Thinking Through a Digital Deliberation, Part 4: Handwriting, Typing, and Fluency

Summer Institute in Digital Literacy Logo
2016 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy

Today, I head to Rhode Island for the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, and next Thursday I lead a “Digital Deliberation” session on “typing vs. handwriting.” In my first post for this series, I shared an overview of the debate. Then, in the second post, I look at handwriting curricula and typing tools. The third post explored the rhetorical approaches that proponents and opponents of handwriting and keyboarding both take. Today, I take one more dive into the deliberation, specifically trying to discern what — if anything — we can make claims about when it comes to students’ writing fluency, and what we can reasonably expect of them when handwriting as compared to typing.

I close this part of my inquiry and deliberation delving deeper into a point that Seán McHugh posed in his own blog post about typing vs handwriting, though I want to look at it in a different manner. His idea was this:

In other words, when you can touch-type, the cognitive load of writing and thinking at the same time are lessened and free up working memory for thinking—a bit like cycling a bicycle—once the effort required for remaining balanced, and changing gears et cetera are automatic, you can spend more time noticing/enjoying where you are going. The same idea applies to things like decoding in reading via ‘sight words’, this frees thinking space for understanding instead of decoding. The absence of effort in one frees cognitive space for the other…

In short, he equates fluency in touch-typing with gains in the composition process in the same manner that we know gains in fluency for readers will lead to better comprehension. This makes a good deal of sense, and is also backed up by all the research that he summarized. I thank him for contributing that part of his thinking so I could use it to further this deliberation.

So, to elaborate on the idea of writing fluency: in a NAEP report entitled NAEP 1996 Trends in Writing: Fluency and Writing Conventions, writing fluency is described as “a writer’s facility with language both in terms of the development and organization of ideas and in the use of syntax, diction, and grammar” (4-5). Much like a reader develops fluency (speed and accuracy) as well as prosody (performative measures such as volume, tone, and expression), so, too, must a writer develop these skills.

Returning to McHugh’s point above (and summary of the research), touch-typing frees up the cognitive load in our brains so we can focus on the composing process at the level of words, phrases, and clauses in a manner that, for many writing tasks, is superior to handwriting. Again, common sense would dictate that the words can flow more quickly with touch-typing when doing simple transcription tasks. Also, it seems that touch-typing also allows us to focus on higher-order concerns in the composing process.

This is not to say that we cannot, with handwriting (or cursive), compose intelligent, elaborate, and emotionally-rich written texts. Of course we can, and anyone who has his or her own writer’s journal, or enjoys the art of calligraphy or simply prefers to write by hand, can attest to this. What it does suggest, however, is that “handwriting vs. typing” — regardless of neuroscience or nostalgia, is a moot point.

Students must learn both how to touch-type for purposes of transcription (copying from their own handwritten texts or other texts) and composition (creating their own, original written products) in order to be fully literate in today’s world.

Back to the Standards

Because the CCSS offers no clear direction about how much writing a student at any grade should do in one sitting — a composition process that, much like reading well, requires both fluency and prosody as writers — I am going off the writing samples in Appendix C,  as representative samples of fluent writing, completed in one sitting. And, at the moment, I am not even looking at the quality of the writing or the commentary provided about how those pieces compare to the standards. I am, indeed, just looking at word counts and assuming that students produced those texts in “one sitting.”

In the table below, I provide a simple summary of the word counts of these pieces (I copied and pasted the selections into Word) so we can think carefully about this question of writing fluency as it compares to the time that it will take. For what it’s worth, the three kindergarten pieces, both first grade pieces, and the argument piece for the second grade sample and the third grade narrative were handwritten. Also, some of the older grades had pieces where handwritten, too. Thus, I started looking at arguments that were done as on-demand that were “on-demand” or noted to have been written in one sitting (and, I assumed, typed).

Grade Word Count
4 408
6 1026
7 473
10 719
12 582

In order to build this out further, I needed some reasonable estimation of how many words a child might compose based on age. After much searching — both through Google and the academic databases — the most concise document that I could find is this “Curriculum-Based Measurement: Written-Expression Fluency Norms” created by Jim Wright of Intervention Central who, in turn, had built it based on research from Gansle et al (2006) and Malecki & Jewell (2003). Take a moment to click on those fluency norms, and then take a look at Utah’s keyboarding standards, which was one of the few curriculum guides that, again, offered any kind of specificity in terms of the number of words a student should be able to produce at any one “sitting” of writing time.

Here, then, is my best attempt to combined Wright’s version of Gansle et al’s WPM of handwriting with a parallel match to Utah’s WPM of typing at the same grade level. I then compare that number to the average number of words in those samples from Appendix A and, finally, try to calculate an average sitting time for a student composing a text of that length, by keyboard, with the Utah standards. Please note that the Utah standards max out at 25 WPM in fifth grade and then suggest that, beginning in sixth grade, students “will demonstrate correct keyboarding techniques while increasing speed and maintaining accuracy.” For sake of this argument, then, I am adding 5 WPM each year until they make it to 12th grade and are fluent at 60 WPM.

Also, note that Wright’s fluency norms only go up to sixth grade, at which point the range could be from 44-72 (and this is just for total words written per minute, not counting errors). I am going to top out the students at a max of 80 WPM for no other reason than, based on my own experience, I don’t know that I can be in a state of “flow” while writing and pump out more than that. And, as you may recall from my earlier post, I tested myself a few times and I ranged between about 70 and 73 WPM. I’ll assume, however, that we can get our high school students to be accurately composing their written expression at 80 WPM, max.

So, what do we have?

Grade* Word Count Utah Typing Standard WPM Wright’s Fluency Norms (by spring) Wright’s Fluency Range (by spring)
4 408 20 46 30-62
6 1026 30* 58 44-72
7 473 35* 66 (No rates reported, but adding 6 WPM from 6th grade) No rates reported
10 719 50* 80 (No rates reported, but assuming that students top out at this level) No rates reported
12 582 60* 80 (No rates reported, but assuming that students top out at this level) No rates reported

OK, so one more table, now condensed a bit and adjusting for time. How long would “one sitting” be for our hypothetical, Common Core exemplar students, using a keyboard and allowing for a straight-on composing process (no time for planning, organizing, reorganizing, revising, or editing… just putting words onto the screen in a coherent manner).

Grade* Word Count Utah Typing Standard WPM Time Needed to Meet the Standard and Compose This Many Words (Rounded Up) Wright’s Fluency Norms (by spring) Time Needed to Meet the Standard and Compose This Many Words
4 408 20 21 Minutes 46 9 Minutes
6 1026 30* 35 Minutes 58 18 Minutes
7 473 35* 14 Minutes 70 (Estimate) 7 Minutes
10 719 50* 15 Minutes 80 (Estimate) 9 Minutes
12 582 60* 10 Minutes 80 (Estimate) 8 Minutes

Conclusions (For Now)

I will leave any more deliberation to my readers — and the participants in this week’s institute — but for the moment I will leave with some questions:

  • Are these times realistic given the time we have devoted to writing instruction in our school days and adequate access to computers?
  • Are they realistic given the time our students’ attention spans and ability to compose in on-demand or very short time frames?
  • How much more time do we need to allot in terms of allowing students to actually go through a writing and revising process that, even under ideal circumstances, would mean that they are not writing at the maximum WPM throughout?

Tying all of this together, I share the voice of one more teacher, Terri Fortmeyer.

I just wanted to let you know what we do at our school – North Muskegon Elementary. As a 3rd grade teacher for 16 years, we’ve had many of the same discussions about cursive and keyboarding skills. Currently, we teach cursive during our first semester so students are able to read any cursive they may encounter as well as have a cursive signature. We do not, however, spend large amounts of time on learning cursive letters – maybe 15 min. at the end of the day when students winding down for the day. We also begin teaching keyboarding skills during the second semester of second grade and more consistently during all of third grade. We notice that by fourth grade, students are able to read and write cursive as well as type at a decent speed so that they can begin to move away from paper/pencil writing. Last year I started teaching fourth grade and except for my on-demand assessment pieces and writer’s notebooks, my students drafted, revised, and edited on netbooks computers . . . and they preferred it.

So, what can we learn from Terri’s experience — as well as this entire series of blog posts? What is the state of handwriting and typing in our classrooms? I’ve got to tie all of this together into a 30 minute presentation before Thursday, so I hope that I will have some more ideas by then. And, as always, I appreciate your comments, questions, and insights.


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