In their computer class at King Science and Technology Magnet Center, DeMario Echols and Ismael Escobar would sometimes slip on their headphones, turn on some music and zone out while they let their fingers fly.

The eighth-graders spent about 20 minutes at the start of each class practicing keyboarding. They focused on the home-row keys, practiced their speed during timed tests or retyped news articles they found on the web.

“It’s increasing our skills and making us get ready for the real world when we have to type fast,” DeMario said.

With the widespread availability of smartphones, tablets and laptops, kids are getting their hands on technology sooner than ever.

And that means more schools are pushing keyboarding lessons down into the elementary grades. The hope is that in the future, middle schoolers like DeMario and Ismael can focus less on rote typing techniques and more on advanced skills like coding and website development.

[Read more: Someday, computers will replace No. 2 pencils for tests]

“We really feel like if we don’t give them some skills early on, we’ll miss that window and they’ll develop some habits that will be hard to break,” said Cindy Gray, an assistant superintendent in Elkhorn.

Schools also are preparing for state tests that could eventually include a online writing task requiring students to type an answer to an open-ended question or prompt.

Next year, Elkhorn students as young as second grade will be introduced to basic keyboarding. The Omaha Public Schools recently purchased a typing program aimed at elementary students, and the future could include teaching students in kindergarten, first and second grade the function and layout of keyboards.

“Things have really evolved a lot,” said Paul Lindgren, Westside’s director of technology. “When I first came to the district 18 years ago, that’s when they were teaching keyboarding and word processing at ninth grade in the high school.”

Today, students in Westside — which boasts a one-to-one technology initiative that includes iPads in kindergarten — practice keyboarding in grades 3 through 6.

Most districts start formal keyboarding instruction in second or third grade. OPS and Bellevue start in third grade and Millard in second.

As early as kindergarten, Gretna students might start learning how to navigate a mouse or log on to a computer; technology teachers work on keyboarding skills with second-, third- and fourth-graders.

In some districts, media specialists or computer teachers lead the lessons. In others, it’s up to classroom teachers to fit weeks-long keyboarding units into their daily lessons. Different schools use different devices, too, from tablets with touch screens and detachable keyboards to Chromebooks.

“By the end of fifth grade, if they can compose and type a sentence with capital letters, correct spelling, sentence structure ... that’s pretty darn good,” said Bonnie Sibert, the career field specialist for business, marketing and management with the Nebraska Department of Education. “I work with adults who can’t type a complete sentence.”

And yes, schools still teach kids to print and write in cursive, too.

State education officials now recommend that schools start getting kids familiar with keyboards in third grade. More formal lessons, in which kids practice speed, focus on specific keys and work on looking at the computer screen and not down at the keyboard, should proceed in fourth grade and continue throughout middle school, Sibert said.

Instilling career skills in kids is a big part of the keyboarding push. Some have predicted that voice recognition software — think Siri or talk-to-text apps — will eventually phase out typing, but that takeover hasn’t happened yet.

“Business and industry continue to tell us keyboarding is still an important skill,” Sibert said. “It’s not just about how fast they can type, it’s can they be productive? Can they use software? Can they type as fast as they think?”

Natalie Runyon, a computer applications teacher at King Science, said her middle schoolers might not be thinking about their job prospects yet. But she still reminds them that they’ll have to type plenty of papers in high school. Slow, hunt-and-peck typing will only drag out those homework assignments.

“Most jobs now require that you do some type of word processing, especially entry-level jobs,” Runyon said. “By having those keyboarding skills and being able to type fast, to not look at the keyboard, it just gives them a step up in the job force.”

In Elkhorn, there are still some questions about screen time and how early devices should be handed to younger students, Gray said. But teachers see value in covering the basics early, so kids in middle and high school can move on to creating Powerpoints, programming robots and learning more about personal finance.

Those are the applications her students really want to dive into, Runyon said. Her middle school students arrive with a variety of skill levels when it comes to keyboarding. Having students learn from the same typing resource and starting earlier can only help, she said.

“It kind of puts everyone on a more level playing field,” she said. “If I don’t have to focus on that, we can do more of the coding and presentations, iMovie — the stuff they really enjoy.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1210, erin.duffy@owh.com

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Keyboarding in metro-area school districts

Bellevue: Since around 2011, keyboarding lessons start in third grade.

Elkhorn: Starting next year, students as young as second grade will start being introduced to keyboarding.

Gretna: Keyboarding typically takes place in second, third and fourth grades.

Millard: Keyboarding lessons start in second grade and continue through fifth grade.

OPS: Keyboard lessons typically start in third grade. A new typing program could reach down into K-2 as well.

Westside: Keyboarding instruction lasts from third to sixth grades.

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