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Elementary students learn keyboard typing ahead of new Common Core tests

The 7-year-olds in Natalie May’s second-grade class have to stretch their fingers across the keyboards to reach “ASDF” and “JKL;” as they listen to the animated characters on their computer screens talk about “home keys.”

“After 15 minutes, some of them will say their fingers are hurting, so we take a break,” said May, a Phoenix educator who began teaching typing to second-graders this school year.

Of the major shifts taking place in American classrooms as a result of the new national Common Core academic standards, one little-noticed but sweeping change is the fact that children as early as kindergarten are learning to use a keyboard.

A skill that has been taught for generations in middle or high school – first on manual typewriters, then electric word processors and finally on computer keyboards – is now becoming a staple of elementary schools. Educators around the country are rushing to teach typing to children who have barely mastered printing by hand.

The Common Core standards make frequent references to technology skills, stating that students in every grade should be able use the internet for research and use digital tools in their school work to incorporate video, sound and images with writing.

But the standardized tests linked to the Common Core make those expectations crystal clear because the exams – which will be given in 2014-2015 – require students to be able to manipulate a mouse; click, drag and type answers on a keyboard; and, starting in third grade, write online. Fourteen states have agreed to field-test the exams next spring to help those creating the tests iron out the wrinkles and make improvements.

Third-graders will be asked to write three short pieces, said Laura Slover, who heads one of two consortia that are designing the tests. They will read a nonfiction selection and a literary passage and write about each, and they will be asked to write a story based on a real or imaginary experience, Slover said.

“Writing is a critical skill, and young students should have the opportunity to write frequently about meaningful topics,” Slover said. And when the writing tests are administered online, that means the students will be using a keyboard.

Those requirements are sending tremors through the nation’s elementary schools.

“All these elementary teachers are dying, worrying how they’re going to get their kids to meet these new requirements,” said Jaqui Murray, a California teacher who writes the popular Ask A Tech Teacher blog. “It’s a huge deal. You can’t have kids go into these tests and not do well because they can’t keyboard.”

Most elementary-age children are digital natives, comfortable with smart phones and tablets. But they often operate those hand-held devices with a swipe of a finger. They have a much more difficult time trying to compose text on a keyboard, according to their teachers.

Children must learn touch typing – the ability to compose text without looking at keys – so they can focus on their writing, said Kathleen Regan, the director of curriculum and instruction at New Jersey’s Glen Rock Public Schools. She calls it a “fluency skill” akin to memorizing the multiplication tables in order to more quickly perform complex mathematics.

Until now, typing was only taught in middle school, Regan said. But next month, Glen Rock Public Schools will roll out keyboarding in its four elementary schools.

“On the Common Core assessments, some of these writings are going to be document-based questions or sorting through different types of text,” Regan said. “The last thing you want is for the kids to be struggling with the mechanical skills. “

The Common Core standards, written by governors and state education officials in both parties, were designed to create consistent math and reading standards from kindergarten through 12th grade. Academic standards vary widely among states, and that patchwork nature has been partly blamed for mediocre rankings of U.S. students in international comparisons.

The standards do not dictate curriculum. Rather, states decide what to teach and how to prepare children for standardized tests based on Common Core. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core standards in both math and English and agreed to test students beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. Minnesota adopted the Common Core for English only. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have not adopted the standards.

At an August planning meeting at Horseshoe Trails Elementary School in Phoenix, it dawned on May and the other teachers that they needed to start keyboard instruction sooner than third grade to prepare for the new tests.

“We were discussing how the new (Common Core) exam required a large part done on the computer,” May said. “It just occurred to us that maybe we ought to introduce this earlier.”

There is plenty of debate about the appropriate age to teach touch typing and whether the youngest learners are ready to sit with two feet on the floor, elbows bent, hands hovering over keys and eyes on the screen. May said educators don’t know how young such instruction should start.

“We thought we’d try it with second (grade) and see how it goes,” May said. “But we just don’t know whether developmentally, if it’s appropriate for kids who are not even comfortable with letter sounds and basic phonemic connection to the alphabet.”

Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, said the Common Core’s expectation that a 9-year-old will be able to write a page of text as part of the standardized test is off base.

“By third grade, if you have one well-formed paragraph, you’re lucky,” Berninger said. “Kids don’t write that extended text. Paragraph formation comes at about sixth grade, maybe fifth grade. The current Common Core is not developmentally appropriate.”

It’s still early in the school year, but May’s second-graders seem to enjoy their weekly 35-minute sessions on the computers, she said.

“For the most part, they’re actually really into it, and they like the fact that it’s differentiated. They set their own goals and get excited when they reach them,” said May, 30, who learned to type in seventh grade.

In Glen Rock, elementary students will spend about 40 minutes a week on keyboarding. Students in kindergarten through second grade will work with a Web-based software program called Typing Pal, while the third- through fifth-graders will use Typing Agent. Typing software for children has plenty of colorful games, sound effects and cartoon characters, a far cry from “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

While schools may be teaching touch typing because of the Common Core tests, the ability to use a keyboard is an important life skill, said Cathy Turner, a technology teacher at an elementary school in Greenville, S.C., who runs the computer lab used by 600 students every week at Welcome Elementary School.

“A lot of jobs out there require keyboarding,” said Turner, mentioning that many service-industry positions require computer use. “They need it for real life. We are becoming such a computerized world, and technology is changing constantly. For us to keep up with other countries, we have to get a move on it.”

Students in some states may get a little more time to polish their keyboarding skills. Two groups of states are developing tests for the Common Core, and one group said it will make pencil-and-paper versions available for at least the first year for states needing more time to acquire enough computers and broadband Internet access to be able to test everyone online. The second group says paper versions will be available for as long as three years after the initial digital rollout.

In recent months, some states have decided to craft their own tests aligned with the Common Core standards, and it is unclear whether those tests will be administered on paper or by computer.

Murray, the technology teacher and blogger, wonders how long it will take for new technology, such as voice recognition, to make typing obsolete. She mentioned Siri, the voice recognition software on Apple’s mobile products, as an example.

“I use Siri on the phone and iPad, but it’s not good enough yet,” Murray said. “When that starts getting better, look out. That’s really going to change things. Again.”

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