The Case for Teaching Typing

by Shannon Donnally Spasova, Assistant Professor of Russian, Michigan State University

The abrupt switch to teaching remotely due to COVID-19 has left language teachers who are used to teaching face-to-face with a number of dilemmas. One of these dilemmas is the difficulty of collecting homework. Especially for those of us who teach languages that use non-Roman alphabets, paper-and-pencil assignments have long served as a staple of our strategy for assessing and evaluating student work. While some of us have made do in the initial stages of the pandemic by asking students to scan or photograph their assignments and upload them to a dropbox, many are looking for better solutions as we face the prospect of teaching online for the longer term. Even for those who will be teaching in a partly face-to-face setting this fall, we wonder how safe it is to trade documents when we are advised to continuously wash our hands and stay six feet apart. 

One of the main solutions to this dilemma is to teach our students to type. While this may not be a concern for those who teach languages that use Roman alphabets, for those of us who teach languages like Russian, Hebrew, or Chinese, we cannot assume that students know how to type in the target language. Only you can decide what is right for your students, but I would advocate teaching them to type as early as possible. I am a teacher of Russian, and I have been teaching my students to type in Russian by the middle of the first semester for more than 10 years. I believe that teaching handwriting is important as well – I do still teach my students to write in cursive in Russian, and I recognize the value that handwriting has in helping students connect sounds with writing. However, typing has been becoming more important for my classes over time, as it has in the real world. 

The ability for students to type in the target language can be an incredible boon in several ways.

Giving feedback to typed assignments can be easier, faster, and more effective.

When we need to grade handwritten assignments online, we often resort to asking students to scan and upload their work. Notating assignments with a stylus can take significant time. Some of us might even print, write comments with a pen, and re-scan and re-upload, adding even more steps to the process. This can take significant time for both the student and the teacher. While it may still be worth it to do this for particular assignments so that you can give feedback on student handwriting, prioritizing those in which the handwriting is the focus or is a part of the assignment will help to save time.

Strategically feature activities that can be automatically graded.

While we know that we want our courses to include activities that are personally meaningful to our students, there can be a place in language courses for activities that can give automatic feedback. These types of activities have several advantages – they can give students more flexibility in their work, and they can help students identify errors early. Assignments that are typed are much simpler to automatically grade than those that are handwritten.

Help students develop their digital literacy.

Included in the 21st century skills are various types of digital literacy. As our students’ language instructor, we may be the only person who can help them to extend their digital literacy to the target language and culture. If we want our students to be able to participate in the digitally-connected globe, we should take seriously the responsibility to help them to develop the skills needed to engage with the target culture.

Allow students to connect to the world!

As language teachers we all know that the best way to develop proficiency in the target language and intercultural competence is through relationships. One of the main ways that relationships are fostered in today’s context is through written means. Despite the rise of the visual on the internet, most communication still happens through typing.

While I do not know all of the best practices for teaching typing in various languages, a cursory search on Google showed that for many languages there are several choices for how to learn. For my Russian students, I use, a website with typing lessons in 18 languages. By giving them the assignment to complete typing lessons in the standard Russian keyboard layout, I encourage them to learn this layout, since it is the one that is used widely in Russia. You might consider polling colleagues who teach the same language as you about whether, when, and how they teach typing to their students.

In Russian there is an old saying that goes “Язык до Киева доведёт” (Your tongue will lead you to Kiev). In the 21st century, it may be your fingers.