Why it's cool to touch type

Parents are so keen to give their children keyboard skills that they are paying tutors to do it. Liz Lightfoot taps into a new trend
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The Independent Online

Exams are over. Pens are down and it's time for private tutors to take a break, unless they teach touch typing. Parents seeking to give their children a head start at school or university are bombarding typing schools with requests for summer courses this year.

Typing, once a low-level subject pursued almost exclusively by girls planning to work in an office, is now increasingly seen by middle-class parents as a skill which will give their children an edge.

In the computer age, when even the latest, high-tech iPhones and Blackberries come complete with a traditional Qwerty keyboard, typing by touch, without looking at the keys, rapidly improves speed and accuracy.

"We are getting calls every day from all over the country from parents who want their children to learn to type properly and can't find courses locally," says Jane Verity of Verityping. "Some want their children to learn at a young age, before the "hunt and peck" method of typing with one or two fingers gets established. There are others who want their teenagers to learn to type properly before going to university and we get a lot of inquiries as well from educational psychologists who recommend touch typing to help children with dyslexia."

Surprisingly, given the rapid introduction of computers in the classroom, very few schools teach typing, other than at optional, after school clubs where it competes with sports and other attractions. Long waiting lists for the club at Marshgate Primary in Richmond upon Thames, led to a rethink and now typing is a compulsory part of the curriculum for nine, 10 and 11-year-olds.

Zoe Clements, the higher-level teaching assistant who introduced the touch typing programme, believes Marshgate is the first primary school to put the subject in its curriculum. Now some of the children say it is their favourite lesson. It is true that schools are over-loaded with subjects the Government wants them to teach but the headteacher has found half-an-hour a week for years 5 and 6 and, from September, for year 4 as well, she says.

"It's no good expecting children to be able to produce a document quickly and accurately on a computer without giving them the skills to do it. It's like asking them to write a story and not giving them a pen," says Clements.

Dyslexic children having difficulty with handwriting have blossomed. "We have seen some fantastic, imaginative work from children who have been freed to create," she says.

Methods of teaching typing have moved on from the barked instructions of the past. Now soft music plays in the background as the Marshgate pupils use child-friendly computer programmes to learn where to find the keys. Their hands are covered by a device with two hands painted on it, the nails of each finger colour-coded to match colours on the keys for which they are used. On the screen, the words change colour evenly until the pupil makes a mistake and a demonstration appears automatically to show them which finger and key to use. As pupils move through the levels of aptitude, they are rewarded by access to keyboard-based games.

Alex, 10, says he enjoys typing because of the challenge of reaching each level and the games he can play on screen. Since the weekly lessons were put on the curriculum he has achieved an elevated status at home as a "computer whiz", often called on to help his brother use the keyboard to set up electronic games quickly and accurately.

Learning to type with 10 fingers without looking at the keys has helped fellow pupils Lorenzo and William write and edit the school newspaper and has enabled dyslexic pupils to get their ideas down quickly. Some of the children have reached speeds of 80 to 90 words a minute, better than many professional typists. "We go so fast that half the time Google can't keep up with us," says Alex.

The children say their friends at other schools are envious. "We do a lot of arts and crafts and writing at this school and I think it's cool to be able to type as well, especially when we go on to secondary schools," says Rosie,11.

William, 10, says the teachers put just as much emphasis on good handwriting as they used to. "It's not saying you either need to learn handwriting or typing. You need both. Look at you, you're using a pen and notebook, not a laptop. Handwriting is never going to die out."

Typing should be an entitlement for all children in the modern world, says Liz Jackson, the head teacher. At her school in affluent Richmond in Surrey, 85 per cent of the pupils have access to a computer at home, but still 15 per cent rely on the school to equip them to use new technology.

"I feel it is an extremely important skill and one that is absolutely essential for the rest of their school career and as they go on to university and the workplace," she says. "Obviously, we continue to put a lot of emphasis on handwriting and I don't foresee that computers will ever replace the traditional skills or the human being in the classroom. We have made time for the lessons as part of our extension activities."

Fast, accurate typing is likely to be even more important from 2011 when ICT replaces science as a core subject in primary schools, alongside maths and English. The reform of the primary curriculum, based on the inquiry report by Sir Jim Rose, expects most subjects to embrace ICT.

According to the report which is out for consultation, pupils in the early stage – six and seven-year-olds – should "form letters correctly and type accurately". By the ages of nine to 11 they should be "gaining fluency in handwriting and keyboard skills" and "communicate and collaborate with others remotely and in locations beyond the school".

There is no plan, however, to require schools to teach typing, says the Department for Children, Schools and Families. "Within the statutory framework, it is for schools to decide what to teach. Given that a central purpose of the national curriculum is to prepare young people for the world of work, schools could choose to teach children touch typing or other office skills, but it is not compulsory," says a spokesman.

As schools drag their feet and more parents seek private lessons for their children, touch typing, once seen as a low-level subject for the less academic, is attracting cachet but is limited to those whose families who can afford to pay for it.

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