The Catholic Roots of Penmanship

Beautiful penmanship has been associated with Catholic schools since the summer when Austin Palmer taught a group of nuns to write in cursive handwriting. Today Palmer Method handwriting is viewed as an elegant form of expression that takes time to learn.  It began, however, as a simplistic alternative to handwriting styles that were popular in the 1800s.

 As a teenager, Austin Norman Palmer was fascinated by distinctive handwriting.  He seized every opportunity to attend penmanship classes and study written documents. In 1879, nineteen year old Palmer was hired as an engrosser, a master penman who would use his fine handwriting to produce documents for businesses.  Skilled engrossers like Palmer were greatly needed then because typewriters were introduced in 1874 but they were expensive and few people knew how to use them.   The only option was to hand write every document. 

After working as an engrosser, Palmer found a job teaching handwriting at a business college.  Most people of that time wrote in the Spencerian Method, an elaborate script with decorative flourishes on each letter.  Palmer thought that method was unnecessarily time consuming.  As a former engrosser, he knew that if college students hoped to find jobs in business, they would have to learn to keep records and complete documents quickly and legibly.   Seeking a more efficient way to write, Palmer developed a system that used straight lines and ovals without flourishes. He led his adult students in push-pull exercises in which they made strokes that resembled stacks of wheat.  Then they practiced making ovals and moved their entire arms while writing instead of allowing only their fingers to move.  After completing the practice exercises, the students followed Palmer’s example and formed letters with strokes and ovals.

Palmer’s method was so successful that he wrote magazine articles to explain his technique. Several nuns, Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) stationed in Monroe, Michigan, were intrigued by the articles and thought Palmer’s method might work well for children in their elementary schools.   Their Mother Superior, Mother Mary Frances Henry, met with Palmer and hired him to teach in a summer school program for two hundred Detroit-area nuns.  The nuns attended classes in groups of fifty.  Each nun was required to spend two hours per day in class with Palmer and to use her spare time after-class to practice. 

At the end of the summer, Mother Mary Frances Henry told Palmer that she wanted to introduce his handwriting method in her schools but she needed textbooks.   The nuns and the elementary students they taught couldn’t rely on sporadic tips found in his magazine articles.  With help from the sisters, a textbook, The Palmer Method of Business Writing, was printed in 1888.

Palmer Method handwriting spread quickly to Catholic schools throughout the United States.   Soon public schools followed their lead and began using Palmer Method instructional techniques and textbooks.  To meet the demand, Palmer established the A.N. Palmer Company to produce textbooks and respond to orders from schools.   By 1905, the A.N. Palmer Company operated offices in four states.  Palmer hired staff to run his offices so that he could focus on teaching.  He visited schools throughout the country to give workshops and help teachers implement the Palmer Method of handwriting instruction until his death in 1927.

When computers entered American classrooms in the 1980s, many public school teachers switched to keyboarding instruction and no longer gave handwriting lessons. Several school board leaders felt there was no need to learn cursive handwriting at a time when much of the world’s communication was done electronically.   Most Catholic schools offered keyboarding instruction but also continued daily lessons and practice in cursive writing.   

Twenty-first century neuroscience research indicates that Catholic educators made the right decision by keeping cursive handwriting instruction in the curriculum.  Studies conducted with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have shown that cursive handwriting can improve brain functioning and yield benefits for children as well as adults.   Handwriting activates parts of the brain that typing does not.   Young children who receive handwriting instruction become better readers. 1 College students who take notes by hand learn more than students who type their notes on tablets or laptops. 2 Handwriting leads to more efficient neural processing and greater learning.3

When neuroscience research began to show the benefits of cursive handwriting, legislators across the United States introduced bills to bring penmanship back to the curriculum of every school.  By January 2024, twenty-three of the fifty states had passed legislation requiring cursive writing to be taught in their schools.  4

The partnership between the IHM sisters and Palmer likely contributed to Catholic students’ achievement in not only handwriting, but also in science, math, and other areas of the curriculum.  The 2022 report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, showed that Catholic school students outperformed their public school counterparts in math and reading.  Cursive handwriting instruction provided by Catholic schools could be one of the reasons for that achievement. 5 According to Sister Margaret Rose Adams, IHM, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, “While the days of perfect Palmer Method may have passed and hours spent on handwriting lessons have gone, cursive handwriting should still be a hallmark of Catholic Education”. 6 

When Palmer taught his method to that first group of IHM sisters, he offered more than beautiful handwriting.  His work has given teachers and students a stroke of confidence and the encouragement needed to close their devices and reach for pens and pencils.

  1. Gentry, J.R. (2016) 5 Brain-based reasons to teach handwriting in school. Psychology Today,

3.Bach, D. (2014). UW Prof: Handwriting engages the mind.

4. (January, 2024). The 23 states that require cursive writing- updated January 10, 2024.



6.  Adams, Sister Margaret Rose. (2016). Skills of Yesterday Are Still Needed Today”. Apostolic Briefings and Communications, Winter 2016.  Retrieved on June 6, 2021 from

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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Dr. Helen Hoffner is the author of Catholicism Everywhere and Catholic Traditions and Treasures, available from Sophia Press. She is an Associate Professor at Holy Family University where she directs the program leading to reading specialist certification. Her role in the university's reading clinic enables her to work collaboratively with faculty colleagues and graduate students to develop effective literacy remediation plans. Dr. Hoffner's research interests include investigations of educational technology such as electronic books and the use of captioned and visually described television and film to improve literacy. She serves as an educational consultant for 20th Century Fox/MGM Entertainment Corporation and has developed a series of captioned films to help children and adults improve their reading ability. In addition to writing many journal articles and instructional manuals, Dr. Hoffner has written several books for teachers including, Literacy Lessons K-8, The Elementary Teacher's Digital Toolbox, Reading and Writing Mysteries in Grades 4 to 8, A Look at Realistic Fiction, and Learning Disabilities: What Research Tells Us.

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