Curious Cursive

Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting presents basic and cursive italic. The basic letters are essentially the same as the cursive ones. Once the basic letters are learned they move easily into cursive, but is it cursive as you understand cursive?

What does cursive really mean? There is a general misconception about cursive. News items often address the demise of cursive writing, but what exactly is the writing method under discussion?

To most people cursive relates to a method of writing where every letter within every word is joined. I call it “conventional cursive” because it is a method that has become familiar over the past 125 years or more.

True cursive writing actually refers to any handwriting that flows easily. Letters are joined or not according to the movement that is most natural to each individual hand, making cursive more rapid than a formal style. A formal style is carefully and precisely written, as in calligraphy.

Since the time humans discovered written communication they have probably written cursively. Very early examples are rare or non-existent.

Some cursive writing exists from Roman times when more people were literate. In museums you might see something that belonged to a soldier who inscribed a warning on his weapon of the evil that would befall a thief. Visit Roman ruins and you may see graffiti. These messages bear a faint resemblance to the formal capital inscriptions of the time. The writing lines flow freely. Throughout the history of writing you will find all sorts of cursive writing that derive from the formal writing methods of the time, one of which is italic.

Cursive italic has outlasted most other methods because of its ease of letter formation and readability. It was the method used for papal decrees, beginning in the 14th century. Its cursive variations spread throughout Italy and the western world. It was carried to the New World by the Spaniards, and I have seen italic writing in New Mexico from the 20th century.

Some current programs teach conventional cursive from the beginning. The assumption, probably correct, is that older students will “print” without instruction when required to do so. Legibility problems often occur with rapid writing. Joining every word in a multisyllabic word tends to pull letters off the baseline and distort their sizes and shapes.

Most schools that teach handwriting with any degree of commitment, teach a form of print-script first. Children establish habits of writing almost all strokes from top-to-bottom and left-to-right. Later, in second or third grade the habits must be undone and retrained for conventional cursive. Educators! What are they thinking? It is difficult to change fine motor habits of movement. The transition involves writing many strokes up from the baseline, and mastering letters that change shape entirely.

As science reveals more and more about how the rest of our body responds to the brain, perhaps the logic and role of fluent handwriting will become recognized.

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