FIFTH-grader Whitney Tharp likes to show off her digital dexterity. With tiny hands poised over the middle or ``home row'' of a typing keyboard, she taps out a string of E's and I's, keeping her wrists high and eyes glued to the drill sheet at her side. She is demonstrating what her whole class has been learning this year - touch-typing.
``A lot of my assignments I end up typing up on the computer,'' boasts the fifth grader, a student at Hopkins Elementary School here.
Whitney and her classmates spend 30 minutes a day developing a skill most people learn in high school or college, if at all. With the influx of computers into elementary classrooms across the United States, more teachers and administrators have seen the need for instruction in touch-typing in as early as the third grade. In some schools, kindergarteners are learning the basics.
While typing for tots is not immune to debate over its merits and methodology, it is a normal part of many children's school day - and most of them love it, teachers say.
At Hopkins Elementary, ``the children showed such an interest in word processing and in typing their own stories,'' says principal Mildred Bell, but they grew frustrated with the ``hunt and peck'' method of entering text. So she purchased 30 battery-operated, lap-top keyboards specially designed for typing instruction.
``By the time they get to middle school,'' where computers are used even more, ``they'll really be proficient,'' Mrs. Bell says.
Rather than an add-on, typing is integrated into the language-arts curriculum at Hopkins. One fifth-grade teacher requires her students to hand-write several drafts of assignments and then type the final copy on the computer, creating a slick ``published'' product.
Being comfortable with the keyboard ``facilitates that whole writing process,'' says Leslie Jordy, Whitney's teacher. ``And the finished product looks like what they see in the real world. To them, it's real writing, because it's typed.''
``I like the computer better because it's easier not to make mistakes,'' says Tara Meredith, age 11. ``You can just delete a word instead of erasing it.''
Teacher Vivian Guerrera says typing on the computer has been a boon to her learning-disabled children, many of whom write on a first-grade level. Early in the school year, one boy's writing skills were so poor, he had to draw pictures to get his ideas down on paper.
Now ``it's incredible how he types,'' says Mrs. Guerrera. ``He can spell out a word and he doesn't even have to look.
Contrary to some teachers' fears, typing has not made students lazy about handwriting or spelling, Guerrera says, nor is there less time spent teaching handwriting. Instead, ``the computer has been a tool to change their attitude about writing, not only to motivate them, but to think that writing is not such a chore now.''
In the last five years, several states such as California, Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Minnesota have issued strong recommendations for keyboard instruction at the elementary level, while New York State has gone so far as to mandate instruction by the sixth grade, according to an official at South-Western Publishing Company in Cincinnati. South-Western has been a major publisher of typewriting textbooks for over 60 years, and now also produces typewriting software for grade school use.
Four years ago, the Kanawha County Schools in Charleston, W. Va., began teaching keyboard skills in kindergarten through sixth grade. ``We've found that the children could learn keyboarding at an very early age - much earlier than I thought,'' says Hilary Cowen, director of instructional technology in the county schools. She also discovered that if computers are scarce, kids can learn to type without them.
``We have some first-grade teachers who literally taught the children how to keyboard with paper keyboards and then moved them into word processing, and they were using, for the most part, correct fingering.''
Some teachers in Charleston have used the keyboard to teach spelling and letter sounds. In one kindergarten, kids got familiar with keyboard basics - and the alphabet - by using a giant ``walkable'' keyboard on the floor. ``You're not only impacting on children's productivity at the computer, but on their writing and vocabulary skills,'' says Ms. Cowan.
Skeptical teachers say they can't shoe-horn yet another subject into an already crowded school day, Cowan has observed, but she says many teachers have discovered that typing can be integrated smoothly into academic subjects, strengthening communication skills.
Some educators and business teachers, however, are worried that keyboard instruction at the elementary level is slapdash and unstructured.
``So many people are willing to say that a couple hours of exposure on the keyboard is going to do it. But they're fooling themselves,'' says Carolee Sormunen, assistant professor in business education at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. From grade to grade there should be constant ``stretching for speed and accuracy. It doesn't just happen automatically,'' says Dr. Sormunen, who has spent several years studying keyboarding education in elementary schools. ``That's where the lack of training and un derstanding on the part of the elementary teacher lets the kids down.''
Without proper training, Sormunen anticipates, ``lots and lots of technique problems'' for children, such as looking at fingers, crossing hands, and hitting wrong keys. A child needs a minimum of 20 to 30 hours of initial instruction, she says, and then a logical program of skill maintenance after that.
``There's a very scientific approach to typewriting that needs to be followed,'' adds Karen Schmohe, senior acquisitions editor in keyboarding technology at South-Western Publishing Company. High-school business teachers, she says, are worried not only that children may be poorly taught, but that typing instruction in grade school will put them out of a job.
The solution is ``cross training,'' Ms. Schmohe says. Business educators need to train elementary school teachers, while elementary teachers can bring their early childhood expertise to bear upon the methodology.
Still, some educators believe formal typing training for young children is a side issue altogether. ``I wouldn't stress the technical instruction,'' says John Hirschbuhl, professor of education who specializes in academic computing and instruction at the University of Akron in Ohio. ``Once you get some basic rules about where to put your fingers and where to reach, that's about all it takes. I've watched the children, and they pick it up very rapidly.''
Besides, he adds, ``software today is getting less and less keyboard sensitive.'' With the rising use of the hand-held mouse, and the rapidly advancing technology of voice-activated computers, he says, ``you're not going to need to learn typing skills to communicate with the computer.''
Professor Sormunen at Ball State realizes technology is bound to change, but it takes a long time for innovations to ``trickle down'' to the public schools, she says. ``Some schools are just now getting the hand-me-down IBM Selectrics [typewriters].... In the meantime, we can give children the power of the keyboard, if we just do it logically.''