Looking at the Keyboard

If you use software to convert your computer's keyboard mapping, you will have to decide whether to relabel your keys to match their new functions. This depends mostly on whether you like to look at the keys as you type.

It's a long-accepted fact that speed typists cannot look at the keyboard. To maintain proper form, the typists' eyes must never stray from the text they're copying. Because of this, typing students are sometimes told to never look at the keyboard, even when first learning the layout. I still hear this old saw from time to time, but I'm not sure it is entirely valid.

In Typewriting Behavior, Dr. Dvorak, et. al. point out that typing students are not speed typists! If you do not know the keyboard layout, you have no hope of achieving "proper form," whether or not you look at the keys. The beginner's slow keystroke motions, while unavoidable, are significantly different from the rapid "ballistic" stroke that are required for speed typing. Learning the keys is a necessary distraction that must be dispensed with before you can learn correct typing motions effectively.

(The distinction between learning the keys and learning correct typing motions is encouraging if you are switching from QWERTY to Dvorak. When you learned QWERTY, your fingers learned how to hit the keys quickly, now your mind just needs to re-learn which keys to hit.)

In the first stage of learning the keyboard, looking at the keys is a reasonable compromise. It has the added benefit of letting your eye guide your finger directly to the correct key, so your finger's muscles learn the key positions more exactly.

In Dr. Dvorak's studies, students typing initially from dictation typed much faster at the end of the course (either from dictation or printed copy) if they were allowed at first to look at the keyboard. The tendency to look fell off naturally when speed increased. From Dr. Dvorak's report, however, I can't tell if students who type from printed copy gained significantly by looking at the keyboard instead of a chart.

If you relabel your keys, and then later find that looking at the keyboard is a problem for you, you might be able to change the labels back as easily. But this can depend on what labeling method you use.

Another consideration is that copy-work typing is falling out of fashion. Many of us do our own typing out of our own heads, so the "eyes on the copy" stricture is not so useful. I find it convenient to watch the screen as I type, though. One might also question whether "speed typing" is an appropriate goal when you are typing your own material. After all, the flow of your thoughts might interfere with a good typing rhythm. Nonetheless, the Dvorak layout can certainly make typing easier and less painful at any speed.

You can make your own decision about whether to look at the keys. When I switched to Dvorak ten years ago, I didn't want to quit doing other things while I retrained. Not looking at the keyboard was so inconvenient that I used paint and dry-transfer lettering to relabel it. Now it is probably much easier just to use overlays.

Right now I type happily at home, in Dvorak, on a QWERTY-labeled keyboard. At work, I changed my keyboard's labels so coworkers can get by (and get exposed to Dvorak) if I ever need to let them drive my machine. I'm not really a speed typist, but then I never was. I blame my pudgy fingers, but Dr. Dvorak would call that a rationalization! Either way, I can type much faster and easier on a Dvorak keyboard.

Back to Introducing the Dvorak Keyboard.

Last update: 25 February 1996
Original page established: 25 February 1996
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