Starting from Scratch: Where Do I Start When Teaching My Visually Impaired Student to Type?

NOTE: Please see these related articles on touch typing skills and resources:

More and more schools are teaching typing to students as young as first grade as a way of preparing them for a world increasingly reliant on keyboarding skills in hopes of preparing them for an increasingly technology-centered world.

I am not in a position to agree or disagree, although there are many individuals who have planted themselves in both camps. All I know is that in order to communicate effectively with their sighted peers and to compete on an equal playing field, our students with visual impairments need to learn to type.  It isn’t even a question of “if”...more like “when” and “how”. This article will attempt to answer these questions. 

Typing Prerequisites for Students

There are varying opinions on the age that students should be introduced to keyboarding and that’s probably because students develop physically at different rates.  It isn’t so much the age as the skills and physical attributes needed to accomplish the task. Here are a few examples:

  • Good finger and wrist strength
  • Ability to maintain good posture with head up, upright trunk, and feet on the floor
  • Finger dexterity - ability to isolate fingers
  • Knowledge of the alphabet and basic word concepts (for example, letters make sounds that make words)

As you can see from the above list, some students may be ready to learn to type by age six while others may not be ready, physically or developmentally, until well past that if at all.

Starting Strategies for Teachers

It is the teacher’s responsibility to create an environment that a student can be successful when learning to touch type.  Here are a few tips:

  • Make sure that the computer chair, table, and keyboard are positioned comfortably.  Provide a box for the student to put his/her feet on if they do not reach the floor.  Often your school’s OT or PT will be willing to help with this.  
  • Don’t just “abandon” your student to a self-paced typing tutor.  Yes, it’s tempting, but that typing tutor can’t check posture, hand positioning, or praise the student as he/she progresses.  
  • Provide frequent breaks, especially at first.  Learning to type can be physically and mentally tiring.  This is especially true for younger students.  As they become accustomed to the routine, you can lengthen lessons and shorten breaks.  
  • Be patient, but expect progress.  As far as their young minds know, there really is not a reason to learn to do this “typing thing” anyway no matter how many times you tell them they’ll need it.  I tell TVIs that it’s like getting your child to eat vegetables...you can tell Little Johnny to eat broccoli because it’s good for him, but that’s probably not going to be what will make him eat it...and if you force it too soon, the more likely that Johnny will refuse (even on principle).  Instead, smaller bites, maybe add some cheese sauce and you’re going to get better compliance and therefore better results.  
  • Take time to let the student type something meaningful to him/her.  It doesn’t have to be long and the break will help the student have a bit of fun while you are still providing some instruction.  Even something silly where you type one line and your student types the next one. Even the occasional “race” with the teacher or another student can be motivating.

Assessing Keyboard Orientation

As mentioned in a previous article, orientation to the keyboard is essential.  Students need to know the location of the keys they will need to interact with their screen reader, even if they don’t need to do so often.  Finding fun and interesting ways to introduce these critical keys will help engage your student. Here are a couple examples.

The “Alt Sandwich” 

When I first started teaching keyboarding, I wanted to give students and easy way to remember where to find the keys on the level with the space bar without confusing them.  I settled on a sandwich metaphor that I called the “Alt Sandwich” because there is an Alt on either side of the spacebar. 

 "Alt Sandwich" and image of Keys with "bread" under WIN key, "Cheese" under ALT, "sandwich meat" under Space.

If you think of the spacebar as the “meat” in the middle of the sandwich, then work your way out on either direction, you will find the “Alt” cheese keys.  One more further out is the “Window” bread. That’s where the metaphor has to end because none of the keys are the on both sides at that point. Usually it isn’t a stretch to introduce the control keys as the two “end keys” and make sure they know the application key is only located on the right side between the Control and Windows Keys.  

Getting “Shift-y”

Above each control key is a Shift key.  Since this key is used mainly to capitalize letters, I tell students it’s the longest key on either side of the keyboard (not counting the spacebar).  Most kids know capital letters in print are taller/bigger than uncapitalized letters. 

Interacting with and Navigating the Keyboard

Among other factors indicating that a student is ready to start touch typing is the ability to keep hands in a “resting position” on a keyboard for a minimum of five to ten seconds.  Usually, that position is on the home row, but really any consistent position to start from is fine. 

To help practice this, I used to tell students to pretend that they had super glue on their fingers when they were at rest and when practicing the home row where fingers don’t need to reach and press other keys.  This helped most of them make a sort of game of it...press the right keys with the right fingers without removing them from their designated resting spot (this doesn't count slight bouncing when pressing and releasing keys).  

Assessing Typing Skills, Speed, and Accuracy

Before you start putting your student in a touch typing program, take a deep breath and determine your baseline.  

Blank Slate

If your student has never been introduced to a keyboard, you’re starting with a blank slate.  This is great because you don’t have to unteach any bad habits like wrong hand position or overcoming the “hunting and pecking” many students start with.  On the other hand, that just means you’ll have a whole lot more to teach them so you’ll need to really stop and think about the best way to introduce important concepts to your student.  

Intermittent Instruction

If your student has had intermittent instruction or has been sort of “making their way” without any formal instruction, you have a much different task ahead of you.  No one knows your student better than those who are directly interacting with him/her so if you think you need to step back and try to start from the beginning, then that’s an option.  You may determine that starting from the beginning (home row, basic keyboard orientation) will frustrate your student to the point that he/she shuts down. It may take a few days, it may take a couple of weeks, but you’ll find out where to start and move forward.  

What does Average Mean?

Part of establishing a baseline may be getting a typing speed and accuracy percentage, but where do you start with this?  Do you start at a random lesson? Or do you have to start at the beginning? And how do you know what typing speed and accuracy goal you should set?  These are all good questions and as much as I’d love to give a concrete answer, there just isn’t one. 

If you Google “average typing speed by age” there are resources that will give you charts and graphs and even some statistical data. Although this is good information, you’ve still got to make a determination about a specific student.  By the way, the average typing speed of an adult is around 40 WPM where men tend to be slightly faster than women by about 7 WPM. 

Strategies for Establishing a Baseline and Starting Instruction 

Here are some ideas on establishing a baseline and moving forward into instruction:

  1. Determine a good instructional starting point by doing a few lessons in progression.  Talk to your student and see what lesson he/she is most comfortable with as a starting point.
  2. Keep data on EVERYTHING.  Every lesson, even repeated lessons, write down the date, lesson name/number, speed, and accuracy.  This way, you can see trends such as how many times it takes the student to make the largest gain in speed, how many times after repeating a lesson does it take the student to get to their “plateau” before needing to move on, etc. This can help you and your student set goals.  It’s also great to pull out around IEP time and either use to set a goal or just show the data you’ve collected and the progress the student has made in this very important area.  
  3. Show your student his/her results as often as possible.  They are invested in this as well, and knowing how much progress they are making will help them.  If results are not shared, the student may feel even more inclined to believe that typing is a waste of time.  

Related Resources

  1. Statewide Vision Resource Center: Teaching Typing and Computer Skills
  2. Teaching Students with Visual Impairments: Keyboarding Instruction 
  3. Royal National Institute of Blind People: How Children with Visual Impairment can Learn to Touch Type