The time-saver that's at our fingertips and liberates those little grey cells

2nd January 2009 at 00:00

I won a typing speed competition once. One late Saturday afternoon, I was browsing round a village fair, hoping for an "Extremely valuable books, 2 pence each" stall. Instead, I found that a business college was advertising computer courses on Wordstar - yes, it's a very old story.

They'd set up a computer at the fair and whoever could type a given passage the fastest won a free training course. I was a techno-virgin then, but I pretended the keyboard was my old Remington, and typed, fast and violently. They were no doubt alarmed by my frantic technique, but I was the last contestant of the day, made 93 words per minute and won.

The course cost me 12 hours of free time and a fair bit in train fares, and Wordstar was soon obsolete anyway. Still, I'd won a prize, and I was damn well going to have it, especially as there hadn't been a bargain valuable book in sight.

I learnt to touch type when I was 17, doing secretarial training. Along with a tendency to file cans of fruit in alphabetical order and my fondness for coloured paper clips, it's something I've retained from my pre-teaching days. Later, during my degree, I made a mint typing up other students' dissertations (one was 6,000 words long on "The Comma" - I charged extra).

I use my typing speed as a party piece to impress new classes; pupils swear my keyboard must have a special function. And when I'm writing articles, I can type almost as fast as I think, which can result in a load of tripe pre-editing stage, but at least there's something to work on. (Just in case you were wondering, this piece has been edited)

So why, oh why, is this skill not on the national curriculum? Why is it not part of most IT courses? Why do we still tolerate the fact that pupils interpret the instruction "a whole page of A4" as using font 16, yawning margins top, bottom, left and right, and a very tall title, all to cover up the paucity of their work? If they could type fast, none of this would be necessary.

Yes, we do teach them IT. They can do a PowerPoint on participles and find a website on Warhol. But touch typing surely comes first. It would make everything else they do on a keyboard so much easier.

I used to give pupils lesson time to type up English coursework. We'd troop into the IT room naively, me hoping for a chance to check that they were on the right lines (and writing about the right play) and them hoping to chip away at the weekend's slog so they could watch The X-Factor.

But in 40 minutes, many could barely produce a half-page introduction. Watching them tip-tap tip-tap with two fingers, foraging for the letter "g" when it cropped up, gave me palpitations and I had to keep my Ventolin handy.

But it's not their fault. It's ours. We teach them citizenship, how to put on a condom and the geological structure of the Welsh hills, but we don't teach them to touch type. And it's not as if specialist staff are needed. You don't need to be able to touch type yourself to supervise a group of pupils learning from one of the great computer programmes around.

We would save them hours of time if we'd just put a few hours aside to teach them this invaluable skill. And it's accessible to all, whether it's Freud or fixing leaky taps they're writing about. Later, in the job market, the mention of touch typing on their CVs might just make all the difference, particularly if it's the only skill they've got.

And it's not only that tough typing saves time, it also leaves the brain freer to think because you're not having to concentrate on every key stroke. (I'm listening to The Archers now, although I grant you that's not exactly multi-tasking, today's episode being especially tedious.)

Kids would love it, though, if we showed them a way to juggle Facebook, MSN and their Hitler essay more efficiently. They've been doing it inefficiently for years; let's show them a better way.

Those agonising IT room coursework lessons showed me just how much time it takes the average pupil to type 1,500 words. Pupils constantly complain that teachers give out tasks that take them at least twice as long as the time allocated for homework. I've had to adjust my expectations over the years and it's frustrating, especially as there's a solution.

So, let's start teaching them to touch type while they're young, before they even get to secondary school. What about those chasms of opportunity the demise of the Sats has left behind? Why not use the end of Year 6, when motivation flags, and excite them with learning a "grown-up" skill?

Then, instead of paying some poor sod to type their dissertation on punctuation when they get to university, they can do it themselves and get it over with. Fast.

Fran Hill, English teacher at an independent girls' school in Warwickshire.

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