Typing versus Printing: The Great Debate

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Written by Sandra Ellis, Student Occupational Therapist McMaster University

When should kids who struggle with printing focus on printing and when should they type instead?

Many parents of children with fine motor difficulties struggle with the question of when they should put printing skills on the back burner and focus instead on typing. On one side of the debate, parents are concerned when printing is left unattended because many important day-to-day activities require basic handwriting skills such as signing cards or documents and filling out forms. On the other side, many parents become concerned when too much focus is placed on printing because they feel their child could produce so much more in school if they were allowed to type instead of print.

It’s a complex issue and both sides have valid concerns. It’s important to look at the overall functional goal of the writing. For example, if the main focus of an assignment or class is the quality and organization of ideas, a child who struggles with the physical task of printing could be at a significant disadvantage if printing is their only option. Printing is a complex fine motor process involving many systems working together – a child who is unable to do this efficiently or effectively may sacrifice their ideas to take make the printing process easier. In this situation, a child may write shorter sentences, and/or use less complex words and concepts to express their ideas, especially if there is a time limit. Not least, the kiddo might become frustrated with the task or be disappointed with their work.

Typing can be easier for a child with fine motor difficulties because the finger movements are repetitive and less complex compared with printing. And added bonus is that since the keys on a keyboard never move, children do not have to monitor their output as much and may even learn touch typing. All of this means the child has more energy and brain capacity to focus on the content of their work. In this situation, allowing a child to type instead of print will reduce the demands placed on the child and can enable them to express more complex ideas that more accurately reflect their abilities.

If the focus of the activity or assignment is the quality of the printing itself (for example, being able to write your name on a form), then it can be preferable to continue developing printing skills. In cases where a student needs to produce an assignment that will be marked on presentation, it can be beneficial to have them type or dictate a draft where the focus is on creating the content, and later copy the draft to create the finished piece.

So, the take home message is: when deciding whether to print or type, it is important to ask “what is the functional goal of the writing?” Is the child writing to express ideas (that may be more effectively expressed through another means), or to demonstrate the skill of printing? If a child is struggling with either printing or typing, they may benefit from Occupational Therapy to develop their skills in these areas.

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