The ability to decipher handwriting is an essential tool for the research genealogist and the further you research back in time, the more necessary the skill of reading the handwritten documents becomes.
There are two major challenges in reading old handwriting: the changes in the script and the penmanship of the writer. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to learn how to read old handwriting other than hard work and practice. However, there are some good resources to aid in your efforts. I would start with the help page from the FamilySearch.org Indexing Project. Here is a screenshot of part of the page.
- Alphabet (Secretary Hand)
- Old English Guide - Introduction
- Old English Guide - A to M
- Old English Guide - N to Z
- Lesson 1: Reading Handwritten Letters
- Lesson 2: Reading Handwritten Dates and Words
- Lesson 3: Reading Handwritten Documents
- BYU Script Tutorial
- Palaeography 1500-1800 (UK National Archives)
- Latin Genealogical Word List
- Early American Handwriting Game
Books about old handwriting are also helpful. Here is a selection of books you might consider. I do not usually find these books in a local library but you can search for a library that might have the book on WorldCat.org.
- Barrett, John, and David Iredale. Discovering Old Handwriting. Princes Risborough: Shire, 2001.
- Brook, G. L. An Introduction to Old English. Manchester [England: University Press, 1955.
- Cope, Emma Elizabeth Thoyts. How to Decipher and Study Old Documents: Being a Guide to the Reading of Ancient Manuscripts. Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1978.
- Essex Record Office, and Hilda Elizabeth Poole Grieve. Examples of English Handwriting, 1150-1750, with Transcripts and Translations. Part I: From Essex Parish Records. Part II: From Other Essex Archives. Chelmsford? Essex Education Committee, 1954.
- Gardner, David E, and Frank Smith. Old English Handwriting, Latin, Research Standards and Procedures. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1966.
- Hamilton, Charles. The Signature of America: A Fresh Look at Famous Handwriting. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
- Jaunay, Graham. Cracking the Code of Old Handwriting, 2016.
- ———. How to Read Old Handwriting. Glandore, SA: Adelaide Proformat, 2006.
- Kirkham, E. Kay. The Handwriting of American Records for a Period of 300 Years. Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, 1973.
- Leftwich, Ralph Winnington. Shakespeare’s Handwriting and Other Papers. Worthing: The Worthing Gazette Co., 1921.
- McLaughlin, Eve. Reading Old Handwriting. Haddenham: Eve McLaughlin, 2007.
- Murray, Sabina J. Deciphering Old Handwriting & Commonly Found Abbreviations. Place of publication not identified: publisher not identified, 1999.
- National Archives (Great Britain). The National Archives Palaeography Tutorial: (how to Read Old Handwriting). Kew, Richmond, Surrey, UK: National Archives, 2003. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/.
- Sperry, Kip. Reading Early American Handwriting, 2008.
- Thoyts, Emma Elizabeth. How to Read Old Documents. London: Phillimore, 1980.
- Ward Lock Educational Co. The Old Fashioned Handwriting Book: The No-Nonsense Hand-Writing Book to Help You Practise a Writing Style. London: Ward Lock Educational, 1981.
I took a class from Kip Sperry at Brigham Young University and used his book as the text. It was a very good class and helped me get started with deciphering some really old, difficult handwriting. But sometimes you just have to study it out. I usually start by staring at the handwriting for a while and then come back to it the next day and keep staring and trying to see the letters until finally it starts to click and I can begin to see words and letters. It sometimes takes a week or more of this practice to make out what was written.