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A Valley View Elementary student had two reasons to celebrate Wednesday: It was the last day of school, and she was awarded first prize in a national handwriting competition.

Natalie Horne competed against 156 other third-grade students from all over the United States for first place in the Zaner-Bloser national handwriting competition, said Karl Hans, the national product manager. Thousands of other third-grade students entered the individual school contests.Horne, 9, was awarded her framed certificate by Roy Warren, Valley View's principal, in an awards assembly in front of the school Wednesday morning. She also received a $500 savings bond and a winner's T-shirt.

"I was really surprised when my mom and dad told me I'd won," Horne said. "I never thought I would. I didn't really do anything special to prepare for the competition, but I'm really happy I won."

Third-grade contestants had to write "This is my best cursive handwriting. Can you read it easily?" on a blank piece of paper. Each school picked a winner from each grade and submitted the winners' entries to the national competition.

Criteria used to judge the handwriting contest were: shape of the letters, size of each letter - was it in correct proportion to other letters - spacing between letters, slant of the letters and smoothness of the handwriting, Hans said.

"Smoothness was an important factor in the final decision," he said. "We want children to learn to write smoothly and efficiently, not draw each letter to perfection. We don't want to stifle self-expression by being too perfect."

Entries received at the national level competition were sorted into four groups - average, good, excellent and superior. National winners were then selected from the superior entries.

""We were really pleased with the quality of writing produced by our national winners," said Karl Hans, Zaner-Bloser national product manager. "We started the competition to stimulate interest in handwriting instruction. We feel it sometimes gets lost in the curriculum."

Hans said he was particularly impressed with the handwriting of Utah schoolchildren. Horne is one of two national winners from Utah.

Josh Lamoreaux from Goshen Elementary is the winner of the national fifth-grade competition. Lamoreaux has since moved to Tucson, Ariz.

Horne is not the only winner in her family either. Seven-year-old Nicole Horne, Horne's younger sister, won the first-grade school-wide handwriting contest.