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(Bad) Writing on the Wall? Could Decline of Penmanship Mean Changes for Elections?

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[Image courtesy of caitierosie]

My friend and colleague Dean Logan of Los Angeles County recently shared an article about the disappearance of cursive from American classrooms:

The curlicue letters of cursive handwriting, once considered a mainstay of American elementary education, have been slowly disappearing from classrooms for years. Now, with most states adopting new national standards that don't require such instruction, cursive could soon be eliminated at most public schools.

For many students, cursive is becoming as foreign as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. In college lecture halls, more students take notes on laptops and tablet computers than with pens and notepads. Responding to handwritten letters from grandparents in cursive is no longer necessary as they, too, learn how to use email, Facebook and Skype.

And educators, seeking to prepare students for a successful future in which computer and typing skills have usurped penmanship, are finding cursive's relevance waning, especially with leaner school budgets and curricula packed with standardized testing prep. So they're opting not to teach it anymore.

In one sense, a story like this is a curiosity - an opportunity for people of a certain age to tut-tut about "kids today". [I wouldn't be one of them, even if I wanted to; my hands are not clean - that image above isn't my handwriting but it could be.]

But Dean observes - and rightly so - that the decline of cursive or handwriting in general is incredibly significant for election administration. In particular, changes in handwriting likely will imperil the reliance of the election system on handwritten signatures to help identify voters. As a new generation of voters enters the rolls unaccustomed to signing documents - or if they do, using a stylus or their finger to sign electronically - it will change the ability of election offices to use signatures to match or identify voters on vote by mail ballots and registration rolls.

What will replace the signature? It isn't yet clear; while voters could use PINs or other forms of digital ID to authenticate themselves, the election systems isn't yet set up to provide such information or protect its security from accidental or malicious release.

It does seem clear, however, that Dean is right - the time is now to think about alternatives to the so-called "wet ink" signature as a means to identify or validate voters. The trend away from handwriting instruction may be a good thing or a bad thing - but ignoring that trend is a recipe for confusion for election officials and voters alike.


  • Thank you for this article. When I discovered that my grandchildren were not being taught cursive writing, I was upset. Then I began to think about how we are going to compare distinctive signatures at the polls. At a recent high school voter registration drive, many of the students completed the registration application by printing, and then there was an awkward attempt to sign in cursive. How will that signature compare in 5 or 10 years? Are we going to have to collect finger prints or DNA? Please keep us posted.

  • Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. (Sources below.)

    Reading cursive matters, but even children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce. Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. (In fact, now there's even an iPad app to teach how: named "Read Cursive," of course — http://appstore.com/readcursive .) So why not simply teach children to read cursive — along with teaching other vital skills, including some handwriting style that's actually typical of effective handwriters?

    Educated adults increasingly abandon cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority — 55 percent — wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. When most handwriting teachers shun cursive, why exalt it — let alone demand it?

    So ... What about signatures?

    Brace yourself: in state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)
    Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, then verification of documents, etc.) inform me that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if they follow the rules of cursive all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger's life easy.
    The individuality of print-style (or other non-cursive style) writings is further shown by this: a few months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the print-writing on an unsigned assignment) which of her 25 or 30 students wrote it.

    Requiring cursive because we must all sign our names is like requiring voters to wear stovepipe hats and crinolines so that they won't show up at the polls naked.


    Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

    /1/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May - June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf

    /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
    JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September - October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

    Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at http://www.hw21summit.com/media/zb/hw21/files/H2937N_post_event_stats.pdf

    [AUTHOR BIO: Kate Gladstone is the founder of Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works and the director of the World Handwriting Contest]

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone
    Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    and the World Handwriting Contest

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