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Making Technology Work in the Inclusive Classroom: A Spell CHECKing Strategy for Students with Learning Disabilities

By: Tamarah Ashton (1999)

Many students with learning disabilities have difficulties with the multi-faceted dimensions of written language. Each stage of the writing process presents its own unique challenges for this group of students. One of the most demanding stages seems to be that of revising and editing. More specifically, students with learning disabilities face some of their most difficult challenges with the mechanical aspects of writing (i.e., spelling, grammar).

Word processing has been shown in most cases to be an extremely helpful tool for writers with learning disabilities. This method of creating text allows students a great deal more flexibility in the addition and deletion of text, the movement of text from one location in the document to another, and the production of a final product which is similar in appearance to that of their classmates who do not have learning disabilities. Recent advances in alternative methods of text entry such as keyboards arranged in alphabetical order, larger keyboards, and word prediction offer even greater advantages for this group of students. The use of synthesized speech in reading text aloud as it is entered or after it has been created may also prove to be beneficial .However, when introducing computers and word processors to students with learning disabilities, educators often forget to directly teach skills in the actual operation of the hardware and the features of the software being used. One example of this is the use of spell checking.

Spell checking devices are useful to all writers. Although originally designed to detect typographical errors, spell checkers can be an excellent tool for enhancing spelling skills. Oftentimes, however, students with learning disabilities do not make effective use of this feature. One example of this is that the correctly spelled version of the word the students with learning disabilities are attempting to write is not presented as an alternative. The combination of letters that they have typed is not a close enough approximation of the intended word for the software to offer the needed choices. Because the word isn't there on the first attempt, students with learning disabilities will often click on "Go To Next Word", "Skip Word", or the like without making a change. They are then left with a document containing many misspelled words.

The CHECK strategy was developed to help students become more effective and independent in the usage of spell checkers. A preskill must be taught before teaching the actual strategy. Since the spell checkers in most word processing programs will allow the user to type in the "Change To" box, it should be explained to students that they can make a change in the spelling of their word and then click on "Change". If the new word is closer to the intended word it may appear in the next list of suggested words. This can be repeated as many times as is necessary. However, it is best to make one type of change at a time. The following strategy, which can be used cross-platform and with any word processing program which includes a spell checking feature, helps students remember a sequence that will get them to the desired word in the most direct fashion.

  • Check the beginning sound of the word.
  • What other letter(s) could make that beginning sound?
  • Hunt for the correct consonants.
  • Have you included all the consonants in the rest of the word?
  • Examine the vowels.
  • What other vowel(s) could make the same sound(s)?
  • Changes in suggested word lists may give hints.
  • What words are being suggested?
  • Is that the one you're looking for?
  • Keep repeating steps one through four.
  • Need help? Try dictionaries and asking others for assistance.

Table 1: The CHECK strategy

Check the beginning sound

Most spell checkers do not work phonetically and will search for similar words beginning with the same letter as the one the writer has typed. The correctly spelled version of the word is much more likely to appear in the list of suggested words if the initial letter is correct. For example, if a student is attempting to spell the word "elephant" but has begun her word with "ul", teach her to ask herself what other letter(s) make that same beginning sound.

Hunt for the correct consonants

After the initial sound, teach the students to alter the consonants throughout the remainder of the word. For example, one fourth grade boy using the word processor Write This Way was writing about Egypt and wanted to use the word "pyramid". His initial attempt was "perament". The only suggested word was "per" so he continued to sound out the word and changed it to "peramed". This still didn't give him the word he was looking for so he altered his word further to "peramid". "Pyramid" appeared in the suggested word list and he instantly recognized it as being correct. This young man's first and final draft of this writing sample are given below. The final draft still contains a number of grammatical errors, but through the use of this spell checking strategy this student was able to turn in a document about which the teacher could give constructive feedback rather than just circling spelling errors.

First draft

Gabe is a boy in the story we are reading. It takes place in a dark perament in the desert. Gabe is brave avencher and curossh. The perament is misty spouky mestrees and scary. Gabe pendant is old and it has a scarab in it.

Final draft

Gabe is a boy in the story we are reading. It takes place in a dark pyramid in the desert. Gabe is brave adventure and cure us. The pyramid is misty spooky mysterious and scary. Gabe pendant isold and it has a scarab in it.

Examine the vowels

Vowels can be sounded out in so many variations that it can sometimes be difficult for students with spelling difficulties to know which vowels or vowel combinations to use. Spell checkers, if given enough guidance, can be particularly useful in these instances. One such example is the word "cafeteria". A fifth grade girl telling about the location of her most recent band concert initially spelled this word as "cafitirea". After persistent manipulation of the vowels in this word, she eventually came close enough to have the correct spelling shown in the suggested word list.

Changes in word lists may give hints

A sixth grade girl who has quite a serious deficit in her spelling skills was attempting to type the word "favorite". Her initial attempt was "fovoriute". In Write This Way no help was available. Following the first three steps of this strategy, she began altering the vowels from "fovariute" to "fovaritue" to "favaritue". After this last change "favor" was given as a suggested word. From that clue, she typed "favoritue" and "favorite" was then listed as a word choice which she was able to quickly recognize as being the word she needed.

The first and final drafts of her brief paragraph are given below. While it is still not perfect, through the use of nothing but a spell checker, this student was able to turn a poorly written paragraph into one that is readable and presentable.

First draft

My fovoriute lucky chame

My fovoriute lucky charm is a ribbit folt. It's die purple.It is 3inch log. It's soft and fuzy.

Final draft

My favorite lucky charm

My favorite lucky charm is a rabbit foot. It's die purple.It is 3 inch log. It's soft and fuzzy.

Keep repeating steps 1 through 4

Persistence is the key for helping students with learning disabilities use a spell checker successfully. As a last resort, have the student look the word up in a dictionary, a children's dictionary, or a "my words" list if available (e.g., a continually updated list which the student keeps of words he or she has had to look up previously). The use of a thesaurus, an electronic spelling device, or consulting with peers and teachers are other popular solutions.

The CHECK strategy was developed and utilized over the course of two one-year research studies (Lewis, 1994-1996) which looked at written language issues for students with learning disabilities. Specifically, the software program Write This Way was used in the first study and Write:OutLoud (1993-94) was used in the second, each with approximately 24 teachers and 124 students participating.

Limitations of the CHECK strategy are twofold. It seems that each word processing program that is currently available uses different terminology and a different layout for each aspect of the spell checking feature (e.g., change to, add, ignore, select). Students who typically have difficulty with generalizability may take longer to adapt to a variety of programs being used in different classrooms. Secondly, students for whom spelling is an extremely arduous task sometimes either use unrecognizable and garbled spellings (even to highly sophisticated spell checkers) or are unwilling to manipulate their spelling as suggested by the CHECK strategy. Through time and persistence both limitations proved to be manageable in the aforementioned research studies.

Many students with learning disabilities are included in today's general education classrooms. Deficits in the many aspects of written language are often responsible for highlighting differences between students with and without disabilities. By using learning strategies, such as the spell CHECKing strategy described above, students with learning disabilities can begin to produce final products which they can be proud of and which can show how much they truly are capable of achieving.

The contents of this article were developed under a grant from the U. S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and endorsement by the Federal Government should not be assumed.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

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Graham, S., & MacArthur, C. (1988). Improving learning disabled students' skills at revising essays produced on a word processor: Self-instructional strategy training. Journal of Special Education, 22, 133-152.

Houck, C., & Billingsley, B. (1989). Written expression of students with and without learning disabilities: Differences across the grades. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 561-572.

Lewis, R. B., Graves, A. W., Ashton, T. M., & Kieley, C. L. (1998). Word processing tools for students with learning disabilities: A comparison of strategies to increase text entry speed. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 13 (2), 95-108.

Lewis, R. B. (1994-1996). Enhancing the writing skills of students with learning disabilities through technology. Funded project. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

Lynch, E. M., & Jones, S. D. (1989). Process and product: A review of the research on LD children's writing skills. Learning Disability Quarterly, 12, 74-86.

MacArthur, C. A., Graham, S., Schwartz, S. S., & Schafer, W. D. (1995). Evaluation of a writing instruction model that integrated a process approach, strategy instruction, and word processing. Learning Disability Quarterly, 18, 278-291.

Newcomer, P. L., & Barenbaum, E. M. (1991). The written composing ability of children with learning disabilities: A review of the literature from 1980 to 1990. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 24, 578-593.