It doesn’t usually take long to get to a point in your research where you have to decipher someone else’s handwriting. Really, the title of this post could simply be, “Reading Handwriting,” as the newest of handwriting can be just as challenging as older handwriting.
One of the more helpful websites I have found is http://script.byu.edu/. It has tutorials on English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian handwriting. They are in the process of adding Portuguese and Dutch as well. The tutorials have samples of actual handwriting, as well as extremely useful vocab lists and links to websites with more information. http://paleo.anglo-norman.org/empfram.html and the UK National Archives both have very good information about reading English and early American documents.
When I am transcribing a difficult document, it helps me to fill in each letter that I can recognize. If there is an entire word that I can recognize, then I use that as a sample for each letter in the word, and I look for those letters in the rest of the document. It is important to remember that letters should be consistent throughout the document. The scribe probably wrote “t” the same way throughout, even if it doesn’t look like a “t” at first. There are several handy quizzes online that you can check your transcription skills on. If you know older English hands and you are feeling ambitious, you can even play the ducking stool game (almost like hangman). Check it out!