Thursday, 30 June 2011

Cursive Handwriting Gets Short Schrift in Germany

I found this article in the Guardian about a campaign by German primary school teachers to abandon teaching young children to write in cursive script very interesting indeed. When I lived in Germany, I noticed that handwritten notices often looked as though they had been written by the same person. I've noticed this in France, too. (The tell-tale for me is the way French people often write the numeral nine with a dog-leg.)

I should have guessed that they are taught how to write in a prescriptive way, using an officially-approved method of handwriting, hence the similarities. I don't remember anything like that in my own primary education; by the time I started school in 1972, British educationalists had already abandoned copperplate script training. I learned my letters and words and wrote them in printed form, then wrote them in script. I used a pencil to start with, before moving on to a (fountain) pen. By the time I moved on to joined-up writing, I was a bit haphazard in how I joined up the letters, and my script was barely legible. I changed it back to a printed form following school reports from teachers who could not read my handwriting easily, and I have stuck with it since. Over time, my handwriting has become joined-up again for speed, and progressively more italic; examples of my own handwriting from school and university show that I began straighter than the definite slant I show now. That said, I have developed some bad habits, such as not differentiating between the letters "l" and "t" clearly enough.

So I have some sympathy for the members of the Deutscher Lehrerverband when they say that abandoning the Schreibschrift will make their job more difficult. Although I am sure my seven year old self would have hated having to copy out letters laboriously in the classroom, in retrospect I would probably have benefited from having to follow such a system for education. On the other hand, I would never have felt the need to change my handwriting to be better understood, and experimented with a way of writing that suited my needs.

On reflection, I think it is probably better to let children work out how to express themselves in print by working out their own handwriting style, than to dump officially-sanctioned script praxis on them. The teacher's job becomes one where they guide the student into forming their own letters, and away from mere "talk and chalk". It is also more difficult, I would think. What do readers who were educated in countries which insisted on cursive writing think? (I'm thinking of you, Matthias and Gunther.)

Mind you, I have often thought of getting a copy book and learning how to write in copperplate style to complement my fountain pens. And then I'd have to get a nice pen with a really flexible nib...


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and personal experience. I follow that discussion about how to deal with cursive handwriting in German schools too for various reasons.

    I have started school in 1970 and was taught "Schönschreiben" quite early. I remember enjoying it, and in restrospect I would say that it was the start of my continuing pleasure in writing, typography and related topics. However, I stopped writing cursive at around the age of 14 and switched to printed letters. Although quite a few traditionalists may turn their nose up at it I now enjoy it so much that sometimes I write by hand even if it is not absolutey necessary. In other words: I embrace every opportunity to do so (of course with a pencil).

    Some of my age have hated "Schönschreiben" because they have experienced it mostly as a drill (and when looking at their writing I feel like they still hate it). I was lucky to have an excellent teacher who enjoyed it too - maybe they haven't.

    Later I have recognized that a pleasing handwriting is much more than just a skill and a nice facade – it shows the writer's esteem for the reader and enhances the status of the content. Now the sticking point: If one has recognozed these values, using a computer or other tools will be very different and (to me) more successful.

    If only there was a way to remove the drill aspect from "Schönschreiben" (or however it is called today) while preserving the positive – and transferable! – values of that essential cultural technique the problem would be almost solved. And to all teachers: It is not only a mere formality that can be ditched. Make the children enjoy it – if they get a big kick out of it they will take it seriously.

  2. Ah the issue of handwriting again. I'm not for handwriting rules but I do enjoy and appreciate a nicely handwritten note. My kids who are schooled in London have been taught joined handwriting but they use their own styles now (they are 10 and 12). One is neat, the other scribbles. Nature or nurture? I was taught cursive writing (or any style for that matter) but I developed a neat print.

  3. A great post. Here a few comments: Which type of cursive handwriting you are taught depends on which state you grew up in, but even within a state there are differences. I learned the "Lateinische Ausgangsschrift", my nieces and my nephew, who went to the same school 25 years later, learned another one (I think "Vereinfachte Ausgangsschrift", not sure though. You can see some of them at ). I never hated copying the letters when I learned them in my first year in school and I doubt any of my classmates hated it. In my state you had to use a fountain pen with blue ink until you got your A-Levels (after 13 years of school). In universities nobody cares, so you can use a ballpoint pen, etc. I tried that but soon found out that my handwriting looks horrible with ballpoint pen.
    Even though everyone learned the same letters we all wrote differently. I remember liking the way my friend Mark wrote the "W" so much, I copied this letter from him, while other letters, like my "r" look strange because I am lazy and try to write too fast...
    I remember discussing (by email) what letters are taught to school children with Henrik, who is a teacher in Denmark.

  4. I meant "I was NOT taught cursive writing". At school in the 1970s we were using the dreadful BIC. It had to be blue and you couldn't rub it out with the rough blue part of those Pelikan erasers. You had to use a razor blade and scrape the mistake out without making a hole to the paper.
    Like Matthias I remember liking the way a school friend formed her Ps or her As and copied her. I also experimented (and still do) with different handwriting styles.

  5. I have changed the lower-case "a" of my printed letters from a single-storey to a double-storey one after looking at the writing of a friend's brother about 30 years ago, and I am particularly enjoying writing that part of the letter that runs against the text path (i. e. the upper part of the lower story). Yes, I enjoy being an odd fellow:-) – I also like covering a piece of paper with different variants of a certain letter.

  6. Palimpset, I wonder how Greek cursive writing looks like. I've seen Cyrillic cursive handwriting before and really liked to look of it.

    Gunther, when I was seven or eight years old I became fascinated by the double-storey "a", which I first "discovered" consciously on the cover of the 100 page Donald Duck comics. Countless attempts (at that age) to integrate this "a" into my handwriting failed however I gave up.

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  8. Interesting topic.
    From a teacher’s perspective: the discussions on handwriting tend to overlook the fact that learning to read benefits from handwriting. So, if you drop handwriting from the curriculum, there will be more illiterates. That, why I try to teach handwriting – especially the joined types -to children with special needs. When all letters in a word has to be joined, they will have to think about the concept of “a word” and how to spell it. For children like that abandoning joined handwriting will make their life and learning even more difficult.
    The cultural significance of handwriting is also overlooked. The emphasis has been on readability and easy of learning. I.e. the Kurrentschrift – which we have used here in the DK for about 400 years - was abandoned – not because it was, let’s say, less readable, than Copperplate, Spencierian and the like, but solely because it was German. Earlier on you could tell, where people came from by their way of writing…
    Then, there is the subject of the ballpoint. It is generally agreed that using force in the writing process is a bad thing. Many cases of writer’s cramp stems from this. The ballpoint unfortunately promotes it. You have to use force in order to make it work and “keep it on the track”. It is not easy to make a straight line with a rolling ball, you have to apply force in order to keep it from skidding– so it is not so great a tool for the teaching. But it is not the cause per se for bad handwriting, as almost every student since very long ago had to learn the trade by using a pencil.
    And now the paradox: Learning joined handwriting involves a lot of drills and practice – and is time consuming. Therefore often dropped from the curriculum – but the students must still learn to write. How?
    Sorry, I got carried away – it is indeed an interesting topic.

  9. Henrik, some great points there, e.g. the concept of a word... Please get carried away, this is so interesting and informative!

  10. Henrik, thank you for stopping by with your observations. I remember once, when I was a student at university, signing a receipt for a small payment I received for performing a psychological test. The psychologist (incidentally, a friend also) said something along the lines of, "Wow, you really press hard into the paper." I was using a ballpoint pen. For some reason, I have always used a lot of pressure when using a biro; something I've never done with a pencil or fountain pen, which is why I decided to use fountain pens, and subsequently pencils. Although it rubs against my instinct that children should discover their own way to handwriting, you may well have a point that a received handwriting style helps them to focus their abilities on gaining basic skills in reading and writing.

  11. This is interesting to us because of some of the problems we had a few years back dealing with Lamy pens. We lobbied long and hard to get Lamy to allow us to sell their ABC pen here in the UK, and for years Dr Lamy himself refused to let the ABC pen be sold in the UK because of the lack of a structured approach to teaching handwriting and how learning to write with pens. We were allowed to sell it on a trial basis (this is back in maybe 2007/2008) and have continued to sell it since, but it was an interesting insight into the different approaches to teaching children writing skills between here and Germany.

    Our experience of how children are taught in this country is patchy at best – we’ve found our children sent home with blank pages (so no structure or guidance for writing) and little or no expectations of improved handwriting. I’ve also had experience of French schools who place great emphasis on the standard of writing, and my step son has moved from the French system to the English system and the impact on his writing has been dramatic (i.e. a significant decline in quality of handwriting).

  12. Thank you for the reply, Dominic. That is a surprising (and quite heartening) anecdote about Dr. Lamy and his company's way of doing business. Did he think that the lack of handwriting training compromised technique with a fountain pen? I would have thought the opposite, but then what do I know?

    And following on from your second point: I read somewhere that French schoolchildren learn to write using graph paper. Is that correct? It would explain the "dog-leg" numeral nine.

  13. Hi
    I am not sure in detail about the French style of writing - they certainly use a very particular paper called Seyes, which is something of a cross between lined and grid, and something unique, but it keeps the letter forms within a well-defined structure. We are actually hoping to write a piece about the different approaches to handwritng between the English system and other systems like the French. I'll let you know if and when we do.

  14. @Dominic: Currently there's only one approach, so it seems to me: Italic or italic - like forms. The Nordic Grundskrift, Meyers Basic, Vereinfachteausgangsschrift (VA) all much the same - looped cursive formes are being phased out. Regarding the "koncept of a word" and the difference between drawing letters and actually writing them, I don't know if it is good or bad?

  15. The topic of cursive handwriting in schools has come up just recently in the US. Children here have always been taught cursive writing, usually in the third grade, and when I was a student, we were required to write in cursive until we got to high school, where we could basically write in any way that was comfortable for us. We, too, always had a standard lettering style that we were taught, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who actually writes just that way. People in the US have the most diverse handwriting imaginable. Most people I've asked think cursive is useless nowadays, and feel that most people use a hybrid of printed/joined letters anyway, so cursive as we were taught is essentially defunct. I still can't imagine not teaching it to kids so that they at least know how. To me it just seems so odd, like not learning how to read because there are audio books, or not learning basic math because we have calculators. Just because we have technological shortcuts doesn't mean we should give up the knowledge. Maybe I'm just very old fashioned.

  16. In the late sixties British calligrapher Tom Gourdie developed "The Simple Modern Hand". It was a semi cursive style that could be easily practised and adapted for different needs. Gourdie's aim was to develop a handwriting style that would not degenerate at speed and was suited to any kind of writing implement. It was to be legible and attractive. Gourdie went back to the origins of cursive writing. It was originally born out of the natural linking of some letters when writing at speed. Later scripts like copperplate or Spencerian insisted that all letters should be joined and introduced unnatural and often ugly ligatures. Writing quickly encourages the writer to keep the pen on the page and thus join letters together but the human arm naturally travels in an arc so groups of letters become more and more uncomfortable until the pen needs to be lifted from the paper. This means that there will be gaps in the cursive script. Gourdie's script allowed for this in a way that Spencer's and others do not.
    Unfortunately Gourdie's script arrived just as handwriting as an art for everyone was on the wane. Copies of his book are hard to find now but worth a read if you can get hold of one.
    More about him on

  17. On another note, I've never found the need to apply pressure to ballpoint pens. Perhaps because I've always gone for quality pens and refills with broad points. The only time I use pressure is when I'm writing pseudo-copperplate with a ballpoint.

  18. Gurdie's work is well known and recognized among scribes and calligraphers, his ideas have not been forgotten. I guess the current favour of the Italics proves that. In the former DDR, Renate Tost developed the SAS (Schulausgangsschrift) along similar lines, (except the penlifts).
    Spencerian, Copperplate, Sütterlin and Kurrent were developed for a pointed flexible nib and a writing posture using the whole arm for the letterformation. Under these circumstances penlifts were a bad thing. And the flexible line provided the neccesary shading in order to keep the letters readable. Therefore the loops!

    IMHO, If you take away the loops and fluorishes from the different letterstyles, you end up with the same letters: the Antiqua, the different scripts are just variations over the orginal - it is a matter of techonology and "the need for speed" how we write them.

    Oh, I don't see that a script demands anything, they are named "ausgangsschrifte" (opening or starter scripts) because you may develop your own style..

    There, I got carried away again, and I haven't even mentioned the ballpoints.

  19. Henrik, cursive writing itself was developed out of the need to write faster - whether the lettering is Roman, Greek Arabic or even Ideographic (cursive Japanese is very much faster to write than Kanji or Hiragana)
    Fast cursive needs as few penlifts as possible or the advantage of joining letters is lost. The speed of cursive writing depends on the flow. It's hard to get a flow when each letter is "drawn" as in some of the printed styles.
    The problem with Spencerian and some of the others was that the joining of all letters in a word overtook any other consideration, leading to some contrived and very unattractive ligatures which often had the effect of breaking the flow rather than enhancing it.
    Banning loops is as bad insisting on them. Letters with risers are usually formed from the bottom with an up and return stroke. Loops look far more attractive and are easier than trying to follow the same path on the descent, usually ending up with an unintentional and partially formed and rather ugly loop.
    I agree though that any script is a starting point to develop one's own style. The important thing is the script is legible and comfortable.
    Greek "e" and Spencerian "r" notwithstanding.

  20. @Mike I totally agree.
    regards Henik

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