Skills at their fingertips
In the early days of computers in schools, I found myself one day in a Birmingham scrap yard buying ancient typewriters for my school from a very shady character. Advisers were saying, you see, that you could use old typewriters for teaching keyboard skills.
Not many schools tried it, though, and we were beguiled by the message from ICT experts that the qwerty keyboard would quickly fade away and be replaced by more friendly devices.
However, 20 years on, old qwerty is still alive and kicking. It's resisted everything from modified keyboard layouts to voice and handwriting recognition, neither of which are either as fast or as convenient as what I'm doing at this moment. So how is it that we still fail to teach proper keyboard skills in our schools? Why do we see children (and teachers) accessing the mega-power and hypersonic speed of a modern computer with a pecking finger? More importantly, can we do anything about it?
One answer is to teach touch-typing to children. It also helps children learn to spell, by putting word shapes into their fingers as well as their heads. Before touch-typing, however, there's a stage at which children can learn the layout of the qwerty keyboard to the extent that the "hunt" part of the "hunt and peck" technique is largely eliminated.
Which is exactly where Keyboard Crazy comes in. Developed by two Liverpool businessmen, one of whom had been surprised by the lack of keyboard skills at a school he visited, it's essentially a standard qwerty keyboard, over-sized and made of plastic. But where the keys should be, there are square holes.
With the keyboard comes a selection of boards that you can slide into the keyboard so that letters and numbers show through the holes in the appropriate places. One board is printed with upper-case letters, like the computer, another has lower-case letters - more familiar to young children - and another has small pictures with the letters. Also with the keyboard come sets of square tiles that fit into the holes, so a child can match the tile to the keyboard letter. At the most basic level, children enjoy the straightforward matching process and learns the layout of the keyboard.
Very soon, they can tackle the task with a blank board underneath.
That's only the beginning. Schools soon find they can use Keyboard Crazy across the curriculum in any context where children are learning vocabulary. Kath Conwell, for instance, deputy head at Green Lane, a special school in Warrington, has been using Keyboard Crazy in a number of ways in just about every subject, including French.
"Children learn French songs that are intended to teach the alphabet, and slot the right letters into the keyboard as they sing them or hear them on a tape," she says. Kath Conwell is a total convert.
"It's helped me me to introduce French," she says, "It's so hands-on and so visual that it does give that extra dimension that brings the words to life. The children can touch the letters and manipulate them and it does not matter if you get it wrong - you can put it right with no sense of failure."
There are practicalities, too, she says. "It's flexible, washable, durable, you don't have to plug it in, it doesn't break down."
Over in Norfolk Road Primary School in Thetford, teacher John Dodd uses Keyboard Crazy in the literacy hour across all ages, involving the children in lots of quick vocabulary activities - for example he'll read out a sentence or a story and say, "When you hear a singular noun, type it in on the keyboard." (He uses the word "type" to reinforce the connection between the device and the real computer keyboard.) "Word-level work tends to be dry," he says, "but the children think of these activities as games."
Importantly, too, the physicality of the games favours the kinaesthetic and visual learner. And all the time, of course, children are learning the qwerty keyboard.
The device is beautifully simple, and there are many activities on the Keyboard Crazy website, though creative teachers will rapidly think of lots more to suit their own children.
The reason it all works is that children find the keyboard fun to use. I watched a five-year-old and a seven-year-old using it competitively with each other and it was a joy to see them getting real delight from handling and ordering letters and numbers and making visible progress on knowing the layout of the keyboard. (It is said the record for loading the blank keyboard with letter and number tiles is held by a nine-year-old in Norfolk, with a time of 34 seconds.) It is not difficult to see why children find the product attractive. It is very tactile for one thing - a letter tile is satisfying and manageable for little hands, and it's more fun to plonk it down than write the letter with a pencil or even tap it on a real keyboard.
It is also non-threatening, because filling the empty holes with letter tiles has an element of challenge but is a job which is finite and possible. From the moment they put the first tile into place, the children can see how well they are doing and as the holes fill up, the task gets easier and cheers them on to the finish.
Keyboard Crazy has caught the imagination of teachers and advisers.
Tameside and Warrington authorities, for example, are supporting its introduction into schools. The suppliers work continually with schools and have a thick file of supportive letters, some with suggestions they do their best to take on board.
Further information on teaching keyboard skills can be found on Becta's ICT advice website at www.ictadvice.org.ukindex.php?section=tlamp;cat=00100100damp;rid=538
Keyboard Crazy: pound;49.50 from
Keywise Systems (UK), 40-42 Admin Buildings, Knowsley, Liverpool L33 7TX Tel: 0151 548 6400 Fax: 0151 547 4994 www.keyboardcrazy.co.uk