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Web Posted on: March 18, 1999

Keyboard Coach®
An Instructional Keyboarding System That Provides Access to Literacy for Diverse Learners

Elspeth Sladden, M.Ed. M.A.
500 West End Avenue #12B
New York, NY 10024

Keyboard Coach® is a cognitively based system that meets the need for teacher-mediated instruction of keyboarding. This system incorporates computer techniques to facilitate writing for all forms of communication. The author has developed a comprehensive set of materials and adaptive devices that show teachers how to teach keyboarding, in the context of word processing, to students with different learning needs. This paper describes a system that has been developed over a seven year period and tested on hundreds of students in private practice and school settings. Its goal is to aid in the acquisition of keyboarding for the disabled; it describes a quickstart approach that may be adjusted to meet the learning needs of students, to provide essential student motivation, and to meet the time constraints of school curricula.


As the internet and Email features appear in an ever increasing number of households, the computer becomes critical to modern day communication, and the keyboard replaces the pencil as the conventional tool of communication. While people of all ages can benefit by acquiring keyboarding skills, those with dysgraphia, low vision and various disabilities depend upon it. Speech recognition programs may one day supplant keyboards for a variety of input tasks. However, using hands for silent communication while processing thought is a part of our cognitive heritage and speech recognition will not work for many individuals with specific disabilities.

Educators are not giving enough attention to keyboarding as a way to empower LD students and as an early key to literacy especially for those for whom handwriting is a major limitation. Teachers have recognized the importance of embedding handwriting in their curriculum, referring students who need special attention to special services such as occupational therapists and tutors for extra help. However, they delegate keyboarding, an even more critical skill for this population, to technology specialists and edutainment programs. Little research has been done to understand why learning keyboarding is so difficult for some people and how best to teach it. If keyboarding is taught at all, it is often the responsibility of a person who understands computers. Such a person often does not have the experience to work with a variety of learning styles or appreciate how a disability can impact on acquiring keyboarding skills. In most cases, the keyboarding software used is the sole means of instruction. The necessity for pre-keyboarding instruction and teacher mediation of edutainment games, and indeed teacher training, is ignored. Many students give up or resort to hunt and peck in the face of the frustration caused by inappropriate or inadequate teaching.

Typing Tutor edutainment software such as "Mavis Beacon", "Mario Teaches Typing" and "Type to Learn", has the disadvantage of being based upon the home-row method and conditioned-response learning. This technique teaches the middle row "ASDFGHJKL;" first, which results in nonsense rote practice of "letter salad" combinations, words and sentences such as, "a sad lass had gas." The remaining keyboard letters are added, one at a time, to be keyboarded mindlessly. Since a behavorist system requires accuracy and speed with each part moving to the next step, students suffer through endless parts without a sense of the whole (i.e., real writing). Punctuation is left until last, learned only if the student makes it through the whole laborious system, by which time they are reluctant to slow down to learn the required coordination.

The current methods of typing tutors arose from secretarial training for typewriter technology and are not appropriate for modern computers or the writing process that they facilitate. These methods do not take into account the difference between copy typing of yesteryear and the modern day thought-driven, generative writing process. The former requires one level of processing while the latter requires multilevel, simultaneous processing of higher order thinking and lower level skills. These programs do not address the learning and communication needs of school-age students who do not have the motivation of professional trainees of yesteryear. They introduce wrong habits that become reinforced through unmonitored practice, as students usually move into a nintendo mode of play rather than a thoughtful learning attitude.

The importance of teaching ergonomics has been confirmed in light of the current research into repetitive stress injuries (RSI). Programs that are based upon the home-row method may, by virtue of a lack of attention to important ergonomic issues, and the emphasis they place upon ‘anchoring’ all eight fingers on the "ASDFJKL;" keys, may eventually cause carpel tunnel syndrome (Herzog Research). At the very least, the tension created by needing to maintain a home-row position, causes muscle fatigue. The importance of teaching ergonomics has been confirmed in light of the current research into repetitive stress injuries (RSI)

Most research into keyboarding instruction has focussed upon improving typing speed and efficiency through changing the keyboard arrangement. Some people assume that an alphabetic system requires an alphabetic keyboard arrangement rather than finding alphabetic patterns within the present QWERTY layout. Current debate centers upon the value of switching to the Dvorak layout that permits the keyboarder to type faster than the QWERTY layout, especially for single handed keyboarders. These are superficial issues if the student never gets off the ground with learning the skill. The real key is for schools, together with occupational and remediation therapists, and special educators to apply to keyboarding an effort similar to that being currently focussed on handwriting. In order for keyboarding to deliver on its promise–assisting in organizing thought and providing access to written expression for those with disabilities–similar time and effort must be devoted to its teaching and the integrating of this mechanical skill with everyday school content and language arts written expression. And we know that when a special population triggers research into a particular area, all children benefit from the resulting improved teaching practice.

Enter Keyboard Coach®

During the last seven years, through teaching hundreds of students who have failed to reach first base in keyboarding, I have observed and researched how best to teach students with LD, ADD and single handed students to succeed at this activity. My experience indicates that the first few hours of keyboarding instruction are more important than which kind of keyboard or which typing program is used. Success leads to success and motivation to practice which, as fluency is achieved, the optimal speed for a particular student will emerge. Just as a runner gets "into a groove", depending upon the distance of the race, keyboarding fluency is reached when the keyboarder has achieved relaxed automatic fingering which includes a rhythmic whole body awareness.

Following early empowerment with meaningful tasks such as homework and personal writing (generative writing) is more effective than drill and practice programs for school-age children. Bart Pisha’s (Pisha) research found that students in a yearlong software drill-based program progressed faster when encouraged to use their skill for homework assignments from the start. Indeed, I have found that once they have learned to keyboard the alphabet, lending students a personal tool for keyboarded writing such as the AlphaSmart (IPD), exponentially increases the effectiveness of my program. This invites them do personal and school related writing concurrently with my Introductory Sessions training, I found that the QWERTY layout is easy for students to master in a few hours if they were taught in an alternative way that replaces the home-row. Informal observation and interviews revealed to me that mainstreamed students with disabilities would rather learn the same keyboard (versus the Dvorak or other variation) as their peers and be able to access a QWERTY keyboard anywhere anytime without needing adult help with adaptation. If they later decided to work on a specially adapted keyboard, they would still have the advantage of being able to work on a QWERTY keyboard.

Concept and Background to System

Now, after seven years of development and in-depth testing, a new keyboarding instructional system that supports the learning process is available. This incorporates teacher training and metacognitive instruction for students that focuses on keyboarding as a springboard to literacy (both computer and language). This approach is quite different from the home-row "conditioned response" copy typing approach found in current software programs which are more like games than a real writing environment.

The genesis of Keyboard Coach® comes from my background as a reflective practitioner. My teaching practice continues to attract students who benefit from computer based remediation. My early childhood teacher training included developmental learning theory and graduate work focused on learning disabilities. Since many students who experience difficulty learning to keyboard are dysgraphic, research into nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD) has been especially valuable (Rosen, Thompson and Foss) in formulating my approach.

The Keyboard Coach® course addresses the need to teach pre-keyboarding concepts and correct fingering. Since no program is able to monitor whether a person uses the correct fingers, it is necessary to include proprioceptive awareness training through practicing discrete motor-language patterns before asking students to combine them first into the alphabet (which serves as a continuing warm-up exercise) and then into words used in sentences. The idea of teaching the alphabet as a whole, via a poem followed by high frequency words, was inspired by the work of Diana Hanbury King (Hanbury King).

Where the Ring and Middle Finger Tendons Meet

Keyboard Coach

Keyboard Coach® recognizes that the ring and middle fingers share nerves and tendons. The illustration above left shows how the Ring and Middle finger tendons meet at the wrist. These fingers also share nerves—resulting in confused signals from brain to finger during the early learning phase of keyboarding (this also causes problems for pianists). Teaching students to float their wrists so as to move from the shoulder in the diagonal direction of the staircases, rather than trying to tap keys through individual finger flexion from a home row base, avoids the stress and frustration of trying to flex the ring finger independently. This ergonomic principle is applied to all fingers by emphasizing the importance of the staircase/column structure versus the rows arrangement. (See illustration above right).

Description of Course

Because the Keyboard Coach® system addresses proprioceptive and visual-spatial issues, every part of the alphabet is studied as a named finger pattern before the student is asked to incorporate it in a section of the alphabet sequence; these pattern names are incorporated into the poem to aid motor memory. This is covered in the all important Orientation. The follow up Introductory Sessions and Extreme Lessons utilize a series of letter patterns that reflect many frequent letter combinations found in the English language

Orientation (Learning the Alphabet)

In this first stage of the course, the alphabet serves as a wonderful vehicle for teaching the patterns for efficient QWERTY fingering. Examples of the exercises sequence that prepares for keyboarding the alphabet follow: CDE and W(S)X teach one-finger—for-one-column (staircases) while OP and JKL call for a piano scale the letters occur in lines. Combining D and K middle finger centers with CDE and JKL into one exercise (ddd cde kkk jkl) develops discrimination of staircase versus line fingering.

Middle Finger Sensor Center

FG, MN and R(S)T teach that each pointer has to work two staircases (Pointer Partners) while GH emphasizes the use of different pointers for the central staircases (Neighbors). PQ demonstrates how the shortness of the pinkies along with the slope of the columns requires a movement from the shoulder (Swinging Pinkies). A poem, which may be sung to the "Alphabet Song" (Twinkle, Twinkle) Pinkie A stretch Pointer B Middle Staircase CDE, Pointer Partners F and G etc., provides a powerful mnemonic that makes remembering key placement (and alphabet sequence for young children) easy. The song, rap or poem integrate verbal labels for all the important motor actions needed to keybooard efficiently which is a powerful aid for verbal learners. There are also clear pictorial aids for visual learners. The Orientation needs 1 to 3 hours of mediated instruction, or longer, depending on age, (dis)ability, and need/motivation.

Being able to keyboard the alphabet so quickly with the correct fingering is tremendously motivating. The language patterns that build on this early success focus on developing finger independence and dexterity (see keyboard map and hand-tendon illustration above), versus equal time for each key. The early patterns are immediately combined to enable keyboarding not only the alphabet but high frequency function words such as there here and where which in turn facilitate generative writing simple sentences such as "where were we? — we were here and there!" From the very outset students see how the patterns combine to make real words, a far cry from the single letter/word drill and practice of Typing Tutors.

Introductory Sessions: twelve sessions use a similar system of verbal/visual mnemonics for frequent spelling patterns as they relate to keyboard arrangement; for example a triangle for the was and red and polo language patterns as they actually occur on the QWERTY keyboard. Each set of patterns is first taught as a part, then embedded in "Finger Twister" words, then practiced as word parts in tabbed copy exercises, and finally embedded in sentences. Every lesson culminates in generative (creative) writing exercises that develop the ability to "talk through the fingers."

Key Triangles

Extreme Lessons: twenty lessons that continue to target frequent syllable and spelling patterns through idiomatic phrases embedded in colorful sentences. E.G.: A friend in need is a friend indeed; A dumb dirty rat; Like a fish out of water.

These are designed for students who need additional stimulating materials to maintain practice. They can take anywhere from 4 to 20 hours to complete. However, for students who use their new skill for daily assignments, this third level is not necessary.

Additional Supports to the System

Keyboard Coach&reg uses assistive and adaptive technology to reinforce the concepts being taught.

  • Enlarged color-coded letter keycaps show the keyboard columns (staircases).
  • Sensors on the D,K,3 and 8 keys center the middle fingers and encourage each finger to work its corresponding "staircase" (see "Middle Finger Sensor Centers" illustration above). Stuart Herzog’s research has established the efficacy of using D and K as centering devices rather than anchoring all eight fingers on the home row. The Herzog Hub® Key Sensors are recommended for NLD, blind, visually impaired and those requiring added kinesthetic feedback. I also recommend third party equipment such as a gliding wrist rest to support the wrists in an elevated position, particularly helpful for those with poor muscle tone.

Motivation, an Essential Ingredient

The Keyboard Coach® system has four ways to encourage students to complete sufficient practice to achieve fluency.

  • First, it engages students in their "own" process by helping them understand the biological reasons for common errors such as confusing keys worked by the Ring and Middle finger. It reinforces "how to learn" by going slowly through a three step visualization technique which prepares for different modes of writing: 1. Looking at the screen for functional writing; 2. Looking away from the screen in order to copy; 3. Looking, but not "seeing" the screen for brainstorming and to allow thought to flow without the interruption of corrections.
  • Second, it presents a set of language-based patterns in a variety of tasks from letter groups to whole sentences and then to generative writing within each session. This progression from part to whole occurs in each session.
  • Third, it encourages use of this emerging skill for relevant tasks such as homework and email correspondance.
  • Fourth, it motivates students to "let go and flow" through a user-controlled game, Robochase©. Students with performance issues often miss out on the experience of winning. Here they can create game content that matches their perception of what they can accomplish. This is in contrast to Edutainment programs which emphasize speed and competition creating pressure and stress for many students.


The Keyboard Coach® system teaches that accuracy is first and that speed will flow naturally from fluency once mind and body are working in synch; which requires a relaxed confident attitude, not a pushing trying-to-win video game tension. It teaches the "Zen of Keyboarding©" to help students slow down and experience a steady flow that produces higher speed scores than rushing permits. In this and many other ways, the system allows teachers as coaches to observe and work with students metacognitively to "learn how to learn."

Learning to keyboard is a complex language-based motor skill that requires the ability to synchronize mind and body. Keyboard Coach® provides an effective tutorial for training both the teacher and the student rather than conditioned response learning. This instructional component addresses "learning how to learn." It develops metacognition that addresses the visual spatial difficulties of those with non-verbal learning disabilities; the memory and sequencing issues of dyslexics; and the need for novelty in order for students with ADD students to learn. Verbal and visual mnemonics make explicit the relationship between the QWERTY keyboard and the correct fingering of the alphabet. The Keyboard Coach® ® system has been validated through success with over two hundred students who come with a variety of learning issues and physical disabilities, and by others using it with students of all ages around the US and in England. Feedback from colleagues in school and college settings and the author's own experience show many similar stories that demonstrate how this system succeeds where others fail. In particular, students who have had difficulty acquiring fine motor skills, including previous typing courses, and those with visual spatial issues, respond with enthusiasm to the quick success and sense of accomplishment that this approach provides.It is experienced as a pleasurable and worthwhile activity in its own right as well as for the empowerment that it brings.

Software to Support Learning and Teacher Training

The Keyboard Coach® software that is available is being extended to meet the needs of low vision, single handed and color blind students. The interface will be designed to work in conjunction with screen readers and text-to-speech and word prediction programs to harness the power of generative writing for fluency. The structure of the programming will permit users to move horizontally as well as vertically and to customize content; users will be able to insert their own sequence and instructions in order to accommodate alternative systems and curriculum content. The author and her programmer are seeking feedback from different kinds of learners so as to make the materials multi-user accessible. Extensive help in the form of written and spoken text, video clips, visual diagrams is to be included. However, the pace of development will depend upon external funding and/or the ability to market the current software and materials so as to recycle funds received.


Foss, Jean M. Nonverbal Learning Disabilities and Remedial Interventions. Pine Ridge School Williston Vermont. Annals of Dyslexia, Vol 41, 1991. ISSN 0736-9387.

Hanbury King, Diana. Keyboarding Skills. Educators Publishing Service Inc., Cambridge, MA, (1986). (800) 225-5750, ISBN 0-8388-1707-6.

Herzog, Barbara and Herzog, Stuart. The Herzog System® of Keyboarding — The Fasttrack System for Classes in Grades 2—12. Herzog Research, Tucson, AZ,. (520) 792-2550.

Pisha, Bart. (1993) Rates of development of keyboarding skills in elementary school aged children with and without identified learning disabilities. Unpublished Thesis (University Microfilms #9326324), Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Poole Nancy, Remediation of Nonverbal Learning Problems The Educational Therapist Vol 18 #3, Fall 1997 from AET, (818) 843-1183

Thompson, Susan. The Source for NonVerbal Learning Disabilities. LinguiSystems, Inc. 3100 4th Avenue. East Moline IL 61244, (1997). (800) 776-4332.


© Elspeth Sladden 1997