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

As the amount of on-screen work increases, children need to learn how to touch-type from an early age. Kate Hilpern reports
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The Independent Online

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 touch-typing 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."