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Can you be a techie if you can't type?

By Rebecca L. WeberContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 3, 2004



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.

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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 more essential.

"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 many tools."

Yet many students are not given formal instruction in keyboarding skills.

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.

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