Learning to type has come a long way from banging out rows of f-f-f and j-j-j. So has the intended audience, which has moved from middle schoolers to include children as young as kindergarten.
There's little agreement among experts on exactly when children should begin, but as they gravitate to electronic devices earlier and earlier, some experts say they need typing fundamentals at younger ages. Dexterity, finger size and brain development all are factors in determining when children can learn how to type. Many schools start teaching the skill around third grade, but parents can find helpful online resources for almost any age.
Touch Typing is Still Best
One thing that hasn't changed is that "touch typing" is still considered the best method. Tweens may be whizzing with their thumbs to text and young children may hunt and peck at speed, but touch typing is the fastest and most accurate method.
Learning how to type properly involves resting left fingers in the "home row" on the a-s-d-f keys and right fingers on the j-k-l-; and then moving those fingers from there, with each responsible for hitting certain keys. Typists keep their eyes on the screen instead of looking at their fingers, allowing them to focus their brain power on what they are writing.
"Whether it's writing an email, rap lyrics or an important memo, mastering typing means you can spend your mental energy where it's most needed," says Daniel Merriman, product manager for Typing.com, a free teaching tool used by 75 million students worldwide.
Learning how to keyboard can especially help children with dysgraphia or other learning differences that make it difficult to write by hand, says Christine Elgersma, senior editor for social media and learning resources at Common Sense Media.
Parents can help really young children learn at home by creating paper keyboards when they are learning their letters, Elgersma says.
What to Look for in an App
Denise Donica learned to type in middle school but worries that now even third grade isn't early enough.
"If they're using computers in kindergarten but don't learn to type until third grade, we have to fix all those bad habits," says Donica, an associate professor at East Carolina University, chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy and a paid consultant to Keyboarding Without Tears.
For example, when studying typing among children, she found many of them went the time-consuming route of grabbing a mouse instead of hitting the spacebar, because that's what they were accustomed to thanks to video games.
Typing experts say there are several things that parents can look for in a typing app or website, including content targeted by educational level, a lack of distracting ads, a game that holds attention, options that keep track of progress (so children can start where they left off) and feedback that lets them know if they make a mistake.
Here are some other tips for parents who want their children to learn keyboarding:
-- Practice, practice, practice is the key to learning how to type.
-- Observe typing practice occasionally so children know whether they are using the correct fingers for letters (most sites cannot check that).
-- Ensure the equipment is set up properly and the child's posture is good while practicing, with feet on the floor and eyes on the screen.
-- Work on keyboarding in summer and on breaks, when other academic demands are lower.
[Read: 10 Fun STEM Activities for Kids.]
Five Typing Apps to Check Out
Here are some popular sites that teach children how to type.
This site, created by the BBC, is free and requires no sign-up. A visual of a color-coded keyboard helps children remember which keys a particular finger should cover. Animation and narration keep the site interesting, and it has different levels of skill to match a child's educational level. Animated animals take users through 12 different stages of learning, ending each time with a song. Its "keyboard ninja" section has keyboard shortcuts.
From the company that developed the popular Handwriting Without Tears method, this approach works to encourage children to use the correct hand for each letter. It is structured by level, with speed and accuracy checks along the way. As a bonus, students learn more than typing because the passages are educational and targeted to their age. The cost is $9.99 for one year and one grade level. It does not offer a free version.
This free tool is great for children who already know how to type but want to improve their speed. They compete in a car race against others to make it fun. It can also generate reports for teachers. Nitro Type doesn't teach fundamentals for beginners. But the car race, complete with cheering crowds, is likely to keep children engaged.
This site stores up to 30 completed tests to track progress. Some of the practice involves individual letters, which may be less engaging. But it does keep track of problem keys and makes suggestions on how students can improve. Spanish, Portuguese and English versions are available. The basic version is free, and parents can use the paid version to eliminate ads.
This site is popular with schools and available in 14 languages. Children progress through plans when they learn basics but need to be supervised to make sure they don't skip important fundamentals before moving on. Although it starts with typing random words and letters, later lessons have an educational component. It incorporates video, games and feedback. The premium version has extra games and reports and eliminates ads.
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