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The Times Educational Suppliment Logo
Why don't we teach typing?

by Gerald Haigh
Published: 03 February 2006

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 touchtyping 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. George had 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. Peter uses Englishtype Junior, which is designed for English schools by an educational psychologist and links to the National Literacy Strategy.www.englishtype.com.

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.uk/staffroom Gerald Haigh's Leading Questions, Leadership 27.

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The Times Educational Suppliment Logo
Freed from the pen

by Louise Green
Published: 30 March 2007

If you are dyslexic, writing by hand can be a trade-off between coherence and creativity. Using a keyboard allows pupils to concentrate on the big things, says Louise Green.

No two dyslexics are the same. But they all have one thing in common: a weakness with phonological awareness - the ability to identify and manipulate the specific sounds that make up a word. Research suggests this is due to a weakness in the working memory.

One of the most obvious signs of dyslexia is when the standard of a pupil's written work falls well below their ability to express themselves orally.

Either they write correctly but at a shorter length and more simply than their oral ability would suggest; or they write at their intellectual level but their work is riddled with errors, including omitted or contracted words, irrelevancies and poor spelling. The reason for this is lack of what is called "automaticity". As Nicolson wrote in 2001: "The behavioural symptoms of dyslexia can be characterised as difficulties in skill automatisation - the process by which, after long practice, skills become so fluent they no longer need conscious control."

For most people, repeated practice at processing information means tasks, such as multiplication tables and sight word recognition, become automatic.

This means the stored information is retrieved rapidly and the brain is relieved of having to process individual units of information. Automatic processes are so fast they do not reduce the capacity available for other tasks, permitting the brain to perform more complex processing and problem-solving. With dyslexics, the lower order processes of identifying letters and words when reading, and controlling the pen when writing, are not automatic so they have fewer resources available for higher order processes of thought and composition.

Equally, if the working memory is fully engaged in higher order processes such as selecting content, style and language to suit the task and audience when writing, the pupil with poor automatic low-level skills may write incoherently and make apparently careless mistakes. My research showed the effects of lack of automaticity on pupils' writing.

I compared the performance of a group of 12 dyslexic pupils aged between 13 and 18, all with an educational psychologist's report, with a group of 12 controls matched for age, gender, school and non-verbal IQ. They were compared on three writing tasks: a dictation, a copying exercise and retelling a well-known story.

Each of the writing tasks was performed twice, once handwritten and once typed, with the autocorrect and spell-check functions on the computer disabled. In 11 separate comparisons, across all three tasks, the handwritten work of the dyslexic group was significantly worse than that of the control group. But there was no significant difference between the typed work of the two groups.

So dyslexic pupils find it helpful to write using a keyboard not because they cannot write by hand, are lazy, or want to rely on a computer programme to help them spell. It is because the demands on their working memory are reduced when they are allowed to use a keyboard rather than having to retrieve from memory each time how to form a letter or spell a word. Typing provides far less distraction from expressing what they want to write. Quite simply, most dyslexics report that they can "think better" when they type.

(Louise Green is a specialist teacher who gives one-on-one and small group tuition to dyslexic and dyspraxic pupils at an independent secondary school, three state grammar schools and an RAF base. She is chair of the Professional Association of Teachers of Students with Specific Learning Difficulties and a trustee of the British Dyslexia Association.)

References

  • Baddeley, A. D. (1996) The Concept of Working Memory in Gathercole, S. E.

  • (Ed.) Models of Short-term Memory, Psychology Press

  • Green, L. (2001) Investigating Differences in Output Between Hand-Written and Computer Generated Work in Secondary Aged Children with Specific Learning Difficulties, University College London

  • Jones, D. and Christensen, C. A. (1999) Relationship Between Automaticity in Handwriting and Students' Ability to Generate Written Text, Journal of Educational Psychology 1999 91:1 44 - 4

  • Nicolson, R. I., Fawcett, A. J. and Dean, P. (2001) A TINS Debate - Hindbrain versus the Forebrain: A Case for Cerebellar Deficit in Developmental Dyslexia Trends in Neurosciences 24:9 508 - 511

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The BBC News Logo
Fat finegrs

by Jonathan Duffy
Published: 21 December 2005

fat Fingers

A simple typing error has triggered mayhem on the Tokyo stock exchange and cost one bank £190m. But in a world where almost everyone now is expected to type, how many of us really can?

"Where's the 'P' gone... who's stolen the 'P'?"

Think back to those initial days when you made the leap from pen and exercise book to the infinitely more sophisticated keyboard, and how bewildering the jumble of keys seemed to be under your ill-guided fingers.

The "P", tucked away in the upper-right-hand reaches of the keyboard always seemed particularly aloof.

But in time the apparently random distribution of letters, numbers, punctuation and other function keys fell into place.

Diplomatic incident

The Qwerty layout was developed in the late 18th Century not to ease the flight of the touch typist's nimble digits, but the opposite.

It was designed to slow her - and in those days it was almost exclusively women who carried out secretarial duties - down and prevent a typewriter's clunky typebars from getting jammed.

It's ironic then that today, in an era when lightning-fast computers are de rigueur and typing is no longer the preserve of skilled secretaries, but expected of just about everyone, that the Qwerty layout has never been more widespread.

fat Fingers

Its popularity, however, is less certain, particularly among those who've been at the sharp end of an embarrassing "fat fingers" incident - the term given to a simple typing error caused by hitting the wrong key.

It happens millions of times a day, but once in a while the result can be devastating. Earlier this month a trader on the Tokyo stock market accidentally blew £190m because of a simple typing error.

A computer which should have cancelled the transaction failed to click in, and this further embarrassment led to the resignation on Tuesday of the head of the Tokyo stock exchange.

'Hunt and peck'

In March this year the Sudanese government was irked to read on a US Congress website that America had carried out nuclear tests in Sudan in the 1960s.

Fears were allayed however when it turned out to be a typing error. The report should have said Sedan - a test site in Nevada.

Occasionally, such errors can even play into the hands of ordinary folk - such as when online traders accidentally under-price a product.

Mostly, though the clumsy two-fingered typist has little to smile about compared to his or her infinitely faster and more accurate touch-typing colleague.

Anecdotal evidence suggests not only are "hunt and peck" typists less efficient, they are also more likely to suffer an industrial injury.

"As more and more people are getting computers at their desks we are becoming a nation of two fingered typists," said the TUC general secretary Brendan Barber this year.

"While you can become quite proficient without typing properly, you are putting yourself at serious risk of developing RSI."

Phobia

Part of the problem rests with perceptions, says Sue Westwood, who is campaigning for touch-typing to be taught to children.

"In schools we still get comments about it being a secretarial skill and the 'less able' children will make use of it."

fat Fingers

She compares two-fingered key bashing to "like trying to write with a quill and a pot of ink, because you've got to keep stopping to look up at the screen."

In the eyes of John Sutherland, an English professor at University College London, "tough guys don't touch type".

His words are meant as caricature. One of the initial problems in selling computers was getting men to touch the keyboard, he says. Having got over that phobia, many are reluctant to see typing as a skill, to be learned.

In fact, hunt and peck typists have always been around. The iconic American journalist HL Mencken suffered not a bit from "writing ceaselessly using a staccato two-fingered typing process that made him look like a bear cub imitating a drum majorette" - to quote his biographer Terry Teachout.

But times have moved on, and the question for many now is not whether to learn, but how best to learn.

French man Daniel Guermuer has a novel approach.

Blank keyboards

M Guermeur felt frustrated when, as a young student, he signed up for a computer science course in the US, only to find his classmates were adept touch typists. (Typing is commonly taught in US schools, says M Guermuer.)

fat Fingers

He tried some traditional typing courses without any luck, before hitting on the idea of scrubbing all the letters from his keyboard; effectively typing blind. "It's analogous to a piano - there are no marking on piano keys, you just have to learn them," he says.

It did the trick and earlier this year M Guermuer began selling blank keyboards for others who want to learn, under the brand Das Keyboard.

"You go through two weeks of pain. In the first week your typing slows greatly, but by the end of week two you are touch typing," says M Guermuer. Journalists who have tried the keyboard have reported some success with it.

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The Guardian Logo
Now the keyboard can be all fingers and thumbs

by Sean Dodson
Published: 7 March 2006

Although touch-typing is not currently on the national curriculum, many argue that it should be. Especially when zombies can help teach it.

Despite a growing range of software teaching touch-typing for children, it is surprising that so few schools teach the skill as part of regular ICT lessons. Typing is already on the curriculum in the US and several European countries, where it's seen as a basic skill. Here it's viewed as an off-curricular activity.

People who do learn to type often say it's one of the best investments they have ever made. Those who haven't remain frustrated by their slow speed and frequent mistakes as they "hunt and peck" for the correct letter and strain their necks because they are hunched over the keyboard rather than leaning back at the screen. Touch-typing is seen as one of the best ways to combat repetitive strain injury in later life.

"We see typing very much as a precursor to efficient computer usage and we are frustrated that the government hasn't focused on this at all," says Sue Westwood of Englishtype, a small, Northamptonshire company who build touch-typing packages specifically for schools. Its Englishtype Junior package uses vocabulary content from the national literacy strategy word lists and follows key stages 1-3 of the national curriculum, but it's yet to be officially endorsed.

However last month, Sue Horner, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's head of English, hinted that touch-typing might soon get on to the curriculum.

To its advocates, the teaching of typing is a no-brainer. Few skills offer such a good return on such a small investment. Instead of regular lessons over several years, as with handwriting, an intensive week's training in typing is usually all you need.

Typing has been taught in schools for generations, of course. Indeed, an RCA certificate in the subject is still offered to 14-year-olds. But Westwood says there's still quite a negative perception in a lot of schools that typing is for secretaries. "This [attitude] is so outdated. Take a doctor's surgery. These days, the person who does the most typing is the doctor."

Slaying zombies

The good news is that more schools are starting to teach typing as part of ICT. Software available ranges from bespoke educational packages like Englishtype and TTRS to more lurid software packages. For instance, The Typing of the Dead, produced by Sega, mixes elements of horror with a standard typing tutor and is particularly popular with boys. The faster you type, the more zombies you slay.

"Keyboard skills used as starters for ICT lessons can be fun and allow pupils to record their improvement in time taken and/or accuracy very easily," says Jane Finch, teacher adviser ICT, at Worcestershire county council. "We provide schools with a list of activities that can be used in this way."

Another reason for teaching typing as part of ICT lessons is that the more able students will need the skill at university. The amount of coursework required is increasing all the time. Essays of 2,000 words are commonplace, as are dissertations upwards of 10,000 - and all have to be typed.

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The Independent Logo
Learning To Type: Lessons in one of life's key skills

by Kate Hilpern
Published: 24 November 2005

As the amount of on-screen work increases, children need to learn how to touch-type from an early age.

Wouldn't it be a great advantage if children could touch-type by the age of eight?" says Sue Horner, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's head of English. "Don't they really need to be touch-typing if that's when you expect them to handwrite?"

Since the QCA is aiming for all tests and exams in school to be available on-screen by 2010 - alongside the traditional pen and paper method - many parents agree. The problem is that despite a growing range of software focusing on touch-typing for children, very few schools teach it. "How can today's education system not accommodate a basic, functional skill like touch-typing?" asks Caroline Hole-Jones, a mother from Bath. "This is absolutely critical to every pupil in future career progression - certainly in white collar careers - and yet it's not even on the school agenda. I've resorted to teaching my son, Henry, myself and he's a whiz at it now and top of IT in his year. Common sense, isn't it?"

Sue Westwood, who teaches touch-typing in a small but growing number of schools via software called Englishtype Junior and Englishtype Senior, shares this view about the benefits. "Typed coursework is fast becoming the expected standard in education," she says. "At GCSE and A-level, coursework makes up an average 25 per cent of the final mark, and at university, essays and dissertations of 2,000 to 10,000 words are common and must be presented in typed format. In professional life, many people use a computer keyboard more frequently than handwriting these days."

A lot of schools say there's nothing wrong with typing with two fingers, but Westwood disagrees. "It's like trying to write with a feather and a pot of ink - painfully slow," she says. "A fluent touch-typist can type up to eight times faster than your average two fingered 'hunt and peck' keyboard user." Not surprisingly, she says, many children find the thought of doing homework eight times faster quite motivating. "It is a strange contradiction that as the focus on computers and ICT in schools has increased, the teaching of typing is often viewed as a waste of time, unlike in other European countries and America."

Research has shown that learning to type relatively early in school can benefit special needs pupils with their reading, comprehension, spelling and vocabulary skills. "It reduces the need for handwriting, which is often disliked or a problem area," says Westwood.

Some teachers believe that concentrating on touch-typing can damage writing development, and that the focus should remain on writing, but touch-typing has been shown to aid muscular dexterity. It can also prevent repetitive strain injury (RSI) occurring later in life.

Millfield Preparatory School in Glastonbury teaches all year seven students touchtyping via Englishtype Junior, in conjunction with a trainer. Jonathan Ford, head of ICT, says they haven't looked back. The students devote a double lesson a day for one week at the beginning of the school year, he says. "It's amazing how much they learn in that time and they really enjoy it. At first, they groan at the thought of a course just on typing skills, but they get really into it and some become quite competitive."

Students are better able to get their ideas onto a word processor than through handwriting, he believes. "They can edit, drag and drop paragraphs, and basically have more control."

The fact remains, however, that schools in the independent sector like Millfield are the most likely to teach touch-typing, whilst the majority of state schools do not have any plans to do so. Paul Fuller, head of ICT at Kingsbury High School in North-west London, would like to see that change. "We should be teaching it," he says. "I think slow typists will miss out and their progress will be hampered. That's a shame because it isn't a reflection of their capability."

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The Telegraph Logo
Any questions?

by John Clare
Published: 01 June 2005

Should children be taught to touch-type? If so, from what age? And what's the best way of doing it?

Given the ubiquity of keyboards and the growing expectation that secondary school pupils and university students will type their essays and coursework, I think it is one of the most useful skills a child can learn - at any age from seven upwards. A self-teaching computer program I can recommend is Englishtype. It was developed by Jo Westwood, an educational psychologist, and is structured around the national curriculum. A senior version is aimed at teenagers and adults. With concentrated practice, it should be possible to learn in a week a skill that may well last a lifetime. The program costs £39.95; see www.englishtype.com.

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The Englishtype Logo
Why teach touch typing? Effective computer keyboard usage is an essential life skill for all today's children

by Sue Westwood

Computers are an integral part of so many areas of life today - particularly in education and in the great majority of careers. The need for efficient typing skills is simply no longer the preserve of secretaries. In education, typed coursework is fast becoming the expected standard. At GCSE and A level, coursework makes up an average 25% of the final mark (up to 40% in some subjects)*. At university, essays and dissertations of 2,000 - 10,000 words are common place, and an average student is likely to produce over 100,000 words in a degree course that must be presented in typed format. John Sutherland, Professor of English Literature at University College, London, believes typing should be taught in schools and most importantly, undergraduates should learn to touch type before starting university. He says "... spend the summer learning touch-typing (if you don't already have it). Your fingers are going to do as much work as your neurons over the next three years".

In professional life, many people use a computer keyboard more frequently than handwriting these days - for example, many doctors now do more typing than their receptionists, as patients' records are computerized and notes are made during consultations. There are few professions that no longer involve using a computer regularly - even headmasters! Using a keyboard effectively vastly increases the efficiency of computer usage; using a keyboard and typing with 1 or 2 fingers is like trying to write with a feather and a pot of ink (painfully slow!). A fluent touch typist can type up to 8 times faster than your average two fingered "hunt and peck" keyboard user. Not surprisingly, many children find the thought of doing homework 8 times faster quite motivating!

John Clare, the Daily Telegraph's Education Correspondent agrees; writing in his column Any Questions, he says: "Given the ubiquity of keyboards and the growing expectation that secondary school pupils and university students will type their essays and coursework, I think it (touch typing) is one the most useful skills a child can learn - at any age from seven upwards." As well as being a valuable lifeskill for children, there are also many advantages for teachers, as the whole class's typing skills are brought to a consistent level making it easier to teach ICT.

It is a strange contradiction that as the focus on computers and ICT in schools has increased, the teaching of typing is often viewed as a waste of time or too difficult, unlike in other European countries and America**. The old-fashioned prejudice that typing is a skill for secretaries only is still all too prevalent in schools in the UK today. Others believe that "hunting & pecking" doesn't slow children down significantly; that may be true when producing 50-100 words, but over 100,000 it will reduce speed considerably! Surely the role of schools is to equip children with the skills they need for later life? The QCA say "touch typing may form part of the English curriculum in 10 years time" (Liz Lightfoot, Telegraph 24/2/05); sadly, this would seem to leave UK schools 10 years behind their trans-Atlantic cousins.

Other concerns are that typing will be given focus at the expense of other important areas, particularly hand-writing. Clearly, there will always be a need for children to be able to write, and it is not realistic that typing may replace writing. However, in today's world, typing is clearly a complimentary and very necessary skill. The QCA's Playback 21, a look into the future of required English skills (with parents & teachers), highlights that "many express the view that children should learn proper keyboard skills at an early age, just as they learn handwriting." In producing written work, for example, could you write a report lineally without making a mistake? Word processing documents frees thought from the unnecessary constraints that are a fundamental part of the paper & pen process.

For Special Needs pupils, learning to touch type can bring even more benefits. Research has shown that learning to type relatively early in schooling can benefit children's reading, comprehension, spelling and vocabulary skills. It reduces the need for handwriting, which is often a disliked or problematic area, and typing is easily corrected without original mistakes being apparent. And Spell Checkers are an invaluable help! At GCSE level and above, children eligible for 'special arrangements' may be able to use a computer if assessors' criteria are met.

"Fat fingers" syndrome has been hitting the headlines recently - the term coined to describe typing errors that are somewhat problematic. In December 2005, a Tokyo trader's mistake cost £190m, and the resignation of the Head of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. In March, the Sudanese government was most concerned to read that the American government had carried out nuclear testing in Sudan in the 1960's; the report should have read "Sedan", in Nevada. The problem of fat fingers is largely a result of the "hunt & peck" habit - if you are looking down at your fingers on the keyboard, you don't notice if you make a mistake, and may easily miss it going back re-reading the text.

QWERTY keyboards are likely to remain the most common form of interaction with a computer - although there have been many other systems including other keyboard format and voice recognition, the keyboard is still almost omni-present. There is now even a "virtual" QWERT keyboard - one projected by light! The Government has had considerable success with its strategy to put ICT at the heart of the curriculum; 92% of 5-18 year olds now use computers in schools***, but sadly, there has been no review of the way those children interact with the machine.

With pressures on timetables always increasing, teaching typing can also give literacy a boost. Literacy is still a key area of focus in UK schools, and using the right typing tutor program can support literacy learning. The Telegraph's John Clare recommends Englishtype: "A self-teaching computer program I can recommend is Englishtype Junior. It was developed by Jo Westwood, an educational psychologist, and is structured around the National Curriculum. A Senior version is aimed at teenagers and adults. With concentrated practice, it should be possible to learn in a week a skill that may well last a lifetime." Unlike many other typing tutors, Englishtype was developed especially for use in UK schools, and is designed to maximise additional literacy learning benefits at the same time as teaching typing. Vocabulary content uses National Literacy Strategy word lists to ensure relevance and age suitability. And it speaks with an English accent! Key and finger relationships are built using a unique colour coding system that is powerful aid to rapid learning. There is also a special detailed Teacher Administration package included in educational versions with a particularly good class management system. Englishtype recommends intensive learning as the most efficient, and many schools teach the basics of touch typing with it in just one week.

* John Clare, Daily Telegraph
** in US schools, typing is taught on the curriculum (John Sutherland, The Guardian, 6.12.99)
*** Young People & ICT 2002. DfES study

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