When I was a kid, the process for written work at school was very rigid:
- You get a blank piece of paper and write your plan for the story.
- You write a draft on yellow paper.
- You meet with the teacher to talk about revising and editing.
- You get the nice white paper and you write a final copy in your best handwriting.
Even as a student teacher, we worked for weeks with students on the idea of a draft and making our writing better, and we did it the same way. But now it’s decades later, many schools have a computer or iPad for every student, and we’re still using those old ways of organizing the writing process. There are benefits of handwriting vs typing notes or an essay, but there’s a lot to be said for technology, too!
What’s the goal?
For young children, the keyboard is a much more abstract way of producing words than writing letters with a pencil. The connection between their ideas, their fingers, the keys, and the screen is weaker. Think of it as the idea having to travel further to become part of a story or sentence than if they can write it with a pencil. Before preschoolers and kindergarteners can write and spell, teachers often write down the sentence they dictate. Some students will continue to need this for a few more years, especially if their writing fine motor or spelling skills lag behind grade level expectations. While they build their skills, dictating to a person might help them produce the best quality work.
From third grade to the end of elementary school, typing goes from being a nice-to-have extra to an essential school survival skill. While I haven’t found any specific evidence to back this up, many experts, including occupational therapists, recommend beginning formal typing instruction around third grade. Before that, kids hands are often too small to be positioned comfortably on the keyboard. Besides, in the early grades they need plenty of time to focus on handwriting skills.
Just like younger students needed adults to dictate to before their handwriting skills were efficient, middle grades students will need to use other strategies while their typing skills become efficient. Often, by the time a beginning typist finds the letters she’s looking for, she has forgotten what word she was trying to spell!
For students that are having a lot of difficulty with fluent handwriting, speech-to-text, like the Voice Typing feature in Google Docs, or the embedded feature in a Chromebook or iPad, can make the difference between writing telegraphic stories in messy pencil and writing long, well-developed compositions. Speech-to-text does bring up the next challenge, which is teaching students to revise their stream of consciousness writing. Speech-to-text lets students write so quickly that they don’t stop to think about where to begin and end sentences. But as a teacher, I would much rather students get some text on the page for us to edit and discuss, than watch them struggle to scratch out a couple of sentences.
Moving on into middle school, being efficient on the keyboard can make the difference between knocking out a quick paragraph for homework and struggling through a lengthy pencil-and-paper writing and editing process.
If your child turns in writing that is vague or full of errors, try these free checklists for revising and editing.
By high school, students need efficient typing and computer skills to be able to keep up with the increasing workload. While many teachers make time for handwritten work in class, and there is some evidence that it has benefits, I don’t believe that having students write out longer compositions is the best use of their time. I would rather have students quickly put a draft on the screen and then have additional time to revise with adults and peers and opportunities to make quick changes to the document. There are lots of improvements to writing that will never be made if it means erasing a whole sentence or line on paper. But if the student can quickly type the replacement words, they get a lot more opportunities to think about and improve their writing.
For some students, starting typing a little on the young side and getting good at it can save them endless time and frustration as they get older. Students with dysgraphia or difficulty with handwriting will have so many more chances to write out their ideas if they aren’t limited by their pencil speed! On the other hand, paper and pencils aren’t going away in our world any time soon, and being able to jot a quick note is also a valuable skill. It’s important to think about the purpose of the acitivity and how much writing is expected.
Along with the benefits of writing on screens come challenges. Devices can have many more opportunities for distraction, and technology needs to be explicitly taught if we want children to use it a certain way. Thoughtful computer instruction, including practice typing, should be a part of every elementary student’s learning. That way, they’ll have choices about the best tools for them in middle and high school!
Don’t forget to grab your writing checklists!