Why Handwriting Sucks & Other Stories (Part 1)

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As assistive technology specialists, we help individuals overcome barriers they experience as a result of their disability or learning difficulty.  We do work with some amazing schools, but sadly, we could also argue, that we spend a great deal of time working to support our children to overcome the barriers they face as a result of our education system. Common teaching, learning and assessment practices can often prevent our children from easily accessing the curriculum, demonstrating what they know and ultimately reaching their full potential.

In reality, handwriting is the optimum method for demonstrating knowledge and understanding for very few. Being able to hand write legibly and with ease requires drawing upon several key skills and abilities (we’ll talk about this another time- as it’s a big area.) For many children in our classrooms, difficulties associated with visual processing, muscle tone, coordination, stability, attention, fatigue, working memory, sensory issues, hand function or specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia – mean that handwriting will never be the most effective way to record their ideas, no matter how often they are made to practise.  

In this first of a series of posts exploring ways that children can be supported to demonstrate what they know, I’m going straight in at the top, introducing touch typing and explaining why, although it is not suitable for everyone, as a company, we love this under taught skill so much.

What is touch typing?

Touch typing is the skill of accurately using a keyboard without the need to look at the keyboard itself or your hands. In the beginning, typists learn to touch type by feeling the keyboard, the golden rule is not to look at your hands! With regular, short bursts of training, the aim is to build up muscle memory, so typing becomes an automatic, and almost unconscious activity. The aim is for the fingers to get so used to typing that they instinctively go to and press the correct keys without the typist needing to see, feel or even think about the keyboard.

Why do we love it?

It’s the easiest. Compared to writing by hand, or relying on your visual skills to navigate a keyboard; touch typing, once mastered, requires next to no conscious thought and little physical exertion. For children who struggle with fatigue, touch typing unlocks their potential and often improves their overall stamina for engagement and learning.

Speed. Touch typing is, when well mastered the quickest way to create written output. 

As a guide, according to research, the average speed of handwriting of 7–11 year olds varies from 5-19 words per minute (WPM). In children we look at working towards achieving a good typing speed of 30 WPM with 90% accuracy.

When children need to hold an idea in their head, then switch between looking between their hands, the keyboard and the screen, it makes the task of typing far more complicated as the brain has to continuously switch focus. Some children will manage to reach good typing speeds using this ‘hunt and peck’ approach to word processing, but research suggests that children who can touch type can produce twice the amount of work than their fellow ‘hunt and peckers’.

Accuracy. Because touch typing becomes automatic, there are fewer errors. Children who do not touch type have to re-read the words they have written on the screen and figure out what to press next. They often create more mistakes as they go, and either try to rectify them immediately interrupting their flow of thought or have to go back and rectify more mistakes at the end.

Allows focus on content. Touch typing not only increases the rate at which children can produce written work, it ultimately improves the quality. Touch typing, as it is mostly an unconscious practice, frees the brain from the need to focus on the mechanics of typing or manipulating a pen or pencil and allows greater focus on what they want to write about. For children who struggle with working memory, it also means that they can get their ideas down quicker and they are less likely to forget them.

Improves literacy learning outcomes and overall attainment . With increased, better quality output comes increased opportunity to edit, revise and improve. Writing more, also means children find it easier to examine the structure of their writing, look at punctuation, and make significant improvements in their literacy knowledge and understanding.

In an education system which is often flawed by a limited range of assessment methods, children’s grades, in all curriculum areas, are more often than not based on what they can write down. Enabling a child to get their ideas out, allows them to demonstrate what they actually know, rather than what they are capable of writing. We often find that children, particularly those with learning difficulties or disabilities know a lot more than they are given credit for.

Increased confidence and self esteem. For children who find handwriting difficult, who struggle to record their ideas, and produce written work which is often difficult to read back, learning and achieving within a UK classroom can be a difficult and demoralising experience. Learning to type can help overcome these barriers, alleviate anxiety, and make learning an easier and far more enjoyable experience.

Preparation for the future. When was the last time you used a pen to hand write? Most adults use word processing as their primary method of producing written work, because the world we live and work in requires us to do so. Learning this skill, early, prepares children for the next steps in their education, but perhaps more importantly the world they are living and growing up in.

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