Don Johnston's "Building Wings"
Don Johnston Communities
Dyslexia & Dysgraphia
Universal Design for Learning
Learning is For Life
by Kathy White and Mary Pembleton
Kathy White is co-chair of the AT Forward Project for the state of Wisconsin and a retired assistive technology specialist. In over 33 years working in Janesville schools in Wisconsin, Kathy saw student learning needs increase steadily and identified accessibility strategies that got results.
“Now you’ve got students who are English Language Learners, you’ve got students who may have a learning disability. You have students who have moved so many times and the curriculum has been different in every school,” Kathy says. “You have this huge mix.”
This diversity creates a vibrant student population with different perspectives and abilities, but it also poses the question:
How do overwhelmed educators and practitioners find the time to scaffold learning for a diverse population of students, each with individual learning needs?
The answer? They don’t have the time, regardless of how much effort they give.
“Put simply: there are too many kids and not enough me,” Kathy says
For Janesville, integrating district-wide assistive technology (AT) tools for reading and writing helped.
With features like text-to-speech, word prediction, and translation, AT tools like Co:Writer, Snap&Read, and uPAR helped Janesville students access the curriculum independently.
Making these tools available to all students decreased the need for differentiating learning materials, saving teachers time and effort.
“We caught a lot more kids who needed help that way,” Kathy says.
“They stayed in school, they graduated, truancy went down, inner office referrals went down. Once they could access reading and they read independently more often, comprehension and vocabulary improved. And all those successes are connected to future successes—to career successes.”
For example, one of Kathy’s students was a middle schooler who couldn’t read or spell. His parents suggested that he work on the family farm, but he wanted to be a computer programmer.
With the help of his AT tools, he graduated from high school and college. He now spends his days working his dream career.
Assistive technology helped more special education students like him to stay in general education classrooms in Janesville. Inclusive classrooms benefit all students, not just those with an IEP. AT is truly a tool that promotes diversity and inclusion! Check out this great article from Understood.org explaining the benefits of inclusion.
In this article, we explore how Kathy and her team got buy-in for universal assistive technology, successfully implemented AT district-wide, and improved inclusion outcomes.
At first, Kathy and her team had just 100 copies of Co:Writer, an AT tool for writing. It wasn’t enough.
It was hard to get Co:Writer to all the students who qualified for services. And general education teachers kept asking Kathy for Co:Writer access for students without services. Kathy had to say no.
She decided to ask her administrators for a district-wide license, but she knew her request would be more powerful with data to back it up.
Kathy gathered data on student performance with the AT tools to prepare for the meeting with her administrators. For example, her students used Co:Writer to complete assignments over a period of several weeks. Kathy took data on their grades, which improved a lot.
Kathy presented her data to administrators, and proposed giving AT tools to all students in Janesville. She also showed that it was more affordable to buy a district-wide license instead of buying individual licenses for each student that needed the tools.
Her administrators were convinced. They purchased district-wide licenses of Snap&Read, Co:Writer, and uPAR.
Assistive technology, or just technology?
Kathy and her team introduced Snap&Read and Co:Writer to whole classrooms (including the teacher), not just the students on her caseload. When she did so, she didn’t use words like “assistive technology,” or single out student needs, but instead told the class, “we’re going to give you tools to become better readers and writers.”
“Change the focus,” Kathy says. “Don’t make it a special ed [sic] thing.”
This approach allowed all students to benefit from tools meant to meet the needs of a few.
When you introduce a class to AT tools, Kathy says that often, the kids who needed the tools the least were eager to use them.
They would use Snap&Read to cite sources, multitask, or listen to a reading assignment while running track.
“It changes the whole dynamic, because then the students who really need the technology are like, okay, if the smartest kid in the class is going to use this tool, maybe I should use it too,” Kathy says. “It makes a huge difference. They don’t feel embarrassed or singled out.”
Kathy had success with the following strategies:
“For younger students, I give a couple kids a regular old dictionary, and some kids get a computer with Snap&Read. I challenge them to see how fast they can find a definition and pronounce a particular word correctly. The kids with the tech win 99.9% of the time!”
Kathy gave assignments that directly involved the tools. For example, part of a typical assignment required everyone in the class to cite sources using Snap&Read, or complete assignments in a Snap&Read outline. This way, the entire group became familiar with the features and would be more likely to use the tools elsewhere.
To “sell” the tools to classrooms of learners, Kathy pointed out features that helped them save time. For example, she demonstrated how quickly Snap&Read could help learners pronounce a word and get a picture definition.
Kathy also talked about how Snap&Read could help learners organize notes in the sidebar while researching.
Kathy and her AT partner Sara Vold led an AT team that included staff from most schools in their district: special education teachers, general education teachers, librarians, etc.
They met four times a year. Each member brought the information they learned back to their schools. Team members all participated when Kathy and her team taught AT to entire classrooms so they would know how to teach the tools in their own schools. This streamlined training, saved time, and created systems to support universal AT in schools. \
General education teachers learned about the tools when the AT team visited their classrooms, and then incorporated AT into assignments and general curriculum. What they found is that overall, the tools saved them time.
Another free resource for training is Don Johnston’s Learning Academy. The Learning Academy’s videos explain different aspects of each tool.
Short modules take less than 10 minutes to complete and were developed to onboard students and educators. At the end of each module, a certificate of completion and badge can be saved or printed.
Celebration may seem like an unnecessary step to universal AT implementation, but Kathy says that it’s one of the most important things to build into the process.
In Janesville, Kathy celebrated student gains with the student and the administration. Sharing positive outcomes reassures administrators that universal AT is working.
To an administrator, Kathy would say something like, “Hey! I saw [student name] this morning, and he was able to write six sentences on his own using the tools!” or “I have a student who has never read a book on his own and now he’s using Bookshare and reading 30 books a month.”
Celebrating with students helps them feel good about using their tools, and builds their self-esteem.
“Instead of pointing out to a student that they got an F on a paper, I would say ‘You can now use speech recognition to type correctly with no errors and read three paragraphs faster than I can type them!” Kathy says.
With administrators, she would relay victories to educators and administrators in quick passing exchanges. “Those are huge wins,” Kathy says.
When learners are given tools and choices that let them learn the way they learn best, they’re going to do better. They’re going to be successful. They’re going to advocate for the accommodations that work for them, even into adulthood.
When every student is able to use AT tools, outcomes improve, and not just for students with an IEP.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Kathy says.