The cursive obstacle course for fumbley fingers

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the art of handwriting, then and now


It was the terror of every schoolboy. Schoolgirls, it seemed, coped far better with its rigours.

It was called the Cursive Handwriting Chart. And an official in the Early Childhood Education section of the Eastern Cape Education Department assures me in an interview that it is remains in use throughout the land, still striking fear and despair into the hearts of the young.

Every class in the numerous junior schools I attended — in Zambia, Australia and South Africa; in English, Afrikaans and dual medium — had in common this single teaching aid. It was a large, laminated wall display chart that showed how each letter of the alphabet ideally should be written, in both lowercase and capital, as well as having a sentence to illustrate how the letters joined to form words.

The Afrikaans sentence, engraved on my normally flibbertigibbet mind, was; “Ons gee altyd net ons aller beste.” Which translates, equally dauntingly in English, to: “We always give only our very best.”

I knew this not be true of me. However dutiful my intentions, my cursive never progressed beyond a Jackson Pollack-like rendition, albeit in monochrome, of swirls and whirls, blobs and smears and smudges. This was to the despair of my long-suffering primary school teachers, all kind and patient women. 

It was also to my own, private despair, at least while in grade school. For some reason, despite all the evidence to the contrary in the form of older pupils around me, I somehow convinced myself that I would be allowed to finish schooling, this hated institution, as soon as I had mastered reading and writing. 

So I determinedly soared ahead at reading, but my cursive writing sucked. Whether it was with a pencil, or a dipping pen — what a punishment for a clumsy child — or a ballpoint, or eventually a fountain pen, the best I could achieve was a higgledy-piggledy scrawl, as humiliating to me as it was illegible to the reader.

Despite the strictures of the dreaded Chart, we of course all end up with highly individual handwriting. 

I remember that contrast to mine, my father’s handwriting was regular, with truncated tall- and drop-letters, as if he had taken secateurs to them. Consequently, his sentences rippled briskly across the page, each word, depending on length, form either a choppy pool or a stream.

My mother’s handwriting was small and neat, as was she. Such legibility may have been a function of her always considerate nature, or simply a function of the fact that since she had the parental duty of communicating with the children when they were away from home, I was just accustomed to deciphering it. 

My sister’s writing I cannot now picture, although I would easily identify it among examples from half a dozen other scribes. Maybe because of being left-handed, she has a fascinating facility at “mirror writing” — writing backwards, from right to left — with the same fluency that she can write an ordinary, left to right, sentence.

The writing of the next generation, that of my own daughters, is far murkier. Because of the remorseless usurping of old-fashioned writing by typed texting and emails, I would today struggle to unearth an example that is less than two dozen years old. All I can remember from their schooldays is big, cheerful, airy lettering.

And there lies the rub. In a digital world, the ability slavishly to replicate cursive — “Careful now, William! Light strokes up, heavy strokes down.” — is about as useful a talent as being able to start the braai by rubbing sticks together. There are more efficient alternatives and even if you do need to pen a shopping list for your significant other, block letters will surely suffice? 

Not according to South Africa’s pedagogues. They are emphatic that handwriting exercises are critical for perceptual and motor skills development.

Not everyone has a computer, so pupils need to be able to write quickly and clearly. That is why handwriting is supposedly taught from year one through to matric, although all the teachers I spoke to conceded that after junior school, it’s pretty much up to the kids to find their own way.

There is other support for what the academics call chirographic writing. A recent 10-country study by the London School of Economics found that university students are not abandoning pen and paper.

The exceptions were the Russians, Bulgarians and Finns, who far prefer computers to paper, apparently because there is less of a tradition of handwriting and reading actual books.

For the others, while digital technologies are embraced for their speed and effectiveness, writing by hand was held to have special qualities that cannot be matched by machine writing. Many students claimed that handwritten notes lead to better retention of information than when typed.

Italian students, clearly following in the Romantic tradition, cited the sensory qualities of cursive, including the fragrance of the paper as it is inked. For many, it was about what they were writing: digital on-screen media was preferred for academic work because of its speed and legibility. Private emotions and intimate feelings were best conveyed by handwriting and paper.

For me, however, the Cursive Handwriting Chart will always evoke a little shudder of revulsion — a reminder of 12-years hard labour, with no time off for good behaviour.

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