How we teach shorthand today

Frances Tew is a Dickens Decoder. She has taught Teeline shorthand for twenty years to students on journalism courses. In the second of two blogs she explains how we teach shorthand today and reflects on Dickens as a shorthand teacher.

When we teach Teeline shorthand today, the first few lessons are spent making sure students know what letters to show and how to write them. Generally, you write just ‘the sounds that come out of your mouth’. That means not writing silent letters, like the <b> in ‘dumb’, and writing only one repeated letter – <bel> not <bell>. You also do not usually need to show vowels inside words, although we do show them at the start and end of words when they are ‘sounded’, so ‘give’ is <gv>, ‘letter’ is <ltr>, ‘tea’ is <te> and ‘eat’ is <et>. Interestingly, in Dickens’s Gurney system, many vowels inside words are indicated by dot positions or the position of the next letter, and some words which begin with a vowel do not show it. For Dickens, ‘artful’ and ‘rightful’ were written identically and we need the context to be sure of what the word is.

A sheet of paper mounted in a large book. Handwritten in blue ink the heading reads 'Part 3, Dots on Vowels'. Notes and three lines of Brachygraphy shorthand explain the concept.
Figure 1: A page from Dickens’s shorthand notebook, which provides explanation and examples of how to use dots to represent vowels in the Brachygraphy system. From Dickens’s Manuscript Shorthand Book (English MS 725), University of Manchester, John Rylands Institute and Library, Manchester.

Learning a new shorthand alphabet is not particularly difficult. Given that there are 26 letters in the English alphabet it should not take too long to become familiar with their shorthand equivalents, which may or may not resemble them. We always use as few strokes as possible. Writing the word ‘minimum’ in longhand can need at least 20 strokes of the pen plus two dots over the i’s. In Gurney and Teeline shorthand it only needs four. Writing the new shorthand alphabet soon becomes automatic with plenty of practice. Indeed, making mistakes is often better than getting everything correct, because correcting them will make you think about them and reinforce the correct version.

What can be more difficult is learning to write phonetically, i.e. according to the sound of a word. In Teeline and Gurney, for example, we use the symbol for the letter <f> whenever we hear the /f/ sound in ‘telephone’ or ‘enough’. Gurney uses the symbol for the letter <s> to represent the ‘soft’ letter <c> in a word like ‘city’. This means that there is no clue from the spelling (<sti>) as to what the word is. Teeline, on the other hand, uses the symbol for the letter <c> for both ‘cellar’ and ‘collar’. So there is no clue from the sound (<clr>) as to which is correct. There are three sounds in English which are shown by a pair of letters – <ch>, <sh> and <th>. Gurney has a special symbol for each, though Teeline only has one for <sh>.

What takes longest, as Dickens himself found, is learning shorthand abbreviations or special forms. These just have to be learnt one by one because they do not obey the usual rules. They are used for common words which even in shorthand would take a bit longer to write than we would wish. Teeline special forms generally use the correct letters, while Dickens’s Gurney includes longhand letters and special outlines not associated with the spelling. No wonder Dickens found learning them difficult. As teachers, we make sure to test students on their special forms regularly, and always at speed. Dickens probably had to work on his own at learning them but, as with all common words in shorthand, they become automatic once they have been written enough times.

Figure 4: ‘Special forms’ for some common words in Teeline shorthand. Courtesy of Frances Tew.

Once the student is familiar with how to write shorthand, we teachers start to speed them up. The need for shorthand secretaries has diminished over the last few decades but aspiring journalists need to reach 100 words per minute in their exam, which is the industry standard. That is not to say that people speak at 100 wpm – they speak a lot faster than that – but 100 wpm is generally enough to take down the important parts of a speech; of course, every interview or speech taken down increases a student’s practice and speed.

We do this by reading passages at a certain speed that students try to take down and – most importantly – transcribe back into longhand. We do not expect them to get everything down because we want to push them along at faster and faster speeds. Reaching the next speed up, be it 40 wpm, 60 wpm or more, is a real boost to a student’s ego, but it still needs lots of practice to reach the higher speeds. It is very common to reach 60 wpm say, then ‘plateau’ for ages and not improve. You can imagine how dispiriting this is, but we teachers know that students will suddenly have a quantum leap to a higher speed, and our job is to cheer them up through the plateau, and congratulate them on the jump! Surprisingly, although we insist on lots of practice, it often happens that if a student ‘forgets’ about shorthand for a week or so they find they are faster when they come back to it. The brain works in mysterious ways. In order to speed up, shorthand students need practice.

Most children are literate and fluent writers by the age of ten or eleven, but think how much practice they have done in those preceding years. We have to replicate that process when teaching shorthand, so that students write words so often that they do not have to think about them. Words must come straight on to the paper via our ears, brain and hand without any intervening ‘thinking’. Practice has to be from spoken sources. Anyone can write lovely shorthand from a written source when they have plenty of time, but that won’t increase their speed. It’s fine to practise at home from songs, TV soaps, or flatmates reading from the newspaper, but as a teacher I have to know what speed I am reading. This means being handy with a stopwatch, having the number of words marked at intervals in a passage and doing the maths in my head to make sure I am at the correct place at the correct number of seconds. And because the student will only pass the exam if the transcript is at least 97% accurate, we must check for every tiny mistake against my written copy.

How good a teacher was Dickens?

There were always textbooks for each successive system of shorthand, and Gurney certainly explained the way to go about it very clearly in his Brachygraphy manual. Anyone keen to learn the system could teach themselves the basics from the book alone, as it seems Dickens did, but in those days there were no ways of taking down spoken words apart from getting someone to read aloud to you – assuming you wanted to check back for accuracy from the text. So, as well as teaching the basics of shorthand, this reading aloud of texts would have been very important for Dickens as a teacher.

Dickens could have timed his readings, but he would have been familiar with just how fast he needed to read so that his student was pushed along fast enough to improve but not so fast that he gave up in disgust! He may have been a kind teacher and watched to see when Arthur Stone had got a sentence down before continuing, but that would only work at the beginning. Eventually he would have continued to the end without a break, which is what happens in the real world of court and Parliament.

Figure 5: An illustration of David ‘getting up to speed’ with his shorthand writing, by taking notes as Tommy Traddles speaks. From the first bound edition of Dickens’s David Copperfield, courtesy of Special Collections at the University of Leicester.

I am sure Dickens would have been pretty strict in making sure that, whatever happened, Arthur would carry on taking down even if he knew he had made a mess of the dictation. Sighing, throwing down his pencil, screwing up his sheet of paper would have served no useful purpose. Continuing to take down knowing he had not done too well with it would all have been good practice!

Having an expert like Dickens to help would also be great because of the tips and tricks that he had discovered over the years. There are plenty of special outlines for common words and phrases, but Dickens could have suggested more that he had invented or picked up from someone else, all of which would help with speeding up. Probably the most inspiring thing would be watching Dickens’s shorthand in action and knowing that he was once a beginner too. If he could become so expert, so could Arthur.

Was Dickens improvising or reading from a text?

In their working lives, shorthand writers will be taking down prepared speeches and improvised ones. They are allowed to omit hesitations, repetitions and anything that is obviously not intended as part of an improvised speech, so the reported end result may not look very different from what it would have been had the speaker written down and read out what he wanted to say. But the great advantage of reading from a text is that Dickens could then ask Arthur to read back what he had taken down to check for accuracy.

As a teacher I find using printed resources much easier than improvising, but sometimes it is better to change a few words to incorporate something that has just been learnt, or omit part of it if it is too long. I would not want to improvise something for five minutes or so and then have an argument about whether I had used a certain word or not, but I expect Dickens might have been quite happy to do that!

How good a pupil was Arthur?

Interesting as Arthur Stone’s shorthand pieces are, there are a few things that surprise me as a teacher. I don’t think there is anywhere in them where a word has been missed out. There might be the occasional ‘the’, which one can always omit where it can obviously be assumed, but otherwise Arthur had time to get every word down. Not only that, sometimes he has a second try at a word and crosses out the first one. Two lines are recommended for crossing out (one line might make it look like a real outline) but Arthur has time to put in several lines. So the fact that there are no missed words and plenty of time to cross wrong words out means that Arthur was not being pushed too fast, in fact not fast enough in my opinion. He was definitely taking down from Dickens’s spoken words – I doubt if he would have needed to cross anything out if it was a written passage and he had time to think about a new word. I do not think we will ever know how fast Arthur could write, but comparing his shorthand with Dickens’s own, one notices big differences. Arthur’s looks like the shorthand of someone still learning, who is a bit unsure and has not got many ‘automatic’ words yet.

He also makes mistakes in the angles of the straight symbols for the letters <s>, <t> and <d>. This is quite serious because it could lead to misreading words. It might imply that he was writing faster than he could cope with, or that he was just careless. I do not know whether Arthur went on to make a career as a shorthand writer. If he did, it would be lovely to see his mature style. His longhand writing describing the shorthand pages is so neat that I’m sure his shorthand would have ended up really attractive. But as it is, we have been privileged to see him learning, and to have learnt something of his famous teacher.

You can find Frances’s first blog, ‘Shorthand Today’, here.