The ability to touch-type used to be seen as a secretarial skill, needed mostly by office workers. But now, people in a huge range of jobs use the keyboard regularly. High-powered executives write countless e-mails on their iMacs, doctors key their notes into laptops at the end of patient visits, and even top hairdressers keep their customers' exclusive colour formulas on computer.
Unless we are convinced that voice-recognition software will really do away with the need for word processing, it is hard to avoid the notion that in the future, nearly everyone will need to type. Yet touch-typing is the last thing on most people's minds when they think about the core skills of the future, and there are no plans to include this liberating skill in the national curriculum.
Primary teachers are rapidly discovering that poor keyboarding is the main barrier to the effective use of ICT resources. "We're being encouraged to make more use of computers by the Government and to word-process and use e-mail before children have mastered basic keyboarding skills,'' says Sally Barratt, a junior class teacher at Wychwood Church of England primary school in Oxfordshire.
Inadequate typing abilities can actually stunt creative writing, according to dissertation research recently carried out by Mrs Barratt.
"Children have to concentrate so hard on keyboarding that the ideas get lost before they can get them down,'' she explains. She is embarking on a typing course with her class of 9 to 11-year-olds next term, using a scheme designed for children, Read and Type - a Gift for Life by Patricia Mayhew.
With more and more word-processing to be done, children have to be quicker and more skilful at typing, says Alistair Smith, information and communication technology co-ordinator at Woodcock Hill primary in Birmingham. The school is part of the National Grid for Learning pilot project.
Mr Smith's pupils learn to type on portable electronic keyboards pre-programmed with a simple typing course. The children need minimum assistance from staff as the ``Keyboard Wizard'' automatically assesses their progress, displaying their speed and accuracy levels after each lesson.
The manufacturer, ABLAC, says a set of 30 can be purchased for the cost of a mainframe, so an entire class can learn at once.
According to Mr Smith, the keyboards' main advantages are that they save valuable computer time while pupils are mastering basic typing skills, and they develop handeye co-ordination skills.
He believes proficient keyboarding is the way into word-processing and gives pupils of all abilities the chance to improve their written work. "It's a great leveller. The able writers can produce work of high quality, using pictures and even sound, while children with dyspraxia or dyslexia can produce something they can edit. When their work is up on the wall, it looks as good as anyone else's."
In two schools in south-west London, a small project called Key Moves has boosted the reading and writing skills of 10 to 12-year-olds with writing difficulties. One child's spelling age improved by a year and two months during three months' typing tuition. "Without typing skills, the potential of the computer is untapped," says Beverly Scheib, a special needs consultant working with the University of London and Sutton and Merton local authorities.
All 10 Year 6 and 7 children at Abbey primary and Priory middle schools learned to touch-type in five weeks, by spending half an hour a day, helped by a classroom assistant. Where they once struggled to write down a few paragraphs with a pencil and paper, they are now comfortable undertaking two-page stories. The children at Priory school in Merton are convinced that their English has improved and, says Tom, 12: "My spelling's way better." And was it easy to learn to type? "No," says Tom. "But," adds Ms Scheib, "they can feel proud because they have applied themselves and achieved success."
Enhanced self-esteem and parental pride have been key spin-offs of the project, says Y7 teacher John Rigby. It has also freed the children to express themselves. "They were children who - with the best will in the world - you could see that come an exam, they were not going to be able to do their intelligence justice," he says.
The children learned to type through a program called Micro-type devised by Ms Scheib several years ago for pupils with specific learning difficulties. It helps to develop literacy skills too - for example, by using common letter strings and meaningful words, and by teaching capital letters through real proper nouns. Dreamwriter laptops supplied by the manufacturer, NTS, will be theirs to keep, and, says Beverly Scheib, they will be able to maintain their "skill for life".
* Micro-type is available from IEC Software, 77 Orton Lane, Wombourne, Staffordshire WV5 9AP. Tel: 01902 892599. Price: pound;34.95 Read and Type - a Gift for Life by Patricia Mayhew is available from Gift for Life Publications, PO Box 7089, Hook, Hants RG27 9XJ. Tel: 01256 763443. Price: pound;12, plus pound;2 postage.
Information on the Keyboard Wizard is available from: Peter Strickland or Lesley Ovens, ABLAC Learning Works, South Devon House, Newton Abbot, Devon TQ12 2PB. Tel. 01626 332233. E-mail: email@example.com. Web site: www.ablac.co.uk Price: pound;49.90, with discounts for multiple orders.