Back in the day – before computers ruled the world and IBM Selectric typewriters were all the rage – touch-typing was the only game in town. Millions of future secretaries were taught in middle and high school to place their fingers on the home keys: "A-S-D-F" and "J-K-L-;", memorize the locations of the other keys and dash off the boss's letters with nary a mistake nor glance at the keyboard.
Today some kids still learn typing (more likely, the class is called "keyboarding"), but most people, even if they learned it in school, stare at the keyboard as they type. We're hunting and pecking with just a few fingers to get those emails and Facebook posts correct with no regard for the home keys. So, which group is quicker on the draw: the ones who touch type or the rest of us?
Researchers at Vanderbilt University looked at just that in a recent study. Is a touch-typist who uses all 10 digits, never looks at the keys and keeps those fingers firmly on the home keys faster than a maverick who using a couple of fingers and thumbs in a willy-nilly style, eyes glued firmly to the keyboard?
The study involved 48 participants, 24 who self-identified as touch or standard typists and 24 as nonstandard. So, what did they find? The fingers of standard typists flew across the keys from home base at an average of 80 words per minute, while the nonstandard typists averaged a very respectable 72 words per minute.
"According to basic psychological laws that govern fine motor skills, the typing style that uses the most fingers consistently should be the fastest and most effective," says one of the researchers, Vanderbilt psychology professor Gordon Logan, in a press release. "Our study confirmed the theory by determining that touch-typists have a definite edge in speed, but we also found that nonstandard typists can type almost as quickly and accurately as touch-typists as long as they can see the keyboard."
The researchers note that most people nowadays aren't just copying other material when they type but composing at the same time. An unpublished test showed that a skilled typist who could do 78 words per minute dropped to 45 words per minute when he or she had to compose a message. Therefore, the speed difference between standard and nonstandard typists probably doesn't have much impact on sending messages and posting.
Given these results, the researchers think it may be time to abandon the home keys and not teach typing in schools any more.
"The benefits of earlier training may not be large enough to outweigh the costs the typist and educational system would have to pay," Logan says. "Similarly, our results raise the question of the value of remedial training for nonstandard typists."
Sounds like a research question for another day.