Meeting Students Where They Are with Assistive Technologies in the ELA Classroom

Meeting the needs of all learners in our classrooms can be a challenge. Students bring a wide variety of needs from learning disabilities, physical impairments, to attention issues. Fortunately, there are many assistive technology options available that can help teachers to meet these needs.

For this week’s post, I want to focus on ISTE Coaching Standard 3 which emphasizes creating digital learning environments that support the needs of all learners. Specifically, I consider substandard C: “Select, evaluate, and facilitate the use of adaptive and assistive technologies to support student learning” (Iste.org, 2017). My mission was to find and test out assistive technology tools available online to support students in reading and writing.

Assistive Technology, as defined by the 2004 IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act) is as follows: “Any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities.” When considering the use of the word ‘device’ in the definition, “…it is important to recognize that assistive technology devices required by students with disabilities include hardware and software as well as stand-alone devices” (“Definition of Assistive Technology”, 2014). All of the software I tested for this post is available online and all but one tool are completely free.

The reason I chose to focus on software is that it is an adaptation that can be made with relatively little cost and time investment. I wanted to explore options that teachers could implement on their own. Many teachers incorrectly view assistive technology as “an isolated, specialized factor understood and implemented by only a few specifically trained individuals” (Clifford & Reed, as cited in Connor & Beard, 2015). In other words, ‘not my problem.’ However, I hope to show that there are tools that are easy to use and that can benefit all students, not just those with barriers to learning.

Assistance with Reading

  • Rewordify
    • For: Students with reading difficulties
    • What: Rewordify has two important features. The first is that students or teachers can paste in text and have the software simplify the wording. The second feature is that many popular pieces of classic literature are already in the system. Students can access these translated versions for free. In both uses of the system, the replaced words are shown in yellow so that students can examine the original word and grow their vocabulary. While the simplifications aren’t always flawless, it’s a great starting point for students who aren’t reading at grade level.

 

  • Read&Write Chrome Extension
    • For: Students with visual impairments, students learning English
    • What: This extension has many features. In addition to reading either an entire webpage or just selected text, you can access both traditional and visual dictionaries and translations, making this an ideal tool for struggling readers or readers new to the English language. Another feature is the ability to simplify a webpage to remove ads and sidebars as well as change the contrast colors. Students can also use the masking feature to gray out all of the webpage except for a thin bar. The extension also allows readers to highlight any portion of the article and then generate a Google Doc with those highlighted notes. Unfortunately, all but the most basic reader features are only available at the premium level once the free trial ends. The cost for a single annual license is $145, so this may not be a great option unless you have special funds or a parent who is in a position to purchase this resource.

  • Read Aloud, A Text to Speech Voice Reader Chrome Extension
    • For: Students with visual impairments, students with hearing impairments
    • What: Of all the screen readers I tested, Read Aloud stood apart. This screen reader allows you to choose from multiple voices. The volume, pitch, and speed can also be manipulated as needed. You can choose to have the text highlighted as it is read. What set this extension apart from the others was its ability to read Google Doc files and PDFs (after uploading your file). The one downside is that it will read the captions of advertisements.

  • Google Translate
    • For: Students learning English
    • What: Anyone can use www.translate.google.com to convert text between any two languages. Students can copy and paste text into the translation box. However, an easier way to accommodate students who are new to English is by adding the Chrome Extension. This will allow students to translate an entire webpage into their primary language. The extension will also enable students to highlight any text, right click, select translate, and see a translation in any language they choose.

  • Mercury Reader Chrome Extension
    • For: Students with visual impairments; students who have trouble focusing
    • What: Mercury Reader removes all clutter from a webpage when you select the extension. This includes sidebar content, advertisements, comments, and more. Essentially you will have a clean article with only the images posted in the article and links shared within the article. Students have the option to change the contrast in case it is easier for them to read light text on a dark background. Students can also choose between a Serif and Non-Serif font and enlarge the text as needed.

Assistance with Writing

  • Speech to Text with Google or Voice In Chrome Extension
    • For: Students who struggle with fine motor skills, students with attention disorders
    • What: Within a Google Doc, there is a built-in function to convert speech to text. You can access this function under the Tools menu or by using the shortcut, Ctl+Shift+S. Students simply speak into their device’s built-in microphone and their words appear on the screen. In addition to students who have trouble typing due to motor skill problems, I have had success when allowing students with ADHD to complete work in this manner. They seem better able to focus on speaking than on typing. Just like when using the speech to text feature on a phone, editing for grammar and the occasional mistaken words is necessary.
    • What: Voice In is a Chrome Extension that will allow for dictation on any typable area of the web. This includes search boxes and forms. Anywhere you can type, you can right-click and select the option to Start Recording.

  • Grammarly
    • For: Students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dysgraphia
    • What: Grammarly is a Chrome Extension that can also be downloaded to a PC and used with Microsoft Office. Grammarly is a grammar and spell-checker that not only points out the mistake but explains why their suggestion is correct. Because of this, it is a more effective tool than a traditional spell-checker which simply makes the correction for you. This is a great tool for all students–not just those with learning disabilities!

Conclusion

One thing to consider when implementing any form of assistive technology is that the student’s needs should come first, not the device (Connor & Beard, 2015). In other words, consider what elements a student needs to be successful with a given assignment and then find a tool that offers those elements instead of changing the assignment to fit within a particular tool.

 

Sources

Connor, C., & Beard, L. (2015). Increasing Meaningful Assistive Technology Use in the Classrooms. Universal Journal Of Educational Research, 3(9), 640-642. doi: 10.13189/ujer.2015.030908

Definition of Assistive Technology. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.gpat.org/georgia-project-for-assistive-technology/pages/assistive-technology-definition.aspx

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004)

Iste.org. (2017). ISTE Standards For Coaches. [online] Available at: https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches [Accessed 19 Jul. 2018].

 

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