Schools work on computer, keyboard skills so students capable of taking online exams

Fairmount Primary Center kindergarten students Avrianna West (front left) and Eli Rodgers learn keyboarding skills in technology instructor Andrew Lynch's class at the Harrison school on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013.
Fairmount Primary Center kindergarten students Avrianna West (front left) and Eli Rodgers learn keyboarding skills in technology instructor Andrew Lynch's class at the Harrison school on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013.
Photo by Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
| Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, 11:33 p.m.

When teacher Andrew Lynch begins a kindergarten technology class at Fairmount Primary Center in Brackenridge, he starts slowly — “This is a mouse, this is a monitor, this is where you put your hands on a keyboard.”

“I had a girl the first two weeks of school who started every day trying to manipulate the monitor with her fingers,” he said. “For a lot of our youngest kids, smartphones and touch screens are all they've ever known.”

Teachers worry that upcoming online exams may unfairly assess student progress and understanding, or worse, that students will be penalized by unforeseen and all-too-common problems in being connected to the Internet as states and school districts work to upgrade lesson plans and infrastructure.

“What we learned about typing 30 to 50 years ago hasn't changed, but the learning curve has,” said Amy Wolff, Shaler Area's fourth-grade computer teacher. “I have kids who can type 30 to 40 words per minute when they first walk in, but I also have five others right now who still can't log onto the computer by themselves. They just haven't developed those skills yet.”

Skills taught for generations in middle or high school are becoming staples of regional elementary schools, where educators employ colorful games and guises to practice the motor skills many youngsters lack in primary grades.

Little ones have shorter attention spans, said Carla Lagattuta, technology teacher for Allegheny Valley School District. Their ability to stay on task is limited, and often their hands are too small to manipulate keys effectively.

Instead, they learn the location of function keys — enter, space, backspace, shift and handy combinations such as control-alt-delete — and when to use them, Lagattuta said.

Students learn to see the keyboard in halves — one for the left hand, one for the right. They practice usernames and passwords, but specific hand placement comes later, she said.

“How do you teach letter keys when the youngest kids are still learning their letters?” Lynch said. “I can tell them to press ‘A,' but they may not know what that is yet.”

With the national introduction of exams aligned specifically to Common Core standards, students struggling to master handwriting and basic classroom etiquette will be expected to begin taking non-graded online exams as early as next year, including third-grade reading comprehension tests that require advanced keyboarding skills.

Many Pennsylvania districts lack tech support to offer widespread online testing, state Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said. Schools have the option to administer pencil-and-paper versions of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and Keystone assessments.

“If we switch, it's going to be a challenge,” said computer teacher Jeanann Madden, who circulates through small clusters of Gateway School District's third- and fourth-graders every three weeks. “At the K-2 level, kids are still trying to figure out how to express themselves with proper English and grammar, let alone composing those thoughts on a keyboard. I know adults who still struggle with that.”

At Shaler Area, district leaders only recently adapted junior high curricula for students in their latter primary years to comply with Common Core standards that require fourth-graders to type a page in one sitting. By the fifth grade, students should be able to accomplish two pages, though the length of “one sitting” isn't defined.

“At first, we wondered if their hands are even big enough,” said Brian Opiela, fifth-grade business education teacher.

Students' coordination and dexterity seem to take off around age 12, he said, deferring to his wife and sixth-grade business education teacher, Amy Opiela.

“Even then, I can't see taking a written test online,” she said.

When youngsters write something by hand, they take more care to spell it correctly and avoid text abbreviations such as “ppl” and “thru,” Wolff said.

“But when they type it, they may not think about being as careful,” Opiela said.

Highlands School District brought developmentally appropriate computer curricula into early grades years ago, Lynch said, starting regular typing exercises no later than second grade.

“So now we have sixth-graders keeping blogs and uploading their own podcasts,” he said. “We did a lesson this week with third-graders on Excel. We want them proficient on the hardware early, so managing the software in high school and college isn't a problem.

“Pennsylvania will switch from paper tests to computer tests eventually. When they do, my students will be ready.”

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or

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