Thinking Through a Digital Deliberation, Part 2: Handwriting and Typing Curricula and Websites

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2016 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy

Later this month, I will help facilitate the fourth annual Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, at URI. As I noted in my last post, I will be leading a “Digital Deliberation” session on “typing vs. handwriting,” and in this post I want to build on Seán McHugh’s ideas about the practicality of teaching touch typing to a look at some of the websites and curricular options for these two options.

In short, I want to look at the evidence and rhetorical appeals each type of curriculum/website makes, and to match those claims up with some of the evidence that McHugh’s had shared. He concluded that “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,” making the point that the mechanical act of writing (whether by hand or by typing) is a proxy for the types of fluency that a writer can and should have. So, to start this curricular conversation, let’s begin with the one that dominates the conversation in the US right now: The Common Core ELA Standards.

According to the Common Core

First, I couldn’t find any reference to “cursive,” “typing,” type,” “keyboard,” or “keyboarding” in Appendix A, the document that is subtitled “Research Supporting Key Elements of the Standards.” “Handwriting” gets one mention, though oddly enough it is in the “Speaking and Listening” section (26). So, any curriculum for handwriting or typing that claims to be Common Core aligned is, from what I can tell, simply making up that endorsement. (If anyone can correct me on this — and can point out where this info is found in the CCSS — I would appreciate it.)

So, Dave Stuart Jr. notes that the 3-6 standards in the Common Core emphasize “keyboarding skills,” and have an increasing set of requirements for “one sitting”; in fourth grade, it is one page, and then two pages by fifth and three pages by sixth grade. Interestingly enough, by seventh grade, the keyboarding skills are left to the imagination, but the phrase “linking to and citing sources” enters standard six (which is, I think, a pretty important move for us to consider when we think about digital writing; that is, writing that truly utilizes the affordances of digital tools such as links and media).

At any rate, as Stuart reminds us, there is some “intentional ambiguity” in this standard, and it is tough to know what comprises a “page” and a “sitting.”The standards all read that students should have “sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of X page(s) in a single sitting.” Thus, it is hard to know what constitutes a “sitting” — both in terms of time, fluency, and quantity. The CCSS certainly doesn’t reference any point about how much of this typing should be devoted to invention and brainstorming, actual drafting, substantive revision, and/or editing.

Given all of this, I will assume that it means drafting, and for simplicity’s sake, I used the Words Per Page Calculator, and I assumed an Arial, 12 pt, double-spaced page. The number of words it takes for just one page of typing: 275. Going back to the low end of McHugh’s estimates on what a proficient writer can do at the keyboard (and this is just drafting, or transcribing, not serious revision), a “sitting” could be anywhere along this range:

Typing Speed One Page (275 Words) Two Pages (550 Words) Three Pages (825)
25 WPM 11 Minutes 22 minutes 33 minutes
50 WPM 5.5 minutes 11 minutes 16.5 minutes
75 WPM 3.6 minutes 7.3 minutes 11 minutes

This is an amazing amount of “intentional ambiguity” in terms of the sheer amount of text that students would produce in a “sitting” (one student could type only one page in 11 minutes, another could type three pages). Let’s assume that the average 4th, 5th, or 6th grader falls somewhere just lower than the average of 58 WPM, say 50. How much time would they be allotted to write in any one sitting (during a normal school day, or under test conditions)? Can they reasonably get the writing done that they are expected to do? I am not sure that I know too many students who can fluently type in excess of 70 WPM (I tested myself a few times and I ranged between about 70 and 73 WPM).

Again, I can’t find any reference in the CCSS as to how much a student should really be able to produce in a sitting. So, I turned to the standardized assessments to see if, perhaps, they could shed any insight because, of course, what gets measured, gets treasured. After a half an hour of fruitless searching on both the PARCC and SBAC website, I can’t find any mention of exact times and expectations of what students should be able to compose, via keyboard, in any particular time frame. The SBAC has no time limit on test, though they note some estimated times and the PARCC has some limits. Still, I can’t tell how much time is allotted to any given writing task, let alone all of the tasks combined.

Thus, I don’t think that anyone — software developers or curriculum designers — can make any reasonable, empirical claim about what the Common Core “expects” in terms of writing proficiency, for either handwriting or keyboarding.

Still, the claims come from both the handwriting and typing curricular sites… let’s look at a few.

What the Handwriting Curricula/Advocates Emphasize

There are a number of handwriting curricula available (“handwriting curriculum” yielded about 504,000 results), and I delved just briefly into three of them: Handwriting Without Tears, Zaner-Bloser Handwriting, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Handwriting (full disclosure: HMH is the parent company of one of my publishers, Heinemann, though I have no direct relationship with HMH). Also note that I am only looking at commercially-published curricula, though there are many examples of homeschool and parochial school handwriting curricula. First, Handwriting Without Tears has a complete 111-page guide to the Common Core, and the crux of their argument is summed up in the first pages:

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, the emphasis and expectations placed on classroom note-taking and expository writing in grades K–5 is greater than ever.

The reality is that elementary students spend the majority of their day doing pencil and paper work.

Similarly, Zaner-Bloser has a 12-page white paper,  which discusses how handwriting primes the brain for literacy and serves as a foundation for school readiness.There are many, many references (and, I will be honest, I didn’t check them all).  HMH does not have a clear link to any details about their curriculum or any white papers to describe the program, though they do note the one goal to “Improve writing communication with rapid and fluent letter formation.” Still, the general tone of all this curriculum seems to include a clear connection to how fine motor skills and knowledge of print concepts are critical to students understanding how to write and, more importantly, how to write fluently.

What the Typing Curricula/Advocates Emphasize

The first site that came up in my Google search for “typing test” was, aptly, TypingTest.com (of about 8,400,000 results). On their “Touch Typing Benefits” page. In addition to the many images on the website that demonstrate a person casually, and happily, typing, this particular photo/graphic links to the five benefits gained from touch typing including speed, times, focus, comfort, and productivity.

Their claim, from gained when they had “over 15,000 people take a combined typing test and survey” showed that the average typing speed with a hunt and peck method was 28 WPM, while touch typing yielded 58 WPM. Other items of note include this claim, though it is not substantiated with any sources:

Touch typing will keep you focused. As your fingers know their way on the keyboard, they don’t need your attention any more. Instead, you can fully concentrate on what’s important – the text you are writing.

Similarly, “typing tutor” brought up about 4,580,000 results, though a quick look at the top ten of them yielded no typing tutor-type sites that discussed any research about the effectiveness of touch typing, nor why one should learn to touch type, as TypingTest.com did. It is, apparently, assumed that if you are using a computer, then you will want to learn how to type faster.

There was one unique site that made a claim about how typing is taught, The Typing Coach. It’s claim:

Screenshot from The Typing Coach (http://thetypingcoach.com/why/)
Screenshot from The Typing Coach (http://thetypingcoach.com/why/)

I didn’t see any other websites that made that specific claim and, from my own experience, I know that I do periodically take a glance at the keyboard to get “recalibrated.” If I had more time, I would like into the research on this, but I am out of steam for this week.

One final note: I found an interesting collection of links to touch typing sites and programs, which — despite the basic look of the site — appears to be updated regularly (showing updates from 5/25/16), though it did not have a link to The Typing Coach.

Conclusion (For Now)

So, my first caveat is that I didn’t even try to get a representative sample of various forms of handwriting and typing curricula. And, after that half an hour of scouring SBAC and PARCC, I gave up. Still, this blog post has been insightful for me (even if it took me three nights to write!). Most of the arguments that have been built here rely on the general idea that fluency is important, yet the way to achieve fluency can happen in two very different ways.

As a parent, I have always said that, of course, I want my children to know how to write (in this case, I mean “handwriting”) and how to type. Even that conversation brings up some tension in our home as we think about our two girls who are “all thumbs” with their phone-typing, and two of our boys who, at best, write in school only because they “have to.” Legible handwriting (let alone cursive) is a battle for nearly all our kids, one that my wife and I have, in all honesty, fight hard each September but then give up on as the school year progresses.

Where am I at in my “digital deliberation” after this week’s research? Well, tough to know… I know that I need to get my kids learning how to type, regardless of what the Common Core, the SBAC or PARCC, or any software package tells (or fails to tell) me. Next week, I will dive in to see what teachers themselves are saying about the debate by scouring some blogs… if you have an opinion on this (and a link), please share!


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