Is Touch-Typing an Obsolete Skill?

December 16th, 2010 209 Comments

I can touch type.

If you don’t know what I mean, you probably don’t touch type, and if you don’t touch type, you hunt-and-peck.

I didn’t make up the terms so don’t get mad at me if you don’t like them. I’ve seen impossibly fast hunt-and-peck typing on a keyboard, and perhaps the greatest hnp typists are texters, whose thumbs can fly across their keypads.

I would compare their words-per-minute output, but as we all know, texting involves “words” that would make my typing instructor lulz.

Photo by Lainey Powell from Flickr used under Creative Commons

Touch-typing is a lost skill, and I wonder why, given its utility to people like me who use a keyboard all the live-long day. I’ve met developers who pound out millions of characters each week without touch-typing. It seems horribly inefficient.

Didn’t they ever stop to wonder why the “F” and “J” keys have nubbies on them?

It would seem odd that touch-typing classes have not become a prerequisite of computer science courses, if only to help the students become more productive. I don’t know if they are, but somehow I doubt it.

Why?

Because through texting and computers at home, children are exposed to keyboards much earlier now, and it’s supremely tough to break ingrained habits like hnp typing. So what’s the point of a touch-typing class?

In addition, I doubt anyone finds real utility in a typing class now, since the touch-typing hallmark statistic of words-per-minute no longer seems valid or useful to getting a job.

The benefits of learning to touch-type vs. hnp typing are too hard to quantify, and thus, “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy yellow dog” is now just a sentence no one uses anymore.

So, am I right? Can anyone touch-type anymore?

Find the comments.


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209 Responses to “Is Touch-Typing an Obsolete Skill?”

  1. Kathleen McDade Says:

    I teach it in an elementary school. And almost invariably, the kids will go back to some version of hnp when no one’s looking. They’ll touch-type for the typing lessons, but if they’re doing a report or something? Almost never. I have ONE classroom teacher who insists that they use proper form outside of the typing lessons too, but that’s it.

    I also have a fair number of adults who tell me on the sly that they never learned to touch-type.

  2. Jake Says:

    I’ll take that as a resounding yes. I wonder if anyone could quantify the time (and therefore money) saved by mandating touch-typing classes.

    It’s funny bc even the best of hnp typists can’t compete with even a below average touch-typist. Weird.

  3. Jake Says:

    I’ll take that as a resounding yes. I wonder if anyone could quantify the time (and therefore money) saved by mandating touch-typing classes.

    It’s funny bc even the best of hnp typists can’t compete with even a below average touch-typist. Weird.

  4. joel garry Says:

    I learned to touch type in junior high, and it still does me good. The instructor would bring in antique 78rpm typing records to teach us increasingly fast rythyms.

    People in work environments sometimes comment on how fast I type, but I don’t consider it all that fast. Sometimes when I’m coding, I’m glad I can type fast enough to remember all the code I’ve worked out in my head.

    I’ve tried to convince the kids it’s a good thing, with mixed results. As long as they’re acing everything, I’m not going to push it. They’re way faster than me typing with a WII, for sure.

    Voice recognition is already here, almost usable. I’d rather be typing than:
    “Call home.”
    “Please select one of the following options:
    1. home
    2. Home
    3. Paul Ho”
    “Two.”
    very long pause.
    “Calling Home, home, is this correct?”
    “yes”
    very long pause.
    (call ended tones)
    But between touch screen in car and touch screen on phone, can’t do it, and can’t use tiny phone keyboard while driving. Not that I can touch type on it anyways.

  5. Gary Myers Says:

    But how much of the time is actually spent typing as opposed to thinking. Touch typing is great if your are transcribing a dictaphone message or hand-written notes, but isn’t a big advantage for authoring content. The question is, are your keyboard skills interrupting your flow of thoughts to document.

    I don’t touch type properly, but don’t need to look at the keyboard all the time when I’m typing. Any slowness is more a result of switching between keyboard and mouse.The mouse is what killed touch typing. We’re an arm short !

    But how can you ask about the relevance of touch typing going forward without using the word “tablet” or “ipad”. Differently sized and oriented screen based keyboards with no tactile response put it all in a new game.

  6. Chris Says:

    I think it just depends on what is important to you. My mother was trained as a legal secretary, my dad not. Mom still types way faster than Dad. Mom taught me where my fingers were supposed to go on a keyboard, but that was it.

    For me the definition of “touch typing” is the ability to type ACCURATELY while not looking at the keyboard.

    That could let you write commentary on something you are watching, watch the screen to be certain you typed accurately (I used to look at the keys, then the screen, then the keys, then….) or simply think while you type because you are not focused on looking at the keys. Whether or not you use the “right fingering” is irrelevant to me.

    My guess is simply that kids will learn, as I did, how to type without looking if they need to. You get people who can sms off a standard phone without looking. That’s touch-typing.

    And yes, the soft keyboards will change things too, but I find that I can type quickly on the iPad when it’s in horizontal mode (the iPhone is terrible for me in any mode while i find Google’s Nexus 1 really easy).

    Just some thoughts.

  7. Jim Says:

    I think it’s funny here at work seeing the different ways people type. People who are IT geniuses do the hnp approach, or do things in Oracle which seems really clunky and slow. I sometimes feel like saying “didn’t you know you can just do x y z instead of that?” but I don’t want to appear like a big head / know it all.

    I can touch type / type without looking at the keyboard, sometimes I make mistakes, but I can also hit the delete key without looking at it 😉 Probably not by using the correct fingers in the right places, but it works okay for me.

    BTW, what +are+ the nubs on the j and f keys for? Also on the #5 on the number pad. I’ve never really noticed them before.

  8. oraclebase Says:

    One comment I would like to make about touch typing in an IT context, I’ve spoken to a couple people who can touch type and do so when writing prose, but when coding they switch back to HNP. Why? Because of all the symbols and special characters they need when coding. I don’t know if this is a limitation of their touch typing skill, or a common feature, but the make-up of prose is quite different to your average programming language.

    Touch typing is always one of those skills I am envious of. I’ve tried to learn it a few times, but reverted to HNP because I’m faster that way. It’s the classic case of needing to take a step back to move forwards, but it’s so darn frustrating… 🙂

    Cheers

    Tim…

  9. Jake Says:

    Interesting point about coding, although when I wrote code long ago, I did so by tough-typing with hnp when necessary, i.e. I looked down at the keyboard to find the symbols.

    Eventually, as with any respectable keyboard jockey, I learned to touch-type the stuff that I used a lot, just like keyboard shortcuts. It’s simply faster, and life is short.

    Which is why you should lament, it’s too late to change your ways anyway.

  10. Jake Says:

    I feel the same way observing people stumble around a keyboard. It’s like a translator using a dictionary, very odd. I also type quickly and nuke errors as I go without looking, still faster, even though it’s not as clean.

    I have the same reaction with keyboard shortcuts too, which I use aggressively to stay on the keyboard.

    The nubs are for finger positioning without looking; the base positions for the index fingers are F and J. The 5 has a nub on phones, remotes and other number pads to give the same base position.

    So if you get lost and start touch-typing gibberish, you can reset your hands 🙂

  11. Jake Says:

    You make a good point about typing without looking, which I suppose takes the h out of hnp. As Jim mentions, I prefer speed to accuracy, i.e. I know where the keys are, including the delete so I can mash out errors at a high rate.

    So, touch-typing may not be obsolete, just the method I (and many others) learned. This begs the question, when will keyboards morph to support new typing methods?

    I can’t touch-type with any accuracy on soft keypads. The lack of tactile keys kills my ability like Kryptonite.

  12. Jake Says:

    I don’t mention tablets or soft keypads bc these have reached the mainstream only recently. Classic touch-typing has been on the decline for a decade; it’s just worse now.

    If you can hnp without looking at the keyboard, you’re touch-typing, even if incorrectly 🙂

    Your point about slowing down the brain to use the input mechanisms is interesting. Funny that touch interfaces have swapped the primary input from key to pointer, i.e. the keyboard is much faster than the mouse, but touch is much faster than soft typing, at least for me.

    The logical conclusion is that voice input will eventually replace the keypad, bringing the input nearly up to thinking speeds.

    Input of the future: voice and touch only. That’s actually much more natural than keyboard and mouse.

  13. Jake Says:

    You mention Gary’s point about the input mechanism slowing down your thoughts, an excellent one.

    Voice will replace the keypad eventually to go with touch as the new inputs. Google’s voice technology is highly accurate, probably bc they’ve been analyzing and transcribing everyone’s Google Voice messages for several years. Do you have an Android phone? You can use voice instead of the keypad.

  14. John E. Bredehoft (Empoprises) Says:

    I took a typing class in 10th grade, in the mid 1970s when the only computers that I encountered were either small computers dedicated to BASIC programming, or large mainframes that used punch cards. (I wouldn’t encounter any type of personal computer until several years later.)

    Basically, I’m lucky that I took that typing class instead of a more academic class. At the time, I had no idea that the keyboard (a word I never used at the time) would become one of the primary communication devices for the next 35+ years. Back then, my highest ambition was to use an IBM Selectric because it simplified the correction process (no erasers!). On a more practical level, I had no idea that almost every job that I would have in the future would involve using some sort of keyboard (either a typewriter or a computer keyboard).

    Even when I’m thinking while typing, touch typing benefits me because I can look at the screen rather than worrying about where my fingers fall. And occasionally, when the words just flow, I can hit my stride and type away at my claimed speed of 60 wpm, or perhaps much faster than that (I’ve never bothered to test myself recently).

    Hmm…at 60 wpm, that means that I can tweet in 28 seconds or less. (And I figured that out using long division – another lost skill.)

  15. Jake Says:

    Nice. I took my typing class in the late 80s or early 90s, right before it became obvious that so many office jobs would require a keyboard.

    I agree somewhat about hitting my stride, although I tend to think Gary is right that the input mechanism (keyboard) really slows down our thoughts.

    Voice can keep up, and it’s improving. Typing at all will be obsolete in the next ten years. Weird right.

  16. John Says:

    I’m learning with online tool from http://www.typingstudy.com There are typing lessons, games and speed tests. And links to other free online tools too 🙂

  17. Gary Myers Says:

    Voice won’t work for coding…unless we get a new coding language without those fiddly punctuation characters. Its full of percent, ampersands, greater than/less than, forward and back slashes, at symbols, underscores, upper case/lower case and three different types of brackets.

    Not sure how well it would work in a crowded office either.It would be fun to turn some-ones mobile ringtone into “Reboot computer” or “Email boss. Subject I quit. Send”

  18. joel garry Says:

    I have an lg 11000, kind of wish I had gone Android now that I’ve had it a while, but it was “free” and I’ve gone from habitual bleeding edge to near-luddite. I bluetooth it in two different cars, the (true and common) example I gave was in the Chrysler. So I never really use the voice to dial on the phone itself. Wife has cheaper phone, and really hates the Sync voice interface in her car, so she usually dials with the nav touch keypad. And since she often has the kids in her car and gets calls from patients she wouldn’t want them to hear, lately she’s taken to turning the bluetooth off. In my station car I keep a plugin headset, and never even think about using the voice commands. It was a real quest finding the right plug for the headset when I first got the phone, four trips to Radio Shack/Fry’s, finally had to stand in a Verizon store looking psycho until they would open a box just to get me outta there.

    In the early ’80s, the most brilliant geek I knew would sit down in front of the terminal, pick up the (CIT-101) keyboard, turn around and put his feet up and start two-fingering at speed like those android commercials, in any of several languages, including BLISS (an OS language) and a commercial language he wrote. While either staring off into space or telling you about some technical thing.

  19. Jake Says:

    Yeah, writing code would be tough in its current forms, but I suspect that will change too, followed very quickly by backlash from old school types about how it’s not real code. Those of us who used to write Pascal, C, PL/SQL, etc will laugh and shake our heads.

    Good point about voice input in the office. I wonder if the keypad will be reworked as classic touch-typing fades.

    Interesting discussion.

  20. Jake Says:

    Yeah, so I had voice commands in those other phones too. Google’s are much better, again bc we helped 😉

    I can’t imagine the office where a guy typing with his feet was encouraged, even for a virtuoso coder. Good times.

  21. Is Touch-Typing an Obsolete Skill? | The AppsLab | Author Course Says:

    […] Typing lessons – Google Blog Search by Coffeelatte […]

  22. joel garry Says:

    lol! I didn’t say two-toeing… but see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KTgLqCgXrU (I thought I uploaded my own video of this guy to my flickr, wonder where it got off to…)

  23. Jake Says:

    That’s just wrong.

  24. Chris Couture Says:

    I took the first computer programming classes at my high school in the mid-80’s, and took typing RIGHT after. Been able to touch-type ever since, and can do like 90wpm. This has served me well, and the only problem I tend to have is getting on a desktop keyboard, since I’ve only owned laptops. The raised keys on the keyboard that come with basic work computers really throw me off! As for coding, its usually no problem. What does throw me is the IDE or app that has no mouse equivalent on the keyboard. I don’t use a mouse at all – not even the touchpad, just the track pointer.

    When I learned to play guitar it was when I stopped watching my hands that I truly felt comfortable with the instrument. I started to play the music, and the instrument was just the vehicle. Computer is the same way, and I noticed that my keyboard and fretboard both have extensive wear, but I know where I am at any moment.

    My Blackberry (Bold 9700 with QWERTY) is getting worn in certain spots too. I don’t look much at this one though if my hands are in any way cold I have to slow down and watch as I can’t feel the edges.

  25. Jake Says:

    90 wpm? Rockstar. I agree that tacile typing is hugely different, even between types of keyboards, which is one reason why I don’t even attempt to touch-type on the iPad.

    I’ve never really liked tactile keypads on phones. Thumbs are just too big for comfort.

    It’s a lost art.

  26. Ashish Derhgawen Says:

    Hey Jake,

    I am a computer programmer, and I learned touch typing in 4th grade. I can type reasonably fast (80-85 wpm), but I don’t think this speed really helps in programming. You have to think more, and type less while programming. The speed comes in handy when writing emails (or writing this post!) If you can touch type, you can type your thoughts without thinking about the keyboard at all. I mean, I don’t think I even know where the “Y” key is on my keyboard…but my fingers know exactly where it is. Touch typists don’t think about the keyboard..they think about their thoughts. Their fingers automatically translate their thoughts to text. 🙂

    I saw a comment on this post saying that kids always switch back to HNP typing when no one’s looking. Kids don’t like learning things they find boring…no one does. I learned typing by playing typing games. Typing games make learning fun and interesting…and some of them are so difficult that you have to touch type to get a good score…hnp just won’t work.

  27. Jake Says:

    I disagree partially with your assessment of touch-typing for writing code. IDEs do so much work for the developer now, especially autocompletion, that code creation can keep up with typing.

    However, when you’re writing code in a plain old text editor, you get caught up in syntax, etc. So, I agree with Tim that coding isn’t a great forum for touch-typing, but it’s an improvement over hnp.

    You’re absolutely right about making touch-typing fun. Back in my day, we had no reason to practice the skill, other than for the grade. Now, I can see why kids would benefit, but it takes even more work to untrain them of their hnp habits.

    If you read here, you’ll know I think everything is better with a game attached 🙂

  28. joel garry Says:

    I asked my 9th grader about this, and he mentioned he learned touch-typing in middle school as part of the digital arts class (this was a science and technology magnet school). 1/2 the class was actual digital art, 1/4 was touch typing (and I forget what the rest was). He still uses it, though I watch him struggle with trying to compose a perfect exposition on the first shot every time, so he hasn’t quite seen the advantage yet. He’s still only doing light texting, so it will be a couple years before he can really answer this question.

  29. Jake Says:

    I guess we’ll find out in a few years if it really matters. On a related note, I really miss Swype on my Android phone, much more easy to use quickly than hnp. But bc it’s in the new Sprint OTA, Swype discontinued the beta for EVO users, and I have a modded phone.

    Fail for me.

  30. Mark Says:

    Hello, I can touch type. In fact I can touch type in a different keyboard layout – Colemak. I have only observed 3 people thus so far in my university whom have the ability to touch type which is worrying – or not since it’s not my fingers hahaha

  31. Jake Says:

    Excellent for you, sad for everyone else I suppose. Touch-typing is a lost art.

  32. Melissa Sorrentino Says:

    I can tell not one of you has any children that have to type homework EVERYDAY! I’m annoyed as a parent that they have taught her excel, word, powerpoint…etc and not one class to help her do her 5 hours of homework she gets every night FASTER! Instead…she asks me because it’s 10:30 at night and it’s the last thing she has left and after she’s spent all afternoon working I feel bad that because she lacks the necessary skills to type it in a reasonable amount of time..I do it for her. I did try to teach her myself over 2 summers, but every September she would get bombarded with homework to be typed and she would revert to her BAD HABITS because at least it was a little faster for her. However…compared to me…SLOW AS HECK! I’ve also used voice software and it sucks because it takes me longer to go back and edit everything. There are way to many people who can type out there and it would cost businesses way to much money to replace all of their compuers so they can upgrade to this type of software and train employees how to use it and try to teach people who touch typing skills to break their habits to form new ones that won’t even save them any time… I THINK NOT!

  33. Jake Says:

    It is sad to see the increasing emphasis of computers in education without the accompanying skill of touch-typing. I guess most schools assume kids already know how to operate a computer so they don’t think investing in touch-typing is worthwhile. Also, the cost of undoing hnp habits makes it more challenging.

    Voice and touch are the banes of touch typing and IMO productivity. Neither provides an interface that’s particularly good at quick entry, which is bad for everyone. Entering this comment on a touch device would take me too long, so I wouldn’t take as much time thinking about what I’m saying or how.

    Funny fact, the iOS keyboard replicates the finger-positioning numbs on f and j, which I find irritating. Why even bother?

  34. joel garry Says:

    I was just thinking about this old post over the weekend, as I watched my 10 year old update his blog for school… he’s getting pretty good at hnp, doesn’t get at all why he should learn touch.  Of course he thinks I’m supercomputerdad, and can’t conceive of being at my level, which I think he will hit in much less than a decade.

    I generally avoid texting, but yesterday I did one on the train on the qwerty phone, and noticed I was thumbing relatively fast, I think I was mentally mapping my ten-finger to the thumbs.  Even the phone-specific special symbols were easier than I recall, that’s a head scratcher to me.

  35. joel garry Says:

    It’s simple.  Refuse to do it for them.

  36. Jake Says:

    Maybe you are supercomputerdad 🙂

  37. oldbushie Says:

    http://www.typeonline.co.uk/typingspeed.php
    “Your speed was: 75wpm.
    Congratulations! You made no mistakes, practice does make perfect.”

    I… never did learn to touch type. If anything I use a weird hybrid between hunt and peck and touch typing. My brain is very fast at finding all the right letters and I do ten finger hunt and peck. I code software for a living.

  38. Jake Says:

    Not bad, I’m not saying there aren’t productive ways to get by without touch-typing. There are. It’s just odd that the rise of computing devices hasn’t coincided w a rise in touch-typing classes. I think touch interfaces have helped kill this skill too. The lack of tactile feedback makes touch-typing difficult and annoying on touch interfaces.

  39. oldbushie Says:

    True, and input devices will continue to evolve over time. It made more sense to me to just use an adaptive strategy for typing versus a rigid strategy, so that as needs change I don’t have to suddenly learn a whole new way of touch typing, or suddenly adjust to a different type of keyboard with disastrous results. I still hate ergonomic keyboards, though, traditional layout all the way!

  40. Jake Says:

    I suspect a lot of developers follow that strategy, myself included. The frequent use of special characters, e.g. braces, brackets and Shift-ing, means traditional touch-typing isn’t as efficient. It wasn’t designed to support frequent use of those characters.

    I must say I do love my ergonomic keyboard though 🙂 Just saying.

  41. Anonymous Says:

    I can do 90wpm blind typing.

  42. Matt Says:

    I’m sure if what I do is considered “hunt and peck,” but I can easily reach 70-80wpm(with usually only 0-2 mistakes). But, I use more than just my index finger to type…so, for example, to type “the lazy brown fox” I would use:
    T-leftindex,
    H-rightindex,
    E-leftmiddle,
    SPACE-thumb,
    L-rightmiddle,
    A-leftring,
    Z-leftring,
    Y-rightindex,
    SPACE-thumb
    B-rightindex
    R-leftindex
    O-rightindex
    W-leftmiddle
    N-rightindex
    SPACE-thumb
    F-leftindex
    O-rightindex
    X-leftring

    I can also type without looking at the keyboard at all with no mistakes, but when I don’t look I tend to use my index fingers a little more.
    Btw, my hands are level like with touch typing, not up with my fist balled like some peckers 😛

  43. Jake Says:

    Interesting system you’ve developed, seems like an effective mod of standard touch-typing.

  44. MA_Welch Says:

    I’m trying to find a class for my son to learning typing – looks to be called keyboarding now.

  45. Nagrad Says:

    I touch type at about 94 WPM. I don’t think that necessarily helps with the job market these days, but I do think that it helps me get my work done faster/more efficiently (I do a lot of correspondence), which certainly makes my boss appreciate my work more. It also means I have more flexibility in my schedule… since I can get the work done more quickly than (most) other people are able to.

  46. Jake Says:

    Wow, that’s impressive. I agree that WPM and touch-typing generally aren’t skills that the majority of employers look for anymore, but there is definitely a productivity boost to GSD faster.

    The lack of touch-typing skills among younger developers and technical people is frightening to me. At some point, your intellectual capabilities are diminished by the slowness required to input data. Look at the pervasiveness of “Sent from my iPhone” emails. Used to be a status symbol, now it’s an apology for poorly composed (and thought out) email.

  47. Jeannie Says:

    Appreciated your reply, and not touch typing, wish you had, and all the rest. At least you’re honest. I think a lot of people secretly think that. My comments are listed above already. Thanks.

  48. Jeannie Says:

    Touchtyping keeps a person from being 100% connected to the keyboard and screen. Um, drone-like? As for the mouse. If I’m working on Microsoft Word Document I can usually type a 5 paragraph essay, story, article draft without even going the the mouse. It’s all right there on the board….
    Fine finishing a composition, yes, mouse there. But the keys do a lot of the effective grammatical, type, and overall “look” of the piece as well. Control + Shft + Italics, for instance.

  49. Jeannie Says:

    No, not that simple. I am a parent and know what it takes to help your child/student through school. Only a conscientious parent can understand the overwhelming frustration.

  50. bj Says:

    This is despairing to hear. I’m grateful every day I sit down at the computer that I went through the torture in high school of learning to touch type. Does it happen overnight. No. It took two years to get good. That was 45 years ago. I’ve never regretted all those insistent typing teachers!

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