You don’t need to teach handwriting

I am an obsessive reader of tabloids. I know all the story lines, I know everyone’s kid’s name, and I google William and Kate when there’s a week with no news of them in print.

So it’s no surprise that I came across this letter that Beyonce wrote to Michelle Obama. (I google the Obama girls all the time. I love their poise and their normalness which is probably closely linked to the dearth of information I can find on them.) The letter was surprising not because they are friends. I already knew that. But because the letter looks like it’s written by an illiterate. Until the signature. That signature is someone who signs a lot of stuff. But it’s clear that she probably doesn’t sign a lot of letters.

I taught myself to analyze handwriting because I have terrible social skills, so I need all the help I can get, and handwriting is a good way to get information about a person. This handwriting conveys complete lack of authority, pervasive disorder, but a great sense of self and good social skills. Clearly she’s not an intellectual. She’s more focused on relationships than book smarts.

I’m not going to go into all the detail, but here’s just a sample: irregular spacing of the paragraphs shows an inability to establish order in one’s life.

But look, whatever: Beyoncee clearly has enough talent and drive to pay someone to establish order. So it’s not like this is bringing her down.

I noticed the note because I would have assumed that a woman as successful as Beyoncee would have a more educated, refined look to her writing. I have thought for a long time that teaching penmanship is a waste of time. I know, deep down, that all workplace materials are typewritten, and it’s not like any kid is going to be 15 and not know how to write.

I also know that the standard we have for what is “good” penmanship reward kids who will be poor performers at work. For example, classically good penmanship, with even, slanted cursive, is the handwriting of a perfectionist. And perfectionists are too uptight to get work done well and are also at high risk for depression. The other type of “good” penmanship we reward is the handwriting of a bookworm. The business world does not reward book knowledge, which is why high grades do not correlate to high performance at work. (High grades probably only correlate to good penmanship, actually.)

Beyoncee is an example of what happens when you don’t focus on penmanship: you get a high performer whose handwriting doesn’t look it. I could use this as a cue to get myself focused on making sure my kids have refined handwriting. Because telling you simply that they don’t is not doing justice to how bad their handwriting is.

But it doesn’t matter to me. Beyoncee is amazing. She’s accomplished and respectful, and a great model for how to have a career and a kid. And I guess, now, she is a great model for the idea that penmanship is irrelevant in the age of computers.

As I write this, I confess that I am thinking that I’d be so embarrassed to write like Beyoncee. But then I realize, it’s not that I don’t like her, it’s that her writing is the writing of a performer, not an intellectual. Her handwriting is not right for me just like her hairstyle is not right for me. Handwriting is who we are, and that in itself is good reason to give penmanship a rest. Kids will write in the style of who they are and that’s how it should be.


26 replies
  1. Laura
    Laura says:

    Don’t you love the word “penmanship”? Like showmanship, or horsemanship, or oneupsmanship. To link your two blog posts today, maybe a good way to think about handwriting is to consider a form of creative expression. I wouldn’t want to try to make my kids have perfect handwriting, but it would be nice if it was at least legible, you know? Or maybe if it’s not legible, that’s a sign they will be doctors.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hm. This is a very disappointing link to me. It’s hard to argue with Wikipedia…

      Still. I will try. I’m gonna look around tonight to see what I can find out about this debate.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Okay. I’m back. I did a bit of research. It’s true that handwriting analysis is controversial. But it is used in criminal cases, and it has been admitted to court as part of a package of evidence. So it can’t be totally crazy.

      And anyway, you can ask 400 people if they think the person who wrote Beyonce’s note has a graduate degree, and all of them will say no. We instinctually make judgments about people based on their handwriting, and Sam Gosling, at University of Texas, studies peoples’ snap judgments about people based on visual cues, and he concludes we are generally accurate (as have many other people, too – it helps with natural selection.). Here’s a link to his study. He also has a book – it’s on Amazon.

      Also, I am so excited to add this link – it talks about the controversies about graphology, and it’s on a site that helps kids cheat on term papers. Somehow, I feel that it belongs here on my homeschooling blog:


      • Meg
        Meg says:

        “But it is used in criminal cases, and it has been admitted to court as part of a package of evidence. So it can’t be totally crazy.”

        Really? Last time I checked, handling of evidence in criminal cases, and what is and is not admissible as evidence in court, was not a good barometer for what is and is not science-worthy. I dunno, I just wouldn’t use that as an argument for why something holds water, scientifically.

    • Meg
      Meg says:

      Glad you posted that. I have long considered handwriting analysis to be pseudoscience and was surprised Penelope took it seriously. If classical slanted neat penmanship carried the negative psychological traits that she indicated, entire generations of people who were taught cursive first in most of America’s literate history (and large swathes of the rest of the world, still today) would have suffered from mass depression, and career-killing perfectionism. Having muscle memory developed to do something correctly from the beginning has benefits. Having muscle memory trained to do something erratically and sloppily, with inefficient ergonomics, and then later being expected to fine-tune the process against the already-established muscle memory to the contrary, does no one any favors.

  2. S A
    S A says:

    One of the worst spelling / handwriting cases I ever saw was my first boss out of college. He ran training classes on options trading. Misspelling everywhere. Showed up to work with frayed, untucked outfits and compulsively fondled his house keys all day long. Guy focused on 2 things an obscure form of martial art and exchange-traded derivatives. Knew them both stone-cold. All the normal cases, the special cases, who the biggest players were, seriously, everything at the finest, most granular level, but spent zero time on spelling or hand-writing (or fashion).

    Firm we were at folded after 9/11. We moved to another firm / exchange together and 3 years later he was arguably one of the larger energy derivatives trader in the country and had an 8 figure payout. After that no one cared about his spelling, grammar, fashion, etc.

  3. Julie
    Julie says:

    Thing is, I looked at the letter and just thought the person was trying to write legibly. The signature by comparison is practically illegible, so I’m glad Beyoncé didn’t write the whole letter in her “natural” style.
    Unless somebody uses hearts for dotting the eye, I also don’t think handwriting has ever given me an insight into somebody’s personality. Especially because I’m sure these days most people do modify their handwriting whenever they write notes to other people (my husband for example only writes in capital letters if he wants somebody else to read the text).
    On top of everything I’m pretty sure my handwriting is pretty similar to Beyoncés and I have an undergraduate and Master’s degree… so I’m inclined to side with Wikipedia on this one.

    • Jenn
      Jenn says:

      I read this note and thought it was something that had been passed across the isle while the teacher wasn’t looking.

      It looks youthful and friendly, but the fact that an adult wrote this makes it seem even more friendly and even confident.
      I would never have the confidence to write a note like this if I thought it was going to end up on the internet, especially if there were a chance of it being analyzed on a blog. This woman doesn’t seem concerned with anything but content.

      I have taught basic penmanship to my 7 year-old. He has also started cursive instruction this year. Not because I think he needs it or that it is incredibly important, but because he asked me to provide him with the materials. He likes beautiful things and penmanship is beautiful and interesting to him. So he is teaching himself.

      Basic skills in the construction of letters should to be taught, but penmanship/handwriting as a graded course is a waste of time and energy.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I like your assessment. I think you’re right. And you remind me that more than writing or penmanship or whatever, I want to teach my kids to have that confidence.


  4. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    I think you have to teach handwriting at some point, because kids have to learn how to form letters on paper. Your kids were older when you started homeschooling, so you didn’t have to teach them to write, but someone along the way did. Correctly holding a pen and pencil and correctly forming letters matters not only for legibility of writing but also for comfort and health for the person writing. Developing bad writing habits can cause pain in the fingers, hand, arm, and back later.

    Teaching the basics of handwriting is something I’ve had to put conscious thought into as a right-handed parent teaching a left-handed child how to write her letters.

    So, perhaps advanced penmanship doesn’t matter, but basic handwriting does.

  5. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Ah, yet another skill that came naturally for which no one wants to reward me.

    Others on the list: a love of putting things in order (cleaning), of cooking and baking (but not large scale–too stressful), an oversize fondness for losing myself in stories, and exercising (which pays some, but not much).

  6. Carole
    Carole says:

    Can we please see your handwriting now?

    I make judgements on people based on their handwriting style, as well, but don’t think there’s a whole lot wrapped up in personality analysis other than revealing perfectionistic and/or artistic people.

    Also I do think that there are certain ways to form letters which are more efficient and work more effectively with the structure of the hand. Because of this I am learning how to teach my left handed sons differently than my right handed sons. (As an example, it is more natural to cross a ‘t’ by drawing the line from left to right if you are right handed, and from right to left if you are left handed.)

  7. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    This is very interesting and I do think handwriting can say a lot about someone. My mother has a Learning Disability – and when I was young I asked her about her handwriting because she has such beautiful handwriting. She told me she spent hours upon hours practicing her handwriting when she was young. She said she did this because she was trying to hide the fact that she had difficulties in class. Back then, they didn’t really acknowledge children with learning disabilities – and so everyone just told her she was stupid and she thought she was stupid. But she was smart enough to figure out that having good handwriting made people think she was smart. When she had graduated high school – she had only been able to completely finish 1 book, but she had the best damn handwriting, so no one really knew.

  8. MoniqueWS
    MoniqueWS says:

    I did not force my kids to learn how to hand write well. When my then 10 year old son agonized over writing notes to thank folks, or friends and family or write mini-reports for his Boy Scout merit badges he asked for help. He said he was embarassed. He had the option of using the computer. He saw the other kids could and often did hand write things. He asked me to pick up a handwriting book.

    We use the Getty and Dubay italic handwriting series. All three of my children have used it with great success and from their own motivation. I do a little reminding once a week or so at their request.

    My cursive is non existent. I hand write like an engineer (I am) on a blue print. It is clear and no nonsense. My kids hand write in italic – clear and beautiful and legible.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love the stories people tell here about how their kids asked to learn something. I love the very specific examples of child-directed learning. Thanks, Monique.


  9. Discovering Montessori
    Discovering Montessori says:

    I love this post!

    Just to add my two cents in, I believe handwriting is improved when someone finds purpose for writing. If you don’t need to write, why practice?

    I think handwriting is a style, and not to be confused with grammar.
    I have good handwriting, but my grammar sucks!!

  10. karelys
    karelys says:

    Oh Penelope! I love you. You’re so interesting!

    I’ve poured over information regarding handwriting. I never knew if it was officially a way to determine personality or what but I was always so interested in it!

    In the earlier grades I was made to fill out pages and pages of writing the same thing over and over. I made my best effort at first but you could tell when I was tired because I just couldn’t write as “pretty.” All the kids would compare handwriting before and after getting grades. Handwriting or penmanship. Whatever.

    I had this feeling that it was strongly related to the person. Especially after everyone started typing stuff out and that was the norm, seeing someone’s handwriting felt so intimate.

    My husband’s is so…I don’t know…odd. But every time I see it I can smell his cologne and I see his eyes. Sometimes I see his footprints or his boots (they wear to the side because for some reason he leans his weight on the outside of the shoe).

    I was probably in 8th grade when I saw in a girl’s magazine this thing that said people’s hands reveal part of who they are and I was surprised because I’d never heard/read about it but I had the same strong feeling with penmanship. I am sure the magazine’s “article” stemmed from something nuts like handreading or something like that.

    For reasons I can’t explain, when I see someone’s hands I get a pretty strong feeling about them. Very often, I see people with certain personality traits have similar shaping of the nails, fingers, palm, etc. It’s almost like whatever shapes who we are, genetically, also shapes our hands. I know that some studies have shown that higher levels of testosterone in utero make for a longer ring finger than index finger. It’s almost as if whatever makes us be artistic, intellectual, etc. also shapes our hands.

    Handwriting is like fingerprints I think.

  11. Erin S
    Erin S says:

    Beyoncee is a black supremacist asshole with a drug dealer husband who would be ripped to shreds by the media were he white. She’s also a raging narcissist and a faux-Christian. You’re absolutely right when you say that she’s no intellectual – beyond that one can barely call her amazing. She was incredibly rude and vicious to half the country during the election – both her and her husband essentially called Romney supporters “b*tches,” in a really crass way that made both of them look like angry race-thumping black elitists. If the talbes were turned and a white woman had called the supporters of a black president “b*tches,” wouldn’t she have been hung and tried by the leftist media jury as a racist? On what grounds does she like Michelle O.? What has Michelle O. done that any other first lady hasn’t?

  12. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    A lot of things that don’t really have a “practical” application anymore help build the brain in ways that continue to be important. Handwriting is one of those things:

    “… pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information. And one recent study … demonstrated that in grades two, four and six, children wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.”

    And if it weren’t for his terrible handwriting and resistance to writing, my son wouldn’t have been diagnosed with motor and visual issues that he’s now getting treatment for.

  13. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I wish I had nice handwriting. My Spanish teacher in high school told me I had the handwriting of a 3rd grade boy. I still do, 22 years later.

    I used to blame it on being left-handed, but my adoptive mother was left-handed and had the most beautiful handwriting in the world. So, I added the fact that it was genetic… Then my lefty middle child has the neatest handwriting I’ve seen in a child. Her right-handed older sister has messy handwriting like mine. Our 6 year old son is actually quite neat for his beginning writing.

    I don’t think it shows lack of intelligence but I do think it shows that I have attention span issues. I happily went undiagnosed with ADD as a child and was considered gifted until I stopped trying in school. Our daughter with very neat handwriting is far more focused in her work than the one with handwriting like mine.

    When voting this year, one of the volunteers laughed at me and said, “Well, no one can forge your signature!” So, that’s my saving grace. A very “secure signature.”

  14. Gina Johns
    Gina Johns says:

    It bothers me that my sons (15 & 17) are unable to read notes I’ve left them in cursive writing. For myself, I admired my mothers handwriting from an early age and worked hard to copy her example.

    I have struggled with this for a long time, but am realizing my boys will each learn what they feel they need, for themselves, as they feel they need it. It’s just one more thing I need to let go of as they navigate their own way into adulthood.

  15. Rachel G
    Rachel G says:

    I am REALLY surprised that you would say this note looks like it is written by an illiterate person! Ok, the style is casual and informal, more like spoken language than written. And the handwriting is a bit girly. But there is not one word spelled wrong. There are no obvious grammatical mistakes (bar the initial comma). The sentences have subjects and verbs. Now, maybe she paid someone to correct this for her before she wrote it. But maybe she is just quite articulate.

    I think the handwriting is good. Very legible. I place no stock in handwriting analysis. I am happy to read something that is clear and correct.

    I don’t personally like the use of “U” as a substitute for “you.” But hey, it’s a personal touch. It’s not like spelling someone’s name wrong in a post about them. :)

  16. Kim
    Kim says:

    The one common trait I noticed among the kids who got A’s in math were that they were terrible at handwriting, impatient and reclusive. They would never have what it took to sit through a history class, write a book or paint a picture. School says that’s not okay. I think their success proves that it totally is.

    To put it plainly, a well rounded education is for those who aren’t good at anything.

Comments are closed.