The halls of Pilgrim Lutheran School in Mesa are lined with awards that single out a unique kind of champion one with pristine penmanship.
"It's one of Pilgrim's historical legacies," said Principal Charlie Keuther. "We feel, as a faculty, it's very important to be able to communicate, whether we're talking verbal, whether we're talking with technology or whether we're talking written."
Pilgrim has had four national handwriting champions in various grades in the last five years and five state champions this year.
On Tuesday, seventh-grader Emily Rose Neeb, 13, of Gilbert, was recognized for winning the national handwriting grand championship, beating out a record 177,000 participants across the U.S. for the title.
Championship winners for sports, science, even spelling are pretty common, but handwriting awards are less known and therefore pique curiosity, so much so that several network talk shows and morning news programs have expressed interest in booking Emily.
Anyone with poor penmanship has indulged in the occasional self-deprecating joke about the illegibility of their writing. Doctors have practically been vilified for it.
In truth, however, there's a whole generation of American kids who weren't getting as much formal instruction in handwriting because many schools stopped focusing on it.
For a couple of decades, especially in the 1980s, time spent on handwriting in school was replaced by instruction in computer and keyboard skills, said Dennis Williams, spokesman for Zaner-Bloser, one of the best-known publishers of handwriting materials for schools. Then high-stakes tests that focused on math and reading began taking up the bulk of students' days.
"Schools couldn't add more time to the day or add more days to the week, so we began to see less emphasis on formal handwriting instruction," Williams said.
That's changing, though, according to local teachers and handwriting professionals.
"Everything comes in cycles in education," Williams said. "Handwriting instruction is back on an upswing right now."
Generally, schools in the East Valley teach handwriting beginning in third grade as just one component of reading and English instruction. The subject is incorporated into those classes until about the sixth grade, although some districts, such as Kyrene Elementary, teach it until eighth grade.
Some schools, however, offer little handwriting instruction. The Apache Junction Unified School District, for example, gives teachers the option of teaching it in third grade only, but it is not part of the district's core curriculum, said spokeswoman Carol Shepherd.
Gayle Householder, principal at Mesa's Franklin East Elementary School, said handwriting is a big part of the curriculum at her school, and students learn it right along with keyboard skills.
"We believe it's very much a part of reading," she said. "We start teaching it as early as kindergarten."
Instruction starts with printed letters, also known as manuscript-style writing, but in second grade students begin their cursive training. Franklin students start learning handwriting a year earlier than most schools that still teach the skills.
"One of the reasons we move it up a year is that a lot of kids, in their development, still have a lot of reversals with their letters," Householder said. "They reverse the 'B,' for example. Teaching kids cursive helps stop that because they are connecting the letters."
Householder also said handwriting helps establish the left-to-right reading direction, which is another important skill for literacy.
Because the way it’s taught is to say the letter, write the letter, and read the letter, the students are engaging in multisensory learning, which Householder said is important to a child’s development.
“Writing puts touch to the whole process,” she said.
Emily, who was judged on the size, shape, slant and spacing of her letters, said good handwriting serves another important purpose.
“It shows respect for the person you are writing to,” she said, “because they can read what you’ve written.”