To Teach/Learn Typing or Not To And at What Stage?

Just as handwriting was and is an essential skill for everyone to learn and for teachers to teach starting from a developmentally appropriate age, so now is typing or keyboarding essential as so much work gets done on digital devices. With devices used in the classroom for writing, what is an appropriate age for students to learn and teachers to teach typing? What is a good program? What age is considered developmentally appropriate? What about iPads and typing? Is the skill truly an essential one? These and many more questions are asked about typing each day by educators and parents alike. With the Smarter Balanced Testing being introduced where students must type essays starting from third grade, these questions have become even more frequent and opinions can be strong and vary. Also, with the testing starting in third grade, should typing begin there or an earlier age?

I am no expert on this and whatever I state here is solely my opinion based upon what I have experienced with students and what I see coming down the road with technology, not on behalf of the school or district.

In Palo Alto Unified School District, we use a program called TTL4, which tracks students by grade level, ability and has game-like but rigorous steps to pass from one level to another. Students can be bumped up levels by an admin of the program. It can be tedious but extremely useful when done effectively. However, it is available only on a computer and not on iPads. WIth the 1:1 iPad program, I am still trying to figure out if I should look at some typing apps. At the end of the day, students need to know the location of the letters/numbers/characters, irrespective of the device.

Developmentally, the first graders don’t have the hand span required for typing across a computer keyboard. Some of them are learning to recognize letters. Also, we teach them to capitalize the first letter and put the rest in lower case. So it can be confusing for them to see all the uppercase letters on a Mac keyboard. While typing this, I am trying out a Chromebook for the first time seriously and am pleasantly surprised to see the lowercase i and l, both of which are super confusing to the little ones on most keyboard.

Students really learn hand-eye coordination, quick letter recognition, left and right hand coordination, and of course, self-confidence. Even those who struggle with fine motor skills can achieve levels with the typing programs. And that in turn translates to better writing skills in general: lots of reasons why students prefer typing to writing eventually.

When it comes to iPads, students have to be able to translate the big keyboards to the iPad native keyboard, which is really hard for first and several second graders to do. It is important though that students start with typing their names as early as kindergarten. What I have seen is that students are highly motivated to do so because who isn’t proud of writing their name on a piece of work they have produced? Plus, it motivates them to look for the letters, the position of the letters and a sense of achievement of having done it on their own. After they have done so a few times, students can start with typing short phrases.

By third grade, most students are reading a certain level of text, based upon their ability, but certainly know the sounds and letters really well for the most part. Their hands are physically more well developed and they are able to focus for longer periods of time on academic activities. A focused period of 15-20 minutes each day for three weeks to get students really familiar with the keyboard.

When students enter fourth and fifth grades, teachers do expect that a certain level of typing has been taught/learned by the students and that they can handle the amount of typing students do on electronic devices. Following are a few reasons why writing on an electronic device is preferred both by students and teachers:

  • Students who might otherwise write a few sentences will write paragraphs when typing, such is their motivation and engagement.
  • Several students don’t like to see their mistakes, clutter on a page. This way, students can revise their documents and it all still appears clean. If needed, students can refer back to previous versions, since most of them use Google Docs to write.
  • This enables students to publish their writing to an audience larger than just their teacher. I have had students ask me in class when they have finished with a piece of their final writing whether they could share it with a sibling or parent and have done so while in class. As a parent, I would be thrilled to receive something from my elementary child during my work day.

As a former fifth grade teacher, I can also say that even if students haven’t gone through the rigor of typing in earlier grades, they pick up really quickly with the number of assignments that they type up. Once they move to middle school, almost all their assignments are typed. Handwriting must continue for obvious reasons, the main practical one being finger muscles need that movement. It has to be a fine balance, just like with devices.

Would love to hear various opinions, thoughts, programs being used and feedback. Tomorrow, the third graders start with their intense keyboarding practice each morning for the next three weeks. I will report on the progress when done.


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