Why don't we teach typing?

It's time schools recognised that touch typing is a vital skill for modern life, says Gerald Haigh

For years I've been troubled by seeing children in school pecking away on computer keyboards with one or two fingers. They're so adept in all other areas of using technology, it's painful to see them so shackled.

Proficient typing is a life skill. A university or college student who can't do it is going to lose many hours of valuable study (or party) time.

Part of the problem, I guess, is that not many teachers can touch type.

Because they can get by with just a few fingers, they can't see the need for putting themselves, or their children, through the considerable discipline of learning to do it properly.

Sadly, they're missing the point. Touch typing - using all the fingers and thumbs without having to look down - isn't just about speed. The real benefit is that it frees you from having to pay attention to the keyboard.

It's as if the words go from your thoughts direct to the screen.

A Glaswegian corporal taught me the magic trick long ago, with a motley squad of other Royal Signals recruits, and I've been grateful to him ever since.

So, when my grandson George was coming up to nine last summer I decided, with the support of his parents, that I would teach him to touch type. I demonstrated touch-typing to him - and he was enthusiastic.

The next step was to choose some tuition software. There's plenty about, including free stuff on the web. Out of some child-friendly examples, I chose Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor. George has a minimum of four weekly 10-minute sessions including two before school. By Christmas he was starting to fly, spurred on by a system of Grandma-based rewards.

By February half term, George will have the whole alphabet in his fingers.

At that point we'll have to decide whether to go on and learn to touch-type numbers and symbols. Already, though, he's doing some of his homework tasks straight onto the screen.

If you're interested in children's learning, it's a fascinating process to watch. George can type on the screen and chat freely about something else at the same time, for example.

All of this begs the question of why more schools aren't doing it.

Schools in the United States, after all, routinely teach touch typing. As a 1998 article by Gary Hopkins in the American journal Education World puts it, "With an enormous computer presence in schools, the question is no longer whether to teach keyboarding but when to teach it."

The same feeling came from my old friend Lee Douglass, just moved on from being principal of Joseph Neal elementary in Las Vegas. "You mean in England you just leave them to learn the keyboard on their own?" she exclaimed.

The Education World article - which incidentally includes some excellent keyboard teaching tips - found that most children in the USA start at third grade (age eight to nine) or later, some leaving it until fifth grade (10 to 11).

Gradually, though, the word spreads. At Crowlands junior, in Romford, Essex, for example, acting head Peter Boasman has introduced typing into information and communications technology lessons.

For him it was an obvious gap. "The national curriculum has expectations about ICT skills such as word processing and making presentations, but it's as if typing skills are taken for granted. It seems to me there's a discrepancy there."

He's right of course. It's difficult to see how children can reach a really high standard in any of the many ICT skills involved in writing on the screen unless they've learned how to use the keyboard efficiently. You're tempted to conclude that the compilers of the curriculum just assumed that someone would sit them down and teach them.

What do you think? Have your say at www.tes.co.ukstaffroom Gerald Haigh's Leading Questions, Leadership 27

Key skills

All touch typing tuition works in basically the same way. You start with exercises based on the eight "home keys" - asdf in the left hand, jkl; in the right. Find them with the little pimples on the f and j on many keyboards. Thumbs go on the space bar.

Next you learn the other keys one by one, reaching to them from the home keys.

Through consistently correct finger placement you achieve both speed and freedom from having to look at the keyboard. The knowledge of the keyboard ends up "in the hands". If you look, it slows you down.

* Peter Boasman of Crowlands junior, in, Essex, uses Englishtype Junior, which is designed for English schools by an educational psychologist and links to the National Literacy Strategy.www.englishtype.com

* George uses Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor which also comes in a version suitable for use on a school network. www.tenthumbstypingtutor.com

* Keyboard Crazy is a simple device for keyboard familiarisation. It doesn't teach touch typing, but many schools use it.

www.keyboardcrazy.co.ukTES review at www.tes.co.uk searchstory?story_id=2033338 . The "Education World" article is at www.education-world.coma_currcurr076.shtml

* Joseph Neal elementary in Las Vegas (where Lee Douglass was principal) uses Type to Learn from Sunburst Technology. From retailers such as www.taglearning.com orwww.r-e-m.co.uk

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