Monday, July 16, 2012

Teaching Students to Type

I was giving a workshop last week on Google Docs when a participant asked a question I hadn’t heard from an adult before. He said, “What about kids who say they can’t type?”  In the context of the workshop I really couldn’t give the question the attention it deserves, but it is a valid point. Though adults never mention it, I do get that complaint from students occasionally.

Kids who can’t type need to learn, and they won’t learn by taking a six week course and typing, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” over and over again. I took that course. It was useless. I learned to type in college, not because I had papers to type, but because I wanted to chat with my friends on line. (This was 1992, IRC text only chat rooms. Yes, I have been talking to strangers on the internet for over 20 years.) When you are typing to another person or group of people speed counts. Students will learn to type and type faster when they have a reason to want to communicate. No one gives them texting classes and they seem to be able to manage that just fine, even a few years ago when they had to use number pads as keyboards.

Students will type when they have something to say that they feel passionate about. Typing skills are a side effect of passion based learning and access to a keyboard. If you expect students to use a keyboard for daily work, communication and yes, chatting with classmates, they will learn to type. It may not be perfect touch typing at 90 words a minute, but those students will be able to type. Confession, my own typing is not perfect form, but I still managed to crank out a masters thesis, a novel, and all these blog posts with my less than stellar skills. I think the kids will be okay.

Typing is a great equalizer. Once the email is written no one knows if it took you five minutes or fifteen to type it out. Grammar, spelling and punctuation may still reflect on their skills, but their handwriting is not part of the equation.  When students see that revision no longer means rewriting their entire paper by hand, they suddenly prefer typing. When they have handwritten and then typed up several papers, they figure out it is easier to just type them the first time. Students who can’t type need more time to use computers in school, not less. 

When students new to my classroom tell me they can’t type I don’t worry too much about it. Some days we write a little some days we write a lot and they do alright. Over time their typing skills improve, they realize no one cares how fast they type, and their papers get written just fine. In the end they thank me for teaching them about writing, about tools like Google Docs, and about books. No one has ever thanked me for making them a better typist. I think that’s because by the end of the year it is just another skill they take for granted, just like most of the adults I know.

Disclaimer: I teach high school. I still think it is perfectly appropriate for students to learn both printing and cursive writing in earlier grades. I am not saying those skills are obsolete. I just don’t think lack of typing skills is a valid reason for keeping kids off computers in classrooms.