18 March 2016

Typing vs Writing

Image: jomurpheyblogspot.com
Have you ever sat in the proximity of someone writing who can touch-type? They sit nonchalantly in front of the screen, their fingers dancing over the keys; meanwhile I sit hunched over the keyboard like Gollum, forehead facing the screen instead of, well, my face. Hunting for keys and pecking at the keyboard, before eventually, and with great trepidation, looking up at the screen only to be presented with a mangled representation of the thoughts I so diligently delivered with my not so deft strokes—littered with the red lines that demand I attempt again to wrestle the meaning from the scrambled melange of words, words that barely resemble the ideas I am attempting to represent, even now fading from my short term memory…

This may come as a surprise to many, but typing faster is not the primary objective of learning to touch-type; rather it is a desired side effect. Once you are able to type with all ten fingers without needing to look down at the keyboard, your overall productivity when using a computer will improve dramatically. When typing with two fingers (hunt and peck), "the visual and frontal cortices of the brain are forced to focus on where individual keys are located. Keyboarding removes this burden, enabling students to work on things like sentence structure and grammar while they type." (Typing Club Handbook)

Writing Defined

In the interests of clarity it's important to establish from the outset that there are at least four different ways of coding meaning using the symbols we call 'letters' that equate to sounds that we in turn translate into words, in other words—writing. Some of these are easily confused, this confusion can easily led to 'much ado about nothing', for example no matter the enthusiasm for touch-typing, no one is considering abandoning the teaching of handwriting, cursive maybe, but handwriting? No.

Wikipedia to the rescue:


Touch typing (also called touch type or touch method or touch and type method) is typing without using the sense of sight to find the keys. Specifically, a touch typist will know their location on the keyboard through muscle memory.

Hunt and peck/two finger typing/keyboarding

"Hunt and peck (two-fingered typing) is a common form of typing, in which the typist presses each key individually. Instead of relying on the memorized position of keys, the typist must find each key by sight. Use of this method may also prevent the typist from being able to see what has been typed without glancing away from the keys. Although good accuracy may be achieved, any typing errors that are made may not be noticed immediately, if at all." (Wikipedia)


Handwriting refers to a person's writing created with a writing utensil such as a pen or pencil. The term encompasses both printing and cursive styles and is separate from formal calligraphy or typeface. It is, in essence, a visible form of a person's voice, including pitch and tone.


Cursive, also known as longhand, script, handwriting, joined-up writing et cetera, is any style of penmanship in which the symbols of the language are written in a conjoined and/or flowing manner, generally for the purpose of making writing faster. Formal cursive is generally joined, but casual cursive is a combination of joins and pen lifts.

Print-script or Block-letters

Print-script uses block letters, in which the letters of a word are unconnected rather than joined-up script. Block-letters (known as print-script, manuscript, or print writing) are a style of writing in which the letters are individual glyphs, with no joining. In English-speaking countries, children are often first taught to write in block-letters, and later may advance to cursive (joined-up writing).

Handwriting vs Touch-Typing: The Research 

There are a plethora of articles bouncing around the web, more or less like this one, purporting in tones of moral crisis that the worst thing we could possibly entertain is a world with a generation who can no longer write in looping flowing cursive... These articles usually attempt to bolster their argument by making appeals to supposed brain research that evidences a higher level of brain function when putting pen/pencil to paper as opposed to tapping keys...

The problem with these arguments, as is often the case with attempts to leverage research within a field that most 'lay people' have absolutely no grasp of, is it's easy to completely misinterpret the data, usually in favour of a particular argument. We should all be very wary of the claims and 'The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience'; over the past decade, neuroscience has become overprivileged as a method of examining the mind. That's not to say that it is meaningless, far from it, new research into how our brains work "offers educators an unparalleled opportunity for building a scientific foundation for educational practice which will allow us to make more informed decisions". It's just that we should be cautious when extravagant claims are founded on area of learning that is as best currently relatively nascent, "it is important to realize that neuroimaging is just one of many tools used in neuroscience. Equally important is the fact that it is widely viewed as rudimentary in its current state".

This article being a case in point; the author leaps to the assumption that the data must mean that handwriting is superior to typing, when the issue is not actually the mode of codifying meaning, it's the processing. So people taking notes who can touch-type have a tendency to transcribe, just because they can, rather than processing the information, ie summarizing, summing up, rephrasing. Touch-typists who do the latter rather than the former will be engaged in the same kinds of cognitive function as those handwriting. So the answer is not to demonise those who can touch-type, but rather to educate them.
"The thing is, that transcription process doesn’t require any critical thinking." 
“transcrib[ing] lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”
Of course all of this makes the extremely dubious assumption that lecturing and the accompanying practice of expecting the attendant students to sit their and passively take notes is a medium of teaching that we need to desperately go to all sorts of lengths to support and enable. This couldn't be further from the truth, as acclaimed Harvard Professor, Eric Mazur realised years ago, when he discovered that the notion that the clear, polished lectures and demonstrations he was delivering to lecture halls populated mainly by premed and engineering students was successful “was a complete illusion, a house of cards.” Now his focus has moved away from the lectern and toward the physical and imaginative activity of each student in class. Now his focus on "interactive pedagogy turns passive, note-taking students into active, de facto teachers who explain their ideas to each other and contend for their points of view. Thousands of research studies on learning indicate that “active learning is really at a premium." It’s the most effective thing. Not note taking, and certainly not lecturing.

Yes, I realise that not all of us are as fortunate as the students of Professor Mazur, so what do we do when we are confronted with the reality that some teachers still cling to this inefficient practice? Simple, don't transcribe, process and reframe (and get a better a teacher if you possibly can).

Note taking really has nothing to do with handwriting or touch-typing. The people I feel for when these debates erupt, are our students who, due to 'special needs' have to type because they don't have the fine motor skills to write, do we really want them to feel like the modes that they have to use are actually inferior?

Stop taking notes and listen!

Personally I like the best of both, but as a general practice, I avoid taking notes at all, and I'm not the only one.. This way I can concentrate on the content being communicated, if there is the odd fascinating fact/finding/phenomenon that I absolutely have to record, I take notes by hand, mainly because I find using the temptations proffered by a digital device (know thyself!) quite distracting. After all, all note taking really is is yet another form of the rightly demonised 'multi-tasking' which just results in another 'lose-lose' scenario...  So I minimise note-taking, and later on dictate my core recollections into screen text, (I can't touch-type—yet) which usually involves still more of that all important processing. Also in this day and age, I think we should expect the presenter to provide notes online.

Having trawled the literature I can honestly say that the findings do many things, but criticise the need to learn the skill of touch-typing they do not. The arguments they do make are moot points, as their findings are at best tangential to the questions that surround the considerations that related to touch-typing:

There is also plenty of research that compares touch typing favourably to handwriting:

The computer vs. The pen: a comparative study of word processing... 

"students in the Computer group, on the whole, wrote better than those in a Pen group. According to the Jacobs et al. (1981) Composition Profile, all aspects of writing except Content and Organization showed highly significant differences, with the Computer group exhibiting superior performance".

The need for handwriting to aid letter recognition in the early years

The influence of writing practice on letter recognition in preschool children: A comparison between handwriting and typing. "The results showed that in the older children, the handwriting training gave rise to a better letter recognition than the typing training."

Teaching elementary age children touch-typing as an aid to Language Arts instruction

Typed writing has been shown to improve students reading, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and creative writing abilities.

The word processing approach to language experience

The word processor not only makes LEA easier for teacher and student, it enhances the value of the approach as well.

Looking at the keyboard or the monitor: relationship with text production processes

"In this paper we explored text production differences in an expository text production task between writers who looked mainly at the keyboard and writers who looked mainly at the monitor. Eye-tracking technology and keystroke-logging were combined to systematically describe and define these two groups in respect of the complex interplay between text production and the reading of one’s own emerging text. Findings showed that monitor gazers typed significantly faster and were more productive writers. They also read their own text more, and they frequently read in parallel with writing."

Writing the natural way: on a computer

A model of computer writing skill is presented that consists of four stages of development‐‐(1) Writing Easier, (2) Writing More, (3) Writing Differently, (4) Writing Better‐‐representing the evolution of a natural computer‐based writing approach under favorable conditions. The relevant conditions comprise the starting state of the user and a range of constraints on computer use.

Image: Bruce Almighty, via persephonemagazine.com


The speed of (legible) handwriting (with or without cursive) is much slower with touch-typing. Over to Wikipedia for the breakdown of relative speeds:

The average human being hand-writes at 31 words per minute (WPM) for memorised text and 22 words per minute while copying (Brown CM, 1988).

Whereas an average professional typist types usually in speeds of 50 to 80 wpm, some advanced typists work at speeds above 120 wpm. "Hunt and peck" typists, commonly reach sustained speeds of about 37 wpm for memorised text and 27 WPM when copying text.

Go on, try it yourself, I used typeracer, and scored 35 WPM, first try, then timed myself writing the same text (so a slight advantage) as fast as I could by hand, focusing on speed over beauty, but still maintaining legibility, and scored ... 17 WPM. Pathetic, I know.

So to summarise: that's handwriting at 22 WPM, hunt & peck at 27 WPM (about the same) and between 50-120 WPM for touch-typists. So, if we don't teach our students how to touch-type they are in theory, after ten year sof 'hunt and pecking' at least no worse off than they would have been if we'd asked them to write it all by hand. Although research on cognition in relation to writing gives us some pause for thought when they politely highlight the fact that the hunting and pecking process effectively makes the cognitive process of writing far less efficient, as the resources which should be dedicated to composition are instead being dedicated to hunting for letters to peck. 

In other words, when you can touch-type, the cognitive load of writing and thinking at the same time are lessened and free up working memory for thinking—a bit like cycling a bicycle—once the effort required for remaining balanced, and changing gears et cetera are automatic, you can spend more time noticing/enjoying where you are going.  The same idea applies to things like decoding in reading via ‘sight words’, this frees thinking space for understanding instead of decoding.  The absence of effort in one frees cognitive space for the other…

So, the gains with touch-typing frees up cognitive space, and increases speed, with typing hovering in the range of double to triple the speed of handwriting. And of course none of this even considers arguably the most important element; digital text is capable of so much more than handwritten text.

Distinctive features of word processing that support creativity 

"We think that there are distinctive features of ICT that can support creativity and they can be described as follows: 'provisionality', 'interactivity', 'capacity', 'range', 'speed', 'accuracy', 'quality', 'automation', 'multi-modality', 'neutrality' and 'social credibility'."

Loveless A (2002) Literature Review in Creativity, New Technologies and Learning

"The provisionality of ICT enables users to make changes, try out alternatives and keep a 'trace' of the development of ideas. Interactivity engages users at a number of levels, through immediate and dynamic feedback. ICT demonstrates capacity and range in the ways in which it affords access to vast amounts of information locally and globally in different time zones and geographical places. The speed and automation ICT allows tasks of storing, transforming and displaying information to be carried out by the technologies, enabling users to read, observe, interrogate, interpret, analyse and synthesise information at higher levels. Quality can be recognised in the potential to present and publish work to a high standard of appearance and reproduction. Multimodality is reflected in the interaction between modes of text, image, sound, hyper textuality and non-familiarity..." p 94

Loveless, A., & Wegerif, R. (2004). Unlocking creativity with ICT. Unlocking Creativity: A Teacher's Guide to Creativity Across the Curriculum, 92.

Typing is Writing

Confession. I have believed for years that touch-typing is clearly useful, but not essential, why?

• a stubborn reluctance to commit to the discipline that learning this skill requires

• a possibly na├»ve expectation that keyboards will be go the way of the Walkman soon,

• the recent exponential improvement in the accessibility, reliability and accuracy of speech recognition tools like Apple Dictation.

However, I now realise...

• there are few, if any, life skills that can be learned in less than 3 months based on a commitment of 10-15 minutes a day that would literally reap benefits almost every day, for the rest of our lives, furthermore, with the plethora of online touch-typing tutorial tools it’s never been easier.

• keyboards (or similar) aren’t becoming obsolete any day soon, aside from the profound difficulties people face when thinking and speaking, as opposed thinking and typing, short of wearing a menacing helmet with sensors that allow the computer to recognise my thoughts (and who would really want that?), we are always going to require some sort of physical interface that we can interact with to be able to transmit our ideas into words.

• voice recognition tools lose their efficacy in a shared space, which as a teacher, and certainly for our students, is more than the case than not.

This is not an argument against handwriting, typing is also writing. Our choice, much like the difference between handwriting using print script or flowing cursive, is whether to become adept at typing or to resign ourselves to the mind numbing frustration of ‘hunting and pecking’. The keyboard is here to stay; our choice is to either master it, or to spend the rest of our lives wrestling with it.