Artificial Intelligence, conlang, Writing Process

On Cursive

A Review of Read Cursive Fast

One of my fondest memories of childhood is discovering that cursive letters existed. I was in Kindergarten, and I was familiar with the regular letters of the alphabet, lower and upper case, and I thought that was all there was to the world. Then my next door neighbor, who was a few years older, showed me her homework, and I was amazed to discover I couldn’t decipher it.

“What is THAT letter?”
“It’s an ‘m’.”
“But that can’t be right! It has three humps!”
“It just is.”

I was frustrated with that answer, of course. But the realization that somehow, for some reason, there was a whole additional alphabet out there — that there were more than two dozen more letters to befriend — was so explosive that I vividly remember it over forty years later. 

And of course it led to fascination with writing of all kinds, and eventually to creating my own orthographies. Below you can see part of one of them. In high school I mostly developed runic-style scripts, but in college I began to develop the style below, which fits my own hand better. It sits in a middle ground between cursive Roman, Greek, and Cyrillic letters, although — since I adore diacritics — I tend to make “impure” abjads rather than alphabets.

So I was very excited to read Kate Gladstone’s book, Read Cursive Fast. It is primarily a book for those who have trouble reading cursive, but even for people who just enjoy the written word, it’s a fun, thought-provoking read. Of course there is a reason for why cursive is the way it is, and Gladstone explains it all step by step, simply, graphically, and engagingly. In an encouraging, courteous style, she leads you systematically and efficiently through the letters, explaining the origins of each and showing you how to recognize them. Throughout the book, she peppers exercises, demonstrations, and fascinating historical notes and examples that keep the pages turning. 

It is not surprising that many people have trouble reading cursive. According to the prototype theory of meaning, when people learn to read, they learn a prototypical letter-form (or a few closely related ones) for each letter; and when they are reading letters, they try to match each letter on the page with the prototypical letter-forms in their minds. The further the forms on the page stray from their prototypes, the harder they are to read. But when you are reading cursive, there is an extra layer of interpretation, because the letters flow together and twist and flourish according to the motions of the hand as it writes. 

Handwriting recognition has long been recognized as a challenging task for machines, as well. Up until twenty years ago, OCR (optical character recognition) really worked well only on block printed letters. Many researchers in artificial intelligence felt that if a program could be written to reliably recognize characters (whether handwritten, or even just in ornate fancy fonts) — to be able to recognize, within the swirls and loops of ornate writing, the soul of the letter “A” — that program would truly display something approaching human intelligence. And in the early 90’s, early neural net models (the precursors of the architecture underlying modern chatbots) provided a breakthrough. These models, which are composed of layers of virtual neuron-like nodes interconnected somewhat like an organic brain, were the first computer models powerful and flexible enough to reliably learn (after viewing millions of examples) to read cursive handwriting. It is no trivial task!

Gladstone’s book allows you to read cursive with a lot less effort than that! First, she gives “code crackers” in which the prototypical print letters are superimposed on the cursive letters, showing exactly how they are derived from the prototypes; and she gives enough examples for each letter so that the student gets a good sense of how the variations may appear. Second, she shows how the letters are written and encourages the student to draw along and practice, so that they feel the motion of writing in their own hands. In this way, both aspects of cursive writing recognition are strengthened, and the student is engaged through multiple modalities.

Gladstone’s book on how to read cursive handwriting is an essential guide for anyone seeking to truly master this skill. Through her clear and engaging explanations, historical insights, and practical exercises, she demystifies the art of cursive writing and helps readers unlock a whole new world of communication. In a world where cursive handwriting seems like a lost art, Gladstone’s book is a refreshing reminder of its beauty and importance. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned reader, her expert guidance will leave you feeling confident and inspired.

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