Writing essays on a computer, instead of using pencil and paper, helped high-performing fourth graders, but hurt average and low performers, concludes a new analysis of a 2012 federal study. Computer use “may have widened the writing achievement gap,” warned researchers.
The Department of Education is pushing computerized tests, which are “more efficient and cheaper to grade,” writes Hechinger’s Jill Barshay. That could affect black, Latino and low-income students disproportionately.
In the study, high-performing students — the top 20 percent of the test takers — produced an average of 179 words per assignment on the computer, three times the number of words that the bottom 20 percent produced. They also used spellcheck, backspace and other editing tools far more often. The researchers found that these high-performing students were more likely to have access to a computer and the Internet at home.
Teaching keyboarding and editing, giving students practice writing on a computer and buying child-sized keyboards could help, says Steve Graham, an Arizona State professor. While some fourth graders type at 25 word per minute, the average 12 words per minute and some are even slower.
Even handwriting advocates back teaching students to type, writes Barshay. University of Washington Professor Virginia Berninger thinks cursive writing instruction has “neurological benefits to the developing brain.” But she also supports teaching touch typing. “If we’re going to give them the annual test by computer, by golly, teach them how to use the computer. It’s not fair if we don’t.”