Monday, January 3, 2011

Keyboard vs. Cursive—Update

Almost a year ago I wrote a post in which I complained that from Grade 4 onwards, my daughters have been expected to hand in assignments typed—i.e., printed off the computer—without having been properly or thoroughly taught to keyboard. I also explained the curious, parallel decline in the teaching of cursive, a situation which has engendered a whole cohort of elementary students who can neither keyboard nor write (as opposed to print) with any degree of efficiency or competency. Near the end of the post I said: "I've sent an email to the [Ontario] 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."

Well, the ministry of education did respond. (It took them a while, but not as long as the timing of this update might suggest!) In the first emailed response, a ministry spokesperson said:
Students begin developing their keyboarding skills in elementary school where they are encouraged to use computers for a variety of purposes throughout the different subjects in their program. . . . In fact, a key component of the Grades 1-8: Language, 2006 (revised) and the English, Grades 9-12, 2007 (revised) curriculum documents is the inclusion of a Media Literacy strand for all grades starting in Grade 1 and continuing through to all Grade 9-12 core courses. One of the four overall expectations in this strand is “create a variety of media texts for different purposes and audiences, using appropriate forms, conventions, and techniques”. This offers students the opportunities to explore multi-media technologies.
The spokeperson (whose position is actually director of the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch) went on to detail the various expectations for the Media Literacy Strand for each grade. For example in Grade 5, she notes:
students are expected to: produce media texts for specific purposes and audiences, using a few simple media forms and appropriate conventions and techniques (e.g., an album of camera shots showing the different angles and distances and commenting on their uses; a poem, announcement, or flyer produced electronically by combining word-processed text with pictures and/or photographs; a mock television commercial for a favourite cereal, toy, or book; a newspaper article that includes a photograph and headline…).
What struck me in all of her descriptions and explanations of the curriculum, most of which are taken from ministry curriculum documents (available in their entirety here) were two words: "expected" and "or." Students in various grades are "expected," for example, to produce certain "media texts," but they can accomplish this by creating "a poem, an announcement or a "flyer produced electronically by combining word-processed text with pictures" (emphasis added). In other words, in elementary school at least, the "expectation" that kids learn keyboarding is so weak as to border on optional.

In secondary school, the spokesperson goes on to explain, the "expectations" continue. For example in Grade 10 English, "students are expected to: use a wide range of appropriate presentation features, including print and script, fonts, graphics, and layout" in their written work; one example given is "word-process[ing of] the final copy of a short narrative." In high school, there are also Business Studies courses offered that specifically teach keyboarding skills. But when I asked in a followup email if these courses are mandatory, the ministry spokesperson said they are not.

As for cursive, I was told that, contrary to what I implied in my original post, it had not been dropped from the curriculum; in fact, similar "expectations" obtain for this dying skill. In the Language curriculum for Grades 5 through 8, for example, "
students are expected to: use a range of appropriate elements of effective presentation in the finished product, including print, script, different fonts, graphics, and layout (e.g., use legible printing and cursive writing…)."

In followup communications, it became clear why the curriculum documents use the language of expectations and options. The spokeswoman stated:

Curriculum expectations are mandated by the ministry of education. Teachers plan units of study, develop a variety of teaching approaches, and select appropriate resources to address the mandated curriculum expectations, taking into account the needs and abilities of the students in their classes.
OK, I understand this. I get that the ministry is trying to allow for locally-sensitive interpretations and implementations of the provincial curriculum. However, there are expectations that reading and math be taught, and there are whole mandated courses devoted to teaching them. I realize we are living in a time of transition, but on the whole issue of technology, it seems to me as if the ministry is trying to have it both ways: we expect that it will be taught, but we don't know or care too much how that might be accomplished.

I'm not advocating the introduction of entire technology courses for elementary kids. In fact, I'm of the (no-doubt) minority opinion that most technology—educational and otherwise—adds very little to elementary education. But if schools are going to ask that kids as young as 9 hand in printed assignments, then they should find better ways—with ministry support—to teach technology skills. At the moment, I believe that the ministry and individual school boards are relying on parents to teach basic keyboarding and computer skills. (All of my daughters' friends who can keyboard with any degree of efficiency have learned and perfected the skill at home.) But this reliance raises a whole set of problems, income-related access to technology being the most obvious of them.

On a more positive note, although my daughters' keyboarding skills have not improved much this year, their handwriting has taken off. Their grade 6 teacher re-introduced pen and pencil writing at the beginning of the school year—after a gap of two years—and has since insisted that all classwork be completed in cursive. I've heard the arguments that cursive is obsolete and should no longer be taught. But at least one study suggests otherwise (see here) and I, for one, am happy that my children—however technologically-challenged they may be—can now produce a signature of their own—in cursive!

(See also Keyboard vs. Cursive)


  1. When I taught computers, I followed this TDSB Standards of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies)document. I taught keyboarding as part my class from grade 4 onward. Primary (K-3) grades were taught to recognize the difference between hard and software, and to use various components. Towards the end of grade 3, we would start to explore the keyboard in more detail in preparation for grade 4. Most Ontario boards have an ICT document, to make up the shortfall between the Ministry Curriculum (which lumps ICT in with the Science and Technology Curriculum and the Media Literacy strand of the Language Curriculum) and what kids need to succeed in an increasingly technical world.

  2. Thanks Kat—I didn't even know this document existed! I've glanced at it, and I'm going to read it more thoroughly before I comment further, but I can tell you that my kids did not do a lot of the activities it describes (certainly not in grades 1 or 2). I'm curious as to how teachers are supposed to fit these activities in. For example, does the time for ICT have to come out of an actual course? I think for my kids, it was often lumped into library periods, which annoyed them because it took away from their time to look for and take out books.

  3. My computer classes were scheduled separately from library classes. It's all dependent on how the principal sets up the prep coverage schedule. My other half was music at that school, so technically I could have been scheduled to teach two music classes per class per week and covered the same amount of prep time. That's actually how much time you need to adequately cover the music curriculum, and I've never been more than half time music at any school, but that's another story for another time. :)