Shoulders hunched and tongues curled, the third-graders at Horace Mann School in St. Paul, Minn., push their pencils to practice a fading...

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MINNEAPOLIS — Shoulders hunched and tongues curled, the third-graders at Horace Mann School in St. Paul, Minn., push their pencils to practice a fading art.

As they copy out their spelling lists, joining loops and lines into words, many of the students in Liz Aase’s class look well on their way to mastering cursive writing.

But having learned it, they might soon leave it behind. Cursive penmanship is becoming a casualty of the digital age. Last year, of the nearly 1.5 million high-school students who took the SAT, only 15 percent used cursive on the essay portion, according to the College Board.

Under pressure to meet testing standards, teachers are devoting less time to penmanship practice. A 2003 survey of primary teachers by Vanderbilt University found that the average classroom gets fewer than 10 minutes a day of penmanship instruction.

In Washington, state standards allow printing or cursive, as long as it is legible. Local districts start teaching cursive in the primary grades. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction also encourages districts to offer initial keyboarding instruction in the kindergarten through eighth grade.

Most students master basic keyboard skills, which students and educators nationwide say are increasingly taking precedence over pen and paper.

Three years ago, Grace Bratzel, a 15-year-old freshman at Christ’s Household of Faith school in St. Paul, won a national cursive penmanship competition with 130,000 entrants. But today, she said, she mostly prints or uses a computer.

“Cursive is prettier and more artistic, but manuscript is more natural and instinctive,” she said. “When it’s really important, I write on the computer so the teachers don’t judge the work on how it’s presented.”

Amy Kortuem’s fourth-grade students at Horace Mann spend about 30 minutes a week practicing their cursive penmanship, but they spend far more time at the computer.

“I believe there is a place for cursive, but there are so many (required) standards we’re working on, we have to focus on them,” Kortuem said. “There are so many different demands on us that something has to go.”

While scholars and historians may bemoan the loss of handwritten letters and documents, a leading writing expert says that communication is more important than the form of writing. Kids who have trouble learning cursive might shy away from writing altogether, said Steve Graham, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of the study on penmanship instruction.

“One of the ways you develop as a writer is by writing,” Graham said. “So if you’ve got kids that avoid writing, that has the possibility of leading to arrested writing development.

“Cursive or manuscript [printing], I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other,” he said. “I think as long as you become reasonably fluent and reasonably legible in either one, I’m not sure it matters.” What’s most important, he said, is that children be able to express their thoughts without getting slowed down by the mechanics.

In fact, Graham said, research shows that students in grades four through 12 actually boost their writing skills when they master keyboarding.

Lewis Scott, principal of Horace Mann, said the amount of actual penmanship practice isn’t the whole story. Students get plenty of practice writing reports, tests, journals and other assignments.

“When we think of writing, sometimes we think of it in isolation,” Scott said. “Writing is taught by all teachers in the building, whether they’re in science or physical education or music.”

Susan Bell still believes in cursive. The fourth-grade teacher at Lake Harriet Community School in Minneapolis has her students practice cursive twice a week for 30 minutes.

“We put on classical music; we talk about what letters are hard,” Bell said. “We go up to the chalkboard, and they love that — you can make the letters bigger.”

Bell said that learning cursive helps develop fine motor skills. She also believes that proficient cursive writers can express their thoughts more quickly and completely, and there’s some evidence to back her up: The students who wrote their SAT essays in cursive scored slightly higher than those who didn’t.

“I’m not going to give in. I think there’s still a place for it,” Bell said. When students master cursive, she said, “I see the kids’ self-esteem, that feeling of being a student, increase. The kids just feel kind of empowered.”

Seattle Times staff reporter Stephanie Dunnewind contributed to this report.