Can you be a techie if you can't type?
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 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.
"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. "Digital literacy skills need to be introduced as well."
The district is currently studying some fourth and fifth graders to see if another software program, "Almena Teaches Touch Typing," significantly improves their word processing output.
Johnson notes that many kids have computers at home, which helps their overall performance. Often, however, keyboards at home are designed for larger hands, which impedes touch-typing. In elementary classrooms, keyboards are smaller.
Johnson emphasizes that it's output that is most important. "Lots of kids today already have the fundamental stuff in place, even though they may not have the correct finger placement that's used in a traditional keyboarding class," he says.
Keyboarding classes are still offered at the senior high schools in the District. Johnson says enrollment overall has been "steady," though in some instances it has dipped because kids get in and find they already have the basic computer skills offered in the class.
"That's the challenge: are we preparing them for our world, or the world they're going to inherit? I can't tell you what input device we'll have in 10 years, but 10 years ago I didn't think I'd have a tablet that takes my handwriting and converts it to text. Whatever technology is or becomes, the kids have to be able to transfer their skills."
Even with the increase of tablet PCs and voice recognition technology, keyboards are going to be around for the foreseeable future. One added benefit of teaching keyboarding to the youngest learners, at least for Eastman: her own typing speed has improved.
In 1871 the Remington Typewriter Company's slogan proclaimed that typewriters were the new thing and that schools, pens, and paper would soon be obsolete.
But Kate Gladstone - the "Handwriting Repairwoman" of Albany, N.Y. - is happy to report that nothing could be further from the truth.
Ms. Gladstone, who teaches the fine art of handwriting, has enjoyed an influx of customers since the College Board announced that one of the SAT sections will be handwritten starting in 2005. Other local and regional tests, such as the MCAS in Massachusetts, also require students to write by hand.
"Parents, teachers, sometimes kids call and say, 'I need to be able to write legibly at high speed! Is it even humanly possible?', " she says.
But some teachers say they have students who want to learn good penmanship simply because it's an art.
Matt Brockwell, who until recently taught 8- and 9-year-olds in Jefferson Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., had just one computer in his classroom. Mr. Brockwell says it didn't occur to him to teach keyboarding. A few kids took it upon themselves to type their own compositions, but most used their computer time for other activities. And, he says, they were very interested in learning cursive.
"At that age, they want physical skills they can show their classmates," Brockwell explains, "like dance moves or gymnastics - or to be able to write their name in flowering, flowing script. Skills that have an immediate show-off value are hugely popular," he says.
Rigid notions about handwriting may discourage some students from viewing the skill as a creative process, says Gladstone. For instance, she insists, there's no evidence that writing in cursive is faster than printing, and printing isn't necessarily neater than cursive. Those who write faster by hand tend to have taken elements from both, she says.