the Bic pen company has its way? [81] [[82]]

This celebration of the individual crosses all races, religions, and ethnic barriers; writing is non-conformist while still uniting all people. [[83]]


There is no longer the desire to be able to write Maiuscole cancellaresche del frate like Vespaino Amphiareo, [84] to follow the exacting principles of Louise-Antoine Saintomer, [85] to embellish a single letter like Thomas Watson,[86] to concern oneself at all with The Beauties of Writing like Thomas Tompkins;[87] or even to bow to the principles of Spencer [88] (taught in Massachusetts schools until 1949? [89]) or any other American styles, the individual is left to create and to use writing as he or she pleases. Sometimes, when I look at student work I wonder if it looks more like van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” [90] with angles varying wildly left and right on the page and with lines that rise and fall like a mountain range. The only principles to follow are those of the unleashed soul.

And then...there are a few exceptions, I must admit. Some writing is good enough to warrant a short article from Seventeen magazine. [91]

Some of the finest writing has been created recently by the youngest master penman, Jake Weidmann. [92] Hmm. Okay, Jake, maybe you can debunk this whole argument later. Or agree if you would like.


Letterforms, once systematized and easy to decipher [93] by tracing with the eye, are now--created by writers today-- idiosyncratic in their properties, their curls, their missing elements. Standing alone on a page, or separated from its context in a word, a modern letter is a glyph indecipherable to all. They tickle the brains of scientists and psychologists [94] and the rare student in paleography in Britain, [95] but not much more.

The careful handwriting of the last few centuries even by our founding fathers is not accessible to the young citizens of our country, even though, in its purest form, a book like the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin [96] waits to be read. And essential documents like the "Gettysburg Address" -- keeping in mind there were at least five drafts, among them the “Nicolay Copy” [97] and “Hay Draft” [98] -- are also now almost incomprehensible to many young people today. Would anyone care to compare all the drafts, when you can just download it--by this I am implying that there is only one true address--from iTunes,[99] or the Gutenberg Project.[100]

Some attempt has been made to rectify this inability of children to read script. In some states, laws ensuring cursive would be taught in schools failed, such as in Arizona [101] and Mississippi. [102]

In other states, bills are still in the works, as in Delaware,[103] Indiana, [104] New York, [105] and Washington. [106]

Perhaps the only people who might be able to read historic documents will be students in Alabama, who are given "instruction in handwriting, cursive writing by end of third grade year,"[107] California, where it demands its students "write fluidly and legibly in cursive or joined italics," [108] Georgia, with its "Language Standards of the ELA Georgia Standards of Excellence" requiring "printing," "legible handwriting," and the ability to "write legibly in cursive," [109] Idaho, where students are to "write fluently and legibly in print or cursive" [110] Louisiana, which "requires cursive writing be taught in public schools," [111] North Carolina, where they "ensure instruction in cursive writing," [112] Ohio, where "cursive handwriting-instruction is required," [113] South Carolina, which has a "cursive writing education act" [114] in Tennessee, thanks to Rep. Sheila Butt and Senator Frank Nicely, who helped passed House Bill 1697 [115] and Senate Bill 1881, [116] and Utah where they "include teaching manuscript and cursive writing and also include building fluency in reading cursive writing." [117]

I heard a librarian employed by a college library recount that she was asked by a student what language some material was in, despite its obvious origin as script in English. Lest we hold too tightly to our assumptions about the primacy of the origins of our lettering, words or culture, a different student asked a professor “Who are the Romans?”

While public librarians are certainly very attuned to all kinds of words and writing and are awash in nothing but the alphabet, sometimes a letter escapes even their watchful eye. [[118]] Are we now so used to different kinds of writing and lettering that we can now no longer identify when a letter is not right?

An earnest college student whom I saw reading an old manuscript told me his eyes could not make out all of the words, as the loops and swirls were confusing and tiring him. Soon, people will hire specialists to read letters from their parents. So perhaps the young man will learn to read better and faster, and in doing so, he will find himself solid employment.

Lost is the ability for young people to read the letters of their parents or grandparents, and those relatives of the last 500 years. Once accessible to anyone literate, that writing now appears to a younger generation only as forms vaguely resembling language. To future generations it will be only lines and curls — line art from ancient people. Perhaps the reverse will be true too, and in a few centuries the great great great grandchildren of Jackson Pollock will stare at his paintings and mistake them for diaries?

While we sit at the cusp of this changeover, we can only admire the preservation of language in the Vedic tradition, [119] in which the exact words, rhythm, and intonations of ancestors from three thousand years ago continue to be recited. Those voices of the past still live today in the throats of the young in other countries.

What is in the ears of the contemporary American student? A speech from a local orator or statesman? The voice of a rabbi or preacher? The sound of a mother or librarian reading a book? The sound of a teacher giving voice to fine literature? Or is it the sound of a teacher repeating directions needed for a state or national exam? Or is it the sound of a teacher giving direction about photocopies, worksheets, rubrics, and touch interface tablets?

Ideally, students would hear the sound of their parents, community members, and teachers. Students should also hear their own voices reading aloud. They should hear the inner voice of silent reading, like many. [120] Maybe students should hear their own voices while writing, too. [121] Unfortunately, most likely, students hear only a song from iTunes, Spotify, or some bit-torrenting site passing through earbuds. [122] What are the issues regarding listening and reading? [123]

Whereas a student from bygone times might have wanted to imitate a master’s fine hand, or to speak with a voice rich in authority and vocabulary; students now are more likely to imitate Times New Roman [124] (those a’s and g’s are so hard to make!) or to quote a song, TV show, or movie dialogue. That quote is met by the words of another child who joins to finish the other lines from the song, TV show, or movie.

When a student, young or old, does give voice to a grade level passage, one often hears the difficulty of pronunciation, the jumbled letters, the missed intonation — the quavering vocalization of a student hearing these words for the first time. It is not uncommon for honors students to have these issues. Average students and those who struggle suffer more. In some cases, the problem may be the gap of thirty million words, the chasm between poverty and wealth. [125] For some students, listening to audiobooks might be the start of a solution. [126]

Can students read their own handwritten work aloud?

Do parents still ask their children to read out loud? Do parents read to their children? Do people ever speak with the vocabulary used in academic writing and literature; or, was that erudition lost after the Victorians and their novels? Oh, the Queen and Vedic masters both can only shudder from the beyond, voiceless as they are.


In schools nowadays, little is invested in letterforms and writing as a skill. The teachers have an allegiance to uphold the new standards and to keep their jobs, and they daren’t veer from a unit lesson and become lost in the senseless fusty notions of the past by insisting on good penmanship. That is history. Blackboards [127] are gone.

In 1910, Edward Thorndike was the first American to create a measure of writing of all kinds; it was his “A scale for handwriting of children in grades 5 through 8”. [128] This was followed with the Ayres scale, which drew from 40 cities across the country to rank students from 90-60 percent [129] and 50 -20 percent. [130] In 1916, the Boston Department of Educational Investigation and Measurement used the same method and printed 5,000 copies of a bulletin: Penmanship: determining the achievement of elementary school graduates in handwriting [131] and rated students at 90,[132] 70,[133] 50, [134]and 30[135] percent. The year 1919 also provides evidence that first graders [136] were drilled on writing and learned well then, as A.N. Palmer shows. Gone too is the time, in about 1950, when teachers nearly failed students for writing in a manner that we would mostly admire today, as demonstrated by the work of Bill Holtzmuller [137] in eighth grade, which received a “D” of damning elegance in red pencil.

(Let me pause here, in case the seriousness of these sentences above has escaped you. If you have not clicked on the links, you must go back to do so now.)

The average student now writes at what is probably a 20-30 % score--nearly the lowest level recorded in these charts.

Palmer shows us an examples of first graders in 1919 who write better than most Americans today.

Bill Holtzmuller, who got a "D" in eighth grade in about 1950, writes better than almost all of us today.


The principles of writing and penmanship, although difficult in some respects, were created over hundreds of years by people seeking to write faster, more legibly, and with greater ease. The penmen and teachers studied the masters before them to determine what was the best. The penmen and teachers watched students for hundreds of years, and certainly single teachers watched students for decades. Consider, for example, Ezekiel Cheever, who taught writing for 70 years. [138] Isn't it possible that he learned a thing of two by teaching and watching students? Penmen knew not only each student, but even the physiology of the human arm. [139]


Little invested, little gained. In some schools, handwriting is not taught at all.

Let me repeat that. In some schools, handwriting is not taught at all. Or, maybe there is some small amount of teaching. Nowadays, as soon as a child can create the letters of the alphabet in second grade, the teacher moves ahead to a new lesson on an entirely different subject that is tested on a state exam. It is of no consequence if letters are formed poorly or the student's writing is difficult to read. That is not being tested by any state exam. ALL THE RULES ARE BEING BROKEN, THROUGH SHEER NEGLECT

As adults and teachers, we have even codified this neglect, as if in a set of rules that runs something like this. Sure, it is exaggerated. Or is it?

1. Make letters the way you want. Forget "x-height" and make letters as big or small as you would like. It is your style.
2. Any letter can be created in clockwise or counterclockwise fashion, in pieces or whole.
3. The hand does not need to move smoothly or lightly across the page.
4. Hold the pencil in any fashion as long as you don't drop it.
5. Your pain and discomfort in your hand is your own to solve or live with.
6. The letters may be above or below or straddling the line.
7. The "ascenders" do not need to exist at all in lower case letters. The "a" might be taller than the "d."
8. You do not need "descenders," or any strokes below the line at all. The "g," "j," "p," "q," "y," may sit above the line.
9. Make as many more rules as you need.

Ironically, not all of these are bad ideas, it's just that they are not ideal.

In at least one case--regarding descenders--students have recreated their own version of letterforms and a writing style for the same reason that a previous inventor had. In 1851, John Pulsifer, reinvented the alphabet so it would have, among other things, no descenders. As he notes on page 5 of his American Chirography,

The letters of the Aubaot [alphabet] are all, both capital and small letters, so constructed that no letter, or part of a letter is drawn below the line; so that a finished piece of writing will exhibit all its letters sitting evenly on the line, thereby avoiding the great inconvenience of having lower parts of some letters entangling themselves in the tops of others in writing.

Mr. Pulsifer had ideas that were interesting: he executed his plans as stated and also added a simplified spelling. Any person today can look at the title page of his book and understand the difficulty of the new alphabet he proposed. [140] In the end, his plan was a failure.

Sadly, the standard letterforms of many current students, while being more reasonable than Pulsifer's, are still quite difficult to read.


"In 2008, shortly after moving to North Carolina, [Denise] Donica and her East Carolina students surveyed the state’s teachers to determine if they were taught cursive instruction. The majority of the teachers indicated they had not learned how to teach handwriting at all, cursive or print, and [many of those who had] learned after they got out of school, [with] continuing ed courses, and things like that,” Donica said. [141]

The real skill required to write has ceased to be taught or practiced in most schools for reasons we may not have imagined--that the teachers themselves do not know how to teach it. Is it surprising, then that a student’s letters rarely progress beyond their first incarnation. Students, who in past decades would have been expected to improve, are not asked to do so by their teachers--not in elementary, middle, or high school.

Students who expect to move from block print in elementary school to script are unable to do so. They might even hope to avoid the hand cramps and the poorly shaped letters if they could hold the pen more comfortably. Maybe they could learn to write more rapidly. Unfortunately, all such hopes are dashed.

Instead, students hold the pen every which way: between every possible set of fingers. Some students even clutch a pencil like a dagger. It is astounding to see, really.

The most diligent and determined students must find a tutor or a YouTube video to help them. What are options for students who want to learn to write well? They can develop fluent handwriting, [142]learn American cursive, [143] or repair it. [144]

No teacher in high school or college will instruct them, as it is a skill that is expected to have been learned previously, so students are told to type their papers to make their essays readable, but no remediation is ever attempted.

Mixed writing of the minuscule and majuscule (lower case and uppercase) is so common that almost no student is without this habit. Some students will write in all capitals. Others will choose a lowercase for all except a few letters. Some may introduce capitals almost randomly. A letter is just a letter. They all fall invisibly into the text to younger generations. Even when a teacher asks students to identify errors in capitalization, the students may not be able to see the capital letters in the middle of words.


As for the style of hand, some students emerge with remarkable handwriting that looks more like a self-taught style from centuries ago. Full of graceful loops and broad strokes, it has fanciful elements that are truly unique to them.

Often, lone students who do attempt to practice some refinement in script may not understand the difference between an “n” and an “m,” nor see a join between letters, as with a “u” or an “r”. Self taught students who write in script may leave no distinct letter, only line and flow and curls that are words, complete without the exact letterforms.

Some writers have regressed and have forgotten how to make several letters. Other times, the style is executed in a manner that the letters “a,” “e,” “c,” “o,” and “u,” are often recognizable only in the context of the word in which they appear. Writers often no longer differentiate the smaller “x-height” letters from the ones that are full height, and an “m” can appear taller than an “l,” for example. With the loss of the use of the ascenders of the tall letters, d’s look like a’s; l’s look like i’s. Letters with descenders such as g’s look like a’s, j’s look like i’s, and y’s look like u’s. A lowercase “g” will often sit on top of the line, rising above the other letters.These are just a few examples of writing in minuscule, but they illustrate the problem.

Sometimes single letters or in words imitate others. The word “of” might now look like “cr.” Some letters evolve far from their origin. They may look like a different letter or be largely unrelated by shape to the original. At worst, some writers have arrived at a stage of alphabetic collapse where most letters are illegible or the writing is overall nearly impossible to read. Rarely, people like Horace Greeley [145] succeeded despite their terrible writing. Usually, extremely poor writing was a sign of the those who rarely wrote, the impoverished, illiterate, blind, or the very old. But here, we are discussing students in their prime, whose writing skills can be reasonably expected to get worse over time rather than better. If you cannot read your writing at the age of 16, what is the likelihood of reading it at the age of 86?

Often, writing of any kind--legible or illegible, spelled properly or improperly--will not even be read later by the student, teacher,[146] or professor.[147]

Handwriting is no longer just writing. It is more than that. It is used in schools and colleges more for its utility as a learning modality. [148] It is valued because it is good for the brain. [149] It makes you smarter. [150]It is good for algebra. [151] It is better than a keyboard.[152]

Writing is no longer used for its ability to hold information on its own — once its greatest power. Quite simply, the individual act of writing to communicate or to store information is no longer necessary or desired.

Modern education is not based upon the antiquated measures of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Tests are now completed with a mark on a machine-readable answer sheet, rather than with a long written examination; and computers, grids, and education-focused multinational corporations rank the student’s progress, not the writing master of the local academy.


Spelling and the breaking down of words into distinct syllables for understanding and memorization are now both out of style. Spelling is rarely enforced or taught after the later grades in elementary school. It has been ignored for decades, as evidenced by Charles J. Sykes' book Dumbing Down Our Kids and his examples[153] from the 1990s. Spelling tests,[154] if they do exists in schools anymore, are hotly contested. With the progress of today, it is simply out of fashion in the 21st century.[155] After fourth grade, students are no longer asked to spell words properly. Lacking practice, students can not tell when a word “looks” right, as they do not memorize spelling by staring at the letters of a printed word, and of course they never learn the sequence by feel or look either because they do not repeat the words in drills. Writing a word more than once is a punishment now, not practice, and it is frowned upon despite its utility. No practice leads to loss of the skill. Adults, even in the US [156] and Britain, [157] have lost the ability to spell.

On a student’s paper, the ends of long words are most likely to be nothing more than a squiggle, missing one or more letters, or spelled entirely wrong, as students no longer need to and do not memorize the whole word. To compensate, teachers no longer demand that the whole word is spelled in handwritten material, no matter if it is a vocabulary test, an in-class writing, a take home essay, or an exam. It’s enough to know what a student is trying to communicate and to grade holistically as the state and national standards indicate. Anything more would be over-reaching.

Students expect computer spell-checkers and even a cellphone to autofill or to correct the end of a word. Often, that word is not even the correct one. [158] Parents and teachers daren’t demand students actually know how to spell. Teachers even allow spell-checkers on state tests.[159] And why should they? In school, as in restaurant menus, websites,[160] newly published books,[161] and adult life in this modern age, a misspelled word is not even considered a mistake to be corrected anymore. Correcting it would be downright impolite. Although it turns out that people avoid bad spellers when seeking a partner on dating sites.[162]


To practice handwriting or penmanship in or out of school or to perform writing drills is no more prevalent than carrying books home with a book strap. There are no calluses or bumps from pencils on the first knuckle of the second finger of children anymore. If a student does have a calluses, they are likely on a single finger that can tap more than 200 clicks a minute on a keyboard for a shooter game and on thumbs from using a game controller or from texting up to several thousand times a day. Oh, the magic of that most human, opposing thumb. Would Darwin, that fine Victorian, be proud of our evolution?


The only students who do attempt to write in the old style are those new to the country. Those learning English as a new language, especially writers who grew up practicing a florid script in Japanese, Chinese, Hindu or Arabic, for example, have a manual dexterity and a sense of line and shape unlike most American born students who are more apt to labor with a heavier and stiffer hand, or one that is so swift and inexact that it is drawing only vague representations of the actual letters or words.

Those new to the alphabet are more likely to recognize the finer graphic elements of a letter and are more likely to imitate the letter in its purest form. These students are also more likely to retain the remnants and lines and curves and principles of their native alphabets, too, since American teachers can no longer afford to offer the long and regular drills of a single style as they once did, that might strip away the unique qualities of these new, now-American styles.


The collapse of the old method of teaching writing and spelling must be welcomed in much the way we cheer when an old Roman ruin or dilapidated Victorian house is razed to build a new steel and glass high-rise. Where old styles and beauty and timeless geometric form once prevailed, the newer materials and modes allow for utterly unique styles and mediums of communication to emerge. (No, they must not be mutually exclusive, but we will consider the modern world to think it so.) Language and writing has become unmoored from its foundation so that it might float into the third and fourth dimension and space, though yes, perhaps towards a distant black hole. As students and futurists are more apt to say nowadays, they will simply think an idea in the future, and it will be written or transmitted to another medium or another person. From oak gall ink to fiber optic light and wireless frequencies, our writing will soon shimmer like a rainbow, its pot of gold beyond our sight.

As a boy who grew up on a bicycle chasing a rainbow down the street to find its pot o’ gold — and noticing the rainbow receding block after block farther out of reach — I know that this hope of an actual reward may not be mine to personally discover; but for others, it is a dream that may be found today and profited from now and in the future.


The digital handwriting and fingerwriting captured by touch on an iPad or with the stroke of an Evernote pen, have their own real hardware investment, and often a monthly charge to bolster profit for the companies who make these fine devices. This modernity is giving rise to a “paperless paper” of ones and zeros; a database, dictionary, and style guide greater than any that could have been imagined by Plato, who once argued with Socrates about the necessity of the written word; and before them, Theuth and Thamus.[163]

Whereas Socrates and Thamus argued that the written word might be misinterpreted, or make men lose their memory, the written word can now be saved by national governments, parsed by computers, and cross-referenced in real time against every word written or spoken by those using electronic devices.

The fourth dimension of writing is something we can only admire as we slip these mortal coils of paper and ink. Let the quills take flight. So, the next time you take pencil or pen to paper, be sure to snap a photo of your note, lest you forget it. You can be assured that somehow, somewhere, mankind and its data silos will hold your unique script as if on papyrus scrolls in the library of Alexandria. There, on your phone, in the cloud, and on data servers across the world, your cell phone photo of your writing will reside, until the next fire of invention destroys it to give birth to a new form, as clay and papyrus gave way to paper, and paper to digital. What is next, we cannot know — but rebirth it will be.