Why Australia is falling behind in teaching keyboarding and handwriting

By Noella Mackenzie

When we write we want to produce a text that can be easily read by our intended audience. For me that means I move back and forth from the computer keyboard to pen and paper to phone, to my tablet. I use most of these just about every day as I create the various pieces of writing I need for specific reasons. What is important in each form is that it is easily understood.

I was taught handwriting at school but my keyboarding and texting skills are self-taught. While I have mastered a fair level of skill I envy my colleagues who can touch type when I see them whizzing around their keyboards. Even so I would not want to be trying to write this blog by hand. A keyboard in various forms is so much part of how we write today.

It is certainly not difficult to understand why senior school students are much more comfortable and efficient using a keyboard than writing by hand. I believe it is crazy that we are still making Year 12 students write essays by hand under exam conditions. At least we could offer a choice between handwriting and keyboarding.

It is however, equally crazy to ask a year 3 student who has not been taught how to use a keyboard efficiently to write an extended piece of writing on a keyboard.

The importance of handwriting to the learning of young children is well researched. We know handwriting is a complex perceptual-motor skill which requires visual motor coordination, motor planning, cognitive and perceptual skills and tactile and kinaesthetic abilities. We also know that handwriting requires sustained attention and sensory processing. It helps in many different and significant ways – supporting letter learning, reading, spelling and thinking. However I am wondering if keyboarding may be the new cursive writing.

Perhaps we could teach children to print first and then add the keyboard. In this way the teaching of cursive writing (the flowing type of writing a child is traditionally taught to use after mastering printing) would be replaced by the teaching of keyboard skills. This is what they are doing in Finland. While the teaching of handwriting has been strengthened in many parts of the world, cursive writing is, in some cases, being removed from the curriculum (Finland) and in others it has become optional (UK and USA).

Teaching keyboarding to young children is not easy in Australia (for all the wrong reasons)

We know that from quite a young age children can spend up to half of their school day involved in some kind of writing across disciplines. So, to expect them to start to use keyboards or tablets from the first few years of school means:

  • that all children would need access to up to date computers (and for small children these would need to be suitable for small hands and fingers);
  • the technology will need to be combined with appropriate furniture so that children can sit comfortably for long periods of time looking at a computer screen (my Osteopath tells me he sees lots of young adolescents who are having neck and shoulder problems from spending so much time looking down at screens – phones and tablets);
  • all schools would have the funds to provide the ongoing IT support to do the necessary trouble shooting to ensure the computers are trouble free (teachers are not IT experts);
  • all schools would have up to date software and the funds to continually replace technology that is often out of date not long after it comes out of the packaging;
  • all teacher education courses would be given the time, equipment and staffing to provide teacher education students with the skills they will need to teach touch typing and keyboard use; and
  • all teachers would have the necessary skills and ongoing professional development support to teach ‘touch typing’ and efficient keyboard skills.

I asked about some of these things in a survey of Australian teachers and parents in 2016 (434 teachers, 79 retired teachers, 336 parents of children attending school and 17 parents who were home schooling). Here are some of the responses in regard to availability of computers or tablets in Australian classrooms:

  • Only 37.6% of teachers who responded to the survey, said they had enough computers for each child in their class; a further 10.4% had enough computers for most children and a further 14% had computers for half their class. That means that 38% of teachers who responded could not provide even half their children with computers. 14.8% claimed to only have 2-3 computers in their rooms. Some who said they could access a class set of computers, said that these computers were in a computer lab, shared by other classes. Often they were timetabled to visit the computer lab only once per week.
  • While 56.7% of teachers said they felt they had the skills to teach keyboarding skills – that means 43.3% do not.
  • Only 40.8% of teachers said they liked teaching keyboarding skills, which means 59.2% do not.
  • Only 2.7% of teachers said they had received any professional development relating to the teaching of keyboarding skills in the past 5 years. Mind you, only 9.9% had received any professional development related to the teaching of handwriting in the past 5 years. Perhaps this is one of the reasons teachers are so unsure about this important topic.

So let’s be practical. Unless governments massively increase funding and support across Australia (they should) our schools are not likely to start to efficiently and equitably teach keyboarding skills to young children in the near future.

In the meantime in Australia, we must continue to teach students how to write efficiently and automatically by hand, so they can express themselves meaningfully in written language and fully engage in the learning opportunities provided at school (as per the requirements of the Australian Curriculum). This means teachers and teacher education students need to receive a clear message about the importance of continuing to teach handwriting to young children.

Mind you, I would advocate for continued instruction in handwriting in the early years even if we did have computers for every child. The skills and learning attached to handwriting are not automatically subsumed into keyboarding. In fact the skills used are very different and there is no research that I can find that can demonstrate that keyboarding can totally substitute for these. For example, while both promote fine motor skill development, they are distinctly different. Handwriting is more closely aligned with creative tasks like drawing and painting. In France, for example, handwriting is classified as an important creative skill for all children.

As for the future: how do we even know we will be using keyboards? Perhaps within just a few years we will see ‘voice recognition’ or ‘digital ink’ (which requires handwriting) as the systems of choice. There even may be new tools for communication and new ways to teach and learn to write that we haven’t thought of yet. I suspect, unless we pick up on what is happening in our schools, Australia might be left behind.


Noella Mackenzie is a Senior Lecturer in literacy studies at Charles Sturt University, Albury. She provides CSU students with current, authentic learning opportunities and assessment tasks which link contemporary literacy and relevant technologies with teaching and learning theories, practices and pedagogies. For the past 8 years, Noella has focused on the teaching and learning of writing. The program of research has included (1) the examination of the relationship between drawing and learning to write, (2) the transition experiences of early writers and (3) writing development in the early years. In August of 2016, Noella worked with a colleague in Finland researching what Finnish children know and can do, in terms of writing, and how their teachers support their ongoing learning. Her research informs, and is informed by, her ongoing professional work with teachers in schools and her university teaching. Noella has been recognised for teaching excellence through awards at the state and national levels.

One thought on “Why Australia is falling behind in teaching keyboarding and handwriting

  1. Melissa Seymour says:

    Excellent article! I was thinking of this recently. I have read that teaching handwriting is also important as some kids not taught how to form letters correctly struggle at the physical task of writing and can not get down their intended message in time; as their brains processing is pre-occupied with HOW to write rather than WHAT. I have noticed in my class a link between my poor spellers and the quality of handwriting.
    We already have a dense curriculum it’s hard to know what to prioritise as a teacher at times. There is also the socio-economic background of students to consider, those that can access devices at home will do better. I hate when people will tell me: “all kids have devices these days”. Yes but is it one device being shared by seven children? Do they have access to the internet or have their parents been unable to keep up with the bills? The best way I have seen to teach keyboard skills is by allowing students to message/email each other, importantly it should be instantaneous as this works best, software where teacher much “approve” each message makes the writing loose its meaningfulness.

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