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Writing & Spelling

The following are questions and answers from Dr. Tracy Gray on this topic.

Can you recommend an effective typing program for our son, who is dyslexic and dysgraphic?

As you noted, there are a variety of typing programs on the market. The best answer to your question is that there may not be one single program that best meets your son's needs. Keyboard development requires practice and unfortunately, repetitive exercises can be boring. Access to a variety of programs offers choice, lessens boredom, and increases motivation for practicing keyboarding skills. Find them through a Google search for 'free keyboard tutorials for children". A program that might work is Read, Write and Type by the Learning Company, which has been rated as an effective early reading intervention by the What Works Clearinghouse. Many dysgraphic students have difficulty with correct fingering in keyboarding skills. It would be best if your son used correct fingering, but he should not be forced. The ultimate goal is for him to type fluently, with speed and accuracy. Some students who type in their own style have been known to reach 60 words per minute. Others gradually begin to type with correct, or partially correct, fingering. The key to improvement is practice and consistency. I suggest that you encourage him to practice every day, but limit the practice time to 10 minutes. Let him choose which program he wants to use, what he wants to type and what fingering method works best for him.

What treatment is needed for a child with dysgraphia?

This is a sticky question and one that causes a fair bit of disagreement in special education. Many teachers wonder the same thing — they want students to develop legible handwriting to ease their way in the world outside of school, but they also want students to be able to write and express themselves without being hindered by their physical difficulties with writing. And many parents and teachers worry that a student's hard-to-read handwriting will affect their ability to perform basic functions like writing down information on job applications, or filling out forms at the doctor's office. After all, while many things can be done with a computer, much of the world is still dominated by pen and paper tasks.

There isn't an easy answer to any of these questions. As with any technology tool used to assist students with disabilities, there is a concern that an 'assistive" tool may be used as a crutch. If a student always uses a calculator for math tasks, will they ever understand the underlying math? In the case of a dysgraphic student, it might be helpful to look at the tasks your daughter is being asked to do and what the goal is. If the goal is simply for your daughter to be able to write basic information as clearly as she can (her name and address for example), then handwriting instruction may be beneficial. However, if the goal is for your daughter to be able to use writing to express her ideas, demonstrate knowledge, or tell a story, then her difficulties with handwriting are making the writing process unnecessarily difficult. Perhaps a balanced approach will work best for your daughter. Try to find simple ways to eliminate the need for some handwriting tasks. Portable keyboards/laptops like the AlphaSmart can also be a good solution.

Such products are small and light and easy to take from class to class. Other options might include speech-to-text software to allow your daughter to more easily commit her thoughts and ideas to 'paper". Check out the Tech Matrix to search for different speech-to-text programs and possibly word prediction programs, depending on your daughter's needs.

You may want to check out this article on writing with technology by Richard Wanderman about his experiences with dyslexia and dysgraphia and how computers have affected his writing.

Where can I calculate readability levels online?

Most methods of determining the reading level of a piece of text use a formula or algorithm — something that people would have done by hand. With the availability of faster computers and processing speeds, there are now many software programs that can calculate readability for you. For shorter pieces of text, you can use one of the many online readability programs available listed below. Most of them allow you to paste text into a window, or link directly to an URL (for determining readability of websites).

Before getting started, it would be a good idea to read about the different readability metrics and how reading level is determined. Once you have an idea of what might work best, you can check out some of these online tools for calculating readability.

For example:

  • Edit Central: includes suggestions for improving readability
  • Readability.info: readability for MS Word files and web pages
  • SMOG Readability Calculator: Can calculate up to 2000 words; includes detailed explanation of the SMOG formula
  • JuicyStudio: Test website readability; also provides information about different scales, what scores mean, etc.

What online resources are available for a student in a rural area without access to special education services?

Finding help for your child can be difficult if you live in remote or rural areas without access to specialists. However, with the number of resources available online, people who live in such areas can now access a wide variety of tools, specialized information, and helpful hints for working with their struggling child. For example, to begin with, you might check out ReadWriteThink, a website that provides "resources in reading and language arts instruction through free, Internet-based content." Here you can find a wealth of information on the best ways to teach reading and writing, as well as helpful tools and resources. One of these online tools, a comic strip creator, may appeal to your son as a fan of comic books and superheroes. If he enjoys the simple creation of a comic strip, you may also want to introduce him to Kerpoof, which allows children to create their own stories, animations, videos, and comics. Using these tools, your son can create stories of his own, perhaps with some help from you for some of the writing. It is possible that the high interest of creating his own comic strip may encourage him to try writing more. Such activities take advantage of your son's interests and help him engage in telling and writing stories; studies have shown that storytelling is the first step in learning to read and write, so encouraging your son to use technology tools and artwork to tell stories may help him build up his reading and writing skills.

It is also important that your son get plenty of practice in the basics of reading. A fun way to do this is through the use of online games that teach reading skills. PBS Kids has a number of activities that your son may find engaging. Check out the Raising Readers project for free games and suggested resources for parents. Check out the many beautiful children's books online at the International Children's Digital Library. Finally, you might consider purchasing audio books so your son can hear books read aloud while following along with the text. Audio books can also expose him to 'reading' books above his current reading level.

Check out this article for more suggestions about using technology to teach reading: Learning to Read with Multimedia Materials

Should I go back to school as an adult if I suspect I have a learning disability?

Many college students, both of traditional and non-traditional age, have learning disabilities and learning difficulties. You can absolutely still pursue your chosen career! The first thing you should do is discuss your concerns directly with your university's Disability Services. They can help you find resources at your school, explore avenues for being tested for a learning disability and recommend accommodations and strategies that might help you with your coursework.

With a documented disability, you are entitled to accommodations and support, so it may be worthwhile to get tested and identify your areas of strengths and weaknesses. Working with Disabilities Services, you can identify strategies and resources to help you succeed. Check out the wide variety of resources on LD Online for more information about LD, testing, and learning strategies that may help you.

What technology tools can help my son with spelling?

Spelling can be challenging for students with learning disabilities, especially if they struggle with reading. The types of tools you might want to try with your son depend both on his difficulties with spelling and the importance of spelling to the task that he is trying to complete. For example, on a writing assignment, it may be more important for your son to get his words out on paper and express his ideas than to spell every word correctly. In those situations, your son could benefit from a writing program with word prediction or the use of a contextual spell checker. By using software to remove the need to know how to spell every word correctly, your son can focus on the act of writing as a way of demonstrating his knowledge.

If the assignment for your son is to improve his spelling, it is important to give him a number of opportunities to practice and reinforce his skills. In addition to practicing at home with flash cards and rewriting words multiple times, there are a number of online spelling games and practice sites that you could try. Some online sites let you test your spelling skills with pre-generated lists, while others allow you to enter in your own spelling words to practice. Check out a few different options until you find one your son enjoys.

What technologies can help my third grade daughter organize her writing?

Your daughter's challenges echo those of many struggling writers, and while there are no quick and easy fixes, there are technology resources that can help. Tools known as "graphic organizers" may be particularly useful to your daughter as she works to get her ideas on paper in a coherent manner. These tools help students generate and organize their ideas through building visual relationships among them.

Graphic organizers can be as low tech as an arrangement of sticky notes on a sheet of paper or as high tech as online, interactive tools like bubbl.us, a free website which allows you to create and share colorful mind maps, and ReadWriteThink's Essay Map, a free step-by-step guide to organizing essay content. View this list of graphic organizers from our sister site, AdLit, for more free options.

More complex software solutions, like Draft:Builder or Inspiration, have features that help students arrange their ideas, create an outline, and transition from an outline or concept map into a draft. This customized matrix from the www.TechMatrix.org shows many software solutions that use graphic organizers to support writing. Compare products' features, and click on a product's name in the column header to see a full review of its capabilities and purchasing information.

What assistive technology tools could we use with a middle school student so he doesnít feel singled out and different from his peers?

Using assistive technology tools can be a challenge for students as they enter middle and high school. Many kids that age are incredibly aware of how they look, and what their peers are doing, and want nothing more than to blend in with the other kids. Using a device or "different" technology tool than the rest of the class can certainly make a student feel that they stick out.

One solution is to make all technology "assistive" technology in your school. Creating a creative technology environment in your school can help students remove the separation between "regular" technology and "special" or "assistive" technology. Learn more about various technologies that support the writing process in the article, Using Assitive Technology to Support Writing.

This is one benefit to using technology to differentiate instruction in your school. If all students are using a computer to write an essay, then it isn't all that noticeable that some students are using word prediction software, others are using text-to-speech software, and others are using voice-recognition software. Technology is just something that everyone is using. For example, every student in your class could be using a literacy software package (see several compared in the TechMatrix).

Strong writers could be using the built-in word processor and spell checker, struggling writers could be using text-to-speech to edit or word prediction to help them compose, other students may use the graphic organizers or the audio notes. Each student is using the same program, but different students make use of different features according to their needs. See more ideas for differentiating instruction through technology at the free online course offered by CITEd.

What technology tools can I use in my work writing to make sure I havenít made errors?

This is a common issue for adults (and kids!) with dyslexia. It can be particularly challenging when you have a word spelled correctly, but your usage is wrong. Swapping “their," "they're," and "there" is a great example. A traditional spellchecker won't identify the mistake, so you may not discover it.

Fortunately, two new contextual spellcheckers are available that might help you with your business writing: Ginger and Ghotit. Both programs work in a similar way, by identifying both incorrectly spelled words and those that might be incorrect based on the context of the sentence (i.e. saying "they're dog" instead of "their dog"). Give each tool a try and see if one of them works for you! Find other software tools that could help with your writing in the TechMatrix.

Are there any assistive technologies for dysgraphia?

Dysgraphia can create various problems in writing skills, ranging from poor handwriting to difficulty in organizing and sequencing information. Without knowing your specific needs, it would be difficult to recommend an assistive technology (AT) tool for you. However, there is a wide range of AT tools available to help students who struggle with writing:

  • Word prediction tools can support spelling or word choice
  • Voice recognition programs allow a user to dictate writing to the computer and then edit and make corrections via voice or keyboard
  • Spell and grammar checkers are commonly used to support word processing
  • Concept mapping and outlining tools can support organization and brainstorming
  • Reference manager tools can support and organize research organization

Some of these tools can help you circumvent the actual physical task of writing, while others can facilitate proper spelling, punctuation, grammar, word usage, and organization. The key is to select the AT that works for you. Using Assistive Technology to Support Writing might help you focus on the particular aspects with which you need technology support. As a graduate student, you could consult the Office of Disabled Student Services (or its equivalent) on campus and ask to try out some of these tools.

What software helps students improve their typing on a keyboard?

There are a number of excellent programs available for teaching typing on a keyboard or for helping students practice their typing. You might want to check with your son's school and see what (if any) software they use to teach students typing. Using the same program would give your son the added benefit of continuity as he practices both at home and at school.

If you are interested in purchasing off the shelf software, you might check with some of the big educational publishers such as Scholastic, Broderbund, and RiverDeep. Broderbund makes a typing program called Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing that is used by many schools. While it is often used by older students and adults, there are games built in that may be engaging and motivating for younger users.

Riverdeep also has a program for young typers called Read, Write, & Type that teaches students vocabulary and reading skills along with typing. Sunburst has a program used in many schools, Type to Learn, that is available for purchase directly from them, or as a download for home use from Scholastic.

Another program used in schools that also has a version for home use is UltraKey released by Bytes of Learning. Because several of these programs are used in classrooms already, you may be able to find one that your son is using already in computer class.

If your son is not using typing software in school, or you would like to purchase something different, there are also several websites that review software and may help you evaluate some of the products out there. Top Ten Reviews has a table comparing features of typing software programs for kids, as does the website Super Kids.

Finally, one great typing practice game that your son might enjoy is Typer Shark. The game is released by Pop Cap Games and is freely available online. While it won't teach your son proper finger placement or technique, it is a great tool for practicing speed and accuracy for a student who already knows how to type.

In this game, users play the role of a deep sea diver and must type letters, numbers, words and symbols as they appear on sharks and piranhas. Type too slowly and the diver gets eaten (no blood or gore — the diver merely disappears and reappears). Because the game is fun, challenging and feels like a real video game, it can be a motivating way of getting kids to practice typing skills.

What software will assist a manager who wants to overcome a learning disability to write better?

Because it sounds like your strengths lie in verbal communication, voice recognition (speech-to-text) software that helps you make the most of your skills would probably be your best bet. Several options are available that would be suitable for an office environment. One of the most well known, Dragon Naturally Speaking, has business and professional versions available as well as options for specialized language for the legal and medical fields.

You may also find it helpful to read reviews on a website like CNET. Because CNET focuses on consumer and business technology tools, these reviews may help you make a decision about what tool would function best in your office environment. Some users opt to include a digital audio recorder as part of their voice recognition set up. This allows them to record notes, ideas and presentations and then transcribe them later using a voice recognition program. If you are serious about using voice recognition as a productivity tool, you might consider working with a consultant or coach who can help you set up templates, wizards, and macros to meet your particular needs. The article, From Speech to Text, reviews products in a business environment.

If voice recognition is not an appropriate option for you, text-to-speech software may also be helpful. While you would still need to do the actual writing on the computer, text-to-speech would allow you to hear your writing read back to you. This may help you identify misused words, confusing elements or missing words and thus clarify your writing. Both Macs and PCs have tools available that can read text aloud, as well as software available for purchase. If you will be using Microsoft Word, WordTalk, a free-plug-in, is available to read any word document aloud.

Because there are a wide variety of tools available, you may find it helpful to contact the Job Accommodation Network. The Job Accommodation Network is a free service of the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor. They provide free consulting services to help identify the most appropriate worksite accommodation as well as technical assistance regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability information.

How can a parent choose a good speech to text tool that will help their dysgraphic child ?

Choosing a software program for your child can be a challenge. There are many programs available and it can be difficult to sift through the options and make the right decision. Unfortunately, every technology tool won't work the same way for every child, so without knowing more details about your son's needs for schoolwork, it is difficult to make a specific product recommendation.

Depending on your son's needs, a word prediction program with simple voice recognition, such as WordQ and SpeakQ might be appropriate. Or he might need a more robust program specifically designed for voice recognition only, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, which would allow him to use voice recognition to send email, write documents, surf the internet and complete other computer tasks.

You can also find a variety of tools on the TechMatrix and compare features to find something that might best fit your son's needs. This article on choosing voice recognition software may also be helpful in identifying the different features available and determining which would be most helpful.

One of the best options for beginning your search is to talk to other users of voice recognition tools for dysgraphia. You should start with the assistive technology coordinator for your school or district. They can discuss your son's specific academic needs and help you find an appropriate tool. Richard Wanderman, who has several learning disabilities including dysgraphia, wrote an article, How Computers Change the Writing Process for People with Learning Disabilities, for his website about how he uses technology to help him write that you may find helpful.

Thanks to the Internet, you can also connect easily with parents of children with learning disabilities to discuss the available options. Yahoo! Groups has a dysgraphia message board where you can post questions and discuss options with other parents. Though selecting an appropriate tool can be time consuming, learning about other people's experiences with voice recognition software can help ensure that you find a program that will work for your son.

What technology helps math, handwriting, and spelling?

You mention several different concerns that you have with your son's performance in school. Based on your descriptions, it sounds like memory may be an area of significant difficulty for your son. This may be what is preventing him from learning his multiplication facts and remembering spelling words.

A low-tech solution is to provide your son with a multiplication grid to use while completing math assignments. Some teachers opt to provide these grids for all students, while others give them only to students who are having particular difficulties. Similarly, a list of spelling words added to a personal dictionary to use in the weeks after the spelling test may help him build confidence to use the words in his writing. These types of reference tools can be great resources for students who struggle with memory and accessing information quickly.

Without knowing more about your sonís handwriting and spelling issues, it is difficult to recommend a specific tool. Is there a physical issue that interferes with your son's ability to write legibly? Does he have difficulty holding a pencil? A student with these issues may require different technological solutions than a student who has difficulty placing letters correctly on the page, or who switches letters (b for d, or p for b, etc.).

However, for many students with difficulty writing, word prediction software, (see From Illegible to Understandable) can be helpful. Other writing tools (see Tech Tools for Students with LD) such as talking word processors and portable note-taking devices may also be helpful. With any of these tools, it is best to discuss them with your son's special education teachers, and the school's assistive technology coordinator to ensure you find the best fit.

Finally, another good resource for locating assistive technology tools for different student needs is the Tech Matrix. As with any of the other technology tools mentioned, it is best to look at the different options with your son's teachers and the school technology coordinator to ensure that tools selected will be appropriate.

Are there any programs that can help my daughter who can spell, but can't write words correctly?

Without more information about your daughterís difficulties with writing, it is difficult to give you a firm answer about why she struggles with writing words that she can spell aloud. If the difficulty seems to be the physical task of writing, it may be that your daughter has issues with fine motor control. Many students with learning disabilities find holding a pencil and forming letters to be extremely challenging. If your daughter is having difficulty with the mechanics of writing (writing legibly, writing words completely without leaving off letters, writing within lines, etc.), this article on Dysgraphia Accommodations and Modifications may be helpful. You should certainly work with teachers at your school to determine potential causes of your daughterís writing difficulties. If her difficulty seems to be with the physical act of writing, you may want to speak to your schoolís occupational therapist as well.

You might also take a look at these common questions about writing and students with learning disabilities, as well as Using Assistive Technology to Support Writing. Once you have determined what type of tool might be most helpful for your daughter, you can visit the Tech Matrix to find suggestions for specific software and hardware titles.

Can you recommend any computer programs to help my son, who is dyslexic, with his writing?

An expanding array of technological devices provides new options for minimizing the writing difficulties experienced by students with learning disabilities. Programs and devices, such as talking word processors, word prediction programs, child-friendly voice recognition, and portable note-taking devices may assist your son with his writing.

Tech Tools for Students with Learning Disabilities: Infusion into Inclusive Classrooms will provide you with detailed information on each of these options.

Using Assistive Technology to Support Writing is another valuable resource that can assist you in selecting the best technologies to meet the needs of your son and may be worth sharing with his teachers to ensure that he has the support he needs in the classroom.

Also check out the Tech Matrix, which is a free online resource for writing products, reviewed for accessibility and instructional features. Related research on the use of technology for students with special needs will also be included with this tool to inform your decision on the best programs to provide support to meet your sonís needs.

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