Friday, 26 April 2013

Helping Children Learn to Type (and is there any point!)

I've been thinking about helping my older son learn to type properly. He's 6 and enjoys typing things on a virtual or physical keyboard. He's always making notes about adventures he wants to go on, or the models he's going to make from LEGO.

I've been having a look at apps, accessories and websites that will help him to learn to type properly. I figure that if he learns good habit now while he's young, that will put him in a good position as he gets older. As with most things, it's something I'll offer him now and then and see whether he takes to it, rather than something I'll force on him. Though if he can't touch type by the time he's going to high school then he'll get some stronger encouragement.

At what age should kids learn to type? I'd say as soon as they show any interest in typing full sentences and paragraphs of text, or need to do so for school. They need to be able to have a go at spelling words too (it doesn't matter if they get them right and they can learn to use auto-correct too.) And they need to have good enough fine motor control and attention span that they won't just get frustrated - probably best to have a short go if you're not sure and see how they get on. 

Now I know there will be people reading this who think I should be focusing on writing on paper, and yes, that's also something we think about. But nearly all of his school writing is on paper and his hand-writing is okay for his age. He sees writing on paper at home as a bit of a chore most of the time, whereas writing on a tablet or PC is something he does for fun. I see it as a separate activity, it's not instead of writing on paper, it's in addition too.

Also, how often do you write anything of any length on paper these days? I even write shopping lists on a computer, and tend to take notes on the computer if I'm on the phone. I'm a nightmare with bits of paper. I lose them. I think typing is a far more useful skill to have these days. Though yes, kids should be able to write just in case we do get one of those tech blackout scenarios that the preppers worry about ...

I'm actually old enough to have learned to touch type on a manual typewriter with ribbons and a physical carriage return and a satisfying ding noise! There were computers around when I was a child (I'm not that old!) but we didn't get taught to type at school, so a friend and I signed up to a local adult education college and took a secretarial typewriting course in the evenings. This was definitely a useful skill to have as I headed towards an IT career.

Of course the current keyboard layout was designed for manual typewriters that could jam rather than for modern electronic keyboards. There have been various attempts to redesign the keyboard which haven't caught on. We have a one-handed keyboard somewhere in our tech cemetery. The latest attempt focuses on remapping the tablet keyboard for faster typing. Researchers at the University of St Andrews have designed a new split-screen keyboard layout that their research shows increases typing speed by more than a third on tablets and smartphones.

This is interesting because quite a bit of my son's typing is on a tablet. He started recording his thoughts in writing with the virtual keyboard on his V-Tech InnoTab 2 which has a note-taking app. He still uses it to record his thoughts when it's the nearest device available. It has a qwerty on-screen keyboard that you can either touch or use the stylus with.  

Then he progressed to the Kindle Fire HD where he's using the  ColorNote app. (Note that it has social sharing features so you might want to think about what you child is able to / has permission to do.) This is a step up as it's easy to get the content to a PC to use in another project.

So will tablets and phones have a different layout for touch typing in future? Or will we even be typing - there's so much happening around voice, swipe and gesture interfaces. I don't know, but I don't think it's worth worrying about that yet. Qwerty will be with us for a while!

Kindle Fire HD Set Up for Typing
I bought a physical keyboard case for the Kindle Fire HD which means he can type on a real but smaller keyboard. This works well as it's a better size for him.

We have a bluetooth keyboard which attached magnetically to the case so it's easy to put the keyboard on the desk and then put the tablet at a child's eye height for good typing posture. (yes, we should worry about kids' posture when using gadgets.)

When the keyboard is put into the case it can be used netbook style, but obviously the screen is lower then and time in this position should be limited. 

He also uses the Google Drive Docs editor which is similar to other word-processing tools including those he uses at school. He also prefers a smaller keyboard for the PC. I do too, I guess I must have small hands, so I happen to have a USB laptop-sized keyboard for typing and I let him borrow that. 

So that's definitely something to think about when teaching your child to touch type. Do they have a keyboard that is the right size for their hands. A standard PC keyboard is pretty big for little kids. This isn't too much of a problem when they are using the hunt and peck approach to type 'Playmobil egypt' into YouTube (as my son did this morning - those videos are excellent!) But when learning to type correctly, having the right sized keyboard is important so you might want to consider either a physical keyboard for a tablet, or a laptop or netbook keyboard.

We're going to focus on using a physical keyboard rather than a tablet because it's easier to sit at a desk and adopt a good posture. 

OK, now let's take a look at some of the ways kids can learn to touch type. There are loads of websites, apps and games where kids can learn to type. We'll just highlight a few.

There's an interesting new Kickstarter project about learning to type with color coded gloves and keyboard. It's initially focused on Apple devices.

This does look interesting. That is the hard part isn't it, remembering which fingers need to go where until you've developed the muscle memory for it to be automatic.

BrightFingers is available as an app for OS X and iOS or as an iPad keyboard case with gloves. I'd like to see the main bit of those gloves in black - white might be cool but it will get grubby quickly (/practicalmummode.)

BrightFingers is already well on the way to it's goal and the Kickstarter runs until Monday May 27.

They do plan an Android app which we'd definitely be interested in.  We're planning to get an iPad but I'm holding out until we see what the new models are for this year.

OK, so what else is there?

For younger kids we like the fun Dance Mat Typing game from the BBC. It's a browser based game that teaches typing and we've found that it works perfectly on the Kindle Fire HD with the physical keyboard. My son has played this a few times and is starting to learn where his fingers need to go. It's great for younger kids as it talks to tell them what to do. You'll have to cope with the quirky British regional accent though!

For Android we're going to be trying out TapWriter which features a virtual version of one of those historical mechanical typing machines that I mentioned earlier.

For older kids, TapTyping for iOS gets good reviews and helps to develop faster typing. I like the idea of typing in extracts from US history, Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland and other interesting texts. Note that there is some free content and some paid for lessons.

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