Geek Speak - A quicker path to success

5th September 2008 at 01:00
Cut down the time you spend in front of a computer with handy key commands. John Galloway shares all

When you learn to drive, almost the first thing you are taught is what to do when something goes wrong - brake. With computers it can take a while before you learn, yet "undo" is arguably the most important command in any program. That is why the two most useful keys on your keyboard are the control key (marked Ctrl) and the letter Z. When pressed together they perform an undo and immediately take you back to where you were before things went awry.

Most of us know about this function. Often, but not always, it appears as an inverted fishhook among the icons in the toolbar at the top of the screen. But Ctrl and Z are always in the same place and work in every application. It's also quicker to do than take your hand off the keyboard, connect with the mouse, find the cursor, and move it up to the top of the screen.

Speed is one of the main reasons for using such keyboard shortcuts - once you know which combination of keys performs which function, you don't have to move your hands so far and switch into a different mode of working. You simply point and click to get things to happen.

The other reason is that it gives an impression of expertise. Not many people know about them, so when they see you confidently zipping across the keyboard, making things happen at a speed they can't keep up with, they assume you're an expert.

Yet once upon a time, before the introduction of the plastic mouse, the keyboard was the only way to do anything, from changing fonts to positioning images to inserting tables. So every program has ways of working that don't need the mouse.

Among the most commonly used shortcuts are those for cutting, copying and pasting. To select text hold down Shift then use the arrow keys to move the cursor - variations of this include Ctrl A for all the text, Ctrl Shift Home for everything to the top of the page, or Ctrl Shift End to go downwards. From here just use Ctrl X to cut if you want to move the selected text, or Ctrl C if you want to copy it, and Ctrl V to paste it in its new location.

Keyboard shortcuts look particularly impressive when working on an interactive whiteboard. Ctrl plus ], for instance, will enlarge the text by one step for each tap of the square bracket key, or diminish it with [. This is useful for getting text to fit an area precisely.

Shortcuts are readily available to everyone. Open any menu and alongside most commands is a shortcut. This won't give you them all, but others can be found by experimentation, or by searching for "shortcuts" in the Help menu (Alt H).

As well as making you look good and speeding up your work rate, keyboard shortcuts also have a practical application for those pupils who find it difficult to point and click with a mouse. The only snag is that they will look like experts too, so don't show them too many.

John Galloway is advisory teacher for ICTspecial needs and inclusion for Tower Hamlets, London.

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