A Little Known Way to Learn Touch Typing

by Ville Laurikari on Tuesday, May 5, 2009

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I’m constantly amazed at people who work with a computer every day, several hours per day, much of it typing in text, but don’t know how to type.  You’ve seen it: hands happily waving above the keyboard, twin index fingers scanning the rows of plastic keys, sometimes pecking at one; head bowed down, eyes fixed at the keyboard only to occasionally glance up at the screen to check the results.

Of course, I’m not the only one to have observed this.

I was an OK typist already as a kid.  I remember taking a typing class, in the ninth grade I think, and scoring a straight A without even trying (or a 10 actually, the Finnish school grade system goes from 4 to 10).  My friends also marveled at my typing speed.  Regardless of this, I had bad typing habits.  For one thing, I was looking at the keyboard a lot.   Then at high school I got a new friend who was, to my great frustration,  even faster than me.  He knew touch typing.  I didn’t even know what the little raised dots on F and J were for.

During the first year at the university I decided to finally do something about my typing.  Unlearning my old typing method turned out to be really hard.  I would always just fall back to my old ways, because that’s what I had been doing for ten years, and it was just so much easier.   At some point, it dawned on me that I would have to start from scratch: I would have to learn to type with a non-qwerty keyboard layout.  My old skills would be useless on the new layout, so I would be forced to relearn.

At the time, most of the writing I did was either in Finnish or program code, so Dvorak didn’t seem like an optimal choice. If I would have to learn a whole new layout, why not make something that would be perfect for me? So, I wrote a small program which captured all my key presses and kept it running for a week or so. Then I wrote a program which analyzed all the data, gathered the most common chords of two and three letters, and arranged they keys on the keyboard in an optimal way.

This is what my program made for me:


Changing the keyboard layout turned out to work wonderfully.  I couldn’t fall back to my old qwerty skills anymore, and started making real progress with touch typing.  Within a couple of weeks, I was up to my old typing speed.  After a couple of months I was already faster.

I still use this layout.

Nowadays I can easily reach 85-90 words per minute cold, typing in unfamiliar English text. In my first language, which is Finnish, I’m probably somewhat faster.  The fun part is that I have a keyboard layout nobody else in the known universe can use.  It’s kinda fun to let a coworker sit at my computer and watch them fumble.

How did you learn touch typing?  Or do you still look at your keyboard?

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Alec May 7, 2009 at 16:46

Care to share the program, or should we all try writing our own? :D

Kudos for jumping the qwerty ship, although I really don’t mind using dvorak for programming (most words can be autocompleted, so you end up typing symbols much of the time; there’s no good layout compromise between coding and writing :[ ).

Ville Laurikari May 7, 2009 at 17:01

I’ll try to dig it up. It’s been… 14 years or so, but I’ve always been quite religious about backups and archiving old stuff, so I might just find it. I remember it was written in Perl.

Ville Laurikari May 7, 2009 at 21:08

Unfortunately, I cannot find the code anywhere. I did find all sorts of other interesting things I had forgotten about, but not the layout optimizer. You’ll have to either do with dvorak, or write your own optimizer…

Susanna Kaukinen March 21, 2010 at 20:38

Very interesting! I use US-1 keyboard layout because it’s better for programming than the Finnish and I’ve made caps-lock an extra modified key (“shift”) I can use to get the Scandinavian characters from where they normally reside in the Finnish keyboard.

I don’t know how people can stand programming w/the Finnish keyboard where the programming keys have been put to most horrible places. I guess this is how you’d feel about my US-1 qwerty.

Having taken the first step towards the mile you’ve gone here, I also know the downside of this approach: It sucks to use computers that don’t have your layout, when that’s what you’re used to.

Then again you can learn that as well. I don’t have this layout hack at work because I only use the Finnish layout when I write email in Finnish, which isn’t that often. In the beginning I kept on hitting Caps Lock a lot, but after some time I never do that any more at work, while it’s completely automatic at home. My brains have learnt to cope w/different contexts regarding keyboard layouts.

As an afterthought I might add that typing speed really isn’t the biggest concern when you’re programming, especially so w/effectively all editors supporting auto-complete.

Susanna Kaukinen March 21, 2010 at 21:00

85-90 WPM is very fast. I just tried a typing speed test that had quite difficult English in it and got just 59 WPM, zero mistakes. I’ve had only a couple of hours of proper training on touch typing a very long time ago. Of course, I’ve used computers since I was a child.

I have to say, though, that I spend a lot more time thinking what to type than actually typing. So it’s not really such a big deal, if you’re not lightning fast w/your keyboard. But it certainly pays to be quite good. Maybe I should be a little better.

Ville Laurikari March 22, 2010 at 14:21

I just tried the online typing speed test which you tweeted about. I scored 92wpm, but I did make one mistake which I didn’t bother to go back and fix. A quick computation reveals that’s about 7-8 key presses per second. It doesn’t feel that fast. In fact, when I type it feels painfully slow. I still think faster than I type.

Of course total time spent typing is completely dwarfed by total time spent thinking, so in the end typing fast isn’t that important. But sometimes, when you know exactly what you want to type, it’s nice to get it out of your head as quickly as possible :)

Susanna Kaukinen March 23, 2010 at 02:13

Actually, after the conversation we’ve had here about this, it has started to bother me a bit that I cannot write at the speed that I think. It doesn’t really matter, because I take my time creating the sentences and re-wording them, but it’s still a minor annoyance that when you know what you want to say you cannot just “magically” get it to the screen.

Then again, it might be that using our hands is part of the process of creating the things we want to say, because of how our brains work. I’m not sure about this, but there might be something to it.

Susanna Kaukinen June 7, 2010 at 00:40

After watching this: John Underkoffler points to the future of UI and talking about it w/a friend I came back here and it came to me that it might be even better if you had your most common 2-3 letter combos in single keys.

Ville Laurikari June 11, 2010 at 14:55

Susanna, thanks for the link, very interesting stuff. I tend to organize things spatially in my head (who doesn’t?). On a 9×9 virtual desktop, I have IRC in the top right, mail in the bottom left, a couple of shells on the top right, a browser in the middle, and so on. I’d like to be able to organize also my data in this way instead of cumbersome nested directories. An 3d, why not, if there’s a natural way to navigate that.

Not sure about the combo keys, though. There are already enough keys to fully occupy the area I can comfortable cover typing with both hands. My keyboard layout allows me to type a lot in “chords” – it’s optimized so that successive key presses don’t use the same fingers for the most common combinations of 2 and 3 keys (in the material that I typed, a combination of Finnish, English, and code).

Carla December 20, 2011 at 14:37

That is an interesting way of learning touch typing! Unfortunately the image of the keyboard distribution is not visible in my browser (firefox). Can you upload it again? I used this course to learn touch typing

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