Let your fingers do the thinking

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Touch-typing is a skill that can and should be mastered from a young age. And as you become proficient, it could even improve your spelling ability, writes Gerald Haigh

There are touch-typists who attend only to the computer screen and their notes, and there are hunt-and-peck typists who look at the keyboard to find the characters.

I was taught to touch-type at Catterick Camp in 1955 by a Glaswegian corporal with a fine line in motivational rhetoric. I have mentally thanked him many thousands of times since because touch-typing, for anyone who deals with written words, is a truly liberating skill.

Every child should be taught how to type before the age of 11 - consider how much text they are going to have to produce during their secondary school years alone.

Few teachers, though, are fluent typists able to present themselves as role models. Arguably this leads to a lack of understanding of what pupils are missing. Touch-typing is more than a fast version of typing. A good touch-typist, in effect, "thinks" the words on to the computer screen, paying little or no attention to their busy fingers.

Of the many reasons why this is important, perhaps the example put forward by Maeve Stone, who specialises in teaching keyboard skills to children, is the most persuasive. She has a dyslexic son who has good keyboard skills. "I tested him and found that there is a two-year gap in his spelling ability between handwriting and keyboard writing."

In other words, he spells significantly better on the computer than he does with a pen - and it has nothing to do with the spellcheck built into his software. It is that his fingers "remember" groups of letters which, in handwriting, he often gets wrong - -ight and -ly, for example. Typewriting, it seems, is a way of applying kinetic memory to the task of remembering spelling conventions.

Maeve Stone, a former Calderdale advisory teacher who works as a consultant on projects for the British Educational Communication and Tech-nology Agency, has taught children keyboard skills for many years. She is working to produce activity materials to be used with laptops in key stage 1 classes.

She likes to use a whole-class teaching method with diagrammatic keyboards printed on paper, one for each child. The teacher holds up flashcards and the children "type" the letters, starting with the home keys for the fingers - a-s-d-f j-k-l-; - which are marked with stars on the paper keyboards.

The lessons can easily start in reception classes, says Maeve Stone. "I do phonics with it. I have big sheets with the letters on in upper and lower case and, as I teach the letters, I also teach their positions on the keyboard. Sometimes I say the letter and sometimes the sound."

Children who have good keyboard skills soon start to reap more obvious advantages, such as speed. They also tend to have a better understanding of what information technology can do.

"Most teachers agree that children take a long time putting text into the computer," says Maeve Stone. "Much of what they do on the computer at primary level is text based, and if they are waving a finger around to find a letter it slows them up."

Slow typing also blocks access to the machine. Halve the time it takes children to put text into the computer and you effectively double the number of machines in the room. This makes a strong argument for spending some information and communication technology class time on keyboard skills, using an approach such as Maeve Stone's or one of the numerous pieces of tuition software.

Teachers who lack keyboard skills have been missing out on ways of saving their most precious resource - time. And the pressure on teachers to use information technology for organising their schoolwork (lesson planning, electronic communication, publication of materials, recording of assessment, production of reports, establishment of home-school curriculum links) will only increase.

For teachers wanting to learn to type, the main obstacle is not the availability of tuition, software or equipment, but determination.

It is difficult to unlearn established hunt-and-peck methods and it is hard to learn a new technique when there is a genuine need to use the computer for work.

Changing to touch-typing means virtually stopping all real computer work while you learn and practise. The time to learn is in the holidays, when school pressures are off.

Tuition during this time is not easy to find - further education colleges tend not to have courses running in the summer, though they may if a group of people is interested. Fortunately, there are good software tuition packages for adults. These call for willpower, but a regular routine of an hour or so a day will show results after about four weeks.

The QWERTY keyboard was designed by Charles Sholes in the 1870s to prevent typewriter keys jamming. In the Thirties came August Dvorak's more logically arranged keyboard, allowing for up to 20 per cent faster speeds, but it did not catch on.

However, it has had something of a revival in the computer age, particularly in the United States, because of the ease with which computer keys can be re-assigned to different letters. Mavis Beacon software is available for Dvorak as well as qwerty.

In the early Eighties, some IT advisers were suggesting that the keyboard would soon be redundant - single-handed five-finger input devices looked very promising then. Now voice input is affordable. But, as Maeve Stone says: "Can you imagine a class of 30 using voice input?"

Software for pupils

Speedy Keys, for Key Stage 1. Acorn, single user Pounds 36, site licence Pounds 72

Granada Learning SEMERC, 1 Broadbent Road, Watersheddings, Oldham OL1 4LB

Type to Learn. PCMac, about Pounds 60, TAG Developments

Software for adults

Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. PCMac, about Pounds 30, from software dealers.

Super Type for Windows. PC, about Pounds 60, TAG Developments Maeve Stone offers in-service courses. Contact her at Lodge Lane End, Wainstalls, Halifax HX2 7TU, tel 01422 244925

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