Typing: iPad vs Computer

Most adults can’t imagine typing anything more than a few words at a time on a virtual keyboard, but with practice, is it really any worse than a traditional keyboard? After getting several requests from teachers to buy keyboards for our iPad 1:1 program, I decided to do a little research project with our elementary students. It’s a simple study with some limitations, but maybe it’s a good place to start when discussing the efficacy of virtual keyboards:

Video Abstract:


As iPads and similar touch-based tablets gain popularity in schools, many express concerns over the efficacy of a virtual keyboard. Many believe that a traditional keyboard is necessary for students to develop typing skills sufficiently. At our school, iPads are used throughout the elementary and students in years 4-6 (grades 3-5) each have his or her own. Several teachers have expressed concern about typing speed and technique, and it has been suggested that external keyboards for the iPads may improve keyboarding development, at least for some students.

This research was designed to answer the following two questions about our students:

  1. Is there a difference in speed between using a keyboard and using a virtual keyboard?
  2. Are some students significantly better at one form of keyboarding than the other?


  1. As a group, there will not be a significant difference between typing on a traditional keyboard and a virtual keyboard.
  2. A small set of students will perform better on a traditional keyboard.


Eighteen (N=18) students were selected from years 3-6. These students came to the computer lab each day for four days. The first day was an introduction and students were each given the opportunity to practice the typing test on their iPad and on the computer keyboard. These results were not recorded.

The typing test used was a web-based test available at http://typing-speed-test.aoeu.eu/ . The reasons for choosing this test were one, that it worked equally well on iPad and computer, and second, it uses simple words.

Why are there no difficult words in this test?
The words are selected from a list of very commonly used words. Some typing speed tests use words with difficult spelling, but I think that’s unfair. I want to measure typing speed, not reading skills! (FAQ from http://typing-speed-test.aoeu.eu/)

The tests were given on three consecutive days.  Each day, students took the typing test four times — twice on the iPad and twice on the computer. The order was randomized each day.  Once during the three days, each student used a ZAG Bluetooth keyboard with their iPad instead of using the iPad’s virtual keyboard.


In order to minimize the effect of outlier scores  (although there were not many), the higher of the two scores on each device were used. Thus, if a student scored a 20 & 22 WPM on the iPad’s virtual keyboard, only the 22 would be used.

Year 3 student scores were significantly lower than older students.  This may be due to a combination of factors including natural developmental differences and limited prior typing experiences. (e.g. Year 3 is not 1:1 and have done very little typing in previous years.) Thus, year 3 students results were excluded from overall averages.

Words Per Minute (WPM)




iPad w Keyboard

4-6 Average



















For differences between an individual’s score on the computer and the iPad,  two-tailed T tests were performed. The results showed that the differences between which device a student used were not statistically significant. (Computer vs. iPad & iPad vs. iPad with Keyboard)


This small study makes it clear that the perception that students type faster on traditional keyboards is not correct for our current elementary students. In fact, students were slightly faster on a virtual keyboard than on a computer or iPad keyboard. Thus, we accept the first hypothesis. The second hypothesis, however, must be rejected: in our sample, no students were significantly faster with a traditional keyboard, and all students scored very close to the same regardless of which technology they used.

This study has some limitations. First, students the higher the year-level, the higher students scored. The reason for this increase is not known. Perhaps it is simply continued practice and natural development in hand-eye coordination. On the other hand, this is the first year students have had iPads, and we cannot rule out the possibility that their year-over-year speed increases are because of previous years learning keyboarding technique on a traditional keyboard. If so, we don’t know if this skill could have been developed at a similar rate on iPads. The lack of longitudinal data and absence of student typing speeds from previous years, makes it difficult to extrapolate these results to older students or adults who have developed typing skills primarily through a virtual keyboard. (i.e. if current year 6 students continue only using an iPad for the next five years, will their typing speeds be comparable to current year 12 students?) At least one other similar study showed that young adults type considerably faster on traditional keyboards (Chaparro et al., 2010), but unlike our students, these subjects had not had months of practice on an iPad.

Despite these limitations, this study seems to illustrate an important point: adults who have spent decades typing on a traditional keyboard, find it very difficult to imagine that students can be successful typing efficiently on a virtual keyboard. The evidence here, however, does not support this bias.  Maybe it just takes some practice. I was terribly slow typing on my iPad for the first 4 months, but after about a year, I type 35 WPM. I’ll admit to still preferring a traditional keyboard (60+WPM), but I’m now happy to write with whatever device (iPhone included) I have in front of me.

How fast do you type on your iPad? Should we care how students input text? Should we be teaching typing?


Photo Credit: andyi via Compfight cc
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  1. Brian says:

    I was looking at the data and trying to figure out why the virtual keyboard on the iPad would do better. Then a light bulb of an idea flashed in my head. It makes sense it got a higher score. With the virtual keyboard the student get to see their finger placements.

    I wonder could the test be repeated but some how hide from view the virtual keyboard. I know it doesn’t make sense but then the test would be on equal playing field.

    Does that make sense?

    • Brady says:

      Brian – I think that may be part of it. In the video you can see that most of the students are familiar with the keyboard but aren’t truly touch-typists, so for them, a copy-typing activity requires a lot of quick looking back and forth. On a virtual keyboard, they can see both the copy and the keys at once. I don’t really think this is an advantage that we should control against, because it is a real-life advantage.

      That said, much of what students type is not copy, so I think the results would have been different if they had been typing something straight from their head (especially for the fastest students). I thought about testing the students this way, but was worried that it would be introducing too many extra variables. Having them copy from an actual piece of paper next to them would be interesting (and certainly slower) as well.

    • Shannon Doak says:

      In this day and age with the world moving to mobile devices, is it a needed skill to be a touch typist? Why not let them do it however it gets the job done. Learn how to tap type without any limitations imposed by the older methods.

  2. Kyle says:

    How about document editing? For example, copying text and moving it from one section to another in the document would seem to be much faster on a physical keyboard than a virtual one. Keyboard shortcuts on a physical keyboard are much faster than on a virtual one that doesn’t offer that option.

    • Brady says:

      Thanks for your question Kyle. You mean a keyboard with a mouse, right? Editing is certainly something that I am more comfortable with on a computer and a mouse. I believe that to be because those devices are better for those tasks, but I think we must acknowledge that we might just be laughed at 10 years from now for being traditionalists.

      Be that as it may, my study was aimed at providing a rationale for or against buying keyboards for iPads. If we had purchased them, editing would still have been done through the touch interface. I do think that editing will get better on touch devices. App developers have only been really working on this for a few years and it will take some time for the editing paradigms to catch up to 30 years of mouse-based UI.

  3. Michael Boll says:

    Thanks for your work here! I want my students to break 30 WPM and they only way to do that is to not look at the keys.

    My thoughts are that if I don’t have them do keyboard (external) typing on the iPad, then they will always be look and type students and never break the barrier.

    Do you think your study offers insights into my concerns?

    • Brady says:

      Hi Michael. Typing on an iPad (when not copy-typing) is, as has been mentioned, it is almost impossible not to have peripheral vision of the keys. Because there is no way to keep your fingers properly aligned to the keys without sight, I think this is a good thing. The question is if students can ever really learn the layout when it is constantly within their field of vision. As I wrote originally, nobody really knows the upper limit, but my tests show that students can certainly go faster than 30WPM. Our 11-year-olds averaged 34WPM on the iPad after a few months of use (not explicit typing practice).

      Since I did this study, we have one third-grade teacher who has been having students do about 10 minutes of iPad typing each morning to start the day. I haven’t tested them yet, but with just a quick glance, it is obvious that it is working.

  4. Brady says:

    And has anyone noticed how much better Siri is getting at voice recognition? I’m no fan of using it as an assistant, but for dictation, it really is amazing. This typing debate may be dead before we know it. I just had several Thai friends comment to me that Siri now understands their thick accents (but hadn’t just a few months ago). It will only get better as Apple’s database continues to grow with every word spoken at an iPhone.

    • Scott says:

      Siri still doesn’t seem to recognise an Australian accent. I look forward to the day that I can use it without forcing an American accent!

  5. John Dineen says:

    What an interesting read. Just yesterday I bought an wireless keyboard and magic mouse and connected both to my Nexus tab. I spent the better part of this morning raving to my colleagues about how much more valuable these simple additions made my tablet. Now its viable for me to blog / tweet / draft docs / link / etc. on my tablet. Using the virtual keyboard – even with Swype – for me is too limiting for any prolonged use. I guess it must be a generational difference coupled with years of keyboard usage. Great read – thanks!

  6. John Brandt says:

    How did you control for the auto correct function on the iPad? Did you turn this off? I took the test and did slightly better with the traditional keyboard, but auto-correct on the iPad really helped me.

  7. Warren says:

    We are in such a similar position – thanks for doing this research! We are going 1:1 with iPads in the fall, and trying to decide if we need Bluetooth keyboards. One real advantage of the external keyboard is that you get much more screen real estate when the virtual keyboard isn’t displayed. However, the virtual keyboard is so great when it comes to additional languages and symbols.

    Have you tried the Tap Typing app? I like the way it gives feedback on each error. You get a nice red and green colored keyboard so that you can learn which keys cause you trouble.

  8. Deon says:

    One other thing that the on screen keyboard has in favour for kids: size. It is much more appropriately sized for kids’ hands than a full sized keyboard.

    Another issue is the physical act of pressing the keys. This takes longer than a tap!

    I am a heavy iPad user (don’t use a physical keyboard much at all). Put me in front of a clunky old PC keyboard (like those in the video), and I will type more slowly than on my iPad.

    I was able to achieve speeds of 70+ WPM in a typing tutor app a few years ago. It isn’t that hard, but you do get slowed down by special characters or punctuation.

    In response to Dirk’s comments about the “real life advantage” of the on screen keyboard: what you are saying is that the on screen keyboard is a real -life disadvantage. Doesn’t this mean that the kids should have typed better with a physical keyboard? Ultimately, 12 year olds aren’t going to be typing large amounts of text – and the tracking issue is irrelevant, anyway – how often do people read text, and then type it? We use a scanner, we copy and paste, we email a link to the document/web page. Reading and typing is not a real life skill any more.

    Interesting data. Watching my own kids use their touch screen devices, I am not really surprised.

  9. Phillip says:


    Nice job! Had your kids previously had experience learning how to touch type?

    To me, this is the crux of the matter.
    Does a student with touch typing typing skills significantly outperform one who does not. On any device.

  10. Daniel Craig says:

    Hi Brady. I just got to this in my queue of to-read items. Glad I did.

    I acknowledge the limitations, but this serves as a great pilot study for someone (or you) to take off from. It is also at least a small argument that I can use when people (and sometimes myself) question doing longer form writing on tablets and smartphones.

    I think what we are seeing now is just a repeat of keyboarding vs. handwriting criticisms of the mid-90s. Many tech integration studies, particularly in the fields of writing and testing that I’m most familiar with, were criticized from one side or the other. In testing, computer-based writing was heavily criticized because typing speed and computer familiarity were confounding variables, threats to validity. While this was certainly true, at the time, these arguments tended to over-generalize these findings into the future. Now, that threat still exists, but we largely consider computer literacy, or at least the ability to use a keyboard to type, as an essential skill. I haven’t seen that criticism arise for many years.

    Virtual keyboards are receiving the same criticism these days and while I don’t observe tablet use often, I do see my students using smartphones. They can type incredibly fast in both their native language as well as in English. I have no reservations about having them do longer-form writing (in our context, that’s multiple paragraphs, not pages) on either their mobiles or tablets. In fact, I might just have to study that aspect myself. Thanks for the idea :-)

  11. Jim says:

    I think this is a great project and if you could increase the amount of students in this study maybe across multiple schools then the results could be meaningful and used for making decisions.

  12. ReneeR says:

    We are nearing the end of our second full year with iPads. Teachers were worried about not having physical keyboards. We are 1:1 in 4th – 8th and 2:1 in K-3.

    Although we have not done any studies, I have asked teachers several times over the past two years if they have found students are slower on an iPad, especially at inputting a lot of text. They all say no. In fact, most of the teachers in K-4 say they are faster as they are just more at ease using the iPad.

    I know many disagree with me, but I have seen that trying to “make” students learn the QWERTY method of typing actually slows them down on a virtual keyboard. I have some middle school students that are definitely at 60 wpm and maybe more on the iPad. None of them use the traditional method, which really you can’t when there is no physical home row you can use.

    We stopped keyboarding skills three years ago, a year before we started using iPads. The teachers found that the way to get kids typing speed and accuracy up, is to have them type. By 4th grade, kids type things up everyday. They have at least one homework assignment that is required to be word processed.

    I know as a traditional typist, I prefer the physical keyboard. Students are allowed to bring a keyboard to school, and we have about 10% that do. The rest are fine using the iPad.

  13. Judith says:

    I have an iPad 4 and a ZAGGkeys PROfolio Plus keyboard. I also have severe arthritis in both wrists and thumbs, and the bluetooth keyboard is much easier for me to use physically, and also causes less pain. However, the auto-correct feature does not work on the ZAGG keyboard, which is a detriment to me. At one time, I was a rapid typist, and an accurate typist, but those days have come and gone. Can someone please advise me how to make my ZAGG keyboard utilize my iPad4 auto-correct feature? I have discussed this with both ZAGG techs and Apple Care. ZAGG advised that is was an Apple problem, and Apple Care advised that I should be able to find a soulution on Google, but not through Apple. Can you help?

  14. Vivian says:

    My main concern is whether use over-time is going to result in wrist pain (carpal tunnel syndrome). It’s already a concern for adults who have spent a decade working on computers on a traditional keyboard. (My niece graduated in computer sciences a decade ago. She’s guarding herself against carpal tunnel syndrome and shoulder/neck pain). If kids are starting to type earlier (whether on traditional or iPad keyboard), then I’m expecting kids to have wrist fatigue and pain earlier. I think the strain on the iPad is more on the forearm muscles. If so, then that would be a huge argument, for me, against the iPad keyboard. Moreover, I think we also have to rethink the traditional keyboard to make it more ergonomic friendly for children.

  15. Amy says:

    As someone who regularly types 150+WPM (yes, really) on a physical keyboard (albeit a lighter and shallower one than most) and done a bit more testing with touchscreen’d devices recently, I can say that anything above 100 is nearly impossible without keys that you can feel moving in response to being pressed. I’ve also found it’s a lot more tiring on a touchscreen to type anything more than a few sentences, for the same reason.

  16. John says:

    If you get used to typing on iPad, your speed can get pretty high.
    The biggest problem is that many people tend not to use all their 10 fingers, as iPad screen is unconsciously percieved as being smaller than most physical keyboards. You see that key sizes are the same only if two keyboards are placed side by side.
    This happens because iPad keyboards lacks keys to the left from return key (/'[]\). So the default placement of the right hand on physical keyboard is on the “jkl;”, but on the iPad your little finger should be placed on the return key. Most people who use physical keyboard on the daily basis, find it difficult to get used to correct hands placement on the iPad.
    The best app for improving your typing on the iPad that I have found so far is .

  17. Dirk Bayer says:

    I, too, have second thoughts about the significance and conclusiveness of this study. Besides the small sample sizes for age groups, there are a number of issues:

    (1) As mentioned above, the test performed made copying from touch screen to virtual keypad easier than copying to the keyboard because of reduced visual tracking distance. I disagree with the comment that this reflects a real-life advantage because, in my experience, in the majority of real life applications the virtual keyboard blocks the view of much of the display or forces a resizing and frequently loses focus on where you were looking before the virtual keyboard popped up. This is one of the main reasons for why I have (for now) returned to a regular keyboard for serious work myself.

    (2) Both, the video and the WPM values suggest that all students were low skill typists, specifically two-finger typists. In the real world, a minimum of 40 WPM is required in jobs where typing skill is a factor, and most professional typists produce 50-80 WPM. Naturally, this is achieved with full fingered typing, not two finger pouncing.

    (3) Real world typing needs are not just about words but include numbers, symbols, and especially a lot of punctuation, the keys for which – on an iPad (and – I suspect – other tablets, as well) are hidden in supplementary virtual keyboards which you need to manually switch in and out in order to access them. This not only costs a lot of time, but in compositional writing often breaks one’s train of thought.

    With all this said, I have at least one student who types amazingly fast on his iPad. He has trained himself using a hand-eye coordination game app, but he also needs to use no punctuation, numbers, or symbols in his tasks, nor is the amount of typing required of him great, so he is at little risk to suffer from over-straining his thumbs or other preferred fingers. In conclusion, slow circle and pounce typists may perform similarly on both input systems when performing very limited tasks, especially those which are specifically geared for tablet use (such as the test in this study), but high productivity environments require more, and students would benefit from learning high productivity skills for a wide range of applications.

  18. Brady says:

    Thanks for your comments Dirk. I hope that my original post adequately outlined the limitations. I certainly agree that this very small study is nowhere near the final say, however, it is currently the best data I have upon which to base my opinions. Like you, and anyone over the age of 20, I’ve got thousands of hours invested in a certain way of doing things. It’s no surprise we will defend the techniques we have worked so hard to perfect. A quick point by point:

    1. If one is simply entering plain text (e.g. writing a narrative in Google Drive) the screen scrolls the view just as well as a computer. This type of input (for better or worse) is how most people learn to type (i.e. writing papers in HS and university). As I wrote in an earlier comment – editing and and graphical layout isn’t great yet, but app development in this area is very new compared to the refinements in mouse-based UI over the last 30 years.

    2. The typists in this study were, from my experience, were about what one should expect for elementary students. Kids don’t get fast until they start typing a lot, which they will do as they continue schooling. If my 5th graders are already between 30-40 WPM (many using all their fingers), then they only need to gain another 10WPM to reach your minimum for “jobs where typing skill is a factor.” Doubling their speed from 5th grade to graduation from university seems more likely.

    3. I agree, but I’ve forced myself to use an iPad quite a lot, and I am starting to find that it isn’t that hard — I often don’t have to look to change the keyboard and tap the special character I need. Do you think that your traditional keyboard should have a another set of keys for capitals so you don’t need the shift? (That question-mark I just typed on this regular keyboard requires me to do the same thing as switching keyboards on a virtual keyboard. Does typing a question-mark, explanation-mark or parenthesis break your train of thought when typing on a regular keyboard?)

    Yes – some kids can type amazingly fast with very poor technique. I am starting to see though, that with a bit of guidance, students can learn to type with all of their fingers, and I think that if they do that, they can reach speeds approaching what our generation can do on a traditional keyboard. Maybe faster since they’ve started younger and done it more.

    Thanks again for engaging in the conversation.