Judy Dixon

Many people find it difficult to enter text using the iPhone's onscreen keyboard. The good news is that there are many ways to enter text, and the default method is possibly one of the most difficult. Some of these additional ways are variations of the onscreen keyboard itself, while others employ a completely different strategy.

This two-part article will present an overview of a wide variety of input methods. In Part one, we will look at the software options, those that can be found on the iPhone itself. In part two, we will look at several third-party hardware devices that can help with entering text.

Text Entry Methods Using the Onscreen Keyboard

Whenever you have the opportunity to enter text on your iPhone, a keyboard magically appears at the bottom of the screen. There are no actual keys on this keyboard, but there are places where you can tap and your selected character will be entered. Your phone is smart enough to know exactly where you are touching.

The layout of the onscreen keyboard varies from app to app, and even with your phone's orientation. So, if you are being asked to enter your email address, look around on the bottom row of the keyboard and you will very likely find an at sign. The Delete key is below the L and the Return key is below the Delete key. In general, the keyboard has three rows of letters but no numbers. To get numbers, activate the Numbers key near the lower left corner of the keyboard. The top row of the Numbers layout has the digits 1 through 0, with the most common punctuation on the other two rows. You can get more punctuation and other characters by activating the Symbols button on the left side of the keyboard.

If your region is set to the United States, two keyboards will be available by default, English (US) and Emoji. Emoji are those little pictures like "smiling face," "red heart," and "face blowing kiss" that are frequently used in text messages and elsewhere. To put emoji characters in your documents, select the Emoji key at the bottom left corner of the keyboard. The Emoji keyboard opens with the Frequently Used category selected. Across the bottom are nine radio buttons representing the nine available categories of emojis. The Next Keyboard key in the bottom left corner will take you back to the English keyboard. If you have more than two keyboards installed, this key will cycle among them.

Typing Mode

There are three Typing Modes that control how you select keys from the onscreen keyboard. With VoiceOver enabled, when you first set up a brand-new iPhone, the keyboard Typing Mode is set to Standard Typing. Standard Typing means that you slide a finger around the keyboard until you hear the character you are seeking. VoiceOver will speak the name of each character as your finger glides over it. Then, you can either lift your finger and double-tap anywhere on the screen, or you can split-tap, which is to keep a finger on the letter and tap anywhere else on the screen with a second finger. In either case, VoiceOver will repeat the letter as it is entered so you can be sure it is the one you want.

An alternative Typing Mode that is preferred by many blind people is Touch Typing. With Touch Typing enabled, you slide one finger around the keyboard until you find the character you want, then just lift your finger, and that character will be entered. The character that is entered is spoken again, this time in a higher pitch, so you can be assured that you actually got the right character. In Touch Typing, you can also split-tap to enter a character.

There is a third option on the Typing Mode menu called Direct Touch Typing. This option lets you enter a character with a single tap. There is no confirmation beyond the name of the character being spoken when you tap it. This form of input works best for low-vision users who can see well enough to aim for the key they want and actually have a good chance of hitting it.

As you are sliding your finger around the keyboard, if you are unsure about which character is active, just hold your finger still and VoiceOver will speak the phonetic letter associated with that character - alpha for a, bravo for b, Charlie for c, and so forth. If it is not the character you want, just start moving your finger again. As long as you don't lift your finger, or tap somewhere else on the screen, the unwanted character will not be entered.

There are a couple of important things to remember here. Be sure that only one finger is touching the screen, and you keep all other fingers tucked out of the way. Also, be sure that you don't take action until you are on the character that you want. This may take a bit of practice at first, but in no time at all, it can become second nature.

Typing Mode is a VoiceOver setting that can be quickly changed. Changing Typing Mode is the very first thing I do when I pick up a new iPhone or iPad. You can change Typing Mode with the VoiceOver rotor, or in Settings > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Typing, where it is called Typing Style. To change it with the rotor, you must be in a text field of some kind. Only when you have a keyboard on the screen will Typing Mode appear on the rotor. Simply rotor to Typing Mode and flick up or down with one finger until you reach the one you want. The mode you choose with the rotor will be retained, and all your future inputs will default to the Typing Mode you choose.

Slide to Type

Out of the box, there is a mainstream keyboard feature called Slide to Type that is on by default. This feature is fully accessible and works when you have Typing Mode set to Touch Typing or Direct Touch Typing. Once activated, you slide your finger from letter to letter. The phone looks at the pattern you drew to figure out the word you want.

To activate Slide to Type, slide your finger to the first letter of the word you want to type. Hold your finger on that key until you hear an ascending three-tone sequence, then start sliding to the next character you want. Stop briefly, then, without lifting your finger, continue sliding your finger to the remaining characters in the word. When you have finished the word, lift your finger and VoiceOver will speak the word it thinks you wanted. Slide to Type will attempt to predict the word as you move your finger. You may hear the word you want before you have moved to all the letters. In this case, just lift your finger and the word will be entered. Other possible words will be placed above the keyboard. You can easily get to these by sliding your finger up from the q key or flicking left from the q key. If you prefer one of them, just double tap it and it will replace the last word entered. If your word isn't among the suggestions, press Delete, and the entire word is deleted.

The default amount of time to hold your finger on a letter before Slide to Type is activated is one second. This can interfere with hearing the spoken phonetic for the letter. If you would like that time to be longer, you can change it in Settings > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Typing > Keyboard Interaction Time. The options are 0 to 4 seconds. Alternatively, you can put Slide to Type on the rotor so you can turn it on or off easily, or you can turn Slide to Type off completely in Settings > General > Keyboard.

Accented and Other Alternative Characters

You can enter an accented letter or many other alternative characters. when in Standard Typing mode, touch a letter, then double-tap and hold until you hear a tone indicating alternative characters have appeared. VoiceOver will say "alternative characters available."

Slide left or right to hear the choices. Release your finger to enter the character you want. When in Touch typing mode: hold your finger on a letter until you hear the sound and VoiceOver indication. Then do as above.

So, to type an e with an accent like in resume, type the r, then place your finger on the e until you hear VoiceOver say "alternative characters available," still keeping your finger on the keyboard, slide to the right until you hear "e acute," then lift your finger. Do the same for the final e. Many of the punctuation keys have alternative character menus, too. The $ (dollar sign) offers other currency symbols, the . (period) offers an ellipsis, the - (hyphen) gives you longer dashes and a bullet. The " (left quote), ? (question mark), ! (exclamation point), and ' (apostrophe) keys all offer alternates as well.

If you get Slide to Type when you want to enter alternative characters, just keep your finger on the letter and the alternative characters menu will appear.

Keyboard Settings

There are many settings that can make the process of inputting text even easier. The ones for software keyboards are located in three different areas within Settings. Here are a few of the major ones.

In Settings > General > Keyboard, you will find:

  • Keyboards: Here you will find the installed keyboards. At the bottom of this list is Add New Keyboard. Double tapping this button brings up a list of all native keyboards that can be installed and any third-party keyboards that are available because you installed their apps. The various language keyboards are listed under the heading "Other iPhone Keyboards," below the third-party keyboards.

  • Text Replacement: This is a way to create short strings that expand to much longer ones such as "myad" which expands to your full address. You can use whatever sequence of letters you wish.

  • Auto-Capitalization: This controls whether iOS automatically capitalizes the first word of a sentence, days of the week, months of the year, and other proper nouns.

  • Auto-Correction (on by default): This controls whether your phone will offer to autocorrect what you type.

  • Predictive (on by default): This feature will try and predict what you are about to type. Predicted words are place above the keyboard.

  • Slide to Type (on by default): This is where you can turn Slide to Type off.

  • Period Shortcut: With this setting on, when you finish a sentence all you have to do is hit the Space key twice and the device inserts a period, keeps one space, and capitalizes the next letter.

In Settings > Accessibility > Keyboard, you will find:

This section has settings for hardware keyboards and software keyboards. The only item in software keyboards is Show Lowercase Keys which affects how keys are displayed on keyboards that use the Shift key.

In Settings > Accessibility > VoiceOver, you will find:

  • Verbosity

    • Capital Letters: This setting controls how VoiceOver indicates capital letters. The options are Speak Cap (default), Play Sound, Change Pitch, and Do Nothing.

    • Deleting Text: This setting controls how VoiceOver indicates that text has been deleted. The options are: Speak, Play Sound, Change Pitch (default), and Do Nothing. Speak inserts the word “deleted” before the item that has been deleted.

  • Typing

    • Typing Style: This setting is the same as Typing Mode that I discussed earlier on in this article. You can set Typing Mode from the rotor or here in Typing Style. I have no clue why it is called by two different names. As on the rotor, there are three possible options: Standard Typing, Touch Typing, and Direct Touch Typing.

    • Phonetic Feedback: This setting controls how VoiceOver speaks the names of keys on the keyboard. The options are: Off, Character and Phonetics (default), and Phonetics Only. Off still speaks the name of the key; it just doesn’t speak the phonetic after it. Phonetics Only speaks the phonetic as you move your finger around the keyboard. Some VoiceOver users who are also hearing impaired find Phonetics Only to be very useful because they can quickly tell the difference between November and Mike without having to wait for the phonetic to be spoken.

    • Typing Feedback: This setting controls what is spoken as you type. It has three sections: Software Keyboards, Hardware Keyboards, and Braille Screen Input. All three sections have the same options: Nothing, Characters, Words, and Characters and Words (default).

    • Keyboard Interaction Time: The amount of time to wait before VoiceOver activates Slide to Type or alternative keys. The default is one second.

Other Input Methods

VoiceOver has two additional input methods that do not use the onscreen QWERTY keyboard.

Braille Screen Input

Braille Screen Input is a way of writing uncontracted or contracted braille on an iPhone. It is not an app, but a feature that is part of the iOS operating system. In addition to entering text anywhere there is a keyboard on the screen, you can use Braille Screen Input to find apps from a Home screen, enter your passcode, or enter single letters to navigate a web page. Below is a quick overview to get you started with this very cool feature. For more information, go to Type braille directly on the iPhone screen using VoiceOver.

Braille Screen Input is not on by default. To enable it:

  1. Go to Settings > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Rotor.

  2. Double tap on Braille Screen Input and make sure it says, "Selected."

  3. It can be helpful to move Braille Screen Input to the top of the list of rotor items. If you do this, Braille Screen Input is usually the first rotor selection when you turn the rotor clockwise. Conversely, if you prefer rotoring to the left, you can move Braille Screen Input to the bottom of the list and it will be first when you rotor counterclockwise.

To enter braille, set the rotor to Braille Screen Input, then turn your iPhone to landscape orientation. With the usual six fingers, begin typing braille as you normally would. By default, VoiceOver will speak both characters and words as you type.

The iPhone can only accept five simultaneous touches. To type a for-sign, place any five fingers on the screen, then lift one finger leaving the other four on the screen, then add the sixth finger.

A three-finger swipe to the right toggles between contracted and six-dot braille. You can enter a space using a one-finger swipe to the right, a backspace with a one-finger swipe to the left, and a new line with a two-finger swipe to the right.

Each time you start using Braille Screen Input, you should calibrate the dots. Do this by typing a 4-5-6 character with your right hand and then an l (dots 1-2-3) with your left hand. VoiceOver says, “Dot positions calibrated.” This needs to be typed fairly quickly—at about the speed that you would normally double tap. You can exit Braille Screen Input by turning the rotor in either direction, returning your phone to portrait orientation.


Handwriting lets you draw print letters on the screen instead of typing them from the keyboard. Handwriting is not enabled by default, but can be added to the rotor in the same way that Braille Screen Input is added. In addition to entering text, you can also enter your passcode, search for apps from the home screen, and perform single-letter navigation on web pages. Handwriting also has additional gestures. You can get more information about the handwriting feature at:

Write with your finger using VoiceOver on iPhone.


Dictation on an iPhone has steadily improved over the past few years. I am frequently astounded at what a great job it does. Dictation allows you to use your voice to enter text anywhere a keyboard is visible. This setting is off by default, but the first time you try to dictate somewhere when Dictation is not enabled, you are informed of this and given an opportunity to Enable Dictation right then and there.

Once dictation is enabled, there will be a Dictate button in the lower right corner of most of the keyboard layouts. You can also activate Dictation with a two-finger double tap but you must be in an edit field for this to work. When your device is ready to receive your dictation, you will hear a tone; it's a single version of the Siri tone.

To dictate text just speak the words with all necessary punctuation. You can format your text with commands like "New line," and "New paragraph." In addition to punctuation, you can enter symbols such as degree sign, trademark sign, and forward slash.

You can find a complete list of punctuation, symbols, and formatting commands that can be used while dictating at Use Dictation on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.

When you have finished your dictation, do another two-finger double tap. You will hear another single tone, higher than the first one. In some apps, VoiceOver says "inserted..." followed by your dictation. Sometimes, you have to touch the screen to hear your dictation.


Becoming comfortable with entering text on an iPhone can take some time and a bit of patience. It can be time well spent to open the Notes app, create a new Note and just practice typing. You may be amazed at how quickly your proficiency improves and your confidence soars.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Judy Dixon
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