Japanese calligraphy manual with floral patterns

Learning to write

Discover the challenges we go through when learning to write and how this varies across different cultures.

What stages do we go through when we learn to write?

Typically, we study characters or letter shapes to learn what they look like, with imitation playing an important role. In school this is sometimes facilitated by copying out lines of letters. We train ourselves to make the necessary movements: the number, order and direction in which to form our strokes. 

Eventually our handwriting gains accuracy and consistency, and after a few years of practice, our hand acquires a certain automaticity.

Writing systems

Different systems pose different challenges. For example, to write Arabic today, you need to:

  • learn 29 letters and eight diacritical marks (Arabic has no tradition of using capital letters)
  • become familiar with up to four variant shapes for many of the letters according to the position in which they fall within a word; letters can have stand-alone forms and forms for the beginning, middle or end of a word
  • become familiar with a further 60 shapes (and this is just the first stage of learning; next comes the task of learning how these letters are joined in different combinations as Arabic is always written in a cursive (joined-up) style).

Ottoman calligraphy manual

An Ottoman calligraphy manual, with dots to show how the letters should be joined to form words.

A mid-1850s Ottoman calligraphy book containing complete guides to all of the different forms of Arabic letters in a variety of different calligraphic styles.

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Usage terms Public Domain

Japanese writing system

Japanese children have one of the most complex writing systems to learn. In primary school they practise hiragana and katakana, two syllabaries (writing systems where the characters represent syllables) that are used for writing Japanese. 

But the Japanese system also borrows some characters from Chinese and children study a few of these at a time in a prescribed order. They will have mastered 1,006 characters over their first six years in school. 

In addition, in the third year of school they are taught kaisho: characters written calligraphically with a brush, which are practised on special squared paper.

Japanese calligraphy album

A Japanese calligraphy album with floral imagery

Extracts of famous Japanese calligraphers' works pasted into an album

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Usage terms Public Domain

Chinese writing system

Written Chinese has many thousands of characters to master, with official lists of commonly-used characters reaching up to 7,000. Since the 1950s the government of the People’s Republic has promoted a simplified form of writing and limited the overall number of standardised characters in order to encourage literacy. The principal modification was to reduce the number of strokes the characters contain. Standard lists were produced in 1956 and 1964.

In 2013 the Chinese Ministry of Education ruled that calligraphy would now be a required course in primary and middle school. Because of the long unbroken tradition of teaching calligraphy in China, Chinese has strong conventions relating to stroke sequences, their number, order and direction. The sequence for each character is standardised. There is, in a sense, an official system. Much the same is true for fine calligraphy in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, Persian and Urdu.

Chinese calligraphy manual

Chinese calligraphy manual

One of the distinctive features of traditional Chinese calligraphy is that the brush is held at a right angle to the page, and the whole arm moves as one writes.

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Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Modern technologies for learning to write

Learning to write is a lifelong process. Writing systems are always undergoing development and they mirror the ways in which we and the world around us change. Modern technology is having an impact in a variety of ways. In China and Japan there are increasing reports of ‘character amnesia’ as more and more people write electronically using keypads on mobile phones and computers instead of writing out characters by hand. This can be compared to how many of us often forget how to spell because of our reliance on predictive text and spell-checkers.

Pinyin (literally ‘spell sound’) allows Chinese writers to spell out the sounds of Chinese characters in roman letters and then software converts the letter strings into characters. Bopomofo (or Zhuyin fuhao) is a system that does the same using a form of character-based shorthand. It means that people no longer need to write the characters every day.

In the USA the introduction of computer keyboard technology has raised the question as to whether learning cursive writing is useful any more. From 2010 onwards the US federal government’s Core Curriculum for English no longer required the teaching of cursive writing; print script alone would suffice. In Europe, Finland followed suit.

Despite all this, the newest computer software is progressively invested in handwriting recognition. Apple, for example, has filed a patent to create a stylus that can write in the air, which would allow users to write and draw in 3D – something a keyboard cannot do – while allowing for digital devices to have the flexibility to write in any script.

As computing becomes increasingly miniaturised, handwriting is crossing over onto digital platforms and may become one of the main ways that we interact, potentially replacing keyboards.

  • Ewan Clayton
  • Ewan is Professor in Design at the University of Sunderland and external advisor to the British Library's 2019 exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark. He is a core faculty member of the Royal School of Drawing and is a calligrapher.