Ayla Vick sits at a desktop computer with her hands on the keyboard. She places her fingers on the home row, stretching them to form words on the screen.
“Sometimes I have to look down,” admits the Coeur d’Alene student.
This isn’t high school typing, nor is it middle school. Vick is 8 years old and in third grade at Hayden Meadows Elementary School. Twice a week, her class heads to the computer lab, where keyboarding plays a big part of the growing emphasis on technological literacy.
Vick and her classmates log into Typing Master, a program that uses color-coded exercises, timed drills and games modeled after classics like Pac-Man and Tetris to reinforce keyboard basics.
“You have to try to go fast,” she explained, adding that she already has typed some book reports for her teacher. “It’s going to get hard.”
In public schools across the country, students as young as 5 are being taught to type, in large part because tests aligned with the new Common Core educational standards require them to compose some answers as sentences or paragraphs.
In the language portion of the new state assessments to be given next spring, third-graders may be asked to write a paragraph about what inference can be made from a passage they’ve read. Fifth-graders may be given a collection of notes from which they must craft a paragraph on a given topic.
And because the tests are taken online, students need fundamental typing skills to get through them without growing frustrated or taking too long.
Giving typing lessons to young elementary students isn’t as intimidating as it sounds, educators say.
“They have been introduced to technology at a very young age,” said Lisa Pica, the principal at Hayden Meadows. “At one point in my career I would have said it’s too early, but what we’re finding is our kids are ready.”
They are a generation of digital natives – kids who have had their hands on iPads, smartphones and game consoles since they were toddlers. Sitting them down at keyboards is the next level in their technological advancement, Pica said.
“They’re not afraid to do this,” she said.
For many kids, most of the typing they do is with their thumbs, sending text messages. They are adept at tapping the tiny touch-screens on their phones or hand-held gaming devices. But they’re also growing up in a world still dependent on laptops and traditional keyboards in college and workplaces.
“The kids today are actually having to learn, or in some ways relearn, habits that they had with some of the entertainment technology and media technology,” said Jane Miller, director of instructional and educational technology for Spokane Public Schools.
The district teaches keyboarding in grades three through six now, with the foundation for computer technology taught in kindergarten through second grade. Students at all levels are spending more time on classroom computers than ever before to meet the state standards.
“When you think about what’s driving the actual keyboarding, it’s the standard for publishing of writing, not necessarily the test,” Miller said. “But in order to be successful on the test you must be proficient with your standard of learning.”
The Common Core standard for typing says fourth-graders should learn enough to type a single page in 20 minutes, followed by two pages in 30 minutes for fifth-graders, then three pages in 40 minutes for sixth-graders.
To reach those goals, Spokane students complete four lessons, followed by five minutes of typing to record their rate of words per minute. They repeat this routine to improve their technique and speed. Starting in fourth grade, students also practice once a month typing something they have written for a 20-minute stretch.
“So we’re trying to increase their stamina toward the actual learning standard of a whole, single sitting, whatever the time frame might be,” Miller said.
The Coeur d’Alene School District has taught keyboarding to fourth- and fifth-graders for years. Now students are expected to dive into typing as early as they can.
“They predicted keyboards would be gone by 2010. The reality is these kids need this for life,” said Janel Bloom, the keyboarding instructor at Hayden Meadows. “To start younger and get them these skills is great.”
Last spring, the district took part in a trial run of the state tests aligned to Common Core, giving students their first taste of how much typing is demanded of them. But district leaders have seen this coming for the past couple of years, and they’ve put more computers in schools and added weekly keyboarding classes for more grade levels to prepare for the change. Students also can access the typing program from home for additional practice.
“With the new testing requirements, this has taken it up to a whole other level,” Pica said. “When we realized the demands of this test, we started with our younger students.”
It begins now with introducing kindergartners to mouse skills, and progressing to scrolling up and down, click-and-drag maneuvers and how to work with split screens. By second grade, students are typing but also creating PowerPoint presentations and tackling research papers, Pica said.
“We are incorporating it throughout the day in many different ways,” she said.
In a few cases, kids start to master computer skills as easily as some become young bookworms. Bloom said she had a second-grader last year who already was typing 24 words a minute.
“She knew how to type as well as a lot of adults,” Bloom said.
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