Reading and Curing Bad Handwriting - Part 1

by Guest Blogger Kate Gladstone

an example of cursive bad hand writing can't be read

Technology isn't always available and sometimes doesn’t always work — So even if we never write, we must decipher others’ handwriting. Often times others just have poor handwriting that has confusing loops.

Surprisingly many people – especially among those of us with one or more neurological disabilities – never managed to learn or remember how to read conventional North American looped cursive: even if managing to write it, somewhat, after a zillion lessons.

You are Evaluated By Your Handwriting

Further, we are often evaluated on the basis of handwriting.

My earliest handwriting memory involves a readiness test for kindergarten.

using handwriting for evaluation to see if a child is ready for school

Difficulties here would have classed me as “not ready for school” — but the examiner accidentally discovered I could read. I remember asking grownups why letters looked so different in books than on worksheets and elsewhere. Grownups told me these letters were “the same.”

I was bewildered.

Even more perplexing: grownups scribbled —

grownups scribble in cursive writing

The kindergarten bus driver’s surname, for instance, apparently started with a backwards 3 and a regular 3, according to his window sticker:

connection of letters
When I asked why grownups said:
“No reason, no anything — that’s just how it is,”
“It’s always been like that,”
“I don’t know what you mean,”
“Don’t think about it —you’ll get confused,”
or the ever-popular …
a chicken telling an egg a lesson

Much of conventional handwriting training is user-hostile. 

Handwriting curricula/expectations are usually self-contradictory — even within a single school district or writing program. Programs with internally contradictory requirements include the majority of programs marketed as “consistent.”

For example, internal inconsistencies pervade — and practically define —  the conventional cursive lowercase s:

connecting lower case s

Students may not be able disentangle exactly where the letter ends and the join begins.

Likewise, they may not understand where a stroke changes direction whenever the handwriting model’s structure fails to make this motorically and visually clear:

bad connections between cursive lettering makes it hard to read

My struggles with understanding lettering

First grade meant workbooks: we were told to copy everything just as it was shown:

fill in boxes with letters form

I did my best:

trying to copy letters

The teacher threw a fit! She showed me the work of another student:

not overthinking what the letter looks like

I asked what made mine wrong, since I’d given details he’d left out. Back to the principal’s office …

Next year, with cursive, I couldnt see which parts went where, or why:

a capital G in cursive

Letters had homogenized! Any shape might mean different letters at different times:

confusing letters

Even the “same” letters had different shapes for different grownups …

F and T look alike

(The letters “F T” in three cursive forms)

Right now most handwriting lessons actually increased confusion. Cursive writing does not have to be complex. In FACT: The fastest, most legible writers dont join all letters.

I empower people to do two things:

To read cursive: all kinds of cursive that they may reasonably expect to encounter — and

To write more sensibly (more efficiently and more legibly) themselves


How can we make cursive make sense to readers — even if they don’t write cursive? I’ve talk to people how to do this, for decades (based on the way that I finally taught myself how to do it) … Space bar and now, I boil to how to down into a book. READ CURSIVE FAST (National Autism Resources, 2020), tackles the neglected issue, so that anyone can teach someone else, or can learn independently, this fading skill.

Step One: Show how cursive letters happened!

When readers are allowed and encouraged to learn how cursive letters came about, remembering the cursive shapes makes cognitive sense, and does not have to rely solely on rote memory. Here’s an example for the letter G:

transformation of letter G

READ CURSIVE FAST uses a pattern-recognition/cognitive approach to “unlock” every cursive letter. Some letters need to be cracked in step-by-step detail, while others can be “cracked” more simply:

When you see the print-style s hiding inside cursive s, you can see why the cursive s looks different after lowercase o versus the way it looks after lowercase a.

Building pattern recognition and understanding into the learning task makes for faster progress and greater retention, by providing another route to comprehension. Cursive writing is not the only path to cursive reading — for many students, it is not even a reliable path.

Step Two: Sustained Reading

Once students recognize cursive letters alone and in words and phrases, it’s time to build automaticity and fluency with longer texts. To accomplish this, READ CURSIVE FAST uses “cursive stories”: passages written in fonts that resemble increasingly difficult styles of handwriting. 

Step Three: Reading Historical Documents.

Once students can read present-day cursive with some fluency, they will eventually want or need to read our nation’s historical documents, many of which are written in very elaborate forms of cursive.

         Today, reading historical documents is one of the most frequent reasons for needing to read cursive, but handwriting style variations in past centuries were even more frequent than they are today. This means that most students (particularly those with neurological issues) will benefit from practice with historical cursive samples once they are experienced in reading present-day cursive samples.

    Therefore, READ CURSIVE FAST includes a section specifically on historical documents. Learners reach this point are usually pleased and amazed that they can now read historical material.


It’s important to read cursive … but we’ve already seen that cursive-as-we-know-it is not the fastest (nor is it the clearest) way to write by hand.

That’s why I teach my students to write the handwriting form that allowed me to become an effective handwriter: the italic form of handwriting, first documented in that first-ever handwriting textbook of 1522, which has much later been revived on a grass-roots basis in our own times. (There is, for instance, a Society for Italic Handwriting, of which I’ve been a proud member since 1987.)

         In my experience and observation, the time needed for a step-by-step makeover of one’s existing habits can be summed up by a “rule of three and thirty.” It takes:

     3 seconds of thought to decide that one needs improvement —

     3 minutes of effort to find out that there is more to improving than just “trying harder” with one’s existing mix of good and (mostly) bad habits —

     30 minutes of introductory work to make substantial. visibly helpful progress in legibility, often with the beginnings of greater fluency—

     3 hours of acquiring and applying further changes in habit for the improvements to accelerate so far that one’s friends/relatives/co-workers  begin to notice —

     3 days of further applying the new skills for speed (as measured in legible letters per minute) to begin significantly exceeding one’s previous handwriting speed —

      from 3 weeks to 30 days for one’s new handwriting to begin feeling as comfortable as if one had never written any other way —

      3 months of new handwriting before most learners gain the desire to improve their signatures (yes, it is entirely possible — in fact, usually easy — to update one’s legal signature on bank documents and the like!) — and 3 years (plus or minus a year) till learners notice(to their surprise) that their old, bad habits are not only no longer habitual, but are no longer even temptations.

To help people begin this journey, and to help them travel as far as they wish along this road to better handwriting, I’ve organized the crucial  “30 minutes” phase into a series of simple tips which, mastered in order, usually transform a handwriting significantly and open the way to further improvements, culminating in a proficient italic.    

The “Quick Start Seven”: Top Tips for Legibility and Speed 

follow Part 2 of this article at:

Yours for better letters,
Kate Gladstone

The Handwriting Repairwoman



Twitter: @KateGladstone and @fast_read



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