Typing skills rise in pecking order

Shift: Widespread computer use is prompting many schools to introduce keyboarding to pupils at a younger age.

January 14, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The keys on the left side of the computer screen glow red. On the right they are purple. And Samantha Haverly's tiny 6-year-old hands are poised to punch.

Samantha carefully follows the prompts and types out letters and words as instructed. Sometimes she presses the shift key with her left forefinger and stretches to complete a capital D with her thumb, but she knows the rules better than some grown-ups: The left hand is for the left side of the keyboard and the right hand has its side.

This is how first-graders at Belvedere Elementary School in Arnold learn how to type - before many can even read.

"Some people, if you tell them they're learning keyboarding in first grade, they might think that's too young," said Belvedere's technology teacher, Elizabeth McBride, once a first-grade teacher. "But if they saw the things we're doing, how developmentally appropriate they are, they'd feel better about it."

Learning to type in school was once reserved for future secretaries. Keyboarding - a relatively new name for the old Typing 1 - remains the most popular business course in many high schools.

But with computers becoming as common as television sets, educators argue that ninth grade is much too late to teach students the proper way to touch-type. All that computer use at home and in elementary schools does not guarantee better typists at young ages - it just makes it harder than ever for high school teachers to break students of their terrible hunting and pecking habits.

While experts say little hands have the motor skills to deftly handle a keyboard by third or fourth grade, no formal course is offered until high school. And even though some schools, including Belvedere, are working hard to teach the basics of typing even to the smallest, keyboard instruction is far from universal.

"This is one of those really controversial issues in education," said Melissa Mowrey, coordinator of business and cooperative education for Anne Arundel County's public schools. "The real issue is: Shouldn't we be teaching it in earlier grades? We probably should. [But] in education, we have a little problem of where do we stick it? How do you add one more requirement to an already full schedule of instruction?"

There is no state mandate to teach keyboarding, said Neil Greenberger, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. Even in high school it's an elective. A committee will be working during the next five months to update the state's technology plans, and keyboard skills are not included, but guidelines could be added, he said - an acknowledgement that schools are starting too late.

"It's not been viewed as a priority or critical or something that needs to be done," said Michael Pitroff, director of instructional technology, library and media services for public schools in Baltimore, "but that's beginning to wane because it's becoming an employable skill, a skill everyone needs to have."

Many educators agree that the best place to teach typing skills - the old home-row, no-peeking kind of typing - is probably in middle school, when children are starting to write longer papers and research projects that would move much faster if they could get the words out faster. Typing could be taught in four to six weeks, Mowrey said.

But middle schools already are being asked to do too much, educators say.

"There is just no space or time in what has to be covered in the middle school to do that," said Leila Walker, supervisor of business education in Baltimore County. "There's a limited amount of time."

Anne Arundel County's school board members last week approved requiring 50 minutes of reading instruction to a jam-packed day.

"Kids are starting out at a much younger age," said Judy Mauriello, Anne Arundel's coordinator of instructional technology. But, she said, "I can't tell you that everybody's having a keyboarding class."

Make the time, said one Anne Arundel County school board member. "Reading is a critical life skill. Math is a critical life skill. If we are preparing young people for successful lives in the 21st century, the full use of computers probably fits right after those two," said board member Vaughn L. Brown Jr.

"This is a really basic kind of function. I'm suggesting it's not good enough to just teach our elementary school students what a computer is and how to use a mouse and then have them hunt and peck at the keyboard."

Guidance counselors still recommend students take typing once they hit ninth grade, if they don't have the skills by then.

"My parents made me take it," recalled Richard Weisenhoff, the Howard County schools' coordinator for educational technology and media. "Back then, they masked it as a college prep course, half a semester of keyboarding, half a semester of note-taking. I never used the note-taking. It was a very strange system. But I did use keyboarding. It's a good skill to have."

Even those exposed to computer software programs that teach typing may get it wrong. The computer doesn't know if the student has used the wrong finger or form to type the answer. Only if the teacher is watching will many do it correctly. And some kids have the computer software at home, where no one is watching.

"By the time they get to us in grade nine, they're convinced they can do it better, faster and easier. [They say,] `I don't need to learn. I already know,'" Mowrey said. "Twenty years ago, they were a little more open-minded. It's probably the biggest argument that kids have to have keyboarding earlier."

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