What was once innovative technology is now commonplace. Many of us use touch-screens to buy tube tickets. Some of us speak to our computers in order to write. And a few of us use thought processes alone to control our machines. However, it is still the case that almost all of us who use a computer do so with a mouse and a keyboard.
It has been this way for the 20 years or so that personal computers have been around and will remain that way for some while to come. Why is it, then, that so few of us are able to use this tool properly? That even among IT professionals, two-fingered hunting and pecking is more prevalent than touch-typing.
With the growing use of computers for writing, why don't we teach children to use a keyboard properly?
There is general agreement that word processors are powerful tools for young writers. As Charlie Griffiths of the National Literacy Association puts it: "The thing computers do extremely well is give children confidence and self-esteem. They allow them to express themselves without worrying whether people can read their handwriting or whether it is laid out properly. " However, the benefits are restricted if pupils' thinking is interrupted by searching for letters. With good keyboarding skills they can focus on content instead of where the keys are.
Efficient typing has also been shown to support spelling. As the fingers of a trained user move across the keyboard, so they help with the process of getting the words down accurately. Motor memory assists the brain in selecting the keys to press, without the need to remember how to form the letters.
This is one of the reasons why there is a strong emphasis on keyboarding skills at Fairley House School in London, an independent school for pupils with dyslexia or other language and literacy difficulties. There, children learn to touch-type from the age of seven, using a programme devised at the school. Once proficiency is achieved, children are issued with a laptop to use both in lessons and for homework. By the time they are in the upper juniors almost all the children are using them. Apart from boosting confidence, this also means pupils can get on with their work without worrying about the process of handwriting, they work faster and have access to supports such as a spellchecker. For these pupils, keyboarding is, as Iona Mitchell, ICT co-ordinator, says, "in a way, more important than handwriting, especially once they leave school".
Apart from the benefits for pupils with SEN, there are also medical reasons for teaching typing skills. RSI is less likely if people use keyboards correctly.
The increased speed has benefits for pupils and schools. When demand for computer time is high, the throughput of users becomes important. "If youngsters are proficient on the keyboard it increases the number of PCs available," says Vic Maher, who teaches all Year 7 pupils keyboarding skills. As deputy head of Thomas Telford School in Telford, he oversees a programme of basic ICT skills that includes keyboarding alongside those for applications such as word processors and databases. Of the hour a week given to these lessons, about half the time goes to typing. Under this model, even after a year, not all pupils become proficient. Vic acknowledges the deficiencies: "If it was possible I would have little and often and keep it going year on year."
The parallel between learning keyboarding skills and handwriting is an obvious one. As pupils use computers more for creating text so, as with handwriting, the lack of good technique will hold them back. Unlike handwriting, however, keyboarding hardly gets a mention in curriculum guidance such as the National Literacy Strategy or QCA schemes of work.
Why is this? Possibly because it is historically associated with vocational education. It is not seen as an academic skill. When curriculum guidance has been drawn up, the focus has been on educational achievements rather than on the technical skills necessary to attain them. With the tight demands on time created by the current school curriculum, it seems unlikely that room will be found for keyboarding skills, despite the Government's view of the increasingly important role of ICT in the classroom.
This view was outlined recently in Transforming the Way We Learn: A Vision for the Future of ICT in Schools. It is a vision that rightly talks of "e-learning", of ICT and creativity, and of digital and visual literacy. However it remains silent on the one skill crucial to the efficient achievement of these goals. A school population that can use keyboards properly.
The BECTA advice sheet on teaching keyboarding skills, "Keyboard skills in schools (October 2001)" can be found at www.becta.org.uktechnologyinfo sheets index.html
The British Dyslexia Association's advice on choosing software to learn keyboarding and touch-typing skills can be found on its website
In the US keyboarding is a well established part of the curriculum. These URLs give an idea of their approach, curriculum and materials:
www.education-world.coma_curr curr076.shtml; http:farmersville.ednet10.net Kindergartentechnologyscopeandsequence.doc
Download a trial version of Typing Time, an US program from South Western Educational Publishing
www.dyslexic.com is a commercial website that produces useful articles comparing the programs it sells:
* First Keys to Literacy
Keyboarding linked to spelling for younger children and those with literacy difficulties. pound;35.25
A popular British-designed system for adults and children. pound;25.85
For seven-year-olds and up. pound;46.94
* Type to Learn
Designed to teach literacy skills alongside typing. pound;46.94
Australian product designed to make touch-typing fun. pound;57.58
* Typing Instructor Deluxe
Multimedia approach, with games and music. pound;57.58
Inclusive Technology provides similar guidance for its three products
* Five Finger Typist
For those who need to learn keyboarding with one hand. pound;45
* Touch Type
This program has the keyboard on screen to guide students. pound;42
* Ultra Key 4
A game-free tutor from North America that engenders a serious approach to the subject. pound;35
Touch Type Read and Spell is an independent system structured around the Alpha to Omega spelling programme. Go to www.ttrs.co.uk