Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 9, NO. 4 / APRIL 1983 / PAGE 202

Learn to touch type. (computer use) (evaluation) Stephen Stares.

Learn To Touch Type

For many computer owners, a word processor is one of their most valuable programs. It bestows the freedom to create and produced documents away from the confines of the office and without the help of secretaries. Often, though, a severe cramp in this new found freedom is the inability to type quickly. Inaccurate typing is of less significance, since documents can always be cleaned up magnetically before printing. But basic slow speed, the inability to put thoughts down on paper at a reasonable pace, is always frustrating. Therefore, if your heart's desire is to write, by it great literature, seedy novels, sober articles, or mere business letters, then it is well worth your while to learn the art of touch typing.

An idea of the speeds available with different techniques is given in Figure 1. Hunt and Peck is a miserable form of typing in which a single finger on each hand is used to pick letters off one by one. It is the most natural form of typing for the novice to slip into, but has servere restrictions on the upper speed which can be achieved. Far better to take the plunge, pass through a period of undeniable awkwardness, but emerge at the end a true touch typist.

The Art of Touch Typing

It is a fact that most copy typists do not absord the content of what they are typing. The text flows in at the eyes and flows out again at the finger tips; the brain in the middle can be occupied, at least partly, with far more interesting things. In other words, touch typing is not an intellectual exercise; it is a purely reflexive skill.

At first, typing is a slow process as the following steps are consciously followed:

1. The eye reads a letter (or the mind conceives of one).

2. The brain recognizes the letter.

3. The brain decides where the letter is on the keyboard.

4. The brain selects the finger to be used.

5. The brain directs the finger to the appropriate key.

6. The letter is typed (or mistyped as the case may be).

The objective in touch typing is to merge the four middle stages which take place in the brain, so that they become one instinctive action, as natural as handwriting. This can be developed only with practice; learning to type shares some of the characteristics of learning to play a musical instrument.

Preparing To Type

There used to be a children's radio program which began: "Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.' Sitting comfortably is of particular importance for typing. Poor posture will haunt you with strain, backaches, and general tiredness. It is, therefore, worth the effort to spend some time preparing a good work station for your typing.

Absolute specification of chair and table heights is impossible, since everything depends on the shape and size of the individual. In general, though, the following rules should be followed in determining a typing position (see also Figure 2):


The furniture used to achieve this ideal will depend upon availability or purse. Office style furniture is clearly very suitable, if expensive, with chairs of adjustable height and a range of tables designed to hold typewriters. Absolute conformity to the ideal, however, is not necessary, and adequate adjustments to existing furniture can often be made using cushions, books, and other props. If you still end up with an unsatisfactory arrangement, the ensuing aches and pains will soon let you know.

Starting To Learn

Learning to type with a computer is much easier than learning with a conventional typewriter:


Above all, and following on from the last point, even a novice can prepare a good looking document, since however badly typed initially, it can be cleaned up magnetically and printed without a trace of the original errors showing. Hence, a novice can be productive immediately. With a conventional typewriter, production in the early stages of learning is either extremely slow, or the final document is knee deep in whiteout liquid.

A systematic approach to learning is highly desirable. It is possible, of course, to use conventional self-teaching material, such as can be found in many libraries and book shops. However, why not instead call upon the considerable power of the computer as a teaching tool? Several teaching programs have been developed and two are discussed later in this article. Such programs can present graded material for learning, monitor progress, and even adjust the lessons to concentrate on weak keys. They are ideal for teaching touch typing, since the eyes naturally concentrate on the screen, which is a prime requirement for practicing.

It is better to practice 15-20 minutes each day, rather than have a two-hour blitz every Saturday morning. A longer period each day is, of course, better. If possible, set aside a regular period for practice, preferably when you are reasonably fresh.

Learning The Letters And Punctuation Marks

A basic feature of touch typing is that each key is typed by a specific finger and no other. The keys for each finger are allocated in a logical manner, so that each key can be reached comfortably, without having to stretch too much. The aim is to make the typing of each letter so automatic that no conscious thought is required. First though, the keys must be learned, and this can be done by studying the diagram of the keyboard presented in Figure 3.

Note that the thumbs are used for nothing more than hitting the space bar. Strict teaching demands that only the right thumb be used, but I really cannot see why. Anyway, the main point is that this leaves only the four fingers of each hand for the serious task of striking the keys.

A vital point to remember, is that a rest position, to which it should always return after striking a key, is defined for each finger. This rest position is just above what is termed the home row, that is, the middle row of letters in the diagram above. The fingers of the left hand are positioned over the letters A, S, D, and F, while the fingers of the right hand are positioned over the letters J, K, and L and the semicolon. To strike the other keys, the fingers move in a diagonal slanted to the left, as indicated by the lines on the diagram. Thus the left lettle finger moves from the home position over the A key, up and left to strike the Q key, and down and right to strike the Z key. The middle finger of the right hand moves from the home position over the K key, up and left to strike the I key, and down and right to strike the comma key.

The two index fingers have to work overtime, since they must deal with two columns of letters. The left index finger strikes the letters G, T, and B, as well as F, R, and V. The right index finger has the additional burden of the letters H, Y, and N, along with J, U, and M.

For all keys away from the rest position of the fingers, the action is always three-part: move the finger, strike the key, move the finger back to the rest position. The action of striking the keys should be a sharp, quick tap. A slow uncertain prod can lead to repeated letters, and a groping action often leads to two keys being struck together, with uncertain results.

On computers which allow the typing of both capital and small letters (upper and lower case), the use of the shift key must be learned. To form a capital letter, it is usually necessary to strike the appropriate key while at the same time holding down the shift key. A conventional keyboard has two shift keys, one at the left and one at the right. In this case, the rule is to use the little finger of the hand not being used to strike the letter key, to hold down the nearest shift key. However, computers vary considerably in their implementation of the shift, so you will have to study the particular characteristics of your machine before deciding on the best technique to use.

For true touch typing, it is essential to learn to type without looking at the keyboard. Therefore, when practicing after the keys have been learned, glue your eyes to the screen. Occasional glances to ensure that hands are in the correct positions are permissible, but visual searching for the keys must be eliminated.

Before worrying about the numbers and the symbols, it is best to learn the letters and punctuation marks thoroughly. These are the keys which are used most frequently, and mastery of them is nine-tenths of the battle of learning to touch type. Therefore, the next step is to build up speed and accuracy on the letters and punctuation marks, leaving the numbers and symbols until later.

Developing Speed And Accuracy

Quite early on, you will find that you have typed a set of letters without consciously having directed your fingers. You will have conceived of the word "the,' and suddenly "the' is on the screen in front of you. What ecstasy! It is akin to the golfer's first full sweet drive down the fairway, or to the first time a novice water skier rises out of the water and starts planing. You have passed through the main barrier, and although there is hard work ahead, the knowledge that you can do it makes all the difference.

There are now two distinct objective to pursue; speed and accuracy. Experience shows that it is impossible to concentrate on both at the same time.

Improved speed is the main goal; to a large extent, accuracy will follow naturally. To develop speed, it is necessary to push hard, giving your fingers every chance to demonstrate their knowledge of the keys, ignoring, as far as possible, any evidence to the contrary. It is a little like weight training; if it doesn't hurt, it is not doing you much good. Similarly, if you don't make mistakes while going for typing speed, then you are not trying hard enough.

For accuracy, it is necessary to slow down a little. Deliberately think, or even say out loud, each letter before typing it, and concentrate on making each action sharp and precise. Aim at a regular typing action, possibly tapping your foot and typing to the rhythm. When starting a session on accuracy, start slowly and well under control, and then build up to a comfortable speed.

Decide before starting to type whether to practice for speed or accuracy. A possible pattern for a session might be to start with accuracy, build up to the maximum comfortable speed, practice a while, and then spend some time on speed. It might be best to end up again on accuracy, so that you don't lose heart. As a guide, if accuracy is above 95 percent (5 errors in 100 keystrokes), then you should push for more speed. On the other hand, if your accuracy is below about 85 percent, then more time should be spent on this aspect.

Note that a typist using a conventional typewriter should be aiming at an accuracy of 98 or 99 percent, but because error correction using a word processor is so simple, and because corrections leave no trace on the final document, a higher error rate can be tolerated by a computer user.

Vary the practice exercises with some real typing. If you are learning to type for a specific purpose, then finding suitable material will not be a problem. If you are stuck for material, then try typing your personal letters, or making comprehensive notes on computer procedures. You could even try your hand at writing an article.

Keep notes on progress. I divided a page into sets of three columns to record the day, accuracy, and speed of each sesion as calculated by the Microsoft Typing Tutor II program (see below). If you must time speeds and count errors by hand, then one self-test every two or three days is sufficient.

When you start practicing in earnest after having learned the keyboard thoroughly, your speed is likely to be between 5 and 10 words per minute. With regular practice, a build up of 5 words per minute each week is attainable. If this seems slow, take heart--within a month you should be typing as fast as you can reasonably write by hand, and within two months you could be classified as an average, if unspectacular, typist. Even if you are slower than this, and many will be, be encouraged by steady progress. Remember that once achieved, a reflex skill like this is hard to lose.

The Numbers And Symbols

Once the letters have been mastered, it is easy to extend the technique to take in the numbers and symbols. The numbers are located in a separate row of keys located above the top row of letters, Q to P, as shown in Figure 4.

Each finger has a specific column, or pair of columns, to look after on the keyboard as determined previously. It is, therefore, a straightforward matter to extend this pattern to include the number keys. Hence the left hand little and middle fingers type the 1 and the 3 respectively, while the index finger looks after both the 4 and the 5. The right hand follows the same pattern.

The symbols are only slightly more complicated in that most of them require the simultaneous depression of the shift key. Since the locations of the symbols on the keyboard vary depending on the specific computer considered, it is not practical to describe key locations in detail. However, the general rule is the same as for typing capital letters; use the appropriate finger to strike the key, as determined by the letter or number, and at the same time hold down the shift key with the little finger of the other hand. As noted earlier, if your keyboard does not conform to the standard pattern, then you will have to work out your own procedure.

Although it is useful to build up speed and accuracy on the numbers and symbols, they are not used as often as the letters and punctuation marks, so if you must make a choice, spend your practice time on the letters.

Typing Teaching Programs

I have tried two teaching programs, MasterType by Lightning Software and Typing Tutor II by Microsoft. Both have advantages and disadvantages. I found that Master Type was better for initial learning, but that Typing Tutor II was better for building up speed and accuracy.

Master Type

MasterType is a typing game. You have control of a command center in the middle of the screen, and ranged around you are four enemy bases, each one occupied by a word. The words send out missiles to attack the center, and you can escape damage only by typing that word before the missile hits. If you manage to type a word while no missile is on the way, that word is destroyed. The base survives and is occupied by the next word. The game continues until you have destroyed all the words, or until the words have destroyed the center (which takes two hits on one side).

To play the game, one of 17 lessons is selected, together with a speed which roughly corresponds to a typing speed in words per minute. Each lesson contains 40 words, and the lessons are graded to concentrate on specific keys. For example, lesson 1 teaches the letters of the home row, while lesson 3 is on three, four, and five letter words on the home row.

As words are destroyed, points are scored. Depending on the final score, encouragement is given in a few standard phrases. You can choose whether or not to see the letters as they are typed; choosing not to see them nets you more points. Scoring over 10,000 points, which can be achieved when winning with a typing speed of between 15 and 20, will result in the recommendation to go on to the next lesson.

For learning the keys, this is an excellent program. For further practice, though, it tends to be repetitious. I found myself stuck on a plateau of achievement, unable to achieve enough points to earn the recommendation to go on to the next lesson, and yet weary of repeating the same words in the same order. Also, part of my skill was due to having learned that lesson by rote, rather than having really built up the typing reflex. Although you can specify your own lessons to ease this problem, I preferred to go on to the Typing Tutor II program.

The graphics in MasterType are quite spectacular. Unfortunately, the program is also very noisy, and I found typing amidst the sound of the arcade rather disconcerting. Perhaps the younger generation finds this the ideal environment, but I don't. The sound can be turned off, but I didn't like the total silence either.

Typing Tutor II

Typing Tutor II is a rather more sober program than Master Type. It functions in two modes, either to teach the keys, or to provide practice in typing complete paragraphs. In either mode, it has the remarkable feature of adapting the lesson or practice paragraph to your actual performance. Thus, if the program detects that you are particularly slow or inaccurate on a certain letter, then that letter will come up more often for practice.

In the teaching mode, the program introduces a set of eight letters which must be typed. The program measures response times on each key and classifies them as fast or slow. Each letter which achieves a "fast' rating is passed to a special file to make way for new letters to be introduced. A new set of letters for typing, made up of previous letters not yet classified as fast, plus new letters, is then put on the screen. After you type each set of letters, the program reports the error rating and typing speed. No allowance is made for achievements in previous sessions, but the program quickly catches up to your typing level. Every ten sets of letters, the program allows you to adjust the response speed for classifying keys as fast or slow. Using this feature, the rate at which new keys are introduced can be varied.

The paragraph practice mode can be selected at any time. If selected after a session in the teaching mode, paragraphs will be made up from words using letters being practiced. If selected at the beginning of the program, words using all keys will be used. After each paragraph, overall speed and accuracy are reported, together with information on specific errors by key and a list of which keys are slow. If another paragraph is requested, it will be composed of words selected to give more practice on keys judged to be weak.

Whatever mode is selected, it is possible to specify just letters, letters and numbers, or all keys including symbols.

Overall, this is a first class program. My only complaint is that it was a little intimidating at the beginning, with new letters being introduced rapidly. Although the rate at which letters are introduced can be controlled, I much preferred to use the Master Type game to learn specific keys at a rate totally under my control.

Once the keys have been learned, Typing Tutor II is excellent for building up speed and accuracy. Although it uses a fixed pool of words which are therefore often repeated as in Master Type, they are presented in varying orders and combinations, and there is not the same sense of repetition as with Master Type.

Planning Material To Be Typed

In general, it is not good to compose at the keyboard without at least a rough outline of what you want to write. To a large extent, the advantage of touch typing is lost if too much time is spent sorting out thoughts at the keyboard. Make notes first. These could be quite extensive in the early stages, but will probably be abbreviated as experience is gained.

Usually, I write notes on a subject as they occur to me, more or less at random. Then I review the notes, putting them in order, and filling in the gaps as necessary. I then add subheadings to break up the text, and perhaps refine the notes a little more. Only then am I ready to hit the keyboard.

Summary And General Hints

Touch typing is a skill well worth acquiring if you plan to do much writing with a word processor. The following rules summarize the advice given here on how to go about learning:

1. Get comfortable, so that you can type in as relaxed a condition as possible.

2. Adopt a methodical approach to learning the keys and then building up speed and accuracy. Use a self-teaching book, or better, invest in one of the teaching programs available for your computer.

3. Once the keys are learned, constantly strive for higher speeds; accuracy will develop naturally, but speed comes only when you press.

4. Practice regularly each day, preferably at the same time so that it becomes a habit.

5. Vary your regular practice material with useful typing.

6. Sort out your thoughts on what to type before going to the keyboard.

Photo: Figure 1.

Photo: Figure 2.

Photo: Figure 3.

Photo: Figure 4.

Products: Lightning Sofware MasterType (computer program)
Microsoft Corp. Typing Tutor II (computer program)