Typing, From the Old Royal to the Common Core Tests

By Mark Walsh — October 14, 2013 4 min read
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If you recognize that odd collection of letters, you probably took typing in high school, or “keyboarding” as it is now known. Those are some very basic keystroke exercises from typing textbooks for getting one’s fingers comfortable with the QWERTY keyboard.

When I was in 4th grade, my handwriting was so bad that my teacher sent a note home that read: “Please have Mark take typing at the earliest opportunity!” So when I got to high school, I did. It certainly served me better in my journalism career than BSCS Biology or wood shop ever did.

All of this came to mind when I came across a couple of media developments involving typing. One is a documentary on typewriters that is available on The other is a story in Monday’s edition of The Washington Post about how typing is being taught in elementary school now, in part driven by the Common Core academic standards.

The Typewriter (in the 21st Century)” is a 55-minute look by director Christopher Lockett at those who use, and repair, typewriters in the Digital Age. The film has several vignettes dealing with the use of typewriters in education or by young people.

One typewriter repairman notes the presence of a Boys’ and Girls’ Club near his shop.

“So kids about 8 and up congregate outside and they always migrate to the typewriters,” the repairman, Robert Green, says in the film. “They wonder how it works. They don’t really know what it is.”

“The ones who are writers I can always pick from the group,” he adds. “They gravitate over and after a awhile they start typing. You hear them picking and pecking. And then all of a sudden you hear a yell: “Where’s the ‘Enter’?”

(Another typewriter repairman featured in the film, Manson Whitlock, died in August at age 96.)

Ryan Adney, an English teacher at Alhambra High School in Phoenix, is shown with his students using an array of old typewriters in his classroom.

“Writing is taught as a process,” the teacher says. “You have to do your brainstorming. You have to do your rough draft. You have to do your revisions. And you have to do your final draft.”

“The computer offers the opportunity to do all those steps on the fly, in one pass,” Adney says. “That’s not the way I was taught. Writing is a process of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a reviser. He revised many things up until the galley proofs he received. Revision should be a part of a writer’s experience.”

The film visits two well-known authors. Robert A. Caro, the writer of the acclaimed multi-part biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, notes that he owns as many as 11 Smith-Corona electrics (down from 17 because of the cannibalization of parts) to organize his notes and write his drafts.

“People say you could write faster” with a computer, Caro says in the film. “But my answer to that is, in writing, faster is not necessarily better. Faster is not necessarily good. ... The mere fact of going a little slower means you’re thinking about it more.”

David McCullough, the author of award-winning biographies about John Adams, Harry S. Truman, and other books, makes a similar point.

Pointing to his manual Royal typewriter, he says, “I work on this because this, I believe, is the best way to work. It’s not fast. It’s not glib. It’s not tossing it out quickly. You’ve got to think as you’re working.”

Typewriters are still in relatively wide use in a few distinct realms: police stations, prisons, and funeral homes, which all seem to need them to fill out forms that haven’t been easy to replace with computer documents.

While no one in the film seems to believe that a typewriter revival is going to replace iPads, these fans at least think the machines will gain some fans.

There is “kind of a resurgence among younger people,” says another typewriter repairman. “I’ve had 8- and 10- and 12- year-old kids coming in and they’re keeping loose-leaf journals with their typewriters. They’re always kind of brainy kids, too.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post does not suggest the Common Core State Standards are going to bring typewriters back to the classroom. But it does report that “a skill that has been taught for generations in middle or high school—first on manual typewriters, then electric word processors, and finally on computer keyboards—is now becoming a staple of elementary schools.”

The standardized tests linked to the common core, to be given in 2014-15, “require students to be able to manipulate a mouse; click, drag and type answers on a keyboard; and, starting in 3rd grade, write online,” the Post‘s Lyndsey Layton reports in “Elementary students, start your keyboards.” “Fourteen states have agreed to field-test the exams in the spring to help those creating the tests iron out the wrinkles and make improvements.”

Layton says today’s elementary students are quite comfortable swiping a finger on smartphones and tablets, but composing text on a keyboard is more of a challenge.

“Children must learn touch typing—-the ability to compose text without looking at keys—-so they can focus on their writing,” says Kathleen Regan, the director of curriculum and instruction at New Jersey’s Glen Rock Public Schools, in the Post story.

My 4th grade teacher certainly would have been happy if the common core was around way back then and I had been required to learn typing before I got to her classroom.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.