Forget Mavis Beacon: Self-Taught Typists Are Nearly as Fast as Touch Typists

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As the world transitions from analog to digital, computer skills are more crucial than ever. But—at least in some areas—formal classes may not be. A study of trained and self-taught typists published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance found that the two groups could be comparably speedy when it came to practical tasks.

The keyboards on which we type have changed dramatically in the last 40 years, but our ideas about proper technique really haven’t. The gold standard is still touch typing, in which typists use eight fingers, stationed on the "home row," and have no need to look at the keyboard. Everyone knows this is the fastest, most efficient, and most professional way to type.

Logan Laboratory / Vanderbilt University

But how do we know this? And is it even true?

To find out, researchers at Vanderbilt University brought 48 keyboard users into the lab. They asked each subject which fingers they would use to type various words, which sorted the touch typists from those who used a nonstandard, or self-taught, technique. Next, they seated each participant at a computer station under a video camera and put them through a series of typing tests, testing their speed and accuracy in typing sentences, paragraphs, words, and nonsense phrases. Sometimes the letters on the keyboard were covered, and sometimes they were visible. The typists were also asked to identify where on the keyboard each letter belonged.

The researchers believed the results would support what we all think we know: that touch typists would be faster and more effective, since they’re using more fingers and not stopping to look at the keys.

This proved partially true. Trained touch typists were faster when it came to traditional typing tests (they clocked in at about 80 words per minute). But at 72 words per minute, the nonstandard participants weren’t far behind (although, when the keys were covered, their speed reduced and their error rate increased). “We even had one two-finger typist who could manage 60 words per minute,” study co-author Gordon Logan said in a statement. “That is good enough to pass a typing proficiency test.”

But Logan and his colleagues realized that standardized typing tests are a pretty poor reflection of the kind of typing most of us do nowadays. We don’t just copy text; we write our own emails, memos, and term papers. When the researchers asked their participants to type their own words, the playing field was leveled pretty quickly; even the speed of one "skilled typist" plummeted from 78 to 45 words per minute.

The researchers also found some striking inconsistencies between the way people thought they typed and their actual technique. Fourteen out of the 24 self-identified touch typists were actually using nonstandard typing methods, making “standard” typing far rarer than the so-called nonstandard style.

Many schools still require students to learn to type, and the age at which those classes begin has gotten younger and younger as standardized tests move onto the computer. Teachers understandably want their students to be prepared for the tests’ mechanical elements. Yet given the nonstandard typists’ success, the researchers wonder if teaching kids to type is worth the effort.

"The benefits of earlier training may not be large enough to outweigh the costs the typist and educational system would have to pay," Logan said. “Similarly, our results raise the question of the value of remedial training for nonstandard typists."

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