Tactile manipulative of print/braille letters

Understanding the Text Cursor and JAWS

Teach many screen reader concepts using these tactile activities!

Working in a text document is a common starting place when introducing young students to a screen reader on a computer. It is a safe, yet feature rich environment to expose students to many basic screen reading skills before releasing them into the larger operating system. One of the critical skills that is easily taught in a word processing program is text navigation.  For any of you who have exposed a new student to JAWS in a word processing environment knows that one of the trickiest concepts for students to learn is the behavior of the cursor in relation to the JAWS speech output. For example, if you are reading letter by letter through the world “apple” and JAWS says “l” where is the visual cursor? Is it to the left or the right of that “l?” When do I use delete vs. backspace when editing? For those of us skilled with JAWS we know that when reading character by character and we hear that “l” our cursor is to the left of the letter. Same with reading word by word. However, for a student with a severe visual impairment who cannot see the screen this is a very difficult concept to wrap one’s mind around.

I have found that making this process physical through a low-tech manipulative can be the thing that causes the student to have that “Ah ha” moment with this concept. It is also often how I first introduce this concept before placing them in the digital environment as a way of pre-teaching this skill.

Things you will need

  1.  One word up to a sentence that will be motivating for your student.
  2.  An imaginary delete key and backspace key
  3.  A Picture Maker Board from APH
  4.  Velcro
  5.  Something to serve as your cursor (could be a piece of wiki stick or string, I use a piece from the Wheatley diagramming kit).

Depending on the level of the student you can start with one simple word and work up to a full sentence. The example you will see here is for an advanced elementary school student who already understands a lot of the basics. As you will see I used several punctuation marks to really challenge his understanding.

Steps I Use To Create the Activity

  1. Write out a word and/or sentence in a word processing program.
  2. This particular student is a dual media user so I printed the letters in 48 point font.
  3. When typing the word or the sentence I leave two spaces between each character and four spaces between each word just to help me visually keep track when I am cutting out the individual letters later.  
  4. I then print the document and laminate the page with heavy duty lamination plastic. Lamination is not necessary, I just find that it keeps up longer.
  5. I then cut out each individual letter into a small square.
  6. I then add a small piece of Velcro to the back of each character. If you are using the Picture Maker Board then you want to make sure to use the scratchier side of the velcro. 
  7. I also printed and laminated a backspace and delete “key.” I also cut those out and add Velcro to the back.
  8. I added braille labels to each individual print item as this student is a dual media learner. I purposefully do this all uncontracted because it best simulates the visual screen.

Here is the sample I created for a student.  The sentence reads “Virgil van Dijk is known for his abilities on defense (and his cool hair!)” It is difficult to tell from the image but each large print letter also has a braille label. Between the words “is” and “known” is my “cursor.” It is a small white piece from the Wheatley Tactile Diagramming Kit. This particular piece is also in Tactile Town and is used for creating the dashed road lines. I like it because it is already velcro and stays in place while the student is exploring tactually. Or a low vision student you could also paint the piece a different color to help differentiate from the white background of the latters.  

Velcro board covered with individual laminated print and braille letters spaced a part forming a sentence. Delete and Back Space words are below the sentence.


There are many activities you can do with this board once it is created. I usually begin by placing the cursor somewhere between two characters. I ask the student to find the “cursor” and tell me what two letters it is between. I then explain what JAWS would be saying given the current situation. Once I think the student understands that I might challenge them by placing the cursor somewhere else and having them tell me what character JAWS would read if I was reading character by character. Once I feel very confident they understand that I then might introduce the delete key vs. the backspace key. For example I might place the cursor in front of the “l” in “apple” and say, “I want to delete the second “p” do I need the backspace or the delete key” and then have the student show me the correct key. I might then expand to reading and editing word by word. I will also insert wrong letters and have the student route to that place with the cursor and show me how they would use both the delete key and the backspace key to remedy the issue. Finally, I always also have the student explore the same activities on the computer with the same text so they can make connections.  

Some additional activity ideas

  1. What would JAWS say right now if I hit Insert+Home? (What about twice quickly)
  2. What would JAWS say right now if I hit Insert+Page Up? (What about twice quickly)
  3. What would JAWS say right now if I hit Inset+Down Arrow?
  4. What would JAWS say right now if I hit Insert+Num Pad 5?
  5. Show me where the cursor would go if I hit CNTRL+Home? What about CNTRL+End?
  6. What about Home by itself? What about End by itself?

The possibilities are really endless and you can teach many additional strategies. I use this concept in other ways to teach other kinds of JAWS strategies. Making the screen tangible can often be the thing that makes it all click for a student who has never seen a graphical user interface before. Using the Picture Maker Board and Velcro also makes it easy to throw in your trunk and pull out for your next lesson. For a long time, even with the students who I feel have caught on, I still have the board available so when they get stuck I can bring it back out. Make up a silly sentence with alliteration or rhyme to get your student smiling and have fun!


By Allie_Futty


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