- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2007

In the 1950s, young women routinely studied typing to steel themselves for life in the secretarial pool. Men, too often, wore their inability to type as a point of pride. Cultural tides swept away those differences, but the rise of the computer means mastering the keyboard is a near essential task for just about everyone.

Enter the public school system, which in some cases is pushing down the age of its keyboarding instruction so younger and younger students will feel at home tapping, not writing, their schoolwork.

Beth Downey, instructional coordinator for business and information technology at Fairfax Public Schools, says keyboarding skills are integrated into seventh-graders’ technology tools curriculum.

“It’s not a strict typing class,” Mrs. Downey says.

Such integration “demonstrates to them the importance of touch typing,” she adds.

Some elements of the lessons involve computerized games in which the best typists win.

“The key is to make it fun for kids. [Typing] is not exciting, but it is when you do it in a game format,” Mrs. Downey says.

At Fairfax’s high schools, a student’s typing prowess is assessed by teacher observation and a software package that tracks performance.

“A student who knows how to type is put on drill exercises to increase speed or accuracy,” she says. “Another student may start at the beginning of a [typing] lesson.”

And lessons shouldn’t begin and end on the schoolhouse steps.

“Those who practice it outside of class time pick it up very quickly,” Mrs. Downey says.

Even if someone thinks he or she knows how to type, it might not be good enough.

Barbara Ellsworth, a professor at Arizona-based Mesa Community College, says too many people have bad keyboarding habits. That, Mrs. Ellsworth says, can have consequences.

“Businesses say it affects the efficiency of employees,” says Mrs. Ellsworth, who has been teaching typing classes for 42 years.

The problem exists at all levels, she says. Visit a local college’s work lab and see students typing any number of ways, including the infamous hunt-and-peck method.

“Students who don’t know how to type well, they get behind,” Mrs. Ellsworth says.

If schools don’t offer keyboarding instruction, the lessons often don’t get taught.

“Most people don’t have time to teach themselves,” she says.

To gain some proficiency with the keyboard, Mrs. Ellsworth recommends roughly 30 to 45 hours of instruction to type up to 50 words a minute.

That speed will decrease if the typist picks up bad habits along the way, like taking one’s hand off the home row of keys or hitting the backspace key with the pointer finger.

She advises students to hold their arms straight, key at a steady clip and use quick, sharp strokes rather than mashing the keyboard.

In the Arlington School District, keyboarding lessons are part of the curriculum for third-grade students.

Phyllis Gandy, a curriculum supervisor for Arlington, says the district has been moving keyboarding lessons down the age scale over the past few years.

Third-graders learn keyboarding skills as part of their overall curriculum, and if they want to sharpen their skills later on, they can elect to take keyboarding-specific classes at the middle school level, Ms. Gandy says.

Students in seventh and eighth grades can also take a digital input technology class, which involves both keyboarding instruction and information on using voice-recognition software, she says.

“Digital input technology is growing,” she says, “It’s used in the medical and legal fields.”

Students prefer using the keyboard compared to the traditional pen-and-ink methods, Ms. Gandy says.

“It’s less frustrating for them. They can focus on the end product and make their revisions easier,” she says. “It’s less stressful for students.”

Generally speaking, the younger the students, the more eagerly they soak up information. Students introduced to a foreign language at a young age have a better chance of mastering it than, say, a teenager.

When it comes to typing, National PTA President Anna Weselak says a child is ready to learn once he or she starts showing an interest in it.

That often happens at home, when a child sees his or her parents tapping away at the computer and wants to follow suit, Mrs. Weselak says.

“I see young children in computer labs very efficiently using keyboarding skills and using the [computer] mouse,” she says. “I also see them in homes where children and parents are seated at the keyboard together, engaged.”

While some college students today still struggle with typing skills, Mrs. Weselak says the current generation of youngsters will make such instances rare.

“It’s a matter of time before they grow up computer savvy. It’s what they know,” she says.

For anyone looking for online assistance, the following site may be helpful: http://edtechoutreach.umd.edu/HowTo/typing.html.

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