Cursive and memory

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Anne Thomas, a retired primary school teacher, writes from NH:

While it may not be required coursework across the board, cursive is making a comeback. Research shows that handwriting notes activates multiple brain regions associated with optimal memory, much more so than note-taking with digital devices. Taking notes by hand or writing a to-do list on paper will preserve that memory a lot longer than typing into a laptop or phone.

As of February 2022, 14 states passed legislation requiring cursive to be taught in schools, with legislation pending elsewhere. Educators argue that such instruction is essential to developing fine motor skills.

With cursive back in classrooms, maybe the art of penmanship won’t be relegated to assignments. Perhaps sending long missives through the mail will be the next trend of 2023.
[ To which she added: I don't know about this last bit, but I DO know that back of envelope lists are a required part of my life… and that yes, the act of writing the list does help get it in my memory, kinesthetic being my more dominant mode.]

I still prefer to write notes, drafts of papers, lecture outlines, and so forth by hand with black ink on yellow legal paper, although I do compose reams and streams of things on my four computers — but I'm virtually incapable of writing anything on a cell phone or tablet / pad (though I marvel at those who do so).  I also marvel at a friend of mine who does not feel that her day has been fulfilled if she doesn't spend at least half an hour writing characters — just for the pure joy of doing so.

Does anyone still remember the beautiful Spencerian Penmanship ("inspired by the forms that he saw of smooth pebbles in a stream" [source]) and the Palmer Method (its successor [source]) for writing longhand?  They were designed for ergonomic efficiency without sacrificing esthetic merit.


Selected readings

[Thanks to John Rohsenow]


  1. Block Letters said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 10:45 am

    But writing by hand ≠ cursive, that's quite a leap to make. For ham-hands like me, cursive actually reduces the utility of handwriting.

  2. Bloix said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 11:15 am

    I learned cursive in the mid-1960s. Having done a little googling in response to this post, I'm fairly sure that I was taught the Zaner-Bloser method, which displaced the Palmer method.

    If you'd asked me yesterday I would have said I learned the Palmer method, but no- I've looked at the Palmer alphabet and I was never taught to write write those big round P's and R's. And I clearly remember the printing worksheet that the Zaner-Bloser method recommended as a precursor to cursive.

    I suspect I think I learned Palmer because the phrase Palmer Penmanship is so prettily alliterative and I forgot Zaner-Bloser because it's so ugly and forgettable. Or perhaps it's because my mother learned Palmer and referred to modern cursive generally as Palmer Penmanship. (Her mother would have learned Spencerian- I wonder what her attitude was to the newfangled simplified Palmer.) Although I may be misremembering!

    If you're old enough to have learned Spencerian as a child you'd have been taught to write with a steel nib dipped in an inkwell. There might be some centenarians who remember that. But except for the epigraphers and calligraphers among us, I suspect that anyone younger would find reading a document written in Spencerian to be slow going.

  3. Taylor, Philip said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 12:36 pm

    One does not need to be a centenarian to remember "hav[ing] been taught to write with a steel nib dipped in an ink-well". I am 75, and that was exactly how I was taught, although I rapidly progressed to using a fountain pen (lever fill, a gift from my mother) on which my teacher accidentally stepped one day. The pen was beyond repair (I can still see, in my mind's eye, his vain attempt to glue it together with some strange amber-coloured adhesive) and my handwriting was never the same after that traumatic incident …

  4. tony in san diego said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 12:52 pm

    My handwriting has evolved from early school with lined paper, through countless hours of practicing italic because my mom wanted my writing to be legible, through my own childhood hobby of calligraphy, through two years of college Greek. I usually put a flourish on a lower case G and Y, often use a Greek epsilon and delta.

  5. Kingfisher said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 12:59 pm

    When I was in grade school, we were informed that learning cursive was mandatory for all high school writing, so we'd better learn it well. However, upon reaching high school we were informed in no uncertain terms that all assignments must be printed by typing them out. No doubt the high school teachers wanted to avoid having to parse the handwriting of so many students.

  6. Thomas Lee Hutcheson said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 1:57 pm

    Provided one is graded only on whether the writers themselves can read the result, maybe t's a good idea. _I_ retain the trauma of perpetually being downgraded for the quality / legibility of my handwriting for others.

  7. AntC said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 4:40 pm

    taught to write with a steel nib dipped in an inkwell.

    Yes I was, though I'm nothing like a centenarian. I progresses to fountain pens, as did PhilipT.

    Never got on with them/I always had puddles of ink, splotches on the paper and on my hands. Thank heavens for ballpoints.

    My handwriting was terrible, I remember being put into detention to practice it. Thank heavens for keyboards.

    handwriting notes activates multiple brain regions associated with optimal memory,

    Now this does ring a bell with me: I find I remember things better if I take handwritten notes. Whereas if I try to take typewritten notes, I get distracted with the typing.

    _But_ having written the notes, I never read them back. They're usually illegible anyway. So it's the brain-exercise of paying attention.

  8. David L said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 5:46 pm

    For those with access to the NYT, this story about the New York Public Library's acquisition of Joan Didion's papers includes a letter from Tom Wolfe that is worth a look. His handwriting matches his sartorial style, I would say.

    For my own part, I was taught what was called copperplate handwriting at an early age, but it all went south quickly and now if I jot down notes by hand I struggle to interpret them later.

  9. Taylor, Philip said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 7:18 pm

    I don't have paid access, but I find that if one is quick enough, a judiciously placed click followed by Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C is all that is necessary to capture the content …

  10. AndyB said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 9:01 pm

    Writing by hand may well have advantages over typing. But the study cited above only studied Japanese, and might not be applicable to English.

    Writing on paper in Japanese is quite different from writing Japanese on a computer. When you handwrite, you directly write the kanji characters on the paper. But using a computer, you type the word phonetically (using the kana syllabary), and you then select the desired kanji from a menu showing several homonyms. This extra step is not needed when you type in English, and that may affect how the message is stored in the brain.

  11. CD said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 1:20 am

    My undergrads rarely use paper. I'm all for learning manual skills, but this smacks of nostalgia.

  12. John Gurung said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 2:50 am

    Handwriting notes has the advantage of being a slower, more deliberate process that allows for better retention and understanding of the material. Handwriting notes also allows for creativity and expression through the use of sketches and drawings. While digital notes can also be easily edited and updated, and often come with a range of tools and features, such as the ability to insert images, links, and multimedia. A combination of both handwriting for initial note-taking and digital tools for organization and sharing may be appropriate to take advantage of both forms of note-taking.

  13. bks said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 8:38 am

    We moved half-way throught the school year. At the old school we were up to cursive "M" but upon arriving in the new school they were already at "S". To this day I cannot write a cursive "Q", though I do write cursive notes (printing any necessary cap-Q's).

  14. Taylor, Philip said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 8:57 am

    AntC wrote: "Never got on with them/I always had puddles of ink, splotches on the paper and on my hands. Thank heavens for ballpoints". Like Ant, I experienced problems using a dip- (and later, fountain-) pen, primarily because I was left-handed — I had to learn to write from above the line rather than from below. But unlike Ant, the ballpoint pen (or "Biro", as we called them in British English, sadly mangling tne first vowel out of pure ignorance) was no saviour for me — all attempts at forming well-shaped and elegant letterforms with a ball-point pen were a complete disaster — there were no thick and thin strokes, no significant response to pressure, nothing at all apart from a monotonous constant-width line. So to this day I continue to use a fountain pen for anything that needs to be hand-written, falling back on a thin fibre-tip pen (Staedtler triplus fineliner) if I am away from home and therefore do not have access to my normal Staedtler calligraphy-set pens. Incidentally, for those who, like me, continue to use a fountain pen to this day, I cannot recommend too highly the J. Herbin range of inks — I find them absolutely superb.

  15. chris said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 11:51 am

    I had the same first reaction as Block Letters — writing something by hand is quite different from writing it by hand *in cursive*. But if the original study wasn't even in English, then it certainly should be attempted to be replicated in English and other languages, and the effects of different writing systems/methods should be attempted to be distinguished when appropriate.

    Which leads me to wonder how many other languages even *have* anything like the Latin alphabet's print/cursive distinction? Is there such a thing as cursive Greek, or Cyrillic, or Arabic, or Devanagari (for any of the various languages that use it)?

  16. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 12:55 pm

    My response to the "We must teach cursive!" crowd is to ask what should be removed from the curriculum to free up the time required to master cursive. Please be specific.

    I am old enough that I was taught cursive as a matter of routine, but by college I rarely used it. I was a strong advocate of taking lecture notes, with writing them by hand the only option at that time. Or borrow someone else's notes, of course, and for the larger classes there was a note-taking service you could subscribe to. The flaws with both were obvious to me. So I took my own. But not in cursive. My cursive skills were already atrophying, as I rarely had occasion in high school for it. It was more what I used for thank-you notes to my grandmother. Here, some decades later, I could probably dredge up the skill, but it would be laborious and inelegant, and please don't ask me to make a capital Q. I still take handwritten notes as appropriate, however.

    When my kids were in elementary school just a few years back, they were taught typing, which is now called "keyboarding." They had a brief section on cursive, but it was really just enough to recognize what it is. My mother, whose cursive is a thing of beauty, wrote my younger one a letter when the kid was at sixth grade camp. The kid had to find an adult to read it out loud.

    I think this curriculum gets it right. They are both perfectly capable of reading and writing by hand: just not cursive. That time was devoted to keyboarding, which is a vastly more useful skill for them to have nowadays. I have seen no argument for seriously teaching cursive that is more than mere reactionary nostalgia.

  17. Rodger C said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 1:50 pm

    Is there such a thing as cursive Greek, or Cyrillic, or Arabic, or Devanagari

    There are certainly cursive Greek and Cyrillic. Arabic is inherently cursive, but there are slower and faster scripts. Devanagari–who wants to tell us?

  18. Bob said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 3:53 pm

    My closest friend is a calligrapher specializing in Spencerian script, though she offers others to clients, and she makes a decent living. Like most of us, her regular handwriting is a mix of styles that we find convenient. In the '70s in journalism school, I was certainly trained out of any script or handwriting that was too inefficient for taking notes, which is reflected in my handwriting.

  19. Kingfisher said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 4:46 pm

    The only real place I still see a social "need" for cursive is when writing one's signature. Yet even this has significantly declined, especially with the reduced use of checks, and I always felt like signatures had inverted incentives of penmanship: the less legible the better.

    However, I do agree with the idea that handwriting (cursive or no) builds memory in a way that typing does not. Presumably it comes down to the muscle memory of forming the letters/characters.

  20. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 31, 2023 @ 2:59 am

    Not that I did any scientifically valid testing, but at university I got the impression I retained lectures better if I didn't take notes at all, leaving me more brain power to actually understand what was being said rather than concentrating on scribbling it down.

    (Like AntC, I rarely if ever consulted my notes afterwards – I used the textbook for that.)

    In working life, I often take handwritten notes in meetings, but only for specific things I know I'll need to remember in detail.

  21. Petro said,

    January 31, 2023 @ 6:10 am

    > Is there such a thing as cursive Cyrillic, or Arabic?

    Cyrillic has cursive which also partly often embedded into fonts and can cause some problem for new learners like this:

    But there exists movement for straight cursive as main writing:Болгарська_кирилиця

    While Arabic, as I know, is already there — cursive is main. But history knows movements for kinda decursiving.
    – Unified Arabic:
    – Simplified Arabic:

  22. C Baker said,

    January 31, 2023 @ 6:32 pm

    My response to the "We must teach cursive!" crowd is to ask what should be removed from the curriculum to free up the time required to master cursive. Please be specific.

    Print. We should start with cursive in the first grade, as it is taught in many places now and used to be in the USA, and then spend a few weeks on printing in the third grade, to take up the time that's currently used on "Oh, wait, we should teach them cursive". If more time is needed to teach printing or typing then that time should be taken from test prep.

  23. wanda said,

    February 2, 2023 @ 2:43 am

    Yes, undergrads rarely use paper. A lot of mine have tablets and write on an electronic copy of the slides using a stylus, so they are handwriting but not on paper.
    But, I have in-person exams (too much cheating with online exams), so all of my students do have to write occasionally.
    I allow students to bring one page of notes to each exam. Last year, after we came back in person, I noticed that a lot of students didn't seem to own any paper- they were bringing in notes sheets written on receipts or other incidental, torn-off pieces of paper. (I don't think this was a "poverty" thing- I think this was a "everything is electronic now" thing.) I now distribute empty sheets of 8.5×11 printer paper which students can choose to take, if they want, to write their notes sheets on.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    February 2, 2023 @ 7:29 am


    I appreciate and concur with your remarks.

    The paperlessness of my students has reached such a degree that, upon occasion when I need a piece of paper on the spur of the moment, after a bit of scrambling around, we will soon discover that there isn't a piece of paper in the classroom. The only exception are the more or less fancy diaries that some of the girls keep. They will offer to tear out a page from their diary for me, but I always refuse because their diaries are too nice / cute / etc.

    It's the same with cash, esp. with the students from the PRC. They don't seem to know what it is.

  25. Rodger C said,

    February 2, 2023 @ 10:53 am

    Shortly after I retired to Bloomington, I tried to pay cash for a cup of coffee in the IMU, reducing the resourceful cashier to pocketing my cash and paying for my coffee with his own card.

  26. Chas Belov said,

    February 3, 2023 @ 2:03 am

    I typically hand-print rather than hand-write. When I do write cursive, it's idiosyncratic to the point of being nearly indecipherable. It's not that it's messy – in fact it's quite neat – but I drop leading and trailing strokes of words and f's – lower case f's come out as long slash marks – trailing strokes of i's, and with t's I send the stroke to the next letter from the crossbar. My capital F looks kind of like I've traced the light portions of the radioactivity warning symbol as connected triangles, sort of.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    February 3, 2023 @ 8:42 am

    Printing by hand is so painful and slow for me that I can barely stand to do it for more than a few words. My cursive is fast and borders on the stenographic, but it is terribly messy; few people other than myself can read it. Infamously referred to as "chicken scratches". When I write on the board, if I want my students to understand what I'm writing, I have to be very deliberate, and it's not really anything so nice and graceful as actual cursive, but it's just letters that are connected.

  28. David in Tokyo said,

    February 3, 2023 @ 10:05 am

    Like tony above, my cursive was so bad I was having trouble in school, so my whole family (well, all three of us) took up italic. That (partly) fixed my school problems, but at least one of my friends in high school could fake my signature so well I couldn't tell if it were mine or not. (And my handwriting is now ugly, weird, and slow.)

    More recently, I tried writing Japanese with a fountain pen, and it was a revelation: it's way easier than with ballpoints, explaining how Japanese authors crank out so much text*. Since the ink flows by just touching the paper, one doesn't use any pressure at all to write. (This is unlike italic, for which we used fountain pens with an edged nib. An edged nib requires a fair amount of effort to keep the nib at the perfect angle to the paper, so there is no apparent increased ease of writing.)

    *: Anthony Trollope's complete works runs to 15,000 pages or so: Yukio Mishima's is over 25,000. (And Tollope lived a _lot_ longer than Mishima.)

  29. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 6:44 am

    By the time I was in high school in the late 1960s, I had long since given up cursive and reverted to printing — and my printing developed ligatures and was sort of, kinda, occasionally cursive. It was also much faster than my cursive ever got. I have a distinctive signature.

    Time magazine published an article around then about how some schools were using a handwriting curriculum based on italic, so students learned to print italic and then gradually wrote faster and with naturally developing ligatures to write “cursive.” That sounded like a great improvement to me, but public school inertia left italic by the wayside.

    Muscle memory takes time to learn — and unlearn. Teaching printing, then teaching cursive, consumes a lot of classroom time. I suspect it also makes life miserable for students whose fine motor skills are not great. I think it is time for a new handwriting curriculum that is designed to work better for students with poor fine motor skills, dyslexia, left-handedness, or other issues educators are aware of. The writing should work with standard ballpoint pens and not require special nibs, fountain pens, or markers with wedge-shaped tips.

  30. Terry K. said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 6:33 pm

    In a world where for many people the majority of handwriting is filling out forms that say to print (not cursive), there is some sense to prioritizing printing, rather than cursive, if one is going to teach only one.

    I do feel like kids should have some sort of introduction to reading cursive. At the very least, reading cursive style fonts.

  31. mcswell said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 2:45 pm

    I'm surprised no one (unless I missed it) has commented on the premise that writing in cursive–as opposed, I guess, to printing or typing–supports retention.

    Specifically, the claim that "Research shows that handwriting notes activates multiple brain regions associated with optimal memory, much more so than note-taking with digital devices." I suspect that writing things down in whatever mode one is most used to might support retention. But more to the point, why is activating multiple brain regions (as indicated by fMRI) advantageous? It might be disadvantageous for all we know. Nowhere does the linked article (itself an excerpt) say that the handwriters actually remembered more. (And as has been pointed out above, this is Japanese; could be entirely different for writers of other languages/ writing systems.)

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