Archive for the ‘Cursive’ Category

Why Britain Made a Change to Vertical Handwriting

July 9, 2011

A Sample of British Writing from 1888--Notice the Forward Slant to the Right

Examining older samples of British writing (1800s, and much of the pre-WWII writing), the British handwriting of that time was slanted to the right (as were cursive scripts in most European countries).  Now, most British writing is vertical.  How and when did this change come about?

Reading this 1925 letter written by A. N. Palmer, developer of the Palmer Method of handwriting, the actual preferred slant used to be a very precise 52°.  Mention of the precise 52° angle is also made in this 1893 article (see p. 87 at this link)  which argues for an introduction of vertical, unslanted writing.  Today, an ideal slant is considered to be between 60° and 75°.

Spencerian Script written at a perfect 52° angle

In Britain, in the early 1890’s, Professor John Jackson introduced vertical writing, which he felt had superior legibility, and was easier for students to learn.  Examiners began to require it in all branches of the Civil Service.  Many English schools began to adopt professor Jackson’s copy books.  Progressive German schools also began to use Professor Jackson’s system.

A Sample of Vertical British Handwriting

One argument used at the time was that vertical writing, by virtue of the fact that “the perpendicular of every right-angled triangle is shorter than the hypotenuse, and therefore there is less distance for the pen to travel in making vertical lines, than in making slanting lines.”  (Joseph Witherbee, 1893, p. 89-90)

As a teacher of handwriting for many years, I disagree, however.  Trying this out personally, I find that in vertical writing, the position of the hand creates a far greater drag on the paper, because of the hand being in the way; in forward-slanted writing, because the paper is turned, the position of the hand creates much less drag and the hand can move across the paper more swiftly.

One other argument for vertical cursive made at the time was that it does not require the student to have to “twist their spine” in order to write it, but instead to maintain a straight, upright posture which was “better for their health.”

Again, as a teacher of slanted cursive for many years, I can firmly state that if students are twisting in order to write slanted cursive, it is because the teacher does not know what they are doing in terms of showing students that they should be turning their paper on a greater angle in order to achieve the desired slant, rather than twisting their body.

Vertical writing apparently became more standard in England  after World War II (most British and French hands written prior to that time that I am familiar with still show slanted writing, while today, both countries generally have vertical writing), as young people learned the new style of handwriting, and those with slanted styles passed away.  (Vertical writing apparently spread to Germany and Austria starting around the 1890’s, and to France in the first half of the 20th century.)

Yet, in America, according to Palmer, “The vertical fell of its own weight…because in slowing down the process of writing, it was even worse than the old 52° copy book style.”  The Palmer method was developed specifically for business use, meaning for speed combined with legibility.  American cursive remains slanted to this day.

–Lynne Diligent

Other Cursive Posts by Lynne Diligent:

Part I:  What NOT to Do When Teaching Cursive in the Classroom

Part 2:  Help for Teachers/Other Adults Who Need/Want to Learn Cursive on Their Own, or in Preparation for Teaching Cursive


Teaching Cursive: Part 1 (of 25) –What NOT to Do!

July 6, 2011

Knowledge of how to teach cursive writing is becoming lost at an even faster rate than is cursive itself in the English-speaking world.

Interestingly, this is not the case in many non-English-speaking European countries and their former colonies around-the-world, in which printing is not ever taught.  Instead, five-year-olds begin immediately with learning cursive letters.

This post will not deal with the issue of whether cursive should continue to be taught.  Instead, it will explain the proper procedure for teaching cursive, since there are few teachers left who really know how.


1.   Give the students a workbook and tell them to work through it on their own whenever they have free time.  This method is the fall-back approach for a teacher who is asked/told to teach cursive, but who doesn’t have time/isn’t interested/doesn’t know how/doesn’t know how to write well (or at all) in cursive himself or herself.

2.  Put a letter (and later a word) on the board, and tell students in the class to “copy” it, leaving each child to devise their own different method to attempt a facsimile.  Unfortunately, this is the method most often employed in some former French colonies (and many other places), with abysmal results.


3.   Tell students to keep their papers or cursive workbooks straight in front of them while writing.  This produces an incorrect vertical script, or even a backslanted script, angling upward to the left.  The paper or workbook must be turned in order to achieve an acceptable slant, and this habit needs to be demonbstrated and enforced in Kindergarten when children first are learning to print.

Student correctly slanting his workbook to write.

Cursive script in languages which are written from left-to-right should be be slanted upward to the right (English, French, Italian, Spanish, or any languages written using a Roman script).   Cursive script in languages which are written from right-to-left should be slanted upward slightly to the left (Arabic, and other languages which are written using the Arabic script).  This series of articles, however, will deal with teaching cursive writing in the American script (but the methods are the same for teaching any Roman-letter cursive script).

Vertically-slanted cursive script

In some countries, vertical scripts are acceptable, but slanted scripts are much more beautiful and generally more highly esteemed.

Forward-slanting cursive scripts

4.  Treat cursive as a subject less important, or less interesting, than math, science, or reading.  To achieve a good result, cursive needs to be given an equal (or greater) priority to all these subjects for a short period of time (the 6-8 weeks it takes for the whole class to learn it well).

Teachers can make cursive a very fun class that everyone will look forward to, and techniques for doing so will be described in this series.

Once cursive has been learned, regular attention must be given to cursive for another three months (about 15 minutes, three times a week) for the next three months.  (Procedures will be described in this series.)

5.)  Start by teaching only the lower-case letters, and save the upper-case letters for “later.”  This generally results in non-mastery of cursive, because the students never learn, nor master, all of the capital letters.  Instead of writing some letters in cursive, and others in printing, students revert back to printing because of not feeling competent in writing cursive captials.

6.   Grade the students on the neatness of their writing.   This is a BIG mistake.  Cursive writing is not about neatness.  It is about speed and usefulness, first of all.  Secondly, it is about being clear enough to be understood;  for most people, it need not be a work of art to achieve these objectives.  For those who enjoy it, beauty can be achieved in addition (but this should have nothing to do with grading).

Students should have their cursive writing graded on three OBJECTIVE criteria ONLY:  1.)  Are the letters being formed correctly, starting in the right place, looping in the correct direction, retraced correctly, and crossed or dotted correctly?  2.)   Are the upper zones and lower zones in balanced proportion to each other?      3.)  Is the slant consistent, and within an acceptable range?  And yes, left-handers can achieve the correct slant (techniques for left-handers will be discussed in this series).

With these guidelines, most students are quite capable of achieving grades which will motivate them.  Keep in mind, the writing of some students can meet all three criteria, yet look messy.  If the criteria are met, the student should have an A (grades in the American system fall between high grades of A, and low grades of F.).

This is especially motivating to some young boys who have more difficulty than many girls in achieving neatness.  These A students with messy cursive are often the students who later become most motivated of all to improve the neatness of their writing, seeing their success on objective criteria.

7.   Have children copy long passages nightly, claiming it is “to improve their handwriting.”  Copying on one’s own, without specific feedback and instruction from the teacher,  will NEVER improve students’ cursive writing and is guaranteed to make children HATE cursive writing forever, rather than it becoming a useful and enjoyable life skill.

Correct techniques for improving neatness in cursive will be discussed in this series.

–Lynne Diligent, an Expert in Teaching Cursive Writing

Other Cursive Posts by Lynne Diligent:

Why Britain Made a Change to Vertical Handwriting

Part 2:  Help for Teachers/Other Adults Who Need/Want to Learn Cursive on Their Own, or in Preparation for Teaching Cursive

Part 3:  How to Prepare the Paper for Your Own Cursive Masters