When I was a little girl, my best friend was the first person I knew who had a computer. We spent hours upon hours in the summer sharing one big chair at her dad’s desk, the curser blinking green on the screen in front of us as we took turns typing out the lines of the play we were co-writing. Having the opportunity to type our writing was a novelty, giving our script the “professional” look we were sure elevated our work from just OK to absolutely fantastic.
Fast forward about 30 years to today’s upper elementary students and what was once a novelty to my friend and me has become a norm in most classrooms. When I work in upper elementary classes or do learning walks, it has become just as common to see kids typing their drafts rather as it is to see them drafting by hand. This practice is even more prevalent since Covid gave us the nudge to go from having only a handful of devices in each classroom to now providing a device for every student in our district.
But is typing the best way for elementary students to compose their work?
There is no clear right or wrong answer. We often hear that research has demonstrated that writing by hand has definite benefits for developing spelling skills and retaining information. It is also clear that there are positive social-emotional effects of using the scaffolds and supports provided by digital drafting (voice-to-text, autocorrect, etc.).
Rather than working to prove that one way–digital composition vs. handwritten writing–is better than the other, we have the power as teachers to recognize the benefits of both and to determine the best time and place for each.
In making these decisions, here are a few things to consider:
- What is the purpose of the writing? Sometimes this is the easiest place to start. Some types of writing (personal letters, lists, story outlines, etc.) are meant to be handwritten. Other types of writing (emails, presentations, formal essays, etc.) are meant to be typed. When considering the final product students will create, it helps to think about the format that best serves the purpose of the writing.
- What spelling skills are kids bringing to the table–and where are the gaps? If students are still at the developmental spelling stage where a majority of writing is spelled phonetically or common patterns and rules are overgeneralized, handwritten work is considerably more beneficial. Orthographic mapping–solidifying letter-sound connections and spelling patterns–is much better served by physically forming the letters than by locating them on a keyboard. Consider typing once students have more advanced spelling skills.
- How well-developed are students’ executive functioning skills? We know that writing is cognitively demanding no matter how it is produced. Students must juggle ideas, organization, grammar, and conventions while working to transfer their words coherently and correctly onto the page. For students with limited typing skills, one more task is being added to their plate by asking them to compose on a computer. If a typed piece is the end goal, have students with limited executive functioning skills draft by hand before transferring to a computer.
- How are students planning their writing pieces? In the primary grades, we teach students to touch and tell across pages, orally rehearse, and generate simple graphic organizers to plan the writing they are about to produce. When students sit down in front of a blank document on a screen, however, I frequently observe another planning strategy: resting fingers on a keyboard and hoping the right words pour out onto the screen. If students are ready to make the leap to digital drafting, explicit instruction in planning is necessary to support them in organizing their ideas and clearly crafting a message.
- Where are the opportunities for differentiation? Thinking back to my many years teaching fourth and fifth grade, I had expectations for each piece we wrote that I applied to every student in my classroom. While many final drafts were handwritten, those that were produced on the computer were typed by every single student. In my all-or-none way of thinking, I realize now that I missed some great opportunities to differentiate for my students. Reflecting back now, I wish I would have known:
- Not all students are ready to type at the same time. There isn’t a magical moment around a child’s 8th birthday when kids are suddenly ready to abandon their pens and pencils for a keyboard. What is most important is to consider the needs of each student and to teach students to know themselves as writers to determine which tool will best serve their skills and needs.
- Not all students need to end up with the same final product. Some students are ready to type while others still need the practice of handwriting their pieces. Some students prefer to create work by hand while others like the polished look of a typed piece. Believing that the whole class has to produce the same type of final product is an assumption, not a rule.
- Not all parts of a piece need to be written the same way. Some students, especially those who need support with executive functioning skills, may benefit from writing the first few paragraphs of a piece by hand before transitioning to typing. Other work–such as presentations or factual reports–may include a blend of typing and handwriting depending on the purpose of each section.
- What do we want students to learn in the process of developing a piece of writing? While the final product is the piece of writing that is shared with the world, we know that most of the learning happens during the planning, drafting, revision, and editing processes. The heart of the workshop is in the process, not the product. If producing pieces of writing digitally is distracting from the important work that goes into the writing process, evidenced by less revision and editing or struggles with organization, it might be time to focus more on these skills than on the end product.
Knowing how to generate, develop, and share a piece of digitally created writing with the world is a non-negotiable, critical skill for our students as they transition from elementary to middle and high school and beyond. Our primary means of communication in the 21st century require advanced technology skills and the keyboarding fluency to produce clean, accurate work.
However, as we consider the ways to grow our elementary writers from the stage of handwritten work to proficiency in creating digital products, it’s important to remember that there are many variables to consider to make this work meaningful, effective, and beneficial for our students. When thinking about the needs of our kids, handwriting and typing shouldn’t be considered as an either/or conversation, but as a both/and.