Several weeks ago my daughters arrived home from school with rough drafts—written in French, as they are in French Immersion—of their first book report of the year. They had chosen difficult books, but since their reading skills are strong, that didn't worry me. I read both books myself so I could help them with the reports if need be, though the teacher had warned them, as she frequently does, not to let parents do the work. I understand the teacher's concern. My twins are now ten years old, in grade five. I realize that I should not be as involved in their school work as I might have been even two years ago. I don't actually want to be involved; as each year passes, and I convince the girls to stay for lunch in the "horrific" (their word) lunchroom one or two days a week, my elusive dream of finally "getting a life" seems...well, slightly less elusive.
But—and here's the kicker—the teacher has stated that henceforth all written material should be handed in printed out from the computer. To that end, the children are given access during class time to the school's computers to input their masterpieces. But there's a problem. Neither of my girls can keyboard to save their lives. In Ontario, there is no formal instruction in keyboarding in elementary school. Students in grades four and five at my daughters' school have been introduced to a computer typing program called UltraKey, but instruction is sporadic and it seems to have taught them nothing. Yet teachers are increasingly asking for assignments to be handed in typed.
I realize that many ten-year-olds can and do keyboard regularly. They're emailing or texting friends, surfing the Internet, instant messaging, etc. My kids are not among them. I am not a Luddite by any stretch of the imagination. I was using email and surfing the Internet back in the late eighties when most of my friends had not yet bought their first PC. Today, I own multiple computers and although my daughters don't use them much, they are quite enamoured of their Nintendo DS's. They do not have a strong interest in the Internet, or email or texting, so they have not learned to keyboard through these activities. For my part, I simply don't understand why my kids must type their assignments at this stage. I would rather see them at a desk with a pen and paper than sitting in front of a computer tapping away with two fingers—for the same reason that I prefer to see them reading a book than playing a video game.
There is also a class issue at play here: we do at least possess computers on which, theoretically, my children could learn to type. What of the many students in less affluent neighbourhoods who don't have access to a computer at home? Is it fair to ask these students to type their assignments? In any case, the the real question is: if the Ministry or school boards or teachers want students in grades four and five to hand in printed documents, why is keyboarding not taught in a thorough and systematic way? Especially since cursive, mentioned perfunctorily at best in the new Ontario Language Arts curriculum, has been more or less dropped from the curriculum.
Which leads to another problem: the decline of cursive. If my girls can't keyboard to save their lives, neither can they write (as opposed to print) with any degree of confidence or competence. They began learning cursive in grade two, spent a little more time on it in grade three, and then it was summarily dropped, presumably due to some new policy (but try finding any real information on this issue on the Ministry of Education website). I'm not arguing that cursive is the be all and end all of writing tools. I'm not advocating bringing back the quill or fountain pens, or Latin. But shouldn't a child who will one day be an adult be able to sign his or her name? In cursive? Apparently the powers that be at the Ministry of Education do not think so. I've sent an email to the Ministry asking when and why cursive was dropped from the curriculum and how and when formal instruction in keyboarding will replace it. I'll let you know if/when I receive a response.
But back to the book report. With hand-printed rough drafts beside them, my girls dutifully sat at the school computer and later at our laptop at home typing with two fingers, sometimes spending 30 seconds or more simply looking for a letter or an elusive accent key. After watching their fumbling, painstaking efforts for several minutes, I'd had enough. I typed in the damned reports myself in all of fifteen minutes, and proceeded to write a letter to the teacher asking that henceforth my daughters be allowed to hand in all assignments handwritten. The fallout? Stay tuned!
(See also, Keyboard vs. Cursive—Update)