Students usually learn print script in first grade and cursive writing in second or third grade. In the absence of a unified national directive, approaches to handwriting education vary widely, and are all produced and supported by private companies.

The U.S. Department of Education establishes policy for and administers most federal assistance to education, but education is largely a state and local responsibility. The education system is divided into elementary school from Kindergarten to Grade 5 (5–11 years old), middle school from Grade 6–8 (11–14 years old), and high school from Grade 9–12 (14–18 years old), though it can vary slightly from state to state. Similarly, schooling, though compulsory, can be so for a range between 5–8 years to 16–18 years old, and the mandatory requirement can be satisfied in public or state-certified private schools, or an approved home school program.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative was introduced in the United States in 2010 to establish standards and goals of teaching in the country. It was sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The standard does not recommend or regulate specific models for teaching handwriting, and also allows states and schools to determine what models and methods they would like to use for this purpose. States can accept or reject Common Core, as well as add their own state-specific requirements to the specification. Several states have, for instance, added a cursive requirement to their implementation of Common Core.

The general practice nowadays is to teach print letters, usually based on a sans serif typeface (a style known as “manuscript” in the United States) to first grade students (5–6 years old) followed by cursive writing to second or third grade students (7–9 years old).

In the absence of a unified national approach, elementary education in the United States is supported by several private companies that espouse different approaches to teaching handwriting. According to American handwriting expert Kate Gladstone, it is difficult to confidently determine which handwriting models are most commonly taught in the country, but among the most widespread are Zaner-Bloser, D’Nealian, and Handwriting Without Tears. Two other programs — Getty-Dubay and Barchowsky Fluent Hand — are rapidly gaining interest as writing models not only for children but also for adults seeking to improve their handwriting.

Diversity in handwriting education

The works of Austin Norman Palmer (1860–1927) and Charles Paxton Zaner (1864–1918) were crucial to the development of handwriting teaching in the United States. Their approach, which was physiological and rooted in the muscularity of writing, was adopted at the turn of the 20th century, when “Spencerian” handwriting — named after 19th century calligrapher Platt Rogers Spencer (1800–1864) — was on the decline. Palmer’s letters were spaced apart, heavily slanted, in a continuous cursive style, and without stroke contrast and extravagant ornamentation.

Sample pages of Palmer, A.N., 1915. The Palmer method of business writing: a series of self-teaching in rapid, plain, unshaded, coarse-pen, muscular movement writing. New York : A.N. Palmer Company.

By the late 1920s, this approach began dominating handwriting in the country, both in the commercial and educational spheres. Even though AN Palmer & Co. went bankrupt in 1987, echoes of this handwriting style are still visible today in prevalent methods such as Zaner-Bloser and D’Nealian, whose cursive models are arguably simplifications of the same foundational letterforms.

Samples of Palmer Business Writing, Zaner-Bloser, and D’Nelian continuous cursive models.

Around the same time, scientific arguments were also put forward for an alternative — vertical cursive writing. Proponents of 19th and 20th century movements to improve sanitation and public health in Europe considered the style advantageous because it eliminated unnecessary ornamentation and slant in letterforms. Despite vertical writing gaining popularity elsewhere in the world, it was not widely accepted in the USA at the time. This can likely be attributed to the introduction of print script around the 1920s, which served as a model in the early teaching of school writing. The only vertical cursive writing method that has gained acceptance in USA is Handwriting Without Tears.

Sample from the Handwriting Without Tears educational materials showing how students should transition from print to cursive style letters.

In the 1970s, some American educators recognised the need for an alternative to the then-traditional Palmer-based systems for learning handwriting. They looked towards 16th century renaissance italic models as reference, especially Arrighi’s (1475–1527) chancery styles. According to Rosemary Sassoon, despite the availability of good italic models, the style did not gain popularity in American schools at the time. This would change in the 21st century, when as a reaction to calls to eliminate cursive writing and use only print script or type in an increasingly digital world, a counter-movement known as Cursive-First emerged in the United States. It has gained momentum in the last decade, and advocates for a halt to teaching print script, and redirects focus on cursive writing based on italic models. Modern italic styles are considered easy to learn because italic “print script” and cursive have the same letterform foundations, and simple to read due to their lack of loops and ornamentation. Methods such as Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting and Getty-Dubay Italic, with their distinctive approaches to simplified italics, have become popular as a result.

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