The information in this paper is based on research done by Frances Brown under my supervision; many of the ideas in it are hers, and many come from collaborative discussion. The paper was originally given at the Criminalistic Institute in Prague, and was written to be presented there.

The acquisition of handwriting
in the UK

1. Introduction and theoretical base.

This paper reports on a project that was undertaken in 1982-3, funded by the Home Office. It came from the fact that while document examiners in the UK know a great deal about what the handwriting of UK citizens is like, and know in general terms how that handwriting was learned, they in fact know very little about the way in which the learning of handwriting actually goes on in schools. So the project began with a very general remit: to investigate the way in which handwriting is taught and learned in the UK. What it turned into was an investigation into the whole issue of the relationship between the taught style of handwriting and the way in which that handwriting is actually done.

It was clear from the outset that there are two sources from which handwriting is learned: from copybooks, and from teachers. The investigation thus split into two: we used surveys and sampling investigation to find out how handwriting is actually taught in schools, and we conducted an extensive examination and analysis of a large sample of the copybooks used in the UK in the lifetime of any contemporary adult.

In general what the project showed was this. Handwriting of UK citizens is, compared with that of those educated elsewhere in Europe or in America, very various. No uniformity is imposed centrally, at the governmental level, or locally, by Local Educational Authorities. There are several different handwriting systems to be found in the available copybooks, and each copybook may present its own version of the system it derives from. Individual schools may favour particular systems or particular copybooks, but often it is left to the individual teacher of handwriting to adopt whatever method they feel comfortable with. Moreover, even at the beginning of learning to write it is not usually expected or demanded that the child should faithfully copy the learned system, and, later in life, it is common for teenagers who to change their writing style to make it look beautiful. This is true for both boys and girls, but the evidence is that girls spend a lot more time at it. In fact handwriting that follows a copybook style closely is commonly seen as 'immature', or 'naive', or 'lacking in personality'; and idiosyncratic or unusual or even messy handwriting is seen as showing valuable personality traits: individuality, creativity, and so on. As a result, the handwriting of mature adults can vary considerably from the learned system, containing a mixture of elements deriving from any combination of (1) the system itself, (2) the particular copybook version of that system, (3) a school-teacher's version of the copybook, (4) the individual's own idiosyncratic variation, and (5) curious features that occur in no copybook but are nonetheless commonly found, presumably having spread through the culture by some form of osmosis. This means that when someone says: 'how would you characterize the handwriting of the UK?' they are asking a question that is very hard to answer; in fact, it is a question that no-one could answer before this project was undertaken.

So: the situation that we discovered is complex, but it is not chaotic. General patterns were discovered, and interesting sub-patterns. Before giving the detail of the findings, however, it is necessary to establish some terminology.

Summary of Terminology

Handwriting in the UK is learned at school, usually beginning at the age of 5 or so, by copying. What is copied is a formal system. We discovered from a close analysis of some 50 handwriting copybooks, which we believe represent all of the published styles available in the lifetime of any adult, that their apparent diversity can be reduced to four basic systems: Print Script, Round Hand, Looped Cursive, and Italic. However the actual version of the system that the child copies will normally come from a particular copybook, which may have its own variation or dialect of the basic system; or what a child actually copies may be work materials prepared by a teacher, with the teacher's own variations added. If a child moves from one school or even one teacher to another, he or she may be exposed to two different copybooks or even two different systems. Nonetheless, it is usually possible to detect traces of the system, though not the actual copy book version of it, that a given person has been taught.

By repeated attempts to copy this basic pattern the child learns the necessary skills of motor-co-ordination. The child first learns Print Script, a simple unjoined alphabet, and then learns a joined style based one of the other three main systems. As the mature hand develops, eventually by the end of the teenage years evolving into the stable final hand that will (usually) serve the individual for the rest of his or her life, two kinds of characteristic can be ascertained. We call these individual characteristics and style characteristics . Individual characteristics are those components of a given hand that make it unique: they are what document examiners are mainly interested in. But in each hand there will also be a residual set of style characteristics: those elements which are shared with other members of a group or groups. Style characteristics come in three kinds: system characteristics , that serve to identify which of the four general classes or systems the learned style derives from; copybook characteristics , that can definitely be linked to a particular copybook version of the basic system; and, finally, what we call underground characteristics , which are those features which are shared with other writers, but which do not occur in any copybook. So for example the following letter-forms, familiar to all UK handwriting examiners, are not as far as we know part of any of the basic systems or their copybook dialects:

Underground characteristics.

Some underground characteristics may actually be learned at the stage when handwriting is initially acquired, deriving from the practice of teachers who modify the copybook system that they teach, for whatever reason, thus incorporating underground characteristics at this early stage. Normally, however, they seem to be picked up later, presumably by imitation.

Since in the UK (and in other countries too) the normal process of teaching handwriting is to teach first one system, the unjoined Print Script, and then a second, cursive or joined up system, it is the latter that normally is the basis of the set of system characteristics in the mature hand. Rather confusingly, however, the original Print Script is not seen as being a system at all, but as 'basic writing', which is then 'joined up', under the influence of some taught system, to form a cursive style. In fact what happens is that two successive systems are learned, the latter superseding the former: Print Script is as much a copybook system, with a history and a designer, as any other. But because of the misconception that Print Script is not a system, this form is not often seen in adult handwriting. It is widely associated with semi-literacy, where the writer is assumed not to have progressed on to the 'joined up' writing.

The case of capitals is also curious. The child learns two forms: Print Script is taught in a lower and upper case form. The cursive scripts that follow it also have their own particular kind of capitals, and these are learned; but they are only used when the writer is doing their normal writing. When an adult is required to fill in a form and asked to write in capitals for the purpose of clarity, they will usually produce Print Script capitals. (The practice found elsewhere in Europe of producing a print script lower case form when asked to write clearly--to 'print'--is rare in the UK.) These Print Script capitals are known as block capitals , and considered (incorrectly) to be a separate style: they are not associated in most people's minds with the 'childish' style of Print Script. Since for most people filling in forms is only a small part of the writing that they do, block capitals are not much practiced and therefore retain quite purely their Print Script style: they are less embellished than cursive writing with individual or underground characteristics. Therefore block capitals are commonly used in writing that wishes to remain anonymous. However, some writers have more practice than others in writing block capitals, and they have evolved styles of their own. All of these styles are underground: no style of block capitals other than Print Script is taught or published.

Styled Block Capitals

As far as document examiners are concerned the relevance of this outline of handwriting acquisition is as follows. The part of their job that concerns handwriting examination can be said to have two aspects: identification and categorization . Identification deals with those tasks that involve stating whether or not a particular piece of writing was, or was not, written by a particular individual. Categorization deals with the problem of anonymous writing, and involves saying whatever can be said to describe the anonymous writer. For example: was this writing done by someone who was left-handed? At the moment the former is far more important, partly because relatively little proper research has been done on the latter.

Categorization deals entirely--by definition--with style characteristics: those characteristics that are shared with other writers. Identification deals with both: with individual characteristics--again, by definition--but also with style characteristics, since in particular cases the appearance of certain of these in a particular hand may serve to distinguish the individual concerned from other individuals who do not share those particular style characteristics. Now, clearly, the Document Examiner needs to know, in order to do both of these jobs as efficiently as possible, the following things:

Every document examiner operates with internalized knowledge of some of the answers to some of these questions. So for instance a particular letter-form will routinely be seen as 'common', or 'rare', on the basis of a large experience of looking at letter-forms. But there seems to be no clear-cut knowledge amongst handwriting experts as to how letter-forms relate to particular taught systems, and there is no information at all available as to the frequency, origin, and distribution of the underground characteristics.

A scan of the literature reveals that while there is a widespread interest in and recognition of the importance of the taught systems in handwriting, very little work has been done on the subject. This paper is the beginning of an attempt to open up this subject.

The remainder of the paper consists of the following: (1) a chronological outline of the history of copybooks used in the UK during this century, grouped into four basic systems; (2) the results of a survey of all of the Local Education Authorities, all of the Teachers' Training Colleges, and 300 selected schools in the UK, in an attempt to find out whether there any clear pattern or definite policy in the teaching of the systems or styles; (3) a detailed investigation of the way in which handwriting is taught in ten selected and (we hope) representative UK schools. I will deal with the four main systems in a little detail, and then briefly summarise the findings of the surveys.

2. The principal taught systems of handwriting used in the UK

2.1 Introduction

This section offers an overview of the main systems of handwriting taught in the UK in the lifetime of most adults. The four principal systems, Looped Cursive, Print Script, Round Hand, and Italic, are described, and brief details are given of the main copybooks that use these systems, with any variations that they offer. The systems are set in a historical context so that the succession of one to another, as fashions changed, is made evident.

2.2 Looped cursive

The principal form of Looped Cursive handwriting, on which most later copybooks were based, was that devised by Vere Foster in 1868 for the benefit of Irish emigrants to America. Foster attempted to produce a simpler and more accessible style than the elaborate Copperplate system, which depended on the skilled management of a pointed pen-nib to produce, by careful variation in nib pressure, the distinction between thick and thin strokes characteristic of this style. Looped cursive was designed (as all handwriting systems are designed) as a compromise between the needs of elegance and speed, and was intended as a suitable hand for commercial use for those lacking the calligraphic skills necessary for Copperplate. It met with enormous success in the UK and was "soon adopted by schools to the exclusion of other systems; before long it came to be regarded as the only real adult handwriting, and this reinforced its popularity and endurance." (1)

In appearance Vere Foster's system is essentially a less elongated, more rounded Copperplate, as can be seen in illustration. .

Looped Cursive

Both speed (or so it was thought) and what was then taken for elegance were served by the insistence (essentially retained from Copperplate) on joining all the letters within a word, including the capital letters. This necessitated distinctive capital forms much removed from what to our eyes is the basic capital style, the block letters that derive closely from the classic Trajanic forms of the Roman Empire.

Looped cursive was taught almost exclusively in UK schools until after the Second World War. It is still quite popular: in our survey of 178 schools, 12% used Looped Cursive. But generally speaking if you see this style of writing it will be associated with someone who is over 40 years old.

2.3 Print script

It was partly because of the reaction against Looped Cursive that Print Script gained such a following when it was introduced in the early part of this century. In contrast to the complicated letter-forms of looped cursive, Print Script, which was devised by Edward Johnston and published in 1906, was based only on the essential forms of the Roman alphabet with no unnecessary loops or flourishes.

Print Script

The system is very simple, with clear unadorned forms and no joining of letters; in spite of the lack of joins, tests showed it to be as fast as the Looped Cursive style. In spite of this, and of the fact that its early supporters saw it as a complete adult hand, it has never really been accepted as such. It was taken up by many schools who were seeking a simpler way of teaching very young children to write, and since then it has remained in use only as a precursor to 'joined-up' writing rather than as an alternative to it. This view of the system was reinforced by the widespread use in children's early reading books of the famous sans serif typeface designed by Johnston's pupil Eric Gill, which closely resembles Print Script. As a children's learning system Print Script has both endured and increased in popularity; in 1969 William Gray recommended its introduction throughout the Western world in a report for U.N.E.S.C.O. on the teaching of reading and writing. (2)

In one sense, however, the ideals of its founder, whose aim was to get back to what were thought to be the essential geometric forms of nature, were realised: Print Script is often seen as 'natural' handwriting, rather than a devised and logically constructed system. Because of this many teachers do not refer to copybooks in teaching it, instead producing for imitation a style based on Print Script which they believe they know 'naturally' from their own experience..

2.4 Round hand

After the appearance of the unjoined Print Script it might have been expected that there would be a swing back to favour joined writing, and the system that Marion Richardson, who was a London Schools Inspector, introduced in 1935 recommended joining most but not all letters. She based her system on a series of writing patterns which were intended to provide a natural preparation for a handwriting style that could then be used throughout all school years. The letters are more complex than the Print Script forms, but they do not have the loops and curls of Looped Cursive; the most distinctive forms of the pure Marion Richardson system are the long open /f/ and the open /b/ and /p/.

Round Hand

The system has gradually increased in popularity from its invention to the present day, when Round Hand is the style most commonly taught in primary schools. However it must be noted that Marion Richardson is not now the only Round Hand system, and that the newer copybooks, most notably the Nelson series, first published in the early 1960's, do not include the open /b/ and /p/, although the style is still unmistakably Round Hand.

2.5 Italic

The last of the major handwriting styles to be discussed here is also both the oldest and the most modern. The publication of Alfred Fairbank's Handwriting Manual in 1932 revived an interest in the handwriting of the Italian Renaissance, and this was welcomed by some as a return to tradition and elegance, after the dominance of modern child-centred styles such as Print Script and Round Hand. This Italic revival reached the schools in the 1950's, when a number of new Italic copybooks were published.


However, Italic did not really gain acceptance as a teaching style until relatively recently, when there has been a rapid increase in its use owing to the publication of modified and simpler Italic systems. The new systems were structured around children's ability to learn and the demands of modern writing tools rather than a devotion to artistic beauty and the broad-nibbed 'Italic' pen..

3. Patterns in handwriting education

Having established and described the four basic styles that are available, the next question is, to what extent is there uniformity in teaching these styles? Is this uniformity imposed by the Teacher training Colleges, or by the Local Education Authorities (LEA's), by the schools, or indeed by the teachers themselves? It is generally supposed that in the UK there is a considerable degree of freedom allowed to teachers and pupils in the matter of learning handwriting: is this correct? And, finally, can we discern any significant geographical distribution in adherence to particular handwriting styles or system?

There are two ways of answering these questions. One is by survey, which is comprehensive but unsubtle and non-interactive, and the other is by going into the schools and asking questions, which produces a great deal of information but must necessarily be highly selective and therefore possibly unrepresentative. We did both. First, we present the results of a survey of all of the LEA's and Training Colleges in the UK, and of 300 selected schools.

3.1 The LEA's

All of the 125 LEA's in the UK were asked

1. Are there any general guidelines on the teaching of
handwriting laid down for schools and teachers in your area?

2. Do you recommend the use of any particular copybook or
books, and, if so, which?

Replies were received from 113 authorities (90%). The most obvious inference from these responses is that most LEA's do not have a real policy on the teaching of handwriting.

3.2. Teacher Training Colleges

All of the 89 UK Colleges were asked about their policies (if any) concerning the teaching of handwriting. The fact that only 52 (58%) replied may immediately indicate a certain lack of enthusiasm for the subject. The impression given by the results of this survey is that there are no clear and uniform policies for the teaching of handwriting. Most Teacher Training colleges have only a little more to say on the subject than the LEA's, and allow students to work from a number of copybooks available in the college library. This can be seen as part of the general movement away from the regimented uniformity and authoritarianism associated with education in the earlier part of this century.

3.3. Schools

Questionnaires were sent to over 300 schools in an attempt to find out what was actually going on in the classrooms. 178 replied, many of them in generous detail, with samples of children's work. The results were as follows:

3.4. Observations

Although our sample is only of less than 200 schools, certain tendencies do seem to reveal themselves. In what follows, we will offer some tentative inferences from the regional distributions given above, as they pertain to the different handwriting systems.

3.4 .1. Round Hand.

The Nelson version of Round Hand was popular in Scotland (85%), where it originated; it seems to have gradually lost impetus as it spread towards the South: Northern England 51%, Midlands 38%, and Southern England 34%. The Marion Richardson Round Hand is equally popular in the Midlands and Southern England (32% and 31%); this is presumably connected to the originator's personal links with Birmingham and London. No schools at all in Scotland report the use of Marion Richardson.

3.4 .2. Looped cursive

This system is very popular in Wales (44%), and more popular in the North than the South (North 11%, Midlands 9%, South 3%).

3.4 .3. Italic

These are not reported at all in Wales; in fact, preference for Italic seems to decrease from the South Northwards (South 22%, Midlands 18%, North 6%).

3.4 .4. General

In the UK Looped Cursive is seen, in general, as traditional or old fashioned, and Italic as modern and innovative. In England London and the South are the centres of innovation, and this is shown in the distribution of favoured styles. Scotland is to some extent independent of this North/South divide, and functions as a separate country.

4. The school visits

In order to test and supplement the information given by the surveys, and also to get some first-hand experience of the classroom situation, sample visits were made to ten schools in four different areas. The schools were of course primary schools, which in the UK teach children between the ages of five and eleven inclusive. Two of the areas visited, Strathclyde and Oxfordshire, were chosen because the survey had revealed that their LEA's had particularly positive approaches to the teaching of handwriting, while the other two, Birmingham and Hampshire, were chosen simply as representative of urban and rural areas respectively. In addition, we included a representative of the private sector of British education, to see if there was any significant difference there.

5. Conclusion from school visits

When we began this project one of the possibilities entertained was that of drawing a handwriting map of the British Isles, shading areas where particular styles or even systems of handwriting were taught, in the hope of deducing the place where a given writer may have been educated. With similar optimism we drew up a complete analysis of each of the copybooks, conjecturing that it might be possible to determine, with its use, which copybook was used in teaching the writer how to write. Both of these aims ran up against the evidence from the actual school visits, and (in their original and most optimistic form) foundered. If the ten schools are at all representative, then it is clear that children are not taught to write from copybooks at all, but from--at best--copies of copybooks, or copies of copies of copybooks, or even copies derived creatively from whatever system the teacher was taught in his or her own childhood.

This is not surprising. Books are not cheap, and the cost of providing each class, let alone each pupil, with a complete set of copybooks and replacing them whenever they disintegrate is beyond the reach of most schools. Even the relatively rich private school did not use them, indicating perhaps that as well as the consideration of cost they are simply not as efficient and convenient a way of teaching as the teachers' own copies.

But what this means is that diversity, rather than uniformity, is the rule. Diversity is also encouraged by modern theories of child-centred education, and by the belief that the style should be adapted to the individual child's abilities rather than that each child, whatever his or her skills, should aim to imitate the perfection of the model writing. Here even in our small sample practice varied considerably, from one end of the spectrum to another, but it is clear at least that diversity is to be expected rather than conformity. And the relative autonomy of the schools from the prescriptions of the LEA's further reinforces this general picture.

Nonetheless, if we do not aim at identifying to actual copy-book, but simply the original style, from which someone has learned handwriting, then it is certainly possible in many cases to make a positive identification. I will now give two examples of this.

Here is the copy book version of the looped cursive form,

copybook looped cursive

and here is the normal writing of an adult who had learned this form and adapted it.

adult looped cursive

Some of the taught forms have been lost, but the original style is still easy to identify. The open /p/ of the taught system has gone (see 'party' in line 3), as has the looped /f/ ('for' in line 2); compare 'empty' in line 9 and 'for' in line 5 of the copybook example. But the distinctive long /r/, which is not taught in any other system (and not all versions of this system, even: it is not in our copy-book example) is found in 'First' and 'remind' in line 1. An even more obvious indicator of looped cursive is found in the ornate looped cursive capitals. The /E/ and /Z/ in 'Emile Zola' and the /T/ and /H/ in 'Thomas Hardy' are all good examples of this.

Here now is a copy-book version of the Italic style, and a letter written in an adult version of this style.

copbook italic; adult italic

Although this is by no means a straightforwardly italic hand many italic forms are present. The general shape of the letters is italic, with rather angular /m/s, /n/s, and capital /L/s throughout the sample. The descenders are also characteristically straight (as in the /y/ and /g/ of 'danger' (8) and 'they're' (9)), and there is an italic straight /f/ in the word 'Petersfield' (line 2). There is one other specific italic form, the one-stroke curved /d/, in 'Petersfield' (line 2) and 'had' (line 10).

You can see that it needs some skill to identify the basic style in the adult writing. As a help, here are the letters that are most useful for identifying each style.

identifying letters

Each has been given a score of 1 or 2, meaning that some are better identifiers than others. I won't go through them each in detail, since this is not appropriate for a lecture format, but I will leave a copy with you and you can study it at your leisure; I hope it comes in useful.

Tom Davis
Birmigham University