Catherine Oelhman – Literacy Teacher
18th October 2017. Catherine Oelhman: Literacy Teacher – Gifted and Talented Programme – St George Christian School, Sutherland, NSW, Australia. Graham East: Managing Director EdAlive.
Transcript from the interview
I’m really interested in the process of children’s reading and writing.
Writing incorporates so much now. It still is about picking up a pencil and putting pencil to paper but we expect students to do so much more when they are creating texts and very often that is more than about handwriting with a pencil, it’s also about typing and creating digital texts and online texts as well. So that changes the way that we approach the teaching of writing. In addition to having to have skills with a pencil there is a whole range of skills they have to have with a keyboard as well.
I think that there is a need for some really explicit teaching of skills in typing just as there is in handwriting. Even with handwriting, before we start talking about loops we talk about 1, 2, 3, 4 are your feet flat on the floor. We talk about your pencil grip and how important it is to have the pencil in the right position so that the movement flows. As children develop their writing skills we want them to think less about what their fingers are doing with the writing motion and more about what is going on in their heads about what they want to write and the textural structures that they are creating.
The same process is true of teaching children to type. We start by teaching them how to sit at a keyboard, hold their hands correctly at the table. We want to move them from thinking where are the starting letters to make their names to their fingers being able to move so fluidly over the keyboard that their brain space is spent on the construction of the text rather than thinking about which key to press next and hitting the spacebar in between words.
Children come to my class with a whole range of skills and use of technology. I will have some students who are so familiar with the keyboard that they are already not thinking about how they interact with that interface. It is already intuitive for them and I have others for whom the keyboard is still foreign and they are at a disadvantage because they have to think so explicitly about what they are doing with the keyboard before they go about creating the text themselves. So it is helpful if students have had some of that explicit teaching (typing skills) beforehand to keep them all up to the same level so that the focus of our learning can then be on those nuances of text rather than the construction of it on the keyboard itself.
You can actually write with a pencil held in a fist and it will work if you only have to write a few words but you will get a sore arm eventually and it’s not the most efficient way of hand writing. It’s the same with the keyboard. You can type hunting and pecking with two fingers but eventually it’s not going to be the most efficient way of typing and it is a whole lot harder to unlearn bad habits than it is learn good ones in the first place.
Really, now we have students coming into Kindergarten who are digital natives. They have been using touch screens since they were crawling around on the floor and they actually expect most screens that they encounter to be touch screens. I have very often seen students put their finger to the screen and expect it to respond as a touch screen and they get frustrated when they can’t make it work. Some of them we have to teach how to use a mouse as they haven’t encountered that before. In some ways it is an advantage that they have an understanding of touch screen technology, but it can be a disadvantage too if they haven’t encountered a keyboard. Sometimes highly technically proficient students are familiar with a touch screen and the parents think that they therefore have the skills to be able to type but when we come to Grade 3 where we expect them to go and do research and then use that research to go and type up the information we suddenly find that actually they can’t produce the text that they need to using the keyboard even though they were quite proficient with a touch screen.
We do things repetitively to move them from our short term to our long-term memory and that’s a really important step that needs time and an investment of effort in the classroom. We want students who automatically type; that they don’t even think about the process so that they are fed up to do the rest of the writing that needs to take place. In the same way that I could be handwriting notes while I am speaking to you, I could be typing. I could be multitasking only because the process has become so automatic. I have done it so many times that it has gone from my short-term to my long-term memory. Now the good thing about that in the classroom is that I can have students thinking about really abstract concepts and they are not thinking about the process of typing or handwriting; they are just going straight from their thoughts onto the page or the computer screen. The focus is not on their fingers but on their thinking.
Typing is as essential skill in every subject and every area of life. I don’t think we can avoid the need to be able use technology and to be able to type to interact with that technology. Whether it is for an online or a research project, whether it’s in science or maths or English, typing is not just about writing in the context of the English subject which is why digital technologies have become such a priority in the curriculum. This is identified in the Australian Curriculum as well as in the NSW Syllabus documents. It’s just so pervasive now it is part of every subject. It is part of all of our lives.
It is a really interesting question about the way that typing is incorporated into our current syllabus documents. I think that the focus currently is on not the typing itself but what students can do once they have those skills. For me as a teacher of English that is really important because I want to see what they can do with the skill but that doesn’t mean that the skill itself isn’t important. In a sense it has to be explicitly taught so that the students can get to the higher level stuff. So at the moment we have outcomes that put keyboard skills and handwriting under the same strand although I don’t think that in the classroom we spend as much time focusing on the development of keyboarding skills as we do handwriting skills and we will start to see the shift in this in the future as we start to realise the skills that are necessary for students to produce the kinds of digital texts that we are expecting them to produce.
The issues around online assessment of students certainly has been a controversial area. I have some reservations about us moving to the online kind of testing system before students are ready. I think that we are still in the process of working out the skills students need and at the moment I think that we are at a disadvantage if we assess students purely online without setting them up with the right skills that they need in order to be able to be successful at the tasks. At the moment I think different schools have students and teachers at different levels of expectation of what we think students can do and should be able to do with a keyboard. I think across the board we have similar expectations of what students can do with a pencil. Until we have a similar standard of what we expect students to be able to do in terms of typing and for everyone in terms of their access to technology I’m not sure that it is a level playing field for online assessment.
I think online assessments are the way we will see things go in the future. I think it is unavoidable. I think what we need to do is to predict the skills that students need to be successful at and start building them from the moment they arrive at school. They need to be part of the everyday learning that we do so that it is not foreign to them when they come to an assessment. It is not fair to assess students in a way that is unfamiliar to them. So it is about making it familiar rather than saying that online assessment will never happen.
I always say to my students I want to see you using all of the best of your brain power on the biggest ideas and not on the smallest things. Whether it is knowing your times tables or knowing your way around the keyboard I don’t want brain space wasted on that. I want your brain being used for your best work.
I remember when I was a child, I used to play with the phone twirling the chord around my fingers as my mother used to do. When I became a Mum, I saw my daughter at a very young age wandering around the house using two thumbs moving up and down on a toy in her hand. I asked her what she was doing, and she said, “I am on the phone”. I laughed thinking about how much the phone had changed from the fixed version that you hold to your ear to a mobile that you send text messages on with your thumbs. A couple of years later I was watching my son do almost the same thing except that he held the phone with one hand and then used his index finger on the other hand to draw squiggles on it as if using a touch screen. I thought wow! In one generation we have gone from twirling a chord around our finger to texting with two thumbs to using a touch screen and I thought, “I wonder what children will do with a phone in the future. I wonder how screens and technology will change by then.”
So what you are really saying that as each generation comes to grips with the technology that it uses like the introduction of the washing machine and the social impact that that actually has then we as educators need to be able to adapt our practice to reflect the changes going on in the world as a whole.
That’s correct, and it is changing faster! Everything is changing faster. All the time new technologies are rolling out faster and we just have to go with the process. We have to equip our students for what the world looks like now and what we think that it is going to look like tomorrow.
I can’t see QWERTY being replaced any time in the near future nor the pencil. I think both QWERTY and the pencil are here for the long haul. I think it will be a very long time before we find a way of communicating that is different to those. Voice and voice recognition do have their place but we are not in a place where this technology will have a significant impact on the way that students have to express themselves in a way that will replace QWERTY and the pencil.
Great. You have been really helpful. Thank you so much.
You’re very welcome.