Tools for Writing 2024 Style: A suggestion and selection guide

Learning to write can be really challenging – and teaching it can be really challenging too!  When I started implementing Comprehensive Literacy Instruction, it was the area that I struggled most to implement.  Some of the students I was working with weren’t able to hold a traditional pen or pencil – and some of them could hold one but not control one.  I actually threw my hands up in the air – and gave up on teaching writing!

Let’s fast forward to several months later, when I figured out that not writing was holding my students back from developing their literacy further.  They needed the opportunity that writing provides for them to apply the skills that they were learning in other areas – and to learn skills via writing to apply in reading.  So, I had a really important task in front of me – figuring out how each student was going to write – and then helping them to get better at it!


Now, let’s fast forward even more, to over 20 years later.  In 2024, thankfully, we have a lot more options for writing tools for the students we work with – and a lot more information about how to teach and assess writing.

Of course, some things haven’t changed! At the very beginning, I said that teaching and learning writing is challenging. There are so many parts of writing.  Students need to learn to generate an idea, to think about language, think about the words, the spelling, controlling their writing tool, etc. The complexity involved in becoming a writer means that we want to help each student to find the simplest writing tool for them. We want to make their writing tool something that uses minimal physical and cognitive energy so that they can focus on all the other aspects of writing development.

This is where, of course, the increased range of writing tools has really helped.  We are also all much more accustomed to using a range of writing tools ourselves.  Writing has changed in our society.  Twenty four years ago (when I gave up on teaching writing – and then had to backtrack), handwriting was still in daily use for the majority of us.  Today, while many people still handwrite, there is also a recognition that keyboarding is incredibly important for every writer in our society.  In fact, keyboarding is required for so many of our writing tasks – text messages, internet searches, completing forms, writing emails, social media posts, and so on.

And so…… let’s talk about some of the many writing tools available – and who we might use them with.  And before anyone thinks they are having a déjà vu moment, this post is a 2024 update of a post I wrote five years ago called “Tools for Writing: A suggestion and selection guide”.


Sensory Pencils for Early Emergent Writers

Two years ago I wrote a blog post about sensory pencils. Sensory pencils are something we use with our most emergent writers to support their engagement while they are learning that they are a writer.  In the original blog post (which I highly recommend you read) you’ll see a video of a toddler who is early in his journey to being a writer as well – and the sensory aspects of his writing tools engage him as much as making the marks.  Sensory pencils are designed to fill this need for our earliest emergent writers – and can be anything that will support and increase their engagement, that provides access to all 26 letters of the alphabet.  We would generally use sensory pencils with students at A.1 to A.3 on the Writing with All Tools Continuum.  We wouldn’t use them after that stage because they are hard to use while a student is learning about using spaces as well as letters.

Some examples of sensory pencils are shown below. (And thanks to Bullimbal School and Karen @ Errington for letting me take photos of their sensory pencil options).

Another fabulous writing tool that also functions as a sensory pencil is the app Word Wizard. It has a section called “Talking Movable Alphabet” which is perfect for some students.

Key points:

  • Can be any tool that contains all 26 letters of the alphabet
  • Has some sensory aspects that support student engagement with writing

Use with students who:


Flip Charts for Emergent Writers

Flip charts were originally developed by the amazing folk at the Centre for Literacy and Disability Studies. They are gold – tools that I implement each and every week with a range of emergent writers.  There are a large number of flip charts available to download on my secondary website at https://comprehensiveliteracy.com/writing-tools/. These are all designed to be printed on A4 paper – and there are some with the Australian symbol for finish and others with the UK/US symbol for finished.  There are also some for emergent writers who are learning to write in French or Spanish.

If you need flip charts on US Letter paper, check out the ones available at https://www.dlmpd.com/writing-resources/ from the Centre for Literacy and Disability Studies.

Direct Access Flip Charts

There are a large number of flip charts based on the original direct access flip chart design (see below). These are available with different coloured plain backgrounds (blue, pink, green, orange, grey). Print them in every colour and let students choose which colour to use each day – just like students using pens and pencils also get to choose their colours! They are also available with themed backgrounds – which some students are finding super motivating. (And occasionally we have a student who finds them really distracting).

Key points:

  • This is the flip chart I use most of all
  • White boxes around the letters, emphasising letter shape
  • Lower and upper case versions
  • (Upper case could be used by the teacher to model writing but otherwise shouldn’t be needed as the students we would use this with are scribbling)
  • In alphabetic order, with each page starting with a vowel. Also one version out of alphabetic order.
  • Four or six letters per page
  • Side flaps with finish, turn the page and space that can be folded away if not needed OR a menu displayed under the letters.

Use with students who:

  • Are emergent and still learning the alphabet
  • Can point with their finger or hand
  • Have good vision

Another option for students who point with their finger OR their hand is the one I call 4 squares per page – imaginative title I know!! These have been great with students who need a bit more space between letters as they are pointing with their whole hand. There are a few versions with different coloured menu bars.

Key points:

  • Lower case only
  • In alphabetic order
  • Four letters per page
  • Menu with finish, turn the page and space displayed beside the letters.

Use with students who:

  • Are emergent and still learning the alphabet
  • Can point with their hand or other body part (except eyes)
  • Have good vision

There are also direct access flip charts available in high contrast for students with a vision impairment.

Key points:

  • High contrast for students with a vision impairment
  • Upper case only
  • In alphabetic order
  • Three letters per page
  • Side flaps with finish, turn the page and space that can be folded away if not needed OR a menu displayed under the letters.

Use with students who:

  • Are emergent and still learning the alphabet
  • Can point with their hand or other body part (except eyes)
  • Have a vision impairment
  • May also be suitable for students doing horizontal partner assisted scanning

Eye Gaze Access Simple Flip Charts

As the name implies, these flip charts are designed for students who need to access the alphabet with eye gaze. I call these “simple” because they don’t have the encoding required by an ETRAN or colour coded eye gaze alphabet array. They are available in regular or high contrast options.

Key points:

  • Regular contrast or high contrast
  • Upper or lower case
  • In alphabetic order
  • Three letters per page
  • Side flap with finish, turn the page and space that can be folded away if not needed

Use with students who:

  • Are emergent and still learning the alphabet
  • Point with their eyes
  • High contrast options for students with a vision impairment
  • Regular contrast options for students with good vision

Combination Access Flip Charts

These flip charts are designed for students who need a combination of access methods to access the flip chart. The letters can be accessed by pointing with a body part or with their eyes. The menu is accessed via partner assisted scanning.

Key points:

  • Regular contrast or high contrast
  • Upper or lower case
  • In alphabetic order
  • Four letters per page
  • Side menu with space, delete, turn the page and page back that can be folded away if not needed

Use with students who:

  • Are emergent and still learning the alphabet
  • Need a combination of access methods – pointing or eye gaze for the alphabet and partner assisted scanning for the menu
  • High contrast options for students with a vision impairment
  • Regular contrast options for students with good vision

Partner Assisted Scanning Access Flip Charts

As the name implies, these flip charts are designed for students who need to access the alphabet with partner assisted scanning (vertical). They are available in regular or high contrast options with different numbers of letters per page.

Key points:

  • Regular contrast or high contrast
  • Upper or lower case
  • In alphabetic order
  • Two, three or four letters per page
  • Controls page with different controls for different students

Use with students who:

  • Are emergent and still learning the alphabet
  • Use vertical partner assisted scanning
  • High contrast options for students with a vision impairment
  • Regular contrast options for students with good vision

High Tech Flip Charts

I also make the flip chart up high tech in AAC apps like Proloquo2Go. Not all AAC systems or AAC apps have the capacity to do this – but it’s awesome when they do!


Other Writing Tools for emergent students

This category is only limited by potential tools that can offer them access to the whole alphabet and that they will engage with. It’s important that all students have access to the whole alphabet, even if it is broken into chunks like it is on the flip chart.

You also need to remember that once a student is at A.4 to A.6 on the Writing with All Tools Continuum that they also need access to a way to indicate “space”.

Oh – and of course some emergent students are great with traditional pens and pencils for some of their writing, some of the time!


Whole Alphabet Keyboards for Conventional Writers

Once students know most of the letters of the alphabet, most of the time, they are ready to move up to a whole alphabet keyboard of some sort! At this stage, there are a lot more commercial, and familiar, options available. The familiar QWERTY or AZERTY keyboards come into play. And, of course, some conventional students are great with traditional pens and pencils for writing for some of the time too!


Low Tech QWERTY keyboards

These low tech QWERTY keyboards have been a great tool – they’ve been awesome in classrooms where there aren’t enough keyboards to go around. They’ve also been great when a student is overwhelmed by the sensory aspects of a traditional QWERTY keyboard. If you need a low tech keyboard, please go with one that is the same as their high tech keyboard so that they don’t have to learn different motor planning when moving from high to low tech.

Key points:

  • Available in a number of different colour combinations
  • Some themed options available
  • Designed to be printed double sided so that students have access to upper and lower case letters
  • Provides consistency with high tech keyboards to assist with motor planning development

Use with students who:

  • Know most of the letters, most of the time
  • Are pointing with their finger

High Tech QWERTY keyboards

We’re all familiar with these. There are so many variations on the “standard” computer keyboard. Ergonomic, slim line, wrist pad, wireless, wired, light touch, with and without number keypads, backlit, etc. One of these changes can make a keyboard more suitable for a student – so it helps to have different options to trial. Unfortunately, though, they also come and go a lot – so you can trial the perfect keyboard and then not be able to buy it 🙂


“Different” High Tech QWERTY keyboards

Some of the variations on High Tech QWERTY keyboards include versions that are more accessible in some ways. For example, they may have high contrast keys and/or larger keys – or a reduced number of keys. It’s worth researching these for different students as needed.


Keyboards with Keyguards

Perspex “keyguards” have been used with keyboards for a long time. Some are commercially available, such as the Clevy Keyguard above, and others have to be custom made. They can help someone who is typing with a tremor by reducing their miss-hits and providing them with a surface to rest on. They have also been great for reducing the sensory demands of a keyboard for some students.


Onscreen Keyboards

These were once a very rare option! Today, however, they are built into almost every operating system. Windows, Mac, iOS, Android all have their own onscreen keyboards – and some of the apps we run also have a custom onscreen keyboard within the app.

Each of the different onscreen keyboards has different accessibility features, depending on the operating system and whether it is a 3rd party keyboard or the standard one for the operating system. Again, it is worth investigating these for different students as needed. Many of them are compatible with switch access or with eye gaze.


Let’s Write

Once you have the best writing tool sorted for your student(s), it’s important they get lots of regular practice in writing – because the best way to get better at writing is to do more writing!!

So – keep on writing!


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