Typing, or more precisely touch-typing, is just one of the skills that the digital age is forcing us to reconsider. The traditional view is that 10-finger touch-typing is the most efficient way to use the keyboard. It certainly is the quickest way to take notes or transcribe, but look around the workplace today and such skills are surprisingly hard to find. You are far more likely to see Tom Cruise lookalikes straight out of Mission Impossible, eyes focused on the keyboard, a few strong fingers flying over the keys, than you are forward looking Miss Moneypenny types.
It seems that children, like adults, are getting there by hook or by crook too. When David Dickson, headteacher at Bowbridge Junior School in Newark, took delivery of laptops for Years 4 and 5, his first thought was how to teach typing skills. "In the past, it has been enough for children to type with two hands, using two fingers by the time they leave us," he says. With two year groups equipped with personal laptops, he could see the need for a higher skill level and looked at various schemes designed to teach touch-typing. Like most primary schools, Bowbridge did not have anyone on the staff qualified to teach it. By the time Dickson returned to the classroom to discuss with the children what was on offer, the level of motivation engendered by the arrival of so many laptops meant they were all typing anyway.
After seeing the children in action, Dickson decided to shelve his plans for touch-typing. "We were not convinced that, in the long run, it would avoid children developing bad keyboard habits, and adding skill sessions for touch-typing by definition meant children would spend less time writing by hand. Keeping the balance between typing and writing was important."
At Les Landes Primary School in Jersey, the experience has been similar. Head teacher Anne Renouf, introduced a touch-typing course for Year 5 pupils from the now defunct International Hi-Teach. Its teaching method for keyboard layout is similar to Egon Publishing's Easytype. It involves forming an association between a key and a mental image. So the letter A becomes a picture of a juicy red apple, linked to the little finger on the left hand. The scheme claimed to teach "no looking" keyboard layout in four hours. "I did the course myself in the summer holidays. It took me four weeks and it taught me to touch-type," says Renouf.
Although thecourse meant children were quickly able to produce writing using the keyboard, Renouf has observed that over time, children have not maintained 10-finger typing. "Touch-typing gives you the fluency of reading as you type, and feeling how the patterns of letters on the keyboard combine to make words is a very useful, literacy skill. However, even I find that unless I make myself touch-type, I revert to hunt and peck." She is now deciding whether to introduce typing in Year 3, or even Year 2, after SATs and Les Landes has put Type to Learn, a touch-typing program from TAG Developments, on its network.
BECTA, the government agency responsible for advising schools on ICT, believes the emphasis should be on keyboard familiarity rather than touch-typing. "There is no written requirement to teach typing in the curriculum, largely because we do not want children to use computers to produce reams of typed script. We would far rather they use functions like editing or the thesaurus to compose very good, short paragraphs of writing," says Debs Ayerst, a former teacher who now works at BECTA.
Not all agree with abandoning a formal, structured approach to teaching typing, particularly when children have learning difficulties. Philip Alexandre, a former special needs teacher who has developed software that teaches spelling and reading skills alongside touch-typing, says: "Children need a sense of being on a course that takes them forward in small, manageable steps and gives them lots of feedback with motivation being the major reward." Having watched hundreds of children learn to type, Alexandre knows that when the typing challenge leaps forward, children rapidly forget things like hand position as the focus becomes finding that next letter.
Whatever your approach, the first step to typing seems no more complicated than having a sensible ratio of computers to children. What may be more perplexing is what you unleash by turning a class of nine-year-olds into speedy typists. At Les Landes, it had just taken Anne Renouf two days to read through the work produced by one Year 5 pupil armed with a laptop. For an average size class, that makes a worrying 50 to 60 days work.
Easytype Price: pound;15.99 from Egon Publishers, Royston Road, Baldock, Herts SG1 6WWTel : 01462 894498Philip Alexandre's Touch-type, Read and SpellA programme which includes teacher and pupil trainingTel: 0181 464 1330www.ttrs.co.ukType to Learn Price: pound;69.95 (single-user); pound;89.95 (five-user) from TAG DevelopmentsTel: 01474 357350www.tagdev.co.uk