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Dvorak Typing 101

Typing 101


The story of a fast typist and his decision to throw away 25+ years of QWERTY experience and to learn to type all over again with the Dvorak keyboard layout

By Randy Edwards

I first learned to type in high school in the 1970s. In my school boys just didn't take typing. Instead, they took shop. Since I was a rebellious twit, and since I thought I already spent too much time under the hood of a car, I opted for typing just to be different. As I remember there was only one other guy in the typing class.

I'm ashamed to admit that it took me about a week before I had my epiphany. One day I thought, "Wow, instead of being down in shop class getting dirty with all the guys, here I am in typing class with all girls!" Hey, I never claimed to be the brightest bulb in the box but even I could recognize a good deal. Of course, typing class kept me busy enough so that actual interaction with the girls was minimal at best, but few things are perfect, right?

That typing class served me well later in life as I worked in the computer software industry, various technology jobs and in education. Over the years when I would bother to measure my typing speed I'd often hit well over 100 words per minute. I was a damned good typist.

2 keyboard layouts?

I don't recall when I first heard about the Dvorak keyboard layout, but the story of keyboard layouts is an interesting one. Our commonly used QWERTY keyboard layout was invented in the late 1800s for one specific reason: to slow typists down.

The QWERTY format's keys were laid out to keep the typists slow so that the old mechanical telegraphs and typewriters would not jam. Those ancient mechanical devices literally needed time for gravity to pull a letter's arm down to clear the way for another letter to be typed. Later some letters of the QWERTY format would be rearranged so that typewriter salesmen could spell the work "typewriter" using only the keys on the top row.

The Dvorak layout owes its existence to science and the US Navy. The Navy in the 1920s and 30s was on the cutting edge of office technology. The Navy assigned a team to create a logical and efficient keyboard layout. The result of that work, named after Dr. August Dvorak, is called the Dvorak keyboard layout.

The two-handed standard Dvorak keyboard layout.

Why wasn't the Dvorak layout more widely adopted? Before WWII the Navy was busy buying thousands of Dvorak typewriters and retraining its typists to the Dvorak layout. In that time period the Dvorak layout was quickly growing in popularity. But with the US entry into WWII, the US gov't standardized on the more popular but less efficient QWERTY format.

The Dvorak layout is shockingly efficient. It's attractive to businesses since it reduces costs due to repetitive motion injuries (e.g. carpal tunnel syndrome). One study found that the Dvorak layout reduced finger movement by 70% compared to the QWERTY layout. Find that to believe? Consider that using only the home row keys of the QWERTY keyboard you can type 49 words. But using the home row keys of the Dvorak keyboard you can type 618 words. (Note: Some will argue over the exact number of home row words, but believe me, there is a dramatic difference.)

Not only is raw finger movement wildly reduced, but Dvorak's scientific layout means that some commonly used letter combinations (e.g. "th") are placed sequentially so you can type them as you would strum your fingers. Using logic in laying out a keyboard -- as opposed to creating a keyboard layout whose goal was to actually slow down typists -- can really make a difference. Studies that report much shorter training times for Dvorak typists confirm this.

Forgetting about WWII, why aren't we using Dvorak today? After all, there is no longer a gov't mandate to standardize keyboard layouts.

In the late 90s, I examined the Dvorak layout while working as a technology coordinator and later as a computer science professor. At that time there was a fiscal argument against Dvorak, that being the cost involved with replacing keyboards. But I'm happy to report that argument is no longer valid.

Modern keyboards

Today typewriters are few and far between and we all work on programmable, personal computers. Any one of the 3 most popular operating systems for PCs -- GNU/Linux, the MacOS, and Windows -- can all remap their keyboard layouts. In other words, an individual user can type in a Dvorak layout even if the computer has a physical QWERTY keyboard attached to it (or vice versa). This switch in keyboard layouts is easy. In Windows, for example, it takes literally two mouse clicks to toggle between QWERTY and Dvorak or vice versa.

If the letters on the keyboard not being "correct" bothers you, well, you basically have two options. You can replace the keyboard. Or you can buy stickers to stick over the old letters. (Though on some keyboards you can pop off and physically rearrange the keys, be warned: many keyboards use keys of differing angles and sizes, thus physically rearranging them often won't work.)

Why are we using an inefficient keyboard layout?

So again, why aren't we using Dvorak today? The answer, it seems, is sheer laziness and inertia.

After all, I dare any honest person to spend 20 minutes trying to type with a Dvorak keyboard. It will seem uncomfortable but the logic of the layout will scream at you.

So why do schools insist on teaching students a keyboard layout designed in an age before airplanes, when horses ruled the roads and whose sole design goal was to make typing difficult to slow down typists? Why do we refuse to use the much simpler and more efficient Metric system?

The answer is simple: inertia, laziness and a resistance to change to something obviously superior. That may be an excuse for you and I in relearning how to type, but is our resistance to change a valid reason to teach the QWERTY layout to today's youth and increase their chance of repetitive stress injuries?

This issue was presented to me in a straightforward way in a discussion in an EdTech mailing list I'm subscribed to. One person admitted that Dvorak was clearly a superior layout but that its advantages were not enough for him to relearn to type. Having typed for more than 25 years, I completely understood the logic of his position.

Despite understanding him, that knowledge bothered me. It ate at me. I'm the type who enjoys laziness but who abhors stupidity. I couldn't reconcile the issue of whether I was being lazy or stupid -- or worse, both! As a technologist who has learned to program in many computer languages over the years, the idea of not adapting to a superior method appalled me. It hit me doubly so since I'm an educator and like to think of myself as a lifelong learner. Was I dying?! Of course, you know the answer.

Taking the plunge

Since I refused to admit brain death and thought my core principles and values are both good and sound, I was going to have to teach myself to type again. Worse, I'd have no female classmates to show off for and I'd have literally decades of deeply ingrained habits -- "habits" hell, QWERTY was almost instinct -- to shed.

I think I know what smokers go through when they quit. Okay, I'm being overly dramatic, but you know what I mean.

The first week of teaching myself how to type again went surprisingly well. I had a challenge and was motivated. I actually used a QWERTY keyboard so there was no cheating by looking at the keys. I taped a printout of the Dvorak key layout to the top of my monitor (colored with crayons to indicate finger assignments), changed my computer's OS over to the Dvorak layout and dove in.

I wanted to go with a cold turkey switch because I knew it'd be too frustrating switching back and forth between QWERTY and Dvorak. There really wasn't any problem other than typing horribly slow. I had timed the conversion when I knew I didn't have a lot of typing to do -- no big reports or projects to create an excuse to bail out of my retraining. I also supplemented my own retraining by using a free software (free as in "no cost" and free as in "liberty") typing tutor program which had Dvorak exercises in it.

The typing tutorial program turned out to be a godsend. After the first couple of days I knew most of the letters but fell into this habit of "thinking" too much. I felt I wasn't ingraining the letters internally. The tutorial was a great way to develop speed and to push yourself. Since the program I used was nothing special, I think any such program would do the same.

Speed bumps and motivation

However, after that first euphoric phase things did get tougher. I found certain letters -- the letter "s" for example -- would give me trouble. I also found that I'd sometimes type one or two letters -- but only one or two -- like I would under QWERTY. But that was easily overcome by just being aware of it.

Another oddity was the "getting started" problem. I noticed that the first 5 or 15 minutes of typing each day (especially if I didn't type the day before) was rough. Since my motivation waned after the first week or so, things were still going well but there was a definite slacking off on my part and sometimes a corresponding increase in frustration.

To keep motivated I played a number of mind games with myself. I had noticed how some commonly used words and letter combinations seemed to ingrain themselves. I savored those, giving myself a mental pat on the back when I typed such combinations particularly fast. Little gimmicks like that helped me to not get overly frustrated with problem letters/combinations. I conned myself into viewing my experience as a plus too: I had typed in QWERTY for literally decades, so if I'm doing this well after only two or three weeks, think of how fast I'll be in two or three months or years.

However, at this point I hit a plateau. As a month passed, my speed was "adequate" but certainly not fast. I knew I wasn't improving. Worse, I knew what the problem was and how I could fix it.

The problem was that many letters weren't becoming "mindless". I still had to think to type. With QWERTY I literally did not have to think to type -- the letters just flowed out. The way to "fix" this and to ingrain this is to push yourself for speed. A typing tutor which measures speed is the solution. But there were problems with using the tutor. It was boring, I was lazy, and I also had "real work" to do and didn't want to waste my time with a typing tutor. In hindsight, that was a really bad move.

Failure is an option

One day, at about a month into relearning how to type, I finally got frustrated enough to switch back to QWERTY. I had a lengthy report to do with a firm deadline. That would've taken me a couple of hours to do with my regular typing speed. I started in the afternoon and it was brutal. There was a huge bottleneck between my brain and the keyboard. Typing was slow and full of mistakes. I didn't finish the report that day.

That night I decided to switch back to QWERTY the next morning.

The next morning I reset my keyboard layout to QWERTY and told myself I gave it a good shot and that failure was no problem. Then I started to type, expecting to crank out the report quickly since I was in QWERTY mode.

Too late to go back

During the very first sentence it hit me like a ton of bricks -- I no longer was a QWERTY typist! Trying to type in QWERTY was even slower and more error-prone than typing in the Dvorak layout! With the deadline looming I thought, "Oh well, there's no turning back now." Since I knew I was a bit better as a Dvorak typist, I switched the keyboard back and finished the report in Dvorak.

More importantly, I forced myself to spend some time pushing myself for speed with the typing tutor. I can't say enough how important that aspect is in relearning how to type.

Now, a couple of weeks later, I can say that as a Dvorak typist I'm roughly the same speed I was as a QWERTY typist a couple of months ago. And I'm certain that if I can just bring myself to use that typing tutor more, I know I could improve my speed even more.

I won't lie and say it all was a piece of cake, but honestly, it was not as hard as I thought it would be. Overall I was surprised at how easy it was to get rid of decades worth of QWERTY typing experience.

To me, this goes to show that you can -- much to my relief -- teach an old dog new tricks. And if you can do that with old dogs, just imagine what you could do with young pups.

Here are a few resources on the Dvorak keyboard layout:


This article is copyright © Randy Edwards 2006 and is licensed under the GFDL.