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Teaching Fluent Keyboarding Skills

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #67, 2005.

How to measure and improve keyboarding fluency.
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Michael Maloney

With the introduction of the personal computer, keyboarding skills have taken on new importance. Prior to having our own data systems, for a period of a century or more "keyboarding" was generally known as "typing." Typing was usually reserved as curriculum for those students who might be entering the world of business. This was especially true if the students happened to be young women who were not entering the academic stream. Whole generations of young women went to secondary school business courses as a precursor to working in offices. There they learned numerous general procedures used in offices of the day, including how to type fluently and how to take dictation using shorthand.

All of that changed with the introduction of the personal computer. The day of the "steno pool" in large offices has long gone. Increasingly, even top executives need to be able to enter information into their personal computers without the aid of dictation or a secretary. With this technological shift during the past 25 years, everyone has needed to develop fluent keyboarding skills.

The next major paradigm shift may occur as computers begin to be able to recognize speech so that information can be entered verbally. For "speech recognition" ever to became the standard, programs will have to be able to cope with regional accents, slurred and lazy diction, and even the stuffed-up sound of someone speaking with a head cold! While there has been progress in this area, most people still need to use a keyboard for most computer applications.

Frequency as a Standard Measure

In the past, when typing was taught in the secondary school curriculum, it had one very notable feature. Success in the course was related to the frequency with which you could enter characters accurately on the keyboard. This is a measurement dimension that was completely novel to educators and used in no other subject area except in learning the long lost art of shorthand.

Typically learning to type involved three distinct courses. The beginning course required the learner to be able to type 25-30 words per minute without errors in order to pass the course. The intermediate course required the learner to double that performance to 50-60 words per minute entered correctly.

In the advanced course, for students intending to be executive secretaries, court reporters, or engaged in other specialized data entry positions, the bar was set at 80-100 words per minute. This ceiling was established because of the physical limits of the original non-electric typewriters. If data entry occurred at speeds faster than 100 words per minute, the mechanical arm of the typewriter keys would jam because they could not retract quickly enough not to be hit by another approaching arm.

Why should you measure "keystrokes per minute" rather than the old standby "words per minute"? Because "kpm" is a much more accurate measure than "wpm." A word may be two letters long - the word me - or 12 letters long - the word protoplasmic. But every time you hit a key, that is exactly one keystroke. To convert from kpm to wpm, figure the average word as 6 keystrokes (5 letters and a blank).

Different Keyboards

In an attempt to resolve this dilemma, the keys were arranged in several different orders as the typewriter evolved. The common North American configuration is called the "QWERTY" keyboard named after the first six letters of the upper left top row. Europeans developed the Dvorak keyboard with different keys in different places. The original keyboard design remained as each new generation of typewriters emerged. The QWERTY keyboard was then carried over without change to the personal computer, despite fairly convincing research that the Dvorak keyboard was easier to learn.

Finger Placement Is Key

Learning to keyboard has several unique features. It is one of those few manual skills in which you are expected not to look at your hands, but rather to keep your eyes on the screen or on the document you are typing. That means that you have to know which fingers are on which keys at all times.

Learning finger placement is the first step to fluent keyboarding. In almost all commercially available keyboarding programs, this begins with learning proper finger placement on the "home row." The home row is the middle row of the keyboard with a,s,d,f on the left and h,j,k, and l on the right hand side of the row. With his fingers on these keys, the student is expected to learn to reach up and back to the rows above and below in order to enter these characters.

Rate and Accuracy

Like many manual skills, learning to keyboard fluently has two major tasks.

The first is to reach a frequency that is considered fluent. Most competent keyboarders enter 400-500 keystrokes per minute with few if any errors.

The second major task is to eradicate errors which occur when the wrong key is pressed, not pressed sufficiently hard or held down too long.

Like most skills, learning to keyboard is best learned in small steps, which are then chained together into a larger whole. Learning the finger placement of the home row becomes the first step in the process. When a student can enter letters in the home row at 400+ keystrokes per minute without looking, he is ready to move to the other rows.

The problem with some commercially available programs is that they did not retain the frequency measure that was traditionally part of teaching students to type. Instead the program uses a percent correct measure to determine the accuracy of each keystroke. Once the frequency measure has been dropped, the students can be deemed competent on an accuracy criterion, even though they are well below the fluency standard of 400-500 strokes per minute.

The Role of Practice

In learning most manual skills, the effect of daily practice has few equals. Skilled athletes and performers provide a model for such activities. Tiger Woods hits a thousand golf balls daily. The outcome is clearly evident in his standing atop the world of professional golf. Famed classical musician Yo Yo Ma practices his cello for hours every day, even though he is already a virtuoso. To reach fluency, students need to practice the fundamental home row strokes on a daily basis. Once the home row has been learned, practicing different keystrokes builds the necessary fluency.

Ergonomic Considerations

When learning to keyboard, posture is a major consideration. It is important to make sure that the person is sitting properly in front of the computer. The feet should be placed so that the knees are at right angles to the floor. For children, this may mean placing a stool under their feet if the chair does not adjust sufficiently. Their arms should be parallel to the desktop so that they are not reaching either up or down to touch the keyboard.

Some people use an ergonomic pad in front of he keyboard. Resting your wrists on the pad ensures that your hands are in the proper position.

Students should be sitting relatively straight, not leaning too far forward over the keyboard. Their heads should also be level, not drooping forward. Sometimes it is helpful to place the computer monitor on a stand so that it is at the appropriate eye level for the student.

To the extent that these posture considerations are overlooked, the student may become tired and stiff faster. Fatigue and discomfort will then begin to affect performance.

It's just about impossible to make laptops ergonomic, by the way!

Students should practice for short periods, approximately 10-15 minutes per session once or twice a day. They should record their results so that they can see the improvement or any problems that they are encountering.

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