Joan Tanenhaus gives an overview of some of the new and traditional input options available for writing on the iPad.

When using any tablet for writing, we all know that there are times we prefer using the external keyboard, other times that the on-screen keyboard is the choice, and still other times that we select speech recognition. Now, we also have the additional option to use handwriting, with the Apple Pencil, when using the new 9.7ʺ iPad and the iPad Pro series. Combine this with the new software and accessibility features of iOS11, the large number and quality of apps available, the size and weight of the device, the assistive technology and organisational accessories and the iPad becomes an even more powerful learning and educational tool for special needs.

This article will highlight some of the new and exciting features of the Apple Pencil, as well as the accessibility features of external hardware keyboards, on-screen keyboards, speech recognition, and other assistive technologies for access to writing tools.

The Apple Pencil (

The Apple Pencil.

The Apple Pencil is a seven-inch Bluetooth digital stylus that now works with the new 9.7ʺ iPad and with the iPad Pro series of Apple tablets. One end of the pencil is the writing tip and the other end has a magnetic removable cap with a lightning connector underneath for charging. The Apple Pencil charges quickly — 15 seconds gives you about 30 minutes of use and a full charge usually takes about 15 minutes.

Combined with the right apps, the Apple Pencil features pressure sensitivity and angle detection. Press harder to draw thicker lines, use a lighter touch to draw a very light, thin line — or adjust pressure for anything in between. There are also two tilt sensors in the tip of the pencil that calculate the angle of your hand and transmit that information to the multi-touch display so that you can create different degrees of shading, just as you would with a conventional pencil. The iPad Pro has the new ProMotion technology. With it, latency (the slight delay between when you begin writing and the time it appears on screen) is hardly noticeable. This quick response leads to smooth and natural writing. It makes note-taking and writing within apps a very natural and comfortable experience. While using the Apple Pencil, you can rest your hand on the iPad screen without any interference. You don’t have to worry about hand placement — just write like it’s a piece of paper. This is due to Apple’s new Palm Rejection Technology which can detect the difference between the pencil and your hand.

The Apple Pencil is an impressive art tool too and is supported by many specialised art apps. This article will not be reviewing this aspect of the Apple Pencil, but if you are interested in the Apple Pencil as a drawing/painting/art tool, check out this link for more detailed information:

The Apple Pencil has many applications for individuals with special needs. These include its use in the areas of note-taking; organisational skills; annotating text files, PDFs, photos; filling out and signing forms, worksheets and tests; as well as stylus applications for programs not optimised for the Apple Pencil.

Note-taking, organisational skills and annotating:

Notetaking on the iPad Pro.

Notes is the app that comes on every iPad and iPhone and it is excellent to use for first note-taking experiences. It’s a great starter for younger students who are just beginning to write and take notes. In addition, as mentioned above, since most writers will use a combination of inputs such as on-screen keyboard, external keyboard, Apple Pencil and speech recognition, Notes’ ability to use all these makes it ideal. Start with a new Note and write a To Do List, the day’s schedule, practise spelling words or write a short sentence. Try scanning a worksheet into Notes and then have the student fill in the blank spaces with the answers. Notes even features the ability to search your handwritten notes using Spotlight, making it easy to find something you have written. For easy access, put Notes in the Control Center so it can be used even if your iPad is locked. Just tap the locked screen with your Apple Pencil and a new note will open. Notes also lets you set a password and use it to secure any individual notes. All your notes are organised and together and can always be accessed from all your devices —iPhones, other iPads, Mac and Windows computers as well.

Microsoft OneNote ( is a free app that gives you the complex organisation needed in college for note-taking and multiple courses. Students can arrange their notes into separate notebooks (one for each subject, if they want), providing an excellent way of organising and keeping track of each subject. Photos, tables, videos, PDFs, other information from readings and internet searches, etc can be added right into the Notebook. Users can take quick notes, write outlines, write down thoughts and ideas, make lists, track a project, make notes on schedules, and draw and sketch. They can divide notebooks into sections, use tabs and pages. Handwritten notes can easily be converted to typed text anytime. Video and/or audio can be recorded and embedded in notes. One of the other outstanding features is the ability to search your audio or video recordings for specific words or phrases. Fully integrated with Microsoft Office, users can export to a Word document, Excel spreadsheet, PowerPoint and even to WordPress. Notes taken on the iPad will update on the computer, phone or any other platform used. OneNote also has password protection features. Notebooks or individual sections or tabs can be protected with passwords — notebooks can be shared but certain pages kept private if desired. This is a very comprehensive and full-featured app for note-taking, with the Apple Pencil and with on-screen typing and speech recognition.

iAnnotate 4 (, and PDF Expert Pro ( can be used to annotate photos, lecture slides, class tests and to create PDFs from scratch. They can be used to fill out PDF forms with interactive fields; create and use e-signatures; add, delete and rearrange pages in your document; and much more.

Other apps that are important in this area of writing at the iPad include: Notes Plus (, MyScript Nebo ( and Notability (

The apps that are right for individual users will depend on specific needs. Many have Lite versions so you can download and try them out before you decide which one is right for you. Try to check video reviews on You Tube for detailed information and explanations of the app’s potential to address your goals and interests.

Some of the other things you can do with the Apple Pencil to enhance teaching and learning can be done with the built-in features of the iPad:

  1. Turn a class worksheet into one on the iPad: Take a picture of a class worksheet. Go to Photos and find your picture. Press Edit on upper-right corner. Then select the circle with three dots on bottom-right and then choose Markup. Select pencil, colour, and have your students start filling in the blanks on the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil.
  2. Markup anything on your iPad: Take a screenshot and follow above directions to Markup. Using Assistive Touch, you can set up a Screenshot shortcut — press anytime you want to take a screenshot. Use to markup your photos, homework papers, editing documents, etc.
  3. Precision Pointing: When an app is not designed to work with handwriting, students can still use the Pencil as a stylus for Precision Pointing. For example, the Apple Pencil will work for scrolling, swiping, tapping small buttons, as well as typing with the on-screen keyboard.
  4. Other Fun Things to Do: Some other apps for fun things to do with the Apple Pencil include:

Puzzazz Crossword & Puzzle (,
Kaleidoscope Drawing Pad (, Draw and Play (, and
Color Pad (

Assistive Technology solutions for the Apple Pencil

If the grip width or texture of the Apple Pencil is not comfortable for a user with special grapho-motor needs, consider some of the following adaptations to enhance grip and writing positions:

Plus Ergo for the Apple Pencil.

Plus Ergo for the Apple Pencil ( The Plus Ergo is an ergonomically designed grip for the Apple Pencil. It is made of soft silicon and is twice as wide as the Apple Pencil. It provides another option for users of the Apple Pencil who find it too thin to grip for writing.






Ztylus Apple Pencil Case.

Ztylus Apple Pencil Case ( The Apple Pencil Case is a well-designed and well-made full body case for the Apple Pencil, offering a better and wider grip for some. It has other features also- such as a built-in clip which prevents the pencil from rolling away and also can be clipped to clothes, pocket or bags as needed. The case is solid white plastic and has a place to store the cap when the pencil is being charged.  It also keeps the tip protected when the pencil is not in use. There is a video and a manual available to help with the installation.

Ztylus Slim Apple Pencil Case.

Ztylus Slim Apple Pencil Case ( The Slim Pencil Case is made of black aluminum and is a little wider than the Apple Pencil. Like the wider case above, it gives complete access to the lightning connector, has a built-in holder for the cap, an integrated clip and protects the tip from accidental damage.




Pen Pal — the Clip for Apple Pencil (

Pen Pal- the Clip for Apple Pencil.

If you have concerns about your Apple Pencil rolling off the desk, you can look at the Pen Pal. It slips onto the pencil, provides a clip if you want to put in your pocket and also prevents any rolling on the desk.

Poetic Lumos Back Cover for the iPad 10.5.

Poetic Lumos Back Cover for the iPad Pro and for the new Apple iPad 9.7ʺ (
If you are a Smart Keyboard and an Apple Pencil user, you will appreciate this soft plastic back case with a built in pencil holder. It works together with the Apple Smart Keyboard (which protects the front of the iPad) and provides protection for the back of your iPad while also containing an integrated pencil holder, and access to all connectors, camera, ports, without adding any bulk or weight.



Hardware Keyboards

When writing for a more extended period of time and for more complex documents, many students prefer to use an external hardware keyboard with the iPad. Besides issues of access, the on-screen keyboard does not contain the Control or Command keys, is also missing the four navigational arrow keys and does not allow the use of keyboard shortcuts, making editing, deleting, copy/pasting more difficult.

In addition, hardware keyboards take advantage of some accessibility feature of iOS11. Some of these are: Sticky Keys (with Sticky Keys turned on, modifier keys can be used without having to hold the key down — you type them as consecutive keys, instead of simultaneous ones. This is helpful for someone who might be unable to physically press two keys at the same time). Key Repeat (by disabling Key Repeat, you can prevent characters from being entered multiple times with a single press). Slow Keys (this adjusts the amount of time between when a key is pressed and when it is activated). Key Repeat and Slow Keys are especially helpful for someone who might have a tremor or who might have motor difficulties related to striking and releasing a key. To control these options, go to General→Accessibility→Keyboard→Hardware Keyboards.

Students with reading and writing difficulties often benefit from the use of a talking word processor as they are writing. Apps for this kind of program will work with hardware keyboards as well as on-screen keyboards. They can provide auditory feedback by speaking the letters, words, sentences or any and all of these as the student is typing. They also read the word prediction choices and can be used to read entire documents aloud. This auditory feedback assists with reading, spelling and with word order difficulties, as well as expressive writing disorders and dyslexia. Some of these apps are:

iWordQ (
Clicker Docs (,
WriteOnline (,
Co:Writer ( and
Predictable (

There are many different kinds of hardware keyboards for the iPad and they come with three different connection options: The Smart Connector (iPad Pro only), Bluetooth and Wired via the Lightning connector.

Smart Connector Keyboards

The Smart Keyboard.

The Smart Keyboard ( The Smart Keyboard is a full-sized keyboard designed for the iPad Pro series only. It is attached to a Smart Cover, and connects to the iPad Pro through its built-in Smart Connector. It serves not only as a keyboard, but also as a cover and a stand. Because it uses the Smart Connector, it does not need to be charged or paired, and has no wires or cables. The Smart Connector transfers both data and power between the iPad Pro and the Smart Keyboard. Just unfold it when you want to use it and then fold it up when you are finished. When you unfold it the onscreen keyboard disappears, and when you fold it up it automatically reappears. The keyboard is light-weight and thin, just a little thicker than the Smart Cover alone. It is covered with fabric that is coated with a water-resistant finish. There are no gaps between keys to trap crumbs, dust or water. The Smart Keyboard for the 9.7ʺ iPad Pro weighs only .5 lb (227 grams).

The Smart Keyboard has four full rows of keys, similar to a standard keyboard. Below these rows are the World key, Control, Option, Command keys, the Space Bar and four arrow keys. The World key brings up the Emojis which can be selected by touch, or other keyboards you use. An onscreen shortcut bar is also always in view and lets you use word prediction, and features such as Bold, Italics, Underline, Cross Out, Bullets, etc., also chosen by touch. To use Speech Recognition and the microphone when using the Smart Keyboard, press and hold the down arrow key on the right of the shortcut bar. The onscreen keyboard will appear and you can press the microphone for speech recognition.

There are system shortcuts and additional shortcuts specific to the app you are using.  For example, Command + H returns you to your Home screen. Command Tab will take you to the App Switcher. If you hold down the Command key and keep tapping the Tab key, you can highlight different apps. Command + Space will take you to Spotlight Search. Use Command with an arrow key to jump to the top, bottom of any page or to the beginning or end of any row of text. Option and left/right arrow key jumps forward or backward by a whole word. Press and hold the Command key and you will see a complete list of supported shortcuts for the app you are using.

Many other shortcuts that you use with Mac or Windows computers are available with the Smart Keyboard and for any Bluetooth keyboard — e.g. cut, copy, paste, find, save, etc.  For a complete list of system shortcuts, check You can also create your own keyboard shortcuts on the iPad. Go to Settings→GeneralAccessibilityKeyboardText Replacement. You can add a keyboard replacement for a word, your name, a complete phrase.

The Slim Combo Keyboard (

The Slim Combo Keyboard.

This keyboard-case combination, the only one other than the Smart Keyboard that works with the Smart Connector, is available for both the 12.9ʺ and 10.5ʺ iPad Pro. Like the Smart Keyboard, since it uses the Smart Connector, it does not need to be charged or paired and has no wires or cables. The keyboard serves as a front cover and the stand is part of the back cover. The keyboard can be detached if you want to just use the tablet and stand. The stand can be placed in the right position for whatever task you are doing — reading, writing, Facetime, watching videos, etc.— any angle within a 50 degree range from 20 to 70 degrees in landscape mode. In portrait mode, it is only at a 73 degree angle. On the right-side of the case (when in landscape view)  there is a thin cloth loop that provides a secure holder for the Apple Pencil. The Slim Combo Keyboard for the 9.7ʺ iPad Pro weighs 1.16 lbs (526 grams).

The Slim Combo keyboard contains full size backlit keys, with three levels of adjustable backlighting. It also includes a full row of iOS shortcut keys including a Home key, screen brightness up and down, Search (brings you to iPad Spotlight search screen), press and hide on-screen keyboard key, backlighting brightness up and down, media controls (back — play/pause — forward), volume (up and down, mute) and screen on/off (locks the iPad screen and if held down will bring up the iOS power-down screen). The bottom row includes the World key (switches between emojis and other language keys), control, option, command, and four arrow keys for cursor control. As with the Smart Keyboard, there are system shortcuts and additional shortcuts specific to the app you are using as well as many other shortcuts that are available with Mac or Windows computers such as for cut, copy, paste, find, save, etc (press and hold Command key for a complete list).

Bluetooth Keyboards

Bluetooth Keyboard Cases — If your iPad does not have a Smart Connector, you can use a Bluetooth keyboard case. Like the Smart Keyboard and the Slim Combo Keyboard, these cases provide the tactile advantage of a real keyboard without losing the convenience of portability. They also remain attached at all times, serve as a cover and a stand for the tablet and just can be unfolded to use and folded back up when no longer needed. Unlike the Smart Keyboard and Slim Combo Keyboard, they need to be paired and charged via Bluetooth.

Bluetooth External Keyboards — If you prefer a stand-alone external keyboard, you will find that any stand-alone wireless Bluetooth keyboard can be used with all iPad models. In addition, there are many hardware Bluetooth keyboards specifically designed for the iPad. These usually include additional iOS specific keys increasing their functionality. Each keyboard may offer different options, so check carefully.

Wired Keyboards

In addition, there is a small group of wired stand-alone keyboards that connect via the lightning connector and are powered by your iPad. Since it is powered by the tablet, it does not need to be charged.

On-Screen Keyboards

QuickType On-Screen Keyboard.

iPads with iOS11 feature the new QuickType Keyboard which is designed to reduce the need to switch between other on-screen keyboards in order to type numbers, punctuation, and symbols. Each key shows a large letter (the default key) and above it is a smaller number or symbol in grey. To type the smaller character, you touch the key and without releasing, swipe down.  Lower case letters can still be typed using the Shift key. This is a great time and energy saver! You can also use the Apple Pencil as a stylus to do this.

With VoiceOver enabled, individuals with visual impairments can get auditory feedback on the on-screen keyboard. Each character is read aloud as you touch it, and again when you enter it (double tap). A flick up or down moves the cursor so you can edit.

There are also many ‘virtual’ on-screen keyboards available as apps. These virtual keyboard are just different kinds of on-screen keyboards, many designed for extra support for those with special needs. Just a few of these are:

Keeble and Keedogo Plus (

Keedogo Plus.

These are on-screen iOS keyboards that are good for users with fine-motor difficulties, beginning learners, switch users and for users with vision impairments. These simplified keyboards offer word prediction (you can adjust the size of the prediction bar to individual needs), timing options, Select on Release, Select on Dwell, auditory feedback (keyboard clicks, spoken cues, hear each key, word or sentence you type) and other accessibility features (ABC layout, coloured vowels, custom themes). They streamline the keyboard so that only important keys are included. There are numbers-only keyboards, as well. They fully supports Switch Control and VoiceOver, are currently available in 11 different languages and have keyboards optimised for simplified, advanced and scanning keyboards as well as full QWERTY with preferred fonts.

SuperKeys Accessible Keyboard (

Super Keys Accessible Keyboard.

This virtual keyboard from Crick Software provides an accessible keyboard for those with physical challenges and low vision, anyone who has difficulty targeting the small keys. The keyboard is divided into seven clusters, so there are just seven keys instead of over 30. Just tap the cluster containing the letter you want and then tap the letter in the enlarged cluster. It also contains word prediction with suggestions displayed on large buttons to make selection easy. Super Keys shows up to 36 of your own customisable keyboard shortcuts — early learners don’t have to remember letter combination — just tap the shortcuts key and then tap the phrase they want. Optimum clarity and contrast can be obtained by customising colours and font. Other options include the ability to set size for word prediction, and fast access to Delete, Space and return with swipe selection. Crick Software is an excellent producer of literacy apps and writing supports for children with special needs.

MBraille (


This is a virtual braille keyboard. It lets you use braille to send email, add calendar entries, search the internet, interact with other apps, save and open text files. It has support for over one dozen languages.




SwiftKey Keyboard ( SwiftKey allows users to slide their finger or the Apple Pencil across the keyboard, passing over other letters, with a single, continuous movement, without lifting. This works very well with a finger, a stylus or the Apple Pencil, speeding up typing and reducing the motor task required in lifting and tapping each individual letter.

PadKeys ( PadKeys, with support for 11 languages, is a full keyboard layout that works like your computer keyboard. There are numbers, punctuation, cursor keys, and word swipe and an option key that leads to a full screen symbols layout. It also includes a ‘short layout’ on the iPad for more screen visibility in landscape orientation.

For more detailed information about Switch and Scanning with iOS 11, see Ablenet and the iOS 11 Switch Control User’s Guide —

If you are looking for switches and switch interfaces, mounting options, sturdy cases, Bluetooth keyboards, speakers, headphones and other iPad accessories, go to

If you have difficulty finding and touching the keys of an on-screen keyboard, using a stylus can be helpful. There are all kinds of styluses available. Some of these have been previously reviewed in the Special World article Adapt and Thrive. (

Speech recognition

Speech recognition is available for writing from the Apple on-screen keyboard. Just tap the microphone icon on the bottom line (between the emoji symbol and the space bar). This takes you to a screen that shows sound input.  As you talk, the iPad listens and turns your words into text. Tap the Keyboard to end. To get the best results, speak punctuation or special words such as period, question mark, new line, new paragraph, etc. Be sure to re-read what has been written — you may need to make a few corrections using the keyboard. For more complex writing, you can also download specialised speech recognition apps (i.e., Dragon apps, speech recognition for medical vocabulary, legal vocabulary, etc.). It’s sometimes helpful to also use an external microphone. If the app offers a tutorial or practice session, try to do those also.

Another Alternative Keyboard and Mouse System for Writing

TAP Wearable Keyboard & Mouse.

TAP Wearable Keyboard & Mouse ( TAP is a wearable Bluetooth keyboard, mouse and game controller for iOS and Android, as well as for Mac OS X or later and Windows 8.1 and above and Bluetooth 4.0 or above. It is a simple strap around your fingers — each finger fitting into an adjustable ring. The mouse glider is on the thumb. There is no need to hold anything —users just tap anywhere, on anything — it is vision-free, voice free control of the keyboard and mouse with just the fingers of one hand on any surface. Glide the thumb to move the cursor, and tap fingers to click. Each letter is assigned a tapping combination — and learning is with a series of tapping games downloaded from the Apple Store or from Google Play. There are eight ‘Tap-Sets’, which are taught via musical and visual tutorials and followed by rounds of gameplay. The keyboard keys also include the four arrow keys, space, return, period, escape, and tab. In addition, TAP supports some Hot Keys (Home, Search, etc.) on the iPad. The company estimates that it takes approximately five hours of practice to become an efficient tapper. You can then tap anywhere, on anything, without aiming for key positions. You can use Two TAPs (one on each hand) to increase your speed, but you must still use the Tap Alphabet. To see TAP, visit

This article is meant as an overview of some of the new and traditional input options available for writing on the iPad. For further information, visit the Apple Store, the Developers’ Websites and don’t forget to look at video reviews on


About Contributors

Joan Tanenhaus, MA, CCC, speech-language pathologist/assistive technology specialist, is Founder and Executive Director of Technology for Language and Learning, Inc., a non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing the use of computers and technology with children and adults with special needs. (e-mail:

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