Once a week at John Eaton Public School No. 160, each class comes
to the computer lab for a session with teacher Susan Eastman. Kids
pull an orange plastic cover over the keyboard so that they can't
look at the letters and they power on the "Type to Learn" software.
Ms. Eastman's computer classes at this Washington, D.C.,
elementary school used to focus on using technology to enhance
academic skills. But three years ago, after watching some kids spend
as long as 10 minutes searching for the letters to enter a single
Google query, she decided to start formally teaching touch-typing.
Now her students in grades three through six are working their
way through the self-guided lessons.
In some schools, typing classes disappeared at least a couple of
decades ago. A skill that once seemed vital - particularly to
prepare young women for secretarial jobs - no longer appeared
relevant in an age that urged more kids to consider going on to at
least some form of higher education.
And yet, argue some teachers, the ability to touch-type - or to
"keyboard," the term more often used today - has perhaps never been
"You can't word process unless you can keyboard," Ms. Eastman
says. "You can't use the Internet, you can't instant message. For
some kids with learning disabilities, for those who have messy
handwriting, or for whom holding a pencil is awkward, it opens so
Yet many students are not given formal instruction in keyboarding
On the one hand, schools and the workplace have increased
expectations about basic computer skills, and schools offer most
children fairly wide access to computers. But according to the
Department of Education's latest report, fewer students than ever
before are taking typing or keyboarding classes.
Of course, it's not practical to offer such classes to very young
students. Most children don't have the manual dexterity to touch
type before grade three or four. Most of Eastman's students type at
or below 10 words per minute before they work their way through the
beginning lessons (about the same speed as they write with a
pencil). For her sixth-graders, speeds of 25 to 35 wpm are typical.
Today, 30 wpm is often fast enough for a permanent job as an
executive secretary, according to Ruthi Postow of Ruthi Postow
Staffing. Twenty-five years ago, 50 wpm - tested with an egg timer -
was a prerequisite for an administrative assistant position.
Ms. Postow says she rarely sees typists with those kinds of
skills. And the speedy typists she does encounter, she says, don't
necessarily have an edge in the job market.
Clients today generally don't specify a minimum speed. "More and
more, people care about great computer skills. The administration
field is more appealing now to college graduates," Postow says.
Document preparation is more likely to involve importing graphics
and special formatting than entering text. "You don't have to keep
reinventing the wheel with repetitive documents," says Postow.
For the most part, executives today answer their own e-mail and
jot down their own notes. "I had a request for shorthand and
everybody was laughing," she says. "Nobody does that anymore."
High schools and colleges today rarely require students to
acquire touch-typing skills.
Stanley Johnson, director of instructional technology for the
District of Columbia Public Schools, agrees that being proficient in
technology today is much broader than keyboarding.
"We've seen recently the proliferation of cellphones, digital
cameras, PDAs," Mr. Johnson says. These new forms of technology are
proving to be "just as powerful" as the written word, he adds. …