You have probably used word prediction to type a text message or voice commands to activate a virtual assistant on your phone. Maybe you have annotated passages in an e-book or highlighted sections of an online article. These everyday activities are all facilitated by convenient features built into our devices. These features are also very similar to some widely used forms of assistive technology.
In the context of literacy, assistive technology (AT) includes all devices, applications, and software that have been designed to help individuals with disabilities complete everyday and academic tasks involving reading and writing. Assistive technology is different from general technology in the classroom as described in our previous blog post because it is specifically designed for students with disabilities.
Assistive technology may be critical for students with language-based learning disabilities like dyslexia to participate in school more fully. Using it may allow them to access class content and demonstrate what they have learned. Assistive technology can be part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP)—the plan that outlines the instruction, supports, and services that students who have been deemed eligible for special education need to be successful in school. In fact, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that the team responsible for developing a student’s IEP considers whether students require assistive technology and provide it if necessary.
Assistive technology can be used to fulfill two types of accommodations that may be included in a students’ IEP: presentation accommodations and response accommodations.
Presentation accommodations change the way class materials are provided to students. For example, students with presentation accommodations could be allowed to access class materials in alternative forms besides print, such as video, audio, or images. When students with a learning disability like dyslexia are allowed to access class materials in other modes besides print, they can focus on the content rather than devoting all of their cognitive resources to reading the words. Presentation accommodations may also modify the visual features of print by changing the color, font, and size of the text. Although altering the visual features of print has not been shown to improve reading speed or accuracy (Wery & Diliberto, 2017), it may help reduce eye strain and eliminate distractions. Additionally, presentation accommodations may include tools to support comprehension, such as online dictionaries and translators. Several types of assistive technology can be used as presentation accommodations.
Throughout the school day, students read texts for many purposes besides practicing reading skills. For example, students often have to read written instructions in order to understand the expectations and requirements of non-reading tasks. If students are not able to read and comprehend instructions, they will struggle to complete assignments correctly. Furthermore, students are often expected to learn science and social studies concepts by reading texts, so reading difficulties can prevent students from accessing content-area knowledge. Text-to-speech is a type of assistive technology that can give struggling readers equitable access to class materials by reading aloud digital text. Listening to texts allows students to alleviate a barrier to learning by letting them focus on the content.
There are text-to-speech extensions that can be added to web browsers. These extensions can read aloud different forms of text, such as web-based word processor documents, PDFs, text on websites, and text included as part of an image. Some extensions can convert text into downloadable MP3 files that users can listen to on a range of devices. Text-to-speech apps also can be installed on devices like tablets or smartphones. These apps use the devices’ cameras to take photos of printed text, which is then converted to digital text and read aloud.
Advertisements on websites, such as those you see alongside or among the text in some online articles, can distract readers and have an impact on attention and comprehension (Simola et al., 2011). There are assistive technology extensions that can be added to browsers to minimize the effects of these distractions, which would allow for easier completion of online reading assignments. For example, some extensions remove advertisements and other distractions from web text and include the ability to customize text features like font, size, and color. Some extensions include a screen-masking feature that shades the text above and below the line that the child is currently reading. This feature may help students focus on the text they are actively reading without becoming distracted by other information on the page.
Embedded Online Dictionary or Translator
The vocabulary that students encounter in academic texts is often different from the vocabulary they use in everyday conversation (Coxhead, 2000). A lack of familiarity with academic vocabulary can impact students’ academic performance (Schuth et al., 2017). There are dictionaries and translators available for use in web browsers. Some are built-in (and may need to be activated in settings) while others can be added as extensions. These tools can simplify the process of looking up unknown words, allowing users to highlight unknown words and read definitions without navigating to a separate window. Then, students can dedicate more time and brainpower to understanding the meaning of the text. Some built-in dictionaries also provide a picture of the word and a recording of the word being read aloud. Reading a word, hearing it spoken, and associating it with a picture can help reinforce vocabulary acquisition (Yanguas, 2009).
Response accommodations provide students with alternative modes for demonstrating knowledge or completing activities and assignments. For example, instead of producing a written response to a question, students with response accommodations for a writing disability could be allowed to respond to the question orally. Response accommodations may be appropriate when the purpose of a task is demonstrating content knowledge rather than students practicing or assessing students’ writing. There are many ways that assistive technology can support students who require these types of accommodations.
Typing to Complete Worksheets
For students with dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects their ability to write by hand, completing printed worksheets can be both challenging and frustrating. Typing their responses may alleviate some of the difficulties associated with writing by hand, helping students to complete assignments more efficiently. There are assistive technology apps allow that allow students to take a picture of a worksheet and then type directly on the document. Once the assignment is completed, it can be shared with the students’ teachers through the app or via email.
Between written reflections, short-answer comprehension questions, essays, and more, students are often expected to show what they have learned through writing. However, these assessments can prevent students who struggle with written expression from demonstrating what they know to the best of their abilities. Many of these students may find that they can convey their ideas more clearly through speaking than writing. When the purpose of a task is to demonstrate content knowledge rather than develop writing skills, using speech-to-text can be a more equitable and effective method of responding for these students. Speech-to-text apps and similar built-in functions will transcribe the words a student says out loud. Once the transcription is complete, the student can review and revise as needed. However, speech-to-text can be difficult to use effectively, as it requires the coordination of multiple skills: properly dictating words, enunciating clearly, adding punctuation, and starting and stopping the function appropriately. For more guidance on getting students started with speech-to-text resources, see our Tips for Using Speech-to-Text Software.
Many of us use word prediction functionality to save time and do things more efficiently in our everyday lives, whether we are sending text messages or searching for something online. Word prediction can be particularly useful for students who struggle with spelling and/or with identifying the appropriate words to convey their ideas. There are several apps that provide a list of suggested words as you type. These apps may also be set to read typed words or sentences out loud so that users can hear and verify the accuracy of what they have written. Some apps allow users to select different topic dictionaries (e.g., “the planets,” “the rock cycle,” or “women’s suffrage”) to access specialized vocabulary suggestions related to the topic selected.
Training Resources for Students and Families
After potential assistive technology needs have been identified, teachers, families, and students will need help selecting the proper AT and will need training and practice using it. Several resources are available in Iowa to provide these services.
Area Education Agencies
In Iowa, students’ Individualized Educational Program teams may work with Area Educational Agencies (AEAs) to select and acquire appropriate assistive technology for classroom use. Every AEA has a team consisting of special education consultants, school psychologists, speech-language pathologists, special education technology specialists, technology integrationists, and school administrators who can provide assistive technology consultations for school districts and families. During a consultation, the AEA team will consider whether or not a student requires assistive technology and identify the kinds of assistive technology that would best help the student. To guide this process, many AEAs in Iowa have adopted the SETT (Student, Environment, Tasks, Tools) Framework (Zabala, 2005), which involves the following steps:
- Student: First, the team will consider the student’s needs. In what areas is the student experiencing difficulties? For example, is the student struggling with written expression, spelling, reading, or something else?
- Environment: The next step involves considering the student’s environment—the classes or situations in which assistance is needed. What is the instructional arrangement (e.g., whole class, small group, or one-on-one)? What materials, equipment, or resources are currently available to the student?
- Tasks: Next, the team will consider the tasks that the student is expected to accomplish at school (e.g., reading textbooks, completing worksheets, writing essays). Which activities are essential to the learning objectives of the course? Which elements of those activities are critical, and are there any aspects which are currently barriers for the student that could be adapted or removed?
- Tools: Finally, the team will identify which assistive technology tools will best address the challenges the student is experiencing.
After appropriate assistive technology has been identified, the AEA team can help the student’s school district acquire any necessary devices or software and provide training services for the student, the student’s family, and their educators.
The Iowa Reading Research Center
Families interested in learning more about assistive technology options may benefit from requesting an in-person or virtual assistive technology consultation appointment at The Iowa Reading Research Center. They are free for Iowa families and available for a nominal fee for others. During an appointment, families meet with an assistive technology coordinator to discuss the needs of their children and teens and identify appropriate assistive technology applications and software that may be beneficial. The assistive technology coordinator then models how to use the selected assistive technology and answers any questions. During in-person appointments, the family follows along with a device provided to them so they can have hands-on experience using each of the features that are modeled. Devices are available for check-out for both in-person and virtual appointments, and handouts are given to families to help guide them as they try out the assistive technology at home.
It is important to note that, unlike AEAs, the assistive technology coordinators at the Iowa Reading Research Center do not work directly with students’ IEP teams to acquire or provide assistive technology. Therefore, before families of a student with an IEP attend an assistive technology consultation appointment, it is important that they understand what may be available at their children’s or teens’ schools, as well as any restrictions regarding technology use. The students’ teachers or another member of the students’ IEP teams can provide families with answers to the following questions:
- Does the student currently use any devices at school (e.g., Chromebooks, iPads)? If so, what are they?
- What devices are students permitted to use at the school? What kinds of devices are not permitted?
- Does the student have access to the internet at school?
- What are the greatest academic concerns for the student (e.g., reading, writing, spelling, study/organization)?
Caregivers should bring as much of this information as possible to their assistive technology consultation appointment. This will help guide the appointment and ensure a focus on assistive technology that will be supported by the school.
Though it is designed for people with disabilities, assistive technology can be used by anyone and may also be particularly useful for students who have not been diagnosed with a learning disability and do not have an IEP but are struggling with one or more aspects of reading or writing. Therefore, educators and parents should allow for and in some cases encourage the use of assistive technology.
Assistive technology can serve as a bridge that allows students to overcome barriers to learning and demonstrate their knowledge. When assistive technology has been purposefully selected to align with students’ needs, it can be a key tool for supporting students’ reading ability and motivation (Svensson et al., 2021). For more information, request a free assistive technology consultation appointment with us at the IRRC.
Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213–238. https://doi.org/10.2307/3587951
Schuth, E., Köhne, J., & Weinert, S. (2017). The influence of academic vocabulary knowledge on school performance. Learning and Instruction, 49, 157–165. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2017.01.005
Simola, J., Kuisma, J., Öörni, A., Uusitalo, L., & Hyönä, J. (2011). The impact of salient advertisements on reading and attention on web pages. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17, 174–190. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024042
Svensson, I., Nordström, T., Lindeblad, E., Gustafson, S., Björn, M., Sand, C., Almgren/Bäck, G., & Nilsson, S. (2021). Effects of assistive technology for students with reading and writing disabilities. Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, 16, 196–208. https://doi.org/10.1080/17483107.2019.1646821
Wery, J. J., & Diliberto, J. A. (2017). The effect of a specialized dyslexia font, OpenDyslexic, on reading rate and accuracy. Annals of Dyslexia, 67, 114–127. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11881-016-0127-1
Yanguas, I. (2009). Multimedia glosses and their effect on L2 text comprehension and vocabulary learning. Language Learning & Technology, 13, 48–67. http://dx.doi.org/10125/44180
Zabala, J. S. (2005). SETT scaffold for consideration of AT needs. https://www.joyzabala.com/_files/ugd/70c4a3_835f41dea13543e78e8cd2c457270052.pdf