Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Cursive Writing Issue -- A Genealogical Conundrum

Page of text (folio 160v) from a Carolingian Gospel Book (British Library, MS Add. 11848), written in Carolingian minuscule. Text is Vulgate Luke 23:15-26.
One of the most common issues raised in light of the movement to abandon the teaching of cursive writing in the public schools is the claim that somehow the children of tomorrow will be unable to read the documents of the past. In the past, I have also raised this same issue. One claim is that children in the United States will be unable to read the Declaration of Independence.

By Original authors were the barons and King John of England. Uploaded by Earthsound. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I have had a lot of time to re-think the whole issue of cursive writing from a genealogical viewpoint and I am no longer sure that all of the arguments in favor of teaching cursive are still valid. I am certainly not going to argue with claims that learning cursive helps children acquire fine motor skills and other such related arguments, but I think that genealogy gives us a different perspective on the issue. I have included two documents: a copy of the Magna Carta and a copy of a portion of the Bible. I would venture to say that there is nothing taught in any U.S. grammar or grade school that would help a student to read either of these documents although they are in technically, they are written in cursive. However, both documents are clearly and completely available in perhaps thousands or perhaps millions of different copies, all perfectly readable by anyone who can read English. I might also add that both documents were originally written in Latin in the versions shown above. The Bible, of course, was written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. 

My point is rather simple. If you begin doing genealogical research, you will very soon find out that reading cursive script is a completely different skill than being able to write in cursive script. Can you tell me the style of cursive you were taught in grade school? (Assuming, of course, that you were taught cursive). Do you know what style of cursive is taught today in the schools that still teach cursive? Here is a brief quote from Wikipedia on the present-day history of cursive:
After the 1960s, a movement originally begun by Paul Standard in the 1930s to replace looped cursive with cursive italic penmanship resurfaced. It was motivated by the claim that cursive instruction was more difficult than it needed to be: that conventional (looped) cursive was unnecessary, and it was easier to write in cursive italic. Because of this, a number of various new forms of cursive italic appeared, including Getty-Dubay, and Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting.
Unless you are a teacher and familiar with curriculum development and teaching, most of this will be totally unfamiliar to you. Here is a sample of Getty-Dubay as it is currently taught in many home schools and public schools:

I might observe that this is markedly different than what I was taught in school. Here is a sample of Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting:

In fact, there are dozens of different forms of handwriting taught around the world, most of which are very different than the style taught when old folks like me were in school. 

To repeat my point, learning to write in cursive, especially if the style taught is much different than what was taught a few years ago, has nothing whatsoever to do with the ability to read historical examples of cursive text. When we wring our hands over the lack of cursive in grade schools, what are we talking about? 

My father was taught to write in cursive but practically no one could read his handwriting. I would venture to say that very few of the genealogists I work with on a day to day basis probably do much handwriting. When I fill out forms, which is about the only handwriting I do anymore, I print. 

Maybe there is an entirely different issue here. Maybe the real issue involves the ability to learn unfamiliar information rather than being an issue of whether or not a particular form of cursive is or is not taught in our public schools. If you do not understand what I am saying, I suggest you go back to the 1860 United States Census and start reading names. 


  1. In October I had to get my picture taken for my renewed drivers license. I asked the person did many people have trouble with the computer; her answer was the younger people have trouble writing their own names and their signature has to be written.

  2. I'm a retired language arts teacher and have watched cursive go by the wayside. I've come to the conclusion that all students need to be able to do is to sign their names in cursive. As for reading it, I think in the future, people will learn to read it as they need to, much the way that I struggle to read Old Gothic script now. Teachers and bosses all want typed input. Sad, but it is what it is.

  3. I am fluent in cursive and passing at reading the old script. For a few years in the 1920s there was a style of printing used at the courthouse here that defies sense. The entire alphabet is comprised of slanted lines that are not connected to each other. I was able to read it only because the names are familiar to me.