Thinking Through a Digital Deliberation: Handwriting and Typing

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2016 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy

In less than a month, I will be traveling to Rhode Island to participate in the fourth annual Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, and part of my role will be to kick off a session on “Digital Deliberations,” specifically on the topic of “typing vs. handwriting.”

Stating it just as well — and, honestly, much better — than I ever could, my colleague Seán McHugh from the United World College of South East Asia has crafted a beautiful deconstruction of the typing vs. handwriting argument. He notes that:

“This may come as a surprise to many, but typing faster is not the primary objective of learning to touch-type; rather it is a desired side effect. Once you are able to type with all ten fingers without needing to look down at the keyboard, your overall productivity when using a computer will improve dramatically.”

He goes on to describe the research results and why teaching touch typing — as a practice that supports good writing habits, thus building better writers — is so important. He begins by noting that there “at least four different ways of coding meaning using the symbols we call ‘letters’ that equate to sounds that we in turn translate into words, in other words—writing“: two types of typing (touch-typing, “hunt and peck” typing) and two types of handwriting (cursive, with connected letters, and then print-script or block-letters, where letters are unconnected). In his disambiguation of these terms, McHugh has already cut through a great deal of the chatter about the general “typing vs cursive” debate, but he goes further.

He cites a number of studies (with links) and comes to this conclusion about the relative speed of handwriting (print or cursive) compared to hunt and peck typing and, ultimately touch-typing:

So to summarise: that’s handwriting at 22 WPM, hunt & peck at 27 WPM (about the same) and between 50-120 WPM for touch-typists. So, if we don’t teach our students how to touch-type they are in theory, after ten year sof [sic] ‘hunt and pecking’ at least no worse off than they would have been if we’d asked them to write it all by hand.

He then concludes:

This is not an argument against handwriting, typing is also writing. Our choice, much like the difference between handwriting using print script or flowing cursive, is whether to become adept at typing or to resign ourselves to the mind numbing frustration of ‘hunting and pecking’. The keyboard is here to stay; our choice is to either master it, or to spend the rest of our lives wrestling with it.

I have to agree, both from personal experience (having taught myself to type in high school, without ever taking a formal class in touch typing) and from being a parent. As McHugh notes in one of his points about voice recognition, we can’t count on that to be a reliable form for composing written text, both because our context may not dictate that we are able to use voice-to-text and because, I would add, the process of composing words for talk (even “talk” that you are speaking with the intent that it will become written prose) is not the same as what it means to write (and revise).

I will keep writing about this over the next few weeks as I work to frame the digital deliberation. Next on my research agenda, to figure out how the Common Core and (from what I hope to find) other curricular guides, have created standards at different grade levels that require students to “demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills.” I also hope to unpack some of the cultural assumptions about knowledge, intelligence, and (of course) the power relationships embedded in those assumptions by looking at cultural and historical appeals for teaching cursive in schools.

Any resources that you have to share would be most welcome!

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