How to learn Colemak

A few days ago Javier emailed me asking how to get started learning Colemak. I wrote quite a long reply (uncharacteristically long for me who likes short emails) and i thought it might be worth turning it into a blog post.

Let me assume that you’ve already made the decision to switch to Colemak. If you need convincing, may i refer you to my previous post: Colemak is easy to learn.

This is roughly how it worked for me. Feel free to try it out, let me know how it goes for you, tell me if i need to tweak anything.

Preparation

Step 1: print out the keyboard layout. No really. Do this! You’ll thank me when your computer locks and you can’t figure out how to type your password!

If you’re on an Apple or TypeMatrix keyboard, you can use one of these that i made:

Colemak keyboard layout

TypeMatrix 2030 Colemak layout

You can also find some generic layout diagrams on colemak.com

You’ll be tempted to put stickers on your keyboard, or pop the keys off and remap them. Most people discourage this, as do i. The reason is, you’ll be tempted to look at your keyboard, which is counterproductive. You’re trying to train your fingers. So look at the diagram until your fingers know their way. Also, if you move keys around they won’t fit quite right, and the useful bumps for your index fingers will be moved.

Unless you have a TypeMatrix or another hardware keymapper, you’ll need to change some software settings. On Linux and OSX Lion this is easy as the layout comes built-in. On Windows and OSX Snow Leopard you need to install something. Follow instructions from the colemak.com download page

Day 1

Find a typing tutor that knows Colemak. On Linux i recommend ktouch, and on OSX i like aTypeTrainer4Mac. Other suggestions are on the colemak.com learn page.

This is aTypeTrainer4Mac. It’s puke green and Comic Sans, but it’s really clever at how it progresses you through the levels at a sensible pace. It also provides nice reports and charts showing your progress.

You’ll need to practise little and often for the next several weeks. Grab five minutes here and there, every chance you get. Consider screencasting yourself, as a way of recording your progress. If you know someone else who is learning, it can be good fun to practise together, taking turns. Don’t do too much at once: when you get tired and feel your mistakes increasing, it’s time for a rest.

Day 2

The nice thing about Colemak is that after the first day of training you should already know the home row, which can be up to 70% of what you’ll type! So get your print-out diagram, and have a go, whenever you need to type an email, or tweet, or whatever. Go very slowly! Focus on using the correct fingers. Try not to hunt and peck. If you make a mistake, delete the whole word and try again.

This will soon become unbearably frustrating, at which point, switch back to your familiar keyboard layout. When you feel ready for another try, take a deep breath, and get your brain into that hyper concentrated mode where you focus really carefully, thinking about every letter before you type it.

For some reason, i found it helped if somebody dictated an email to me, and i typed it. Perhaps because then all i had to think about was typing.

This will keep you going for the next few weeks, along with your training which you should still be doing every moment you get.

Week 2

As you enter your second week you’ll probably be gaining a little bit of confidence. It’s a good time to measure your progress. Sign up for an account at TypeRacer and either practise by yourself or even better, get some other people to race against. A good way is to select “Race your friends” and put the URL on twitter, inviting people to join in. I always like a couple of races, if i have time! :)

The more you type real text, you’ll start to feel new pathways forming in your brain and in your finger movements. It’s an amazing feeling; i’ve never felt neurons moving so tangibly as when i’m learning a new keyboard layout. Common letter patterns like “and”, “the”, “you”, and “ing” become familiar and you start to think of them as a single unit rather than individual letters. It’s as if you give your fingers the “ing” command and they do it!

Week 4

At some point, maybe in your third, fourth or fifth week, you’ll be typing Colemak more and more, and feeling less of a need to revert back to your old keyboard layout. In fact, you’ll probably feel yourself forgetting it altogether. This is the pivot point. There’s no going back now. So this is the moment to switch full time over to Colemak.

You’ll still be slow, or at least you’ll think you are slow. In fact, by now you’ll probably be around 40 words per minute, which is about the average speed for someone who never makes a conscious effort to learn how to type well. Remind yourself that you’re getting better all the time.

If you happen to use Vim, you may want to print out a Colemak Vim cheatsheet. I’ve done a standard layout and a TypeMatrix version:

vi / vim graphical cheat sheet - Colemak version

vi / vim graphical cheat sheet - Colemak TypeMatrix version

Keep up the practise with your typing tutor for as long as you feel the need. Now that you’re full-time Colemak, you’re getting a lot of real-world experience of course, but the tutor can help you to build up the speed.

Week 8

By now, your fingers and your brain should be really comfortable in Colemak. You’ll be able to type without really thinking hard about it. From now on, and for the rest of your life, it’s all about minimising mistakes and increasing accuracy and speed.

For typing, i really embrace the sentiment “Take your time and go fast”. TypeRacer tells you your accuracy as well as words per minute. I’ve found that every mistake costs me about 5 words per minute. Don’t rush, don’t try to go faster than you’re able. You will trip up. If you want to increase your words per minute, focus on minimising your mistakes per minute.

If you find yourself forming bad habits, correct them. For years i had a dreadful habit of only ever using the left shift key, no matter which letter i was typing. That habit gave me bad RSI in my left hand. The same thing goes for the Cmd+C / Cmd+V pattern on a mac. I frequently see people making painful contortions with their left hand. You have another Cmd key on the right! Use it!

Unfortunately, the mac keyboard doesn’t give you a Ctrl key on the right. TypeMatrix does, but it has no right Cmd key. Swings and roundabouts, hey!

Other thoughts

While you’re learning, you’ll probably want to put Colemak on your other devices, for additional practice. I believe iPhone and iPad have Colemak available since iOS 5 … can anyone confirm? It’s easy to get Colemak for Android, using AnySoftKeyboard or my preferred one: MultiLing Keyboard.

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25 comments on “How to learn Colemak

  1. Thanks for this article Aimee! Great stuff. I am not running Lion yet on my Macs, so I might wait until I’ve done the upgrade before I start trying the switch. By the way, the right-hand Ctrl is present on some Mac keyboards, in particular the full-length one that I use on iMac.

    I just checked the settings on my iPad (iPad2, with iOS5), and under the keyboard settings I see an option for Dvorak, but not Colemak :(

    How well do you cope with switching from Colemak to Qwerty and back? I suspect I’ll end up doing that a lot: I have a Windows XP machine at home, and also one at work. I can see myself using Colemak for iMac, iPad and iPhone, but I’m not sure about my Mac Pro because I use it for Cubase and it has keyboard stickers already for that purpose, so it could get confusing…!

    • Hmm, i thought i’d heard that iPhone and iPad support Colemak now. it’s disappointing that you don’t see it.

      Unfortunately, i am dreadful when i switch back to QWERTY. it’s embarrassing. Some people can do it; i can’t. It seems i can only hold one keyboard layout in my head at a time.

      Actually, Colemak on an iPhone isn’t all that effective. With all the most common keys on the home row, it’s harder for the software to predict which word you are trying to write. QWERTY deliberately separated common letters away from each other, which turns out to be helpful for small screens.

      That said, i use Colemak on my phone and i don’t have many difficulties with it. At some point i might switch back to QWERTY on my phone, because it helps to keep me at least vaguely familiar with the layout.

    • For reference, i just did a TypeRacer race on Colemak with zero mistakes and scored 106wpm.

      Tried on QWERTY, made one mistake and got 32wpm. I had to look at the keys as i typed and i felt disturbingly off-balance.

    • Friends, I’m so happy to say that Colemak is indeed available on the iPad and iPhone, if you know where to look.

      Go to General > Keyboard > Keyboards > English > Colemak.

      The reason why so many people are missing it is because they go to General > Keyboard > Keyboards > Add New Keyboard… and they expect to find it there.

      What instead you have to do is tap on the already-installed English layout and choose Colemak from the list of “Hardware Keyboard Layout”.

      Notice the word “Hardware”. That means that Colemak on the iPad is only available if you’re using an external wireless keyboard with it. There is still no touchscreen version, although that doesn’t matter to me, since I’m more used to Qwerty on the touchscreen, it’s when I’m touch typing on a physical keyboard that I need Colemak.

      Hope that helps.

      • yes, i know that we have Colemak as a hardware keyboard option, i’d really like it as software too.

        Never mind, i have recently got an iPhone and i can deal with the QWERTY soft keyboard. In fact, i very often use dictation anyway, since that seems to work extremely well.

  2. Thanks for posting this. My TypeMatrix keyboard arrived Friday. When ordering it, they convinced me the most protected type was to get a plain keyboard and purchase a skin.

    First, I’ve got to get used to that slightly different layout of the two-columns, and then I’m going to print these Learning Colemak instructions out and give them a whirl.

    • Woohoo, fantastic! Happy birthday! :D I agree, if i would buy a new one now i would get a plain one. Because they just look so fucking cool! :D which skin did you get? They keep promising me Colemak skins are coming, but i’ll believe it when i see it! :)

  3. iOS supports either Colemak or Dvorak. Since I am very fluent with Colemak now, it’s a bit awkward to type in iPhone with qwerty.

    Maybe I will hack one during Chinese new year.

  4. Typing on the TypeMatrix — just using QWERTY is a lot tougher than I imagined, but I’m going to give it the two weeks as they suggest. Then on to Colemak.

  5. I got your brand keyboard. And it’s been a learning curve just to re-learn QWERTY on it. Yet for some reason, I’m refusing to quit. Using it has improved some typing function, especially if I go back to a non-columnar keyboard, like a laptop.

    I took the manufacturer’s recommendation and got a skin to protect the keyboard, and the skins TypeMatrix sells are pretty good. They do not diminish touch too much.

    Next stop will be to learn Colemak. So, I’m glad for your advice. I just wanted you to know there was an extra learning curve I did not expect.

  6. Hi Aimee,
    thanks for the post, I’m learning colemak right now :)
    Seems you are using a typematrix keyboard — I got curious, is typing on their “skins” any good? Doesn’t that slow you down?

    • Hi christian, glad to hear it!! :D

      the typematrix skins are great. they make the keyboard much quieter. i don’t find it slows me down at all, and they save the keyboard from coffee spills. I learned that lesson from my first typematrix when i didn’t have a skin and completely ruined it one day with an accidental spillage :P

      They say there are colemak skins coming, but they’ve been saying that for ages …

  7. Thanks for your comments!
    I was considering getting a blank keyboard like Octopusgrabbus, and
    a colemak skin along with it. Somehow I am refusing to buy a qwerty keyboard
    or skin when I am planning to switch to colemak in the long run ..
    on the other hand, their promises of releasing colemak skins seem to date back over a year … ;)

    • I had to put this learning experience on hold. I did two things wrong that I think gummed things up.

      1) I got it stuck in my mind that my keyboard had to be waterproof. I haven’t spilled on my keyboard in years.

      So, I purchased what was a beautifully constructed keyboard, a TypeMatrix, but got a skin, which fit well, but it seemed to make things a little more awkward. If I do this again, I’ll get a QWERTY layout with no skin.

      2) It was difficult for me to get used to the TypeMatrix layout even using QWERTY. That’s no one’s fault but mine.

      So, here are my conclusions:

      Amy’s advice about switching to Colemak is very good, and she is encouraging.

      Dealing with TypeMatrix was excellent. They allowed me to return the keyboard,
      and I took their advice and tried the keyboard for longer than two weeks.

      I may give switching keyboards and to Colemak again some time.

      • Ok I got one (a Typematrix) about a week ago.
        I have the one with qwerty layout and with a “universal”, i.e. blank except for
        the special keys, skin. For me this works well so far, I am by far not as fast yet as with my old keyboard, but that’s because I am learning Colemak on the way,
        which I had already started on the normal keyboard.
        I have to agree that the skin makes typing a *little* more awkward, but really, really only *very very slightly*. I put it on so that there are no labels on the keys that I can peek at.
        I like the layout, especially the centred backspace and return, and the closer
        cursor keys. This keyboard is the best I have tried out so far.
        Colemak works well for me, except for the position of “=” and “-“, which I need
        frequently when programming. I’m thinking of switching these keys with others :)

        (No, I am not affiliated with the manufacturer.)

  8. I learned Qwerty in school and never liked it. I never got above 40wpm with training and it always left my hands feeling tired regardless of position and posture.

    I tried Colemak for a fem months and it was certainly an improvement but something about it just didn’t feel right to me. I have no doubt some people have good reason to prefer it, they just aren’t mine. I was also turned off by the attitude by many in the Colemak community.

    I tried Dvorak and now type over 70 wpm and can do so for hours with no pain or discomfort. I particularly like the rhythm and feel of using it. I actually don’t like the delete key in place of the caps lock. I think it might not be very good for accuracy in the long term. I never had a problem with the splitting up of the xcv keys after I got proficient with the layout.

    I think Colemak is a very good layout from an ergonomic standpoint but I have no doubts that there is more to typing than measurement of keystroke distance. It seems that Colemak is designed to be easier to learn than Dvorak if you come from Qwerty and has features (like the easier delete key) that are certainly more comfortable while learning but may hamper accuracy in the long term. I can’t be sure of this of course and it is just an opinion but I am have no doubt it is a far cry better than a layout that wastes a homerow key on a ;.

    Cheers

  9. Hi Aimee (and others),

    After preliminary readings, I am another soon-to-be convert of Colemak.
    However, I just made the mistake of installing Colemak from this source:
    http://www.ryanheise.com/colemak.exe

    And, needless to say, now my learning curve is a little steeper than intended! (my laptop is full time Colemak. Yes, please have a chuckle at my expense :) )

    Can anyone please help me to convert back my qwerty keyboard? – I am guessing I need to do a REGEDIT(?) which I am not overly confident with (except once; to force additional instances of Microsoft Excel to open in the same window – another story).
    (I’m running Windows 7).
    Thanks a lot for any help/advice with this.
    Mike

    ps. hopefully a less-invasive QIDO (as mentioned in your other posts) is available for Colemak soon..

  10. Brilliant Post Sermoa. Quite motivating for people like me who are still getting a hang of it.
    At work (no admin access) I am forced to use Win7 and yes they do not provide me with the Colemak installer or any other Key-remapping softwares. Do you think there is hope?
    Otherwise, I would be forced to switch to Dvorak :-| which would be very very tragic.

  11. … just stumbled over this again. I just thought I’d mention that I’m still using Colemak on the typematrix and that this is the best combination I have used so far. My search for another keyboard initially started out to be just for a compact one so I don’t waste space on my desk, but I ended up learning a new layout and getting a completely different keyboard :) To everyone considering colemak, I can only say that it works very well for me.

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