A child born in the 21st century comes into a world where there have always been mobile phones, e-readers, computers, and the global information resources available through an internet connection. With software designed for babies as young as six months old, and parents turning to online resources to entertain their kids, some children will start using a computer keyboard before they pick up a pencil to learn to write. Given that good typing skills help people of any age get the most out of their computer connections, it’s a good idea to help children learn the best way to type as soon as they start using the keyboard. Here are some suggestions for teaching children good typing habits:
Help them with posture. “Sit up straight!” isn’t something that parents need to say just at the dinner table, but also at the study desk. We’ve talked before about the importance of the correct sitting position for typing, and how bad placement and posture can lead to muscle pain and even injury. Good posture at the keyboard is even more important for children, whose bones and muscles are still growing. Help them learn the right position for typing, and prevent problems before they start.
Help them with hand position. Children’s hands are smaller, which might make it awkward for them to reach some of the keys on standard keyboard without moving their hands off the home row. On the other hand, they’ll have an advantage on laptops and netbooks with smaller keyboards. You’ll need to explain why it’s important to keep the right hand position, because most kids will think it just makes more sense to use whatever fingers they want to hit the keys. Again, helping develop typing skills at this age creates good habits, so work with children to get them through this first stage of keyboard training.
Help them enjoy the process. Games are a great way to teach kids to type. There are free typing games designed for children that help develop both speed and accuracy. As a parent, you can also come up with games and quizzes for typing practice. Read out a list of words to type, slowly at first and then speeding up. Use names of objects and people familiar to the child, or words related to a special interest like sports or animals. Remember to keep it fun by keeping the sessions short, and provide a healthy treat as a reward. After a while, the reward of being a good typist will be enough to keep them practicing!
Motion-sensing devices have been around for a long time. You or your relatives probably have a light fixture or two near your front door that goes on automatically when someone walks up the steps. Many modern office buildings use this technology to help save energy, with lights and power turned off by a computer system if no movement is detected in a room after a certain length of time. The Wii and Kinect systems take this concept to the next level, translating the user’s movements into onscreen images that allow gamers to directly interact with icons and animated characters. Up until now, there hasn’t been much subtlety in this movement, as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried these games. Sometimes random swings are just as good as purposefully aimed ones in a virtual baseball game. When it comes to typing, random just won’t work, however. Accuracy is essential and so far the only way to get both speed and accuracy is to use a keyboard.
Of course, when a software or hardware developer sees this problem, they work on finding a solution. At last year’s ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a group of researchers from Cambridge,UK demonstrated a new device that uses a wrist-mounted laser-based sensor that accurately translates the position of the user’s hand and fingers into keyboard and screen commands. This device was created as part of the Digits program run by Microsoft, and while it’s not on the market yet, we should be hearing more about this system in the near future.
As these new ways of interacting with the computer gain in precision and speed, it’s possible that we’ll someday have an alternative to the keyboard that matches the fast touch typing speeds and accuracy that good typists can reach. For now, though, you’ll have to save the Wii for virtual bowling, and use the keyboard for your real text input.
When we buy a new computer or other electronic device, we usually don’t spend any time on thinking about how the designers came up with the way users would interact with and input information into that device. We’re too busy learning how to use it – how to access the keyboard, where the command keys are, whether we can customize anything to make it easier to use. But it’s very interesting to look at some of the thought processes that designers go through when they’re in development mode, especially when they’re working with getting user feedback. In fact, one of the ways to know whether you’ll find a device easy to use is to find out how much user testing was done during the development stage, and whether the designers actually listened to the users. That’s why we were pleased to see this breakdown of the path the people in the Microsoft Developer Network took in coming up with a touch-screen keyboard interface for Windows 8 includes lots of work with real users.
It’s important for any development team to really study how people use technology before beginning any redesign process. “Because it’s cool!” might be a fun way to work, but when those devices hit the marketplace, if “cool” isn’t also “easy and convenient” then sales won’t be very good. When the Windows 8 team started to look at how the interface could be easiest and most convenient, they reviewed how people use devices now, and decided that keeping a keyboard would be the best idea, since most people find it easy to use. Voice- and handwriting-recognition software just isn’t good enough yet for quick data entry (and most of us are so used to typing now, our handwriting is just awful!). On the other hand, video tutorials are quickly becoming one of the best ways to teach certain topics, and they don’t require a lot of keyboard training. For example, the guys behind the popular English language site Learn English 232 primarily use videos to teach the basics and the details of native-speaker-level English language skills.
The developers of the Microsoft product went through all the potential problems involved in using a touch-screen keyboard, including the issues of hand position, thumbs-only vs. multiple-finger typing techniques, and the size of the screen relative to the size of the virtual keys. And they decided to add entirely new features to their keyboard, like an “emoji” key that allows you to type emoticons. They’ve also added a press-and-hold feature for those letters that often get diacritical marks in other languages, so people who are typing in Spanish or French or German can type more quickly and easily.
All in all, we were impressed by the thorough approach the design team took to this keyboard development, and hope they will continue to integrate user feedback into future keyboard design.
230 miles (370 kilometers) overhead, astronauts on the International Space Station are keeping fit and training their muscles with a device called the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED). It’s designed to work specific areas of the body to maintain muscle strength, bone density, and endurance. The ARED tracks each astronaut separately, and provides guided fitness exercises for them to do, as well as personal fitness plans. This 21st-century technology helps astronauts stay healthy in space while their medical crew monitors them from the ground. It’s the same sort of cutting-edge technology that allows the Ultimate Typing system to work with each user to make sure that they’re getting the right exercises to move them forward in their personalized typing improvement plan.
Having your own personal trainer at the gym means that you’ll be guided and supported in your exercise routines. The trainer will start you with basic exercises and gradually work you up to harder ones. If you’re lifting weights, the trainer will start you with the lighter weights and make sure that your body is in the right position on the machine so that you get all the benefits without running the risk of injury. That’s what the ARED system does for the astronauts, as it targets different muscle groups in sequence while tracking their progress, increasing the resistance as needed. When you’re logged in to the Ultimate Typing system, your personal typing tutor tracks your progress through the exercises, and will recommend more work on problem areas so that your typing skills are always in top shape.
If you work out at a gym so that you can participate in sports events, you’ll already know the fun of competition. Ultimate Typing gives you the opportunity to experience the “thrill of victory” in typing games – what’s more, since multiple users can access the software, you can compete against friends and family members for high scores, or compare your typing accuracy and speed. And because you can set your own typing goals, there’s no end to improvement. As inspirational author William Clement Stone is quoted as saying, “Aim for the moon … if you miss, at least you’ll end up among the stars.”
You can learn more about the ARED system at the NASA website.
Walking, jogging, going up stairs and down again, reaching out to turn a door handle – you’re so used to doing these things that you don’t have to think about them. You don’t sit down to breakfast and consciously say to yourself, “Now I will stretch out my arm horizontally, rotate my wrist 90 degrees, open my fingers wide and then curl them inwards towards my thumb, increase the muscular resistance in my arm and raise it slightly higher, and retract my arm again.” Instead, you just pick up the glass of orange juice. There’s a useful phrase called “muscle memory” that explains why these familiar actions are so familiar: we’ve done them so many times that they’re automatic. The brain is still involved, of course, but on a completely unconscious level.
Part of the reason that athletes and musicians practice every day is so that they get this muscle memory. In a sense, it’s not only the brain that trains the muscles, it’s the muscles that train the brain. Every time you shape your body in a specific way, whether you’re positioning your fingers to make an E-chord on the guitar or swinging a baseball bat, your muscles “report back” to the brain in a process called proprioception. The information that the muscles transmit to the brain help the brain learn exactly what signals to send to put the muscles in that position the next time. At first, you’re concentrating on what you’re getting your muscles to do, but as time goes on you don’t have to think about it. That lets you move faster and more accurately, and the movement happens automatically.
When you learn to touch type, the same process occurs. When you start out, you have to “tell” your fingers which keys to hit and where the keys are on the keyboard. As you improve, you don’t have to consciously think about where the keys are, and your fingers start to move automatically. A touch typist relies on muscle memory for fast and accurate typing, letting the fingers “think for themselves” while the eyes are busy scanning text to input, or the brain is coming up with ideas to get down on paper – or rather, the computer screen. Learn to touch type, and let your fingers do the thinking!
If you spend a lot of time typing, you know how important it is to have a workspace that minimizes distraction and physical stress, and maximizes efficiency. Many things contribute to this, including the type and position of the chair you sit in, the type of mouse you use, and the height and size of the display screen on your laptop or monitor. As technology and best practices change, though, our assumptions about how a workspace might be configured are changing as well. You might be using a touchpad more often than a mouse these days, and you might even have abandoned your chair altogether to work in a standing (or even walking!) position. But until voice-recognition software finally gets good enough to be a foolproof way of getting words into a clean and correctly-formatted document, the keyboard is still the way you’ll be typing your text.
As we discussed in a previous post, there are many ergonomic keyboards available, and it’s worth looking into some of them if you find that your hands, neck, or shoulders are not in the right position for typing. New keyboard configurations come out every year, so there are many to choose from. They range from simple keypads to standard QWERTY setups, and not all of them are designed with touch typing in mind. Here are some of the more interesting modern keyboards we’ve read about lately:
- a roll-up keyboard that’s easy to carry and easy to clean (QWERTY)
- a laser projection keyboard that turns any flat surface into a QWERTY layout
- a wrist keyboard that has a miniature QWERTY setup (not for touch typing, though)
- a radial keyboard that scrambles the keys out of QWERTY order (still in development)
- a keyboard that eliminates keys entirely
No matter which keyboard you choose, make sure that it allows you to keep your hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders in a natural and comfortable position. As your touch typing skills improve, you’ll find that it’s easier to keep your hands in a relaxed position, but the right keyboard will certainly help.
All parts of your body are involved in typing – your brain, your eyes, the muscles of your shoulder and back and legs, and even your ears if you’re doing dictation or listening for the ‘ding’ of your computer’s automatic spell-check feature that helps you quickly correct your mistakes. But the parts that do the most work, and suffer the most stress, are your hands and fingers. If you spend long hours each day typing, it’s important to take regular breaks to keep the circulation of air and blood going strongly through your body, and to rest your eyes as well as stretch out your muscles. If you find that your hands are starting to cramp or ache, you can try some quick hand massage techniques to help loosen muscles and tendons.
Start by making small circles with the flat of your thumb around the palm of your other hand. Keep that hand relaxed while you do the massage. Use enough pressure to reach deep muscles, but not so much that you’re causing yourself more pain. Make circles over the base of the thumb on that hand, and be sure to massage the thick pad of muscle between the thumb and forefinger. Turn your hand over and continue to use the thumb of the other hand, massaging these muscles at the base of your thumb and up to the webbing.
Move to the thumb itself, and use the thumb and fingers of your other hand to massage it from the base of the thumb to the thumbnail, on both sides. Do the same for each of your other fingers, then work your way back to the thumb again. As you move back to the thumb, take a minute to massage the webbing between each of your fingers.
Gently pull your thumb from base to tip, helping to elongate the muscles and stretch the tendons. Do this for each of the fingers. Some people may find that this causes their joints to “pop” as the fingers are stretched; in general, this is just a sound that is made by a bubble of gas escaping from the synovial fluid around the joint (a natural process) or of a ligament snapping back into place. However, if there is pain when your joints “pop” then don’t do this part of the exercise, and check with your doctor, as this often indicates arthritis.
Switch hands and repeat the massage. When you get used to the process, you’ll find it’s something that you can do even while standing or walking, so you could combine a quick hand massage with a break from sitting at your desk, which will be good for you all over.
Touch-screen keyboards can be difficult to use sometimes, because the key spaces are closer together and smaller than on a standard keyboard, and even if you’re a fast touch typist you might find that this slows you down. But with this iPad docking station, you’ll get the benefits of modern technology and a great retro look and feel. Use the vintage manual typewriter keys to type as you would on any keyboard, and the specially-designed arm will softly strike the iPad’s smaller keyboard in the right places. You won’t wear out your eyes or your thumbs trying to use those small virtual keys, when you can benefit from technology that’s been tried and tested for decades!
Wait a minute ….
It was just an April Fool’s joke played on the internet community (some of whom believed it) by British company SpinningHat back in 2011. There are many forms of plug-in and virtual keyboards on the market that can make typing easier if you’re having a problem using your touchscreen interface, but a fake manual typewriter setup isn’t something that would likely save you time, and there’s no way one single striking arm could keep up with even average typing speed. In future posts we’ll look at some of these keyboard alternatives – and we won’t be fooling around, really! – but if you want to experience the look and sound of a 1930s-era manual typewriter, you can go to the DigitalFuture site and play with their virtual machine. The only thing missing is the paper!
Location, location, location – that’s the key to the real estate world, and also the key to touch typing. You need to have your hands positioned correctly on the keyboard, and your fingers have to know exactly where all the letters are without your eyes having to help them along. When your hands are properly placed over the home row of the keyboard, you’ll be able to type in the fastest, most efficient way possible. The Fast Typing Tonics exercises in Ultimate Typing help you with specific practice routines to get your hands and fingers used to working on the home row, the top row, and the bottom row, or all three rows together. You’ll get exercises designed to strengthen your right hand and your left hand, separately or in combination.
You can practice these skills on your own as well, just by coming up with lists of words or phrases that focus on certain areas of the keyboard, or particular combinations of letters that give you problems. Remember, the more you practice, the more quickly your fingers will get the “muscle memory” that is essential to fast and accurate touch typing.
Here are some practice words that target different areas of the keyboard:
TOP ROW WORDS
HOME ROW WORDS
LEFT HAND WORDS
RIGHT HAND WORDS
ALTERNATING HAND WORDS