Tech-Savvy Youngsters Getting a New Type of Lesson

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 31, 1999 8 min read

The increasing use of computers in schools is raising an instructional dilemma that educators find they can’t shrug away: When and how should students learn to type?

As recently as 20 years ago, typing was usually thought of as a vocational skill and was offered only as an elective in high school. Now, many school districts are teaching all children to type--or “keyboard,” as it’s often called these days--in elementary school.

Technology standards published last year by the International Society for Technology in Education call for students to use keyboards “efficiently and effectively” by the end of 5th grade.

In the computer age, keyboarding “is not something that only some people do,” said Lynn Schrum, the president of the Eugene, Ore.-based ISTE. “Keyboarding is something that we all do. It is seen as pretty important that [children] get it in an intense, organized way.”

The prevailing assumption is that young children ought to be taught to use a keyboard correctly before they acquire poor habits that are hard to break later.

“If we don’t teach our kids how to keyboard while we’re giving them technology in schools, we’re putting them at a hindrance,” said John M. Marus, the technology coordinator for Rockrimmon Elementary School in Colorado Springs, Colo., which last year began a formal program to teach keyboarding in 2nd grade. “I don’t want them to develop bad habits.”

But it may not make sense for some elementary schools with computers to teach keyboarding, particularly if they’re not using computers much for word processing, said Shelley Pasnik, a senior researcher for the New York City-based Center for Children and Technology.

Much of the software for lower grades requires more use of a computer mouse than a keyboard; navigating the Internet also doesn’t require much keyboarding, Ms. Pasnik pointed out. “Given all the demands to work with a variety of disciplines, building keyboarding into the curriculum may not be possible,” she said.

That is the case with the pre-K-5 Limon Elementary School in Limon, Colo., which has chosen not to teach keyboarding. The 650-student Limon district teaches a semester-long keyboarding class to 6th graders, because that’s when children are first expected to turn in a typed research paper.

Principal Valerie Bass of Limon Elementary School said her students use computers in a lab about a half-hour each week, but mainly for learning games rather than word processing.

“We haven’t heard from the 6th grade teachers that there’s a problem that something has become a habit,” she said.

State Guidance

Several states have either adopted recommendations for keyboarding in elementary school or require such instruction.

For two years, for example, Kentucky has provided a guide to teaching keyboarding at all grade levels up to the 8th grade.

“The expectation of students coming into a 7th grade class [with keyboarding skills] is even higher than it was two years ago,” said David Couch, the associate commissioner for education technology for the state education department. “What’s happening is teachers are trying to pass it down lower and lower.”

In Texas, meanwhile, the state education agency’s technology standards and benchmarks include keyboarding in elementary school. The state recommends, for instance, that 3rd graders be able to type 10 words a minute.

Some states are trying to push the issue more aggressively. Virginia’s “standards of learning,” passed by the legislature in 1995, say children should develop basic keyboarding skills by the end of 5th grade.

North Carolina’s technology standards require students to be able to find all the keys on a keyboard for letters by the end of 4th grade. The state is in its third year of testing 8th graders in computer skills, including keyboarding; starting in 2001, students will be required to pass the test to graduate.

The state’s computer curriculum was the driving force behind the 60,000-student Guilford County schools’ decision two years ago to set up a formal program for teaching keyboarding in the 3rd grade, said Zelia F. Frick, the supervisor of instructional technology for the district, which includes Greensboro.

“Once the children are proficient, they can do much more writing in the computer lab faster than they could in the classroom with the pencil and paper,” Ms. Frick said.

Utah is in the process of revising its technology guidelines to “strongly suggest” that keyboarding be taught in the 3rd grade, and even to 1st or 2nd graders who are ready, said Vicky L. Dahn, the state coordinator of instructional technology. She said the current guidelines for the teaching of keyboarding leave the door open for schools “to wink at it and throw the kids on a piece of software” instead of really accomplishing the job.

“We’re trying to make sure that serious formal keyboarding is taught and then be done with it,” Ms. Dahn added. “If kids cannot keyboard, it’s taking valuable technology time.”

Varied Approaches

Most elementary schools that offer keyboarding teach it as a separate skill for a short, intense period of time. School officials usually decide which grade level is appropriate according to when they think children have the dexterity to learn or when students are expected to use computers for word processing. Other factors to consider include whether to teach keyboarding in the classroom or a lab, whether to use a specially trained keyboarding teacher or classroom teachers, and how much the lessons should rely on keyboarding software.

Some schools aim merely to acquaint children with the keyboard, encouraging them, for instance, to use their thumbs on the space bar, rest their hands over “home row,” and use both hands on the keyboard. Others attempt to teach children how to type well enough that they’ll never have to study the skill intensively again.

Glenridge Elementary School in Clayton, Mo., for example, takes a low-intensity approach. The building computer specialist, Jackie Lipsitz, who learned how to type in high school, teaches keyboarding to all 3rd graders for 20 or 30 minutes a day for two weeks every year. She travels from class to class pushing a cart loaded with a classroom set of AlphaSmart laptops.

Ms. Lipsitz teaches with the Herzog method, a textbook-based technique in which children memorize where keys are on the keyboard according to their sequence in the alphabet rather than how they appear on the keyboard. Students receive follow-up lessons in 4th and 5th grades; those who want a more serious course on keyboarding can take one in middle school.

“To really teach [typing], you need constant reinforcement. We don’t have the luxury of that time” at the elementary school level, Ms. Lipsitz said.

North Carolina’s Guilford County district is more deliberate about teaching the skill. Third grade teachers are charged with teaching their classes keyboarding for 20 minutes every day for the first six weeks of school. The district trains teachers through summer workshops to use the UltraKey software program to teach keyboarding.

The district has succeeded in teaching children to type accurately while using proper techniques, such as not looking at their fingers on the keyboard, according to Ms. Frick. It’s expected, though, that students will take a keyboarding class in middle or high school to improve their speed or learn how to format documents.

At Springer Elementary School in the Los Altos district in California’s Silicon Valley, 1st graders study keyboarding all year long in a computer lab for a half-hour each day, four days a week. They spend two class periods on each letter of the alphabet. For the last two months of the course, the children practice their skill with open-ended writing activities. The school uses a software program--Read, Write & Type!--that teaches phonics at the same time it teaches keyboarding. The software is being used across the 3,752-student district.

“It’s amazing. Their little fingers can do it, and they seem to enjoy it,” said Jane Croom, one of two parents who are employed as program aides to teach keyboarding part time at Springer Elementary. “At the end of 1st grade, 95 percent of the children can keyboard correctly, and we’ve reviewed phonics,” she said.

Ms. Croom’s two children, a 4th grader and a 7th grader, learned to type in 1st grade at Springer and have not had to take a formal typing class since, she said. The 7th grader, she said, types 100 words a minute.

Proper Technique

While many education technology proponents argue that introducing keyboarding at an early age can prevent bad habits, some business educators say that’s not necessarily the case, especially when the subject is taught by general-classroom teachers who don’t have special training.

“I’m hearing [in Virginia] that students are coming up to the middle school and needing more instruction--and have very bad habits,” said Anne Rowe, the business-program specialist for the Virginia Department of Education. “There needs to be more of a commitment to the proper instruction of keyboard methodology.”

Her state is trying to combat the problem by having business educators offer statewide workshops for elementary and middle school teachers on how to teach keyboarding.

Business educators also should be involved in training teachers within their school systems, Ms. Rowe said, and teachers who are teaching typing ought to know how to type themselves. “Teachers need to be able to demonstrate and model it,” she said. “We encourage a teacher-directed approach.”

A technology expert in a Kentucky school district added that elementary school educators should beware of teaching keyboarding as an isolated skill, lest the children have trouble applying it to more unstructured computer activities.

“You have to work at letting the kids learn the appropriate fingers and positions and letting them write on the computer,” said Charlotte Wright, the technology coordinator for the 3,000-student Anderson County schools in Lawrenceburg, Ky. Her district learned this lesson in the nine years it has been teaching 2nd and 3rd graders how to keyboard.

“We tried a lot of things,” Ms. Wright said. “What we found out didn’t work was having the children handwrite a piece and copy it [onto the computer]. We’ve moved more and more in the direction of ‘let’s just do it on the computer.’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 1999 edition of Education Week as Tech-Savvy Youngsters Getting a New Type of Lesson