Using Assistive Technology in the Classroom
By Nancy Martin, Reading Department Chair (retired)
In one of my first years teaching reading fluency at Eagle Hill School, I worked with a student who read more slowly silently than she did aloud. This is atypical and concerning as she was a college-bound junior who needed to increase her reading rate in order to be successful in college. I introduced her to audiobooks and set her up on Learning Ally. The next Monday, she arrived in my class and sheepishly asked if it would be okay for her to read more than one book at a time. She had devoured one novel over the weekend by “ear reading" and wanted to read more.
I helped another student install Co:Writer Universal on his computer, Co:Writer is a Google Chrome extension with word prediction software. It allows students to either type or dictate using the computer’s built-in microphone. A few days later, the student’s English teacher reported the student saying, “Co:Writer rocked my world." He had many great ideas but always had difficulty expressing them in writing due to poor spelling. Removing the barrier of typing and allowing him to dictate made all the difference. He could express his ideas quickly and get them onto the screen as fast as his brain worked.
These are examples of assistive technology (AT) – computer software, applications or extensions that allow students assistance in accessing or producing the written word. Some are speech-to-text, meaning spoken words appear as printed text, and some are text-to-speech, meaning printed text is read aloud.
At Eagle Hill School, we are firm believers in the use of assistive technology. Unfortunately, we often are told by students (and their parents) that at schools students previously attended, they were denied access to this powerful accomodation.
Assistive Technology Myths
There are several myths surrounding assistive technology, and I would like to address each one:
Using AT is cheating and provides an unfair advantage.
We find AT to be quite the opposite – rather than being an unfair advantage, it levels the playing field for students who struggle with reading and writing. Karen Jankowski, an AT Consultant for Ed Tech Solutions, Inc., shared this anecdote on her blog:
Have you ever heard teachers (or parents) disparagingly call the use of assistive technology a crutch?
- Can we still see the "crutch" as a negative when it allows a student to read TEN TIMES faster in HALF the amount of time? True story.
- I worked with a high school student who "eye read" ten pages in four days on her own and then used text to speech to "ear" read ONE HUNDRED pages in two days. Do the math. That's an impressive difference. And she was independent.
- Not all crutches are bad. Let's embrace what works and give all students what they need.
Assistive technology provides students equity. Treating everyone equally does not.
AT lowers motivation.
We find the effect of using AT to be quite the opposite. Texts that were too difficult to read independently now become accessible by listening to them. Words that are difficult to spell can now be used when writing because students no longer have to worry about spelling them. There is no stopping students once they’re given the right tools.
Audio books make it harder to learn how to read.
Listening to books has the following benefits which improve reading:
- Vocabulary – students are able to independently read more challenging texts so are exposed to higher-level and more challenging words.
- Spelling – students who follow along while listening to books are seeing the written word while also hearing it, making the connection between the way a word is spelled and the way it is pronounced.
- Fluency – often students can “ear read” much faster than “eye read;" doing this trains their brains to take in information at a faster pace and may increase reading rate.
Kids can learn AT on their own.
Simply because current students are "digital natives" and spend hours each day using technology does not make them AT experts. Like anything worth learning, students must be taught how to use the technology, be supported as they learn it, and be reminded to keep using it. Teachers must build AT into their lessons and require it as part of the reading or writing process in order to create habits.
Assistive Technology benefits both students and teachers.
Like any technology, one must use caution when implementing AT. Assistive technology is not a catchall, cure-all, one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, it can be daunting because there is so much available and it seems to change almost overnight. We believe the best tool is the one that has the features the student needs.
Many students with executive functioning issues have trouble staying organized. They lose homework assignments, handouts such as study guides, and may forget to turn in work written on paper. Paper may be a "disability" for many students. However, any information that is digital becomes searchable, making it a much more useful study tool.
Assistive technology helps teachers more effectively engage and empower diverse learners. It provides independence to students who are able to access more challenging content and express ideas without the assistance of an adult. Using assistive technology can liberate readers, help close a writing gap, and keep students more engaged.
“Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire.” http://interactioninstitute.org/illustrating-equality-vs-equity/
Jankowski, Karen. https://teachingeverystudent.blogspot.com/
Redford, Kyle. “Assistive Technology: Promises Fulfilled.” Educational Leadership, Feb. 2019, 70–74.