The impenetrability of cursive for students from the PRC

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Today I had a revelation about my handwriting on the blackboard.

By far the majority of students in all of my classes come from mainland China.  They are by nature reticent to speak up, but when it comes to engaging in discussion about material that I have written on the board, they are essentially deadly silent.

I know they're smart and should be able to respond to at least some of my questions, but often they just stare intensely at the writing on the board, almost as though they are in pain.

My handwriting is famously poor, as I have confessed and documented in numerous previous Language Log posts, so I do try to slow down a bit and write clearly when at the board, but often my impatience gets the better of me, and when I speed up, all bets are off that others will comprehend.

Today, I intentionally wrote as clearly as possible (for me).  Still no reactions from the class.  I became frustrated and asked them why they did not answer.

Finally, one of the braver students ventured, "We cannot read cursive.  We are not allowed to write cursive."  Then others chimed in to the same effect. They were talking about the Latin alphabet.  They said that they cannot comprehend any writing with letters that joins them together.  Naturally, they can and do write characters in cursive.  In fact, no matter how execrable it is, they can read my Chinese characters, whether printed or cursive, better than my normal cursive Latin script.  They said, "If we wrote our essays on the Gaokao (National College Entrance Examination [NCEE]) exams in cursive Latin alphabet, we would certainly fail.  So we simply are not familiar with cursive alphabet writing."

I was crushed.  All that wisdom I had sprawled across the board was pretty much for naught!  Henceforth, I will endeavor to print on the board, but that is excruciating for me.  I'll just have to grin and bear it.


Selected readings


  1. Thomas Lee Hutcheson said,

    February 23, 2023 @ 8:02 pm

    I guess that is pretty much the same for students from the USA. ?

  2. magni said,

    February 23, 2023 @ 8:41 pm

    Education in China has been featured by a compulsive obsession with highlighting, assessing, and demanding the calligraphic quality in students' handwriting. Presumably most students in the Chinese education system who have made it into universities are familiar with the constant emphasis put on the legibility, and probably, aesthetic details of one's 字儿 (zì ér, handwriting). High school students practice their English handwriting in the model of something resembling Calibri, which is said to be set by elites from top high schools (, in the sense that they have done a good job in preparing their students with calligraphic skills among other things for Gaokao.
    So much for my Chinese student perspective. I remember finding it amusing that native users of English mostly don't give a darn about handwriting except as in a case like this.

  3. Ben said,

    February 23, 2023 @ 10:32 pm

    @magni I'm not familiar with the word 字儿. When you transcribed it zì ér, did you mean it is pronounced as two syllables? I would have otherwise guessed the 儿 was erhua, ie. pronounced something like [tsɻ̩˥˩]

  4. Chenyang Hsu said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 12:19 am

    Some schools in China even encourage students to practice writing in the Hengshui Style (衡水体*), which is basically a slanted version of Comic Sans, for its alleged clarity and rigorousness. A sample can be found at You can even find calligraphy copybook for such style (衡水体字帖) on the study-aids shelf in bookstores.

    * Named after Hengshui Middle School, or 衡水中学, which is infamous for its “military” style of control over students and its ability to produce higher-than-average Gaokao performers.

  5. magni said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 2:40 am

    @Ben Oh! I made a mistake in separating what should have been zìr in pinyin and pronounced like [tsɻ̩˥˩]. That was an erhua. Thanks for pointing out!

  6. Jenny Chu said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 5:01 am

    I belong to a recipe sharing group online, and someone posted a photo of their grandmother's old recipe asking, "Can anyone translate this?" This is a common request, but this time the difference was: it was in English, but just written in cursive.

  7. Mark S. said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 5:28 am

    When I was teaching at a university in China, my students told me they had trouble with my handwriting. But I wasn't using cursive, and my handwriting isn't total griffonage. What was throwing them off was that even when printing I write the letter "a" as "a" rather than as "ɑ". (I hope that comes out OK on people's screens, with a double-story a and a single-story ɑ.)

    They found that very strange and at first almost unrecognizable. Although the double-story form is indeed somewhat unusual in handwriting, there's nothing at all odd about it as a printed form. I noted that most font faces — including the one used in their textbook — use "a" rather than "ɑ", and that they had no problem with that.

    Living in China, I had to make all sorts of adjustments — but my handwriting style was not among them. My students quickly adapted.

  8. Philip Anderson said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 8:26 am

    @Mark S
    I can see those two different forms of ‘a’ as intended. After experimenting, I can see that a joined-up double-storey ‘a’ isn’t as immediately recognisable as when it’s standalone, but I don’t think I’d misread it, unless for a ‘d’. It’s a cursive ‘r’ that can throw me, since my handwritten ‘r’ is essentially a printed one.

    But handwriting styles have changed over the years and centuries; old land records can be very difficult to read (especially when a Welsh place name was mangled in the first place).

  9. BillR said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 11:50 am

    Jenny, many years ago we were sharing recipes, mostly hand-written, handed down in friends’ families. Everyone’s favorite was for something that looked like urbane coonies, which turned out to mean unbaked cookies.

  10. lukas said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 11:59 am

    I'm surprised that acquiring at least a passive knowledge of cursive Latin letters isn't considered part of learning English. Cursive is still reasonably common (mainly in handwriting but also in other contexts), and it doesn't seem like it would add much load to the curriculum.

  11. Shadow-Slider said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 1:42 pm

    How about Court Hand for unreadability?

  12. Tinggi said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 6:00 pm

    They are "students"- I think by definition, they are supposed to "learn". Don't make up such an excuse like "we didn't do things like this in the past so we are not going to do it in this way now". In a more fashionable way, they should get out of their "comfort zone". If they are so loyal to their way of learning or studying environment, they should stay in their almighty mother land and not to take the trouble to fly all the way to the United States to study under the supervision and guidance of the world renowned scholar and sinologist.

    BTW, hopefully some photos of the handwritings on board by Prof. Mair could be posted here so that for those who are less fortunate to be able to attend those classes or seminars conducted by Prof. Mair can also be able to have a chance to appreciate those "gems of ink" (墨寶).

  13. John Quiggin said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 11:48 pm

    Cursive is an anachronism which is, thankfully, disappearing fast. In 10 or 20 years time, your US-born students won't be able to read it either.

    The only point of cursive is to write something quickly which isn't too much less legible than printed characters. That's been obsolete ever since the invention of the typewriter.

    Of course, if you are still handwriting on a board, you probably have different ideas about technological obsolescence than I do.

  14. Lisa RR said,

    February 25, 2023 @ 10:00 am

    I remember a font Canadian elementary schools taught decades ago with a capital Q that really looked to me like a number 2. I never learned that version of the letter.
    My Canadian young nieces and nephews have trouble reading cursive English now as well.
    But fountain pens and nice writing papers are becoming trendy items again – I don't believe cursive English will disappear.
    Who will write on the chalkboards in coffee shops!

  15. wanda said,

    February 25, 2023 @ 12:54 pm

    My context is that I teach intro bio at a large public R1 on the West Coast. Every term I teach between 150-400 students. I have in-person exams with short answer questions on exams. Although I have graders (who are also undergraduates), if they cannot read a student response they kick it back to me. The bottom line is that I've gotten very good over the years at interpreting the kind of handwriting students produce when they are stressed, confused, and under time pressure.

    I would say that something like 1 in 200 students writes in cursive. It is very rare. My impression is that the cursive folks are mostly international students from Europe. My graders have a lot of difficulty with cursive, especially if the cursive is sloppy. But of course they would- they weren't taught how to write cursive, and they would have never encountered it in real life if it weren't for their job!
    My impression too is that my graders who are international students from China are worse in general at interpreting bad English handwriting in print, which also makes sense. But it is not to an unmanageable extent.

  16. Kristian said,

    February 25, 2023 @ 3:15 pm

    In my opinion cursive (by which I mean joining letters together) is the normal way of writing by hand, not printing. Why wouldn't one join letters together? Why would anyone think it is more natural to print? It's not as though it is somehow intrinsically more complicated to write cursive.

  17. Monscampus said,

    February 25, 2023 @ 10:06 pm


    For me the normal i.e. fastest way is printing. Why? Because in the British zone in post-war Germany at school we were forced to print the first two years before we were even introduced to cursive. This was partly due to the fact that there were several cursives, e. g. Sütterlin aka German Script. We were taught that much later to enable us to read letters and diaries written by elderly relatives. Of course I can join letters, but it really slows me down.

  18. Anthony said,

    February 26, 2023 @ 12:15 pm

    I always write with a fountain pen, since one needs to press harder with a ballpoint. The idea of lifting the pen between between all letters is not enticing. In the cursive I learned, there are no forms for numerals, presumably because a number has to be unambiguous and can't be figured out from context. That said, I write numbers all day long and have developed my own cursive forms for them.

  19. David said,

    February 26, 2023 @ 8:23 pm

    It sounds to me like a lot of folks in this thread might benefit from examining typographer Gunnlaugur S.E. Briem's work on italic handwriting ( it's all based on writing zigzags (he has a free pdf instruction book on his site). It takes some practice, but can produce fast and legible writing (admittedly, his is more beautiful than mine, even with practice). If I'm remembering correctly, the Economist magazine uses (used?) his type-design for the print magazine. I also find it remarkable that I can read italic handwriting from the 1500s.

  20. KeithB said,

    February 27, 2023 @ 8:25 am

    Prof. Mair:
    Why not get a projector and then you can type on the screen and face your students, to boot.

  21. Richard Hershberger said,

    February 27, 2023 @ 10:47 am

    @John Quiggin: Fewer than 10 years. My kids are in high school and middle school. They went to a very good public elementary school. They spent a week or two on cursive. Really, it was a combination of teaching them enough to recognize what it was that they were looking at, and to placate the the-sky-is-falling-if-we-don't-teach-cursive crowd. They devoted the time freed up by this (*ahem*) cursory instruction to teach them to type, which nowadays is called "keyboarding." This clearly is a better use of time. Back in my day, typing was a specialized class taught in middle school, devoted not only to the fundamentals of touch typing, but also to business letter formatting and the like. In other words, it was really a vocational class aimed at future secretaries. My parents wisely suggested I take it, and it has held me in good stead ever since: far more so than cursive writing ever did.

    I know for a fact that my younger kid can't read cursive. At sixth grade camp, relatives were encouraged to send letters. My mother, whose cursive is a thing of beauty, complied. The kid had to ask an adult to read it to her.

  22. Richard Hershberger said,

    February 27, 2023 @ 10:49 am

    Meant to add: the arguments for why it is vitally important to teach kids cursive are all bad, but when this discussion arises, which it does with surprising frequency, my response is to ask what should be stricken from the curriculum to free up classroom time. Please be specific.

  23. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 27, 2023 @ 6:21 pm

    @Kristian —

    I stopped using cursive in my early teens and started printing. My printing developed ligatures and so some letters are sort of cursive.

    The U.S. habit of training young students to print and having them practice to develop good muscle memory, then retraining them to write cursive when they are older creates different sets of muscle memory for each lower-case and upper-case letter. At least keyboarding muscle memory is quite different from either printing or cursive.

    Parents who want children to learn cursive can teach it at home. In fact, there are any number of styles of handwriting featured in instruction manuals for those who want to learn — look under calligraphy.

  24. Kristian said,

    February 28, 2023 @ 4:31 am

    @Richard Hershberger

    Your comment amuses me somewhat, because it implies that the time of elementary school children is so intensively used that something has to be struck from the "curriculum" for them to learn it. Small children have to spend hours a day in school mostly because their parents are at work and there is no one else to take care of them, not because of the high educational demands placed on them.

  25. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 28, 2023 @ 8:15 am

    @Kristian —

    I know some elementary school teachers in the U.S., and they are pressed for time for instruction. I think the elementary curriculum in the U.S. is not as rigorous as it was 50 to 70 years ago, although reverting to older curricula is not advisable because the level of scientific knowledge, particularly in regard to biology, has advanced significantly in that time. Much useful instructional time is absorbed by preparation for standardized testing and the testing itself.

    If testing time could be reduced and if teachers could have more flexibility, then maybe cursive could be reintroduced, but the cursive writing style of my childhood was not particularly lovely or readable. If cursive is a part of elementary education, then I would like to see a new style of cursive that can be easily written by children with average or below-average fine motor skills, left-handedness, and learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

    My preference for elementary education would be less testing and more reading and instruction in music (which helps eye-tracking and math skills), history, geography, science, and languages.

    Please don’t dismiss public education in the U.S. as warehousing. Teaching a class of 15 to 30 young students effectively is a complex job when students have such varying skill levels and motivation to learn. There are a surprising number of students who arrive in school these days unable to hold a pencil because they lack basic fine motor skills. Arguing about cursive when basic printing is such a challenge seems to avoid grappling with the reality of the challenges educators are facing.

    This article is about students in the U.K., but teachers in the U.S. have reported similar issues:

  26. Kristian said,

    February 28, 2023 @ 9:40 am

    Thank you for your interesting comment. I don't mean to be disparaging of teachers or of public education. Of course the job teachers have is far too difficult with many students of varying skill levels. My point was not that children's time is wasted in school (although if classes are too big, inevitably many of the children are understimulated).

    If tech has reduced children's fine motor skills to the extent described in the article, that rather strengthens the idea that children should learn handwriting. It is good if people learn to use their hands, even if the activity they pursue in doing this is not absolutely useful in the eyes of many people. (and it might be pointed out that as AI develops, more and more tasks that children, or anyone else, can learn in school will come to seem as useless as cursive.)

    I attended American elementary school in the early 1990's and I agree, that the cursive we learned was not particularly lovely (I don't know of course if it's the same thing that you are referring to). I prefer the italic style that David linked to.

  27. Rodger C said,

    February 28, 2023 @ 11:23 am

    I learned (starting 1953) first printing, then that hideous cursive. Revolting against it, I did all my own writing (non-schoolwork) in printed capitals, no doubt inspired by comic books (in fact most of my earliest writing was cartoons). I still write all my first drafts that way, though by high school it had evolved into a scribble resembling Imperial Roman hand. In my first semester of grad school I discovered italic, loved it (precisely because it was obviously just fast printing), and have used it ever since on the increasingly rare occasions when I use cursive at all.

  28. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 28, 2023 @ 9:43 pm

    Re: Italic

    Sometime in the late 1960s, Time magazine had an article about an Italic handwriting curriculum that some schools were using, which began with basic letterforms akin to printing and then helped students develop a “cursive” style using the same basic strokes so students did not have to spend as much time relearning handwriting. It sounded very logical to me at the time, and I thought surely in a few years it would replace the cursive I had learned.

    Yeah, no. I have spent most of my lifetime waiting for improved handwriting instruction in the U.S.

  29. E. Harding said,

    March 2, 2023 @ 5:52 pm

    "My handwriting is famously poor, as I have confessed and documented in numerous previous Language Log posts, so I do try to slow down a bit and write clearly when at the board, but often my impatience gets the better of me, and when I speed up, all bets are off that others will comprehend."

    Try keeping your chin up while writing -it'll help.

  30. Allen Thrasher said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 10:30 pm

    For three years I have been teaching a course in Aristotelian Logic in a part-time school that is directed to supplementing Catholic homeschooling, I have berated the majority of the students for their bad handwriting, which is solely printing. It's not as if printing is necessarily clear. One year I presented all my students with a guidebook to Italic/Chancery hand. Recently I had the satisfaction of one student back from his sophomore year in college telling me that indeed he found that cursive was necessary to take notes in class efficiently.

    A great advantage of Italic, as has been said above, is that the difference between the "printed" (unconnected) and the "cursive" (connected) forms is minimal. Personally, I find it much easier to write more or less clearly with Italic than with whatever I was taught in elementary school in the early '50s (which I presume was the Palmer method).

    Not knowing how to write in some form of cursive seems to make it difficult in the extreme to read old letters and document. I think this is because they learn how to retrace in their minds the strokes and thereby decipher the intended letters. Dropping cursive is in my opinion a surrender of cultural literacy, of systematic cultural amnesia.

    As was noted above, some old scripts are extremely difficult to read. I think these were mostly ones developed within specialized government offices or professions. Legibility to outsiders was likely not a priority. It might even have been considered undesirable.

    Finally, training in clear and attractive handwriting, I think, developes an appreciation for visual beauty. Training solely in printing, I think, produces a feeling that if the writing is passably decipherable, it is enough.

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