MOORHEAD — In our digitally focused world, less importance than ever is placed on good penmanship.

Don’t tell that to Esther Hansen, though.

The fifth grader at Park Christian school in Moorhead takes great pride in her handwriting, having learned to form her letters deliberately and neatly over the years.

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Her perseverance has paid off.

She recently earned the distinction of having the best cursive handwriting among 5th graders in all of Minnesota’s estimated 600+ private schools.

Known as the 2021 Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest, the contest is now in its 30th year. It includes categories for both public and private schools.

Hansen, 11, is a student of teacher Brook Spaulding.

Spaulding said it’s an honor that the winner came from her classroom, but she can’t take any credit for Hansen’s beautiful handwriting, instilled by teachers in earlier grades.

Hansen learned cursive from second grade teacher Barb Volla.

“She wrote it down on the board, and we copied it, and it was really fun,” Hansen said.

As a state winner, Hansen moved on to national competition, with winners announced on May 4.

While Hansen didn’t win a national award, she and her teacher are still thrilled.

“It is not typical that we have a state level winner, so it's a pretty big deal,” Spaulding said.

Cursive still important locally

Cursive writing has lost favor in some parts of the country, due to the time required to teach it and because of the ever-increasing focus on technology when writing papers and producing documents.

While many students are proficient on computers and smartphones, some aren’t able to sign their name in a legible fashion.

All F-M area public schools still teach cursive in the elementary grades, to varying degrees.

In Fargo Public Schools, the penmanship curriculum used early on is Handwriting Without Tears, which uses multisensory techniques and consistent habits for letter formation to teach handwriting to students.

Cursive instruction starts in third grade, and it’s reviewed again in fourth and fifth grades.

In West Fargo, public schools teach cursive writing in fourth grade.

While students are not expected to use it exclusively going forward, the district expects them to be familiar enough that they can both read and write in cursive.

In Moorhead Area Public Schools, students begin cursive writing instruction in third grade.

At Park Christian, cursive begins in second grade, with an emphasis on forming letters midway through the school year.

In third grade, students focus on using cursive consistently; but by fifth grade, there’s minimal instruction on it.

“They come to me with what they have… We're just trying to use our handwriting to communicate our thoughts and our ideas effectively and clearly,” Spaulding said.

Writing for better comprehension

Spaulding knows her students comprehend information better when they write it out.

When studying for tests, she asks them to write their summaries by hand because they tend to retain the information longer.

In addition to being able to write cursive, Spaulding said it’s important for children to know how to read it.

Many historical documents, including the Constitution, were written in cursive.

So are most cards and letters from grandparents, which sometimes have to be “translated” to kids by another adult.

“When kids don't have to write it, it's much more difficult for them to read it as well,” Spaulding said.

For Hansen, writing by hand is just a better way to communicate.

She said one’s thoughts and personality are conveyed best through the handwritten word.

“When you send a letter to someone, they want to be able to read it… so they can know you better and like, stay in contact with you,” she said.

 Esther Hansen shows her cursive writing skills at Park Christian School in Moorhead.  David Samson / The Forum
Esther Hansen shows her cursive writing skills at Park Christian School in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum

Paper-grading is a pleasure

For the national handwriting contest, students are instructed to write a pangram, or sentence that contains every letter of the English alphabet.

The most common one is, “The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.”

They must also answer a question about how handwriting impacts them.

Contest entries are judged on the size, shape, spacing and slant of letters — all keys to legibility.

At the state level, Zaner-Bloser chooses the two best entries in each grade, one from a public school and one from a private school. State winners go on to the national competition.

Besides being a life skill, cursive writing proficiency also has benefits for others, including Hansen’s teacher.

“It’s always a pleasure to grade her papers. I have no problem reading anything that she turns in,” Spaulding said with a smile.

There were two national semifinalists in the contest from North Dakota and Minnesota.

They are Emily Grist, a third grader at Mott-Regent School in the southwestern North Dakota town of Mott, and Annie Catherine Scandrett, a fifth grader at Murray County Central Elementary School in the southwestern Minnesota town of Slayton.