As computers have become more common in schools, kids have gained opportunities to search the Internet, publish their work online, and create multimedia presentations in school.
But in our enthusiasm to integrate technology into the classroom, we’ve somehow overlooked the most basic level of that integration: the application of little hands to computer keyboards.
The problem of untrained fingers might seem small—just a bad habit. But it’s a problem in the same way poor posture or fingering technique is a problem when learning to play a musical instrument: Neither bad habit will prevent you from playing simple tunes, but they’ll make it hard to master more complex pieces.
Asking students to use a keyboard to write without training them to use it properly limits what they can accomplish in the computer lab. It requires students to spend valuable class time locating keys instead of thinking about what they are trying to say.
Students can be taught to type as soon as they begin using school computers, just as they’re shown how to hold pencils when they start writing. Correct finger placement and simple keystrokes, such as using the thumb for the space bar and the little finger for the shift key, can be taught even to very young students. They may still hunt and peck, but as they gain competence, they should begin to learn touch typing.
My elementary school students start off practicing for 15 to 20 minutes a day on keyboarding instructional software—either a shareware program called Master Key (www.macinmind.com) or a simple program on a sturdy portable keyboard called an AlphaSmart (www.alphasmart.com/k12/). But it’s been my experience that just about any typing program will do the job, so long as it keeps track of each student’s progress.
After they’ve gotten the basics down, I use this trick for keeping them on the right path: I place a piece of fabric or a modified file folder over students’ hands so their fingers “learn where to go,” rather than letting their eyes hunt for keys. Doing this once a week won’t work. Students really need daily or every-other-day practice for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
This regimen works. After regular, structured practice, my students’ typing speed increases without fail, and some of my more diligent 4th graders can type up to 60 words per minute.
When you expect students to produce well-written documents in a limited amount of time, it’s only fair to show them early and often how it’s done. And the simple truth is that students need to be able to type faster than they can write with a pencil. Otherwise, it’s not worth the class time to put them in front of a computer.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Reverting to Type