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Tech Tools for Students with Learning Disabilities: Infusion into Inclusive Classrooms

The potential for assistive technology in general education classrooms for students with disabilities is great. Its benefits include enhancing academic achievement in written expression, reading, mathematics, and spelling; improving organization; and fostering social acceptance. Support technology provides many benefits by facilitating writing for students with learning disabilities (LD) who often find the writing process frustrating (MacArthur, 1996). When students have the opportunity to accommodate writing challenges, they are more successful in the general education classroom. A necessary component of this effort is collaboration between classroom teachers and assistive technology specialists. The use of technology must be a collaborative effort. The following article reviews helpful writing supports and the benefits of technology for students with LD. I will also address the role of assistive technology in inclusive classrooms and the key factors that facilitate collaboration among professionals during technology implementation.

As defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (IDEA), an assistive technology device is “any piece of equipment, or product system… that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” [Part A, Sec. 602(1)]. According to Lewis (1998), assistive technology serves two major purposes: to augment an individual’s strengths, thereby counterbalancing the effects of the disability, and to provide an alternative mode of performing a task. Thus, the use of technology allows students to compensate for their disability or circumvent it entirely.

For students with learning disabilities (LD), technology can be an assistive tool replacing an ability that is either missing or impaired. It provides the support needed to accomplish a task. For example, word processing assists students with LD in improving writing. Computers offer other support to motivate reluctant writers to write by facilitating motor actions, providing spelling assistance, helping with revising and editing, and producing a document that is neat and legible. Previous studies of using word processing versus writing with paper and pencil have generated mixed results. For example, MacArthur and Graham (1987) found no differences in the number or type of revisions students made with the word processor compared with using paper and pencil. Vacc’s study (1987), however, found that students with LD spent more time writing and revising when they used computers than when writing by hand. Finally, MacArthur, Graham, and Schwartz (1991) showed that when computers are combined with effective instruction in revision, word processing could yield benefits for’ students with written language disabilities.

Computer supports for writing

Computers change the writing process by making it easier to develop and record ideas, to edit ideas, and to publish and share with others. Different computer supports are useful during different phases in the writing process. I will touch on talking word processors, word prediction, portable note-taking devices, prewriting organizers, and multimedia prewriting prompts.

Talking word processors

Samples of talking word processors for student use:

Talking word processors give the student auditory feedback to reinforce the writing process. Letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, or entire documents can be read aloud while the student types. Features can be customized to individual student needs by selecting what text is read from pull-down menus. With most talking word processors students can select other features such as background color, text color, and font size, and can add graphics. Examples of software that includes talking word processing features appear in Table 1. Most talking word processors also include a talking spell checking system, which allows students to spell check entire documents or highlight specific words for spell checking. Some spell checkers provide alerting sounds or visual signals for misspelled words and homonym checks to ensure use of correct word form, as well as allowing students to hear an unfamiliar word context and providing definitions. These features offer students powerful visual and auditory strategies.

Synthesized speech, the most common form of talking word processors, pronounces words from the text based on phonetic spellings. Therefore, some pronunciations may not be typical of standard speech. Pronunciation editing, or the capability to adjust pronunciation of words produced by speech synthesizers, is available with some talking word processors. This feature allows writers to spell words and hear them pronounced correctly rather than phonetically (Beukelman, Hunt-Berg & Rankin, 1994).

Word prediction

Another useful tool is word prediction, which augments spelling and syntax to enable users to make choices, find words, and complete sentences. Word prediction programs display words based on frequency of use, grammatically correct usage of words, and most recently used words. Read & Write 5.0 by textHELP (1999) is an invaluable tool for students with reading and writing difficulties. It works with any Windows based application and with standard word processors. When word prediction is active, the user types a letter, and as each letter is typed, the software predicts words accordingly. The user determines the number of words predicted. If the intended word is predicted, the user chooses the number of that word, which automatically inserts it into the sentence. If the intended word is not predicted, the user continues typing letters until the next prediction occurs. In some situations users are required to spell entire words. The dictionary will learn the word and predict it the next time it is used. Read & Write also includes dictionary customization. That is, users can add words to the custom dictionary based on specific content needs. Another support feature is abbreviation expansion, which allows users to increase productivity by allocating abbreviations to a specific phrase or paragraph. Once the abbreviation is typed, Read & Write types the phrase or paragraph. For example, the abbreviation “hyh” would produce “Have you heard about.” This application also automatically capitalizes the first word of sentences and the first letter following terminal punctuation it provides automatic spacing when solely using word prediction.

Portable note-taking devices

AlphaSmart note taking device

Portable note takers provide an efficient means to record ideas and classroom note s to complete assignments, and to demonstrate writing creativity. Portable note takers allow more time for writing and require less concentration on operating the device. For example, the AlphaSmart 3000 keyboard contains a simple operating system: you turn it on, start writing, and turn it off when finished. Information typed is saved automatically in one of eight separate files holding 100 pages of text. The AlphaSmart 3000 is capable of editing, allowing the user to cut, copy, and paste within and between files. AlphaSmart keyboards interface with Macintosh and PC computers. Get Utility software makes two-way transfer of text possible from a Macintosh or PC to the AlphaSmart, allowing writers to send their documents to a word processor for further editing and formatting documents on the desktop computer. AlphaSmart 3000 has a 70,000-word spell check dictionary.

Prewriting organizers

Prewriting organizer

The writing process involves a number of stages. Many writers have difficulty with the planning stage, which incorporates brainstorming, clustering, and listing ideas, themes, or keywords. Some students with LD find graphic organizers helpful in mapping ideas during the planning stage. Graphic organizers such as Inspiration provide organizational frameworks to help writers generate topics and content for writing projects. Inspiration shows ideas in graphic “bubbles” that can be moved and then converted into a standard outline (Male, 1997).

Prewriting prompts: Multimedia software

Many young children draw pictures to tell a story before they can write. For example, children describe their experiences and explore what they know by drawing and talking about their work (MacArthur, 1996). Many software programs incorporate both text and graphics for story writing. Examples of multimedia, software for elementary and middle school students appear in Table 2. Generally, older students are expected to convey ideas via writing without graphic support. However, if the students have limited literacy skills or little prior knowledge in a particular content area they may benefit from visuals and other media for writing (Daiute, 1992).

Bahr, Nelson, and VanMeter (1996) compared the effects of two computer-based writing tools on the story-writing skills of fourth through eighth grade students with LD. The software allowed the students to create graphic scenes and then write stories about those scenes. Students using graphics-based software spent more time creating or modifying graphics and less time writing, in comparison with those who used text-based planning software. The researchers found that some students may not have the prior knowledge to develop a coherent story even when graphics are presented. These findings suggest that writing teachers may need to develop a management strategy that ensures a balance between time spent planning stories and time generating actual text.

Benefits computers: Editing and publishing

Samples of multimedia writing software for student use:

For students with LD, computers, portable keyboards, and specialized software provide efficient means for recording, editing, and sharing ideas. One of the most valuable benefits is a reliable and immediate legible document. Valuable time is spent communicating ideas rather than correcting writing. In addition editing on word processors allows multiple revisions without recopying, thus enabling students to concentrate more on the content. Writers compose and edit more efficiently when using computer-supported writing tools (Beukelman et al., 1994). Computers improve the quality and quantity of writing. Spelling and grammar supports enable writers to decrease their emphasis on writing mechanics, thus increasing planning time and content generation. Finally, computers make it possible for students who struggle with handwriting to publish neat printed work.

Role of technology in inclusive classrooms

Using technology fosters belonging and interactive participation in general education classrooms for students with LD (Bryant & Bryant, 1998). Technology increases the frequency of assignment completion and contributes to improved motivation (Bahr, Nelson, and VanMeter, 1996). It therefore supports some of the basic objectives of inclusive education: a sense of belonging to group, shared activities with individual outcomes, and a balanced educational experience. Adaptations for students with LD have been widely used to compensate for barriers associated with difficulties in reading, writing, mathematical reasoning, and problem solving (Bryant & Bryant, 1998). Increased use of assistive technology devices during cooperative learning activities can enhance the participation of students with LD by circumventing specific disability related barriers. For example, students who endure fine motor difficulties are not usually targeted for the role of recorder in cooperative learning activities. However, if those students could use portable note takers, they would be successful at recording group responses. Students with spelling problems could use devices to check spelling or search for definitions during a cooperative writing project. A fifth grade student revealed that using a portable note taker eased his frustrations, increased his motivation to complete assignments, and made him feel more accepted by his peers in the general education classroom. The teacher of this student stated, “Steven has been turning in his assignments and completing homework since using the portable note taker.” Thus technology contributes to improved academic achievement.

Collaboration: Key factors in technology implementation

Collaboration takes on many dimensions in educational settings. Cook and Friend (1996) summarized the characteristics of successful collaboration. The most significant for introducing technology to the general education classroom are shared responsibility for participation and decision making and for securing and sharing resources, and shared accountability for student outcomes.

Assistive technology specialist evaluates students’ technology needs in collaboration with classroom teachers, related services staff, parents, and students. The specialist takes into account the user’s motivation, as well as his or her reaction to particular adaptations. For example, a student may be resistive to using a portable note-taking device. The school staff facilitates the evaluation process by identifying students’ strengths and the areas in which they are challenged in general education classrooms. In collaboration, the team determines an appropriate match among devices, setting- specific demands, and student characteristics.

Once the appropriate technology is determined, assistive technology specialists are responsible for training and consulting with teachers, students, parents, and related services staff. Classroom teachers and students will be primarily responsible for the integration of technology into daily classroom routines.

Concluding comments

Technology can help students with LD compensate for challenges in learning, especially in the area of writing, providing computer-supported tools. In addition, this technology can also ease frustration, increase motivation, foster a sense of peer acceptance, and improve productivity in the classroom and at home. The IDEA amendments specify that assistive technology be considered in developing individualized educational plans. Collaborative planning teams must develop a vision of technology for individual students and general education classrooms. Team members need to determine the effectiveness of current technology and closely monitor students to ensure that the necessary modifications are made to reflect the changing abilities of the individuals. The potential of assistive technology for students has not been realized; the future is uncertain but holds much promise. For individuals with disabilities, this technology can be one way to break down barriers to learning.

Preventing School Failure, Summer 2001, Vol.45, No.4, pp 167-170
Jane Quenneville is an assistive technology specialist for Virginia Beach City Public Schools in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and works with students with learning disabilities, using assistive technology to enhance their academic success.
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