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By: Todd Hanson
It was the late 90’s at Groves Academy and we had just acquired a program called ViaVoice. As a school for students with learning disabilities and attentional difficulties, we were excited by the possibility of being able to speak into a microphone and have the computer type. After bringing my math class to the computer lab, a room of donated 386’s, for two weeks of training, we were ready to test it out. The frustration and disappointment the students felt was palpable. My first foray into assistive technology was a failure.
Fast forward to today where the computing power we carry in our pockets outperforms what we had back then multiple times over. Assistive technology has become, in some cases, just technology and dictation is the perfect example. There are no longer oohs and ahhs as the presenter speaks and the words appear on the screen because we can do that on our phones.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that 1-in-5 people have a learning disability while as few as 1-in-16 of those identified receive services in school and millions more are undiagnosed. This is why technology plays a crucial role in leveling the playing field for individuals that struggle with reading. Technology such as text-to-speech, however, still meets with some resistance from some educators. The idea that the use of technology to assist in reading is often viewed as unfair or, by some, as cheating. This could not be farther from the truth and shows a lack of understanding of dyslexia. This is not something that can be overcome through greater effort or a change in attitude. Dyslexia can be diagnosed and, with the proper teaching techniques and assistive technology, we are able to mitigate the effects.
All students benefit from a phonics-based, structured, systematic, multi-sensory approach to teaching reading. Students with reading difficulties see a greater chance of reading at grade level when this approach is started at an early age and is remediated as needed. This remediation is essential to allow students to reach their maximum potential. We will begin to see a reduction in effectiveness as the students get older and other factors come into play (i.e. student motivation). This is where accommodations, such as text-to-speech and dictation, need to be in place. As the return on investment for remediation decreases, greater interventions need to be put in place and time spent on remediation should increase in an effort to bring the student as far as possible. At this point, appropriate accommodations should also be introduced so the student becomes familiar with them and is ready to make the transition in order to be successful and keep up with the assigned class readings.
Waiting until a student is struggling to introduce AT only adds additional frustration to an already frustrating situation. It takes time and energy to bring AT into the student’s academic toolbox and to do that while trying to keep up in class is a monumental task.
Students with dyslexia often feel different from their peers as they struggle to accomplish what can seem to be so effortless for their friends. They see the introduction of AT as just another way they are being called out or as another thing to try and fail after a considerable amount of energy is expended. This is where the conversation between specialists, teachers, parents, and most importantly, the student is critical. We strive to ‘demystify’ a student’s diagnosis by helping them understand their profile, their strengths, and their challenges. We also strive to expose our students to different forms of assistive technology and show them the benefits of using AT for them individually. The Universal Protocol for Accommodations in Reading (uPAR) is a critical part of that conversation. Teachers can request an individual or group of students to participate in the assessment and then the results are shared with the student, parents, and other teachers.
The ability to see, graphically, the amount of improvement possible between independent reading, an adult reading to the student, and a text-to-speech program is a powerful piece of the conversation convincing a student that text-to-speech is a beneficial tool for them. At Groves we had a number of groups of students in our Upper School take the assessment and then sit down with me to review the results. One young woman, in particular, was taken aback at what she saw. She never really gave text-to-speech a chance because she didn’t think it made a difference. After that conversation, she was more willing to use text-to-speech accommodations and found an efficiency in her work that was not there before.
Often in the K-12 realm, human accommodations and modifications are used to mold the material to the student’s abilities. Assignments may be changed or a human note-taker or reader will be provided to assist the student with access to the material, but this builds a dependence on another individual for that access. Higher Education institutions focus more on providing the tools necessary to access the material and the student expectations are the same for every student. By helping students become independent with their assistive technology in high school, we offer a greater opportunity for a successful post-secondary transition.
The Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology – Post Secondary (QIAT-PS) individual survey is another way to bring the AT conversation to the forefront. While initially written for post-secondary institutions and their students, it has become a valuable piece in our assessment of the student’s AT readiness.
A young senior with dyslexia was in a class where we spent time on the transition to college and the tools and strategies necessary to be successful. He was adamant that he was going to handle it himself and didn’t need help. He listened and argued throughout our conversations. He graduated and in the fall headed off to college. During a break, he came back and visited with his teachers. He was doing well and excited about the AT that was available to him. He had connected with the student disability services office at his college and they were very helpful. While originally, it didn’t feel like he was receptive to input, it turned out that he was listening and took steps to successfully launch into the college experience.
With so many tools, strategies, and opinions about the use of assistive technology for our students with high incidence disabilities such as dyslexia, it can be difficult to get a program started. The biggest challenges we faced as we began were cost and what would work best. I had the opportunity to attend the Technology, Reading, and Learning Disabilities (TRLD) conference run by Don Johnston. This was my first opportunity to learn about the technology that could help Groves students. Doors were opened and a passion was ignited. We started with one text-to-speech program and began to see results. As we learned more, there became a greater desire to have more. Our most recent additions are Snap&Read and Co:Writer. These fit extremely well with our curriculum and the move to more online resources.
Our Lower School has a Festival of Nations each year. Every classroom picks a different country and researches the culture, food, sports, education, government, and geography. This research relied very heavily on the teacher curating web sites and spending time with each student to assist with their research. The introduction of Snap&Read has allowed the students to become more independent in their searches and collection of information.
A middle school student with a significant dyslexia diagnosis struggled to get his ideas on paper. We spent time learning about dictation and gave him a headset to use. The result was dramatic.
Above is his beginning-of-the-year assessment.
This is a writing assignment soon after learning dictation. There was some time spent with the teacher editing this work but the fundamental work was done by the student. Being able to use speaking vocabulary instead of writing vocabulary made his writing come alive.
As technology becomes more prevalent in our schools and our society, we owe it to our students who are struggling, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, to provide the best educational opportunities possible. Assistive technology levels the playing field for students with dyslexia and other challenges. It is our responsibility, as adults, to help students level that field, and help them realize and utilize their abilities to the maximum extent. Through technology and implementation, it is possible to connect the dots to independence, and we see it every day at Groves Academy.
For more information on Co:Writer, and to request a free trial click here.