Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Assistive technology (AT) includes devices, software, or equipment purposefully chosen to help children with reading and writing disabilities complete academic and everyday tasks. Assistive technology facilitates students’ full participation in academic instruction and allows them to demonstrate their learning in equitable ways. AT can be used on a variety of devices, and can describe many different tools, such as text-to-speech and webpage simplification. However, there are many misconceptions and myths regarding the use of assistive technology in schools and at home. These misconceptions can make it difficult to determine if AT will help a given student. For this reason, it is important to break down common myths and clarify how this technology can be beneficial in the classroom and at home. Ultimately, it is important to decide what is beneficial for your child or student with their academic team and family using the most accurate information.

Access to AT

MYTH: “Assistive technology is all high-tech and expensive.”

Although some AT devices and applications are expensive and difficult to use, others are low-tech and low-cost. For example, many cellphones, laptops, and tablets have built-in accessibility features, such as speech-to-text, online dictionaries, and translators. Additionally, many assistive technology apps and extensions, such as Speechify and Read&Write, offer free versions or trial periods prior to purchase. Your local public library likely provides free access to resources like audiobooks, and may even offer more advanced services, such as tablet or laptop rentals. Assistive technology comes in a variety of forms; however, there are accessible options for a variety of budgets and needs. It is important to note that, if assistive technology is part of a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), school districts must ensure that the technology identified in the plan is available to the student at no cost to the family.

MYTH: “Assistive technology is only for children and teens with reading or writing disabilities.”

Assistive technology is a lot more common than you might think. In fact, many of us use assistive technology every day, even if we do not realize it. Large print books, magnifying glasses, audiobooks, and word prediction software are all forms of assistive technology. While these tools are especially useful for students with reading and writing disabilities, they can be beneficial for everyone, regardless of diagnosis. For example, AT applications such as speech-to-text can help writers of all ages and abilities get ideas on the page and plan projects.

Additionally, AT can help students of all abilities target specific literacy needs. For example, a student may perform well in most aspects of reading and writing but have difficulty reading long pages of content-specific text, like chapters from a science or history textbook. In this case, the student could use assistive technology to convert the physical text to a digital format that can be read aloud via a text-to-speech application. Targeting a specific need or goalsuch as making content-specific text more accessibleallows students of all abilities to focus on learning and demonstrating their knowledge.

MYTH: “Assistive technology is difficult to use.”

Assistive technology, like all new tools, may be confusing. However, there are many resources available to guide you through the process. Many AT companies have extensive online tutorials and customer service support.  Here at the Iowa Reading Research Center, we offer free, one-on-one assistive technology consultations to help familiarize you with the AT resources available. During a consultation, one of our assistive technology coordinators will work with you to individualize the appointment to fit your student’s needs, demonstrate various apps and extensions, answer questions about AT, and provide you with handouts that outline all the applications and extensions we show. To learn more about our assistive technology services for families, visit our website and request a free virtual or in-person consultation appointment.

Assistive Technology in the Classroom

MYTH: “Reading is better than listening.”

Text-to-speech programs and audiobooks have become increasingly popular, which has brought up questions and concerns about their academic use from teachers and parents alike. However, recent studies have found little difference in reading comprehension between print reading and listening to audio. A meta-analysis of the literature on reading and listening comprehension found no significant difference between comprehension levels when listening versus reading text, especially in literal assessments (i.e., the ability to understand and recall information from text). These studies suggest that listening to text is not inferior to reading print text, but a tool that needs to be customized to fit individual needs to achieve the optimal benefits (Clinton-Lisell, 2021).

Additionally, like any AT tool, audiobooks can be customized to meet individual needs. For example, listeners can adjust reading speed, text appearance, and reading voices. They can be more accessible than print books and remove common barriers to reading, such as inaccessible text sizes and fonts, while still allowing students to actively engage with the text. When given explicit instruction in what to listen for, children who listen to audiobooks can absorb information about story structure, appropriate reading expression, and more. Listening activities can also help with vocabulary development, focus and engagement, and socio-emotional learning (Best, 2020). It may be beneficial for children to use a graphic organizer to map story structure while listening to the audiobook to process information and facilitate active listening.

That said, it is important to acknowledge that audiobooks may not be appropriate for all instruction. Students still need to be taught decoding and other foundational literacy skills. Audiobooks are the most useful when the primary goal of a reading assignment is to learn content-specific information, rather than to learn to read. Educators, families, and the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team can work together to create an appropriate mix of print and audio learning. To learn more about incorporating technology into education, read this blog post by Dr. Deborah Reed.

MYTH: “Assistive technology is cheating.”

Assistive technology gives individuals the tools they need to show their knowledge and participate in the classroom. While AT provides students with additional support, it does not complete reading or writing tasks for them. Students still need to use their knowledge to complete assignments, comprehend readings, and develop writing skills. For example, a student with dysgraphia or another writing impairment may use speech-to-text to fill in an outline for a paper. The speech-to-text will not write, edit, or organize the paper for the student. However, it gives the student the independence to complete the assignment more efficiently and effectively. By removing unnecessary barriers related to reading and writing, students can focus on developing and demonstrating content knowledge.

Assistive Technology Beyond the Classroom

MYTH: “Children already use too much technology”

It is true that prolonged exposure to technology and screens can be detrimental for students, but that also depends on what exactly the technology is being used for. Technology is a tool we use to access a wide variety of media, not all of which are created equally. Social media and online games are often the first things that come to mind when we think of children's technology use. However, electronic devices also give students access to many educational and accessibility features. AT applications and extensions are not made for scrolling through social media or playing virtual games. Instead, they are used to support the completion of schoolwork and other academic tasks. Technology can play an important role in education and promote students’ ability to work independently using tools such as talk-to-type. Technology can also promote literacy outside of the classroom with engaging games that can motivate children to learn and encourage positive technology use.  Downloading apps such as Nessy literacy programs, can make technology use outside of school educational and fun for children. Additionally, many devices have an option for parental control. These allow caregivers to set time restrictions on certain apps, such as games and social media, while still allowing children to use the device for other purposes. This could be used to set boundaries to limit distractions and continue to support the use of screen time for academic purposes.

Assistive technology can be a pivotal part of a child’s education. When incorporated into education, it can foster independence, eliminate barriers, and motivate students to learn. In the words of Paul Auger, an assistive technology specialist in Massachusetts, “Assistive technology does not determine who a person is or do the person’s work; instead, the user, the human being, uses technology as a catalyst to express themselves and share who they are with the rest of the world.” AT can be a powerful tool that gives all students the equal opportunity to learn and grow their reading and writing skills.


Best, E. (2020). Audiobooks and Literacy: A Rapid Review of the Literature. The National Literacy Trust. 

Clinton-Lisell, V. (2021). Listening ears or reading eyes? A meta-analysis of reading and listening comprehension comparisons. Review of Educational Research, 92(4), 543-582. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543211060871

Don Johnston. (n.d.). Is using assistive technology in the classroom cheating? 9 professionals respond. https://learningtools.donjohnston.com/2022/06/is-using-assistive-technology-in-the-classroom-cheating-9-professionals-respond/.