If you're like many teachers, you have struggling readers and writers in your classroom who may have been diagnosed as learning disabled (LD). Some of these children may find it hard to memorize sight words and therefore don't recognize them automatically during reading. Others have difficulty expressing their ideas in writing, perhaps because they have trouble organizing ideas coherently. Auditory processing problems can make it hard to recall which letters correspond with particular sounds. Or sometimes, due to fine motor problems, struggling writers find it difficult to form letters.
And still you believe all children can learn; that it's your job to adapt the environment in ways that meet the learning needs of each student in your classroom. How can you meet this challenge? How can you do so early in a student's career before the system has allowed him or her to fail?
Technology can help. Computers and new software products, some designed specifically for children with learning disabilities, can transform the way you go about teaching LD learners.
Special Needs and the Law
According to the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education, children with specific learning disabilities made up six percent of total public school enrollment in 1996. About three fourths of these children are served in regular classrooms and resource rooms. Further, at least 80 percent of students with learning disabilities have difficulty reading, according to the National Institute of Health.
Good teachers, of course, have always recognized diverse learning needs and done their best to meet them. But today, doing so is more than professionalism it's also a matter of law. In 1997, new federal regulations went into effect that have dramatically changed the legal landscape for these children and their teachers. The new rules, amendments to the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), require that:
- All states that accept federal funding for education must provide "a free and appropriate education" to all students with disabilities;
- This education must take place in the "least restrictive environment";
- Students with disabilities must be exposed to the same curriculum and assessments as their peers;
- Finally, and most significant for this article, schools are expected to provide assistive technology to help disabled students access curriculum.
What do these IDEA mandates mean in practical terms? Above all, students with special needs are expected to participate in as much of the regular school day as possible, side by side with typical peers. Teachers need to be attuned to students' strengths and the various learning styles that work best for each individual hands-on learning, collaboration, and/or additional visual or auditory supports whatever it takes. Furthermore, teachers must provide access to curricular content consistent with students' ability levels, using assistive technologies if needed.
"Educational computer software doesn't have to support just one disability... "
Computers Can Help
Computers, software, and other electronic gadgets, if used well, can be a tremendous boon for a busy teacher trying to ensure that curriculum content reaches special needs students. Not only can technology customize the way children access information, but it can also allow them to engage in content in new ways by calling into play a range of modalities.
Imagine Shannon, a sixth grader reading two years below grade level. During a unit on the Civil War, she wants to do Web-based research for a biography of General Lee she's writing with two classmates. Special software allows Shannon to have any Web site's text read aloud to her; by clicking on "hot" vocabulary words such as "confederate" and "emancipation," she can link to dictionary definitions and have them read aloud as well. And although the software can't help Shannon if she gets stuck on a concept or takes incorrect notes, it can help her access the same information as her classmates. It allows her to participate in the knowledge-making process with her group.
Or picture Michael, the 12-year-old I got to know last year during Reading Lab sessions. Michael desperately wanted to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the book all his friends were raving about, but it was too difficult for him to read independently. His teacher suggested he listen to the audiotaped version as he read along silently. This worked wonders for Michael with a simple tape recorder he was able to keep up with his peers and enjoy the hottest book of the year.
Michael's case also makes an important point: technology need not be designed specifically for learning disabled children in order to benefit them. Dr. David Rose, co-executive director of the Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST), has devoted much of his career to developing software and ways of interacting with it that benefit all types of learners. He calls this approach Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Rose, in The Digital Classroom (ed. David Gordon, Harvard Education Letter, 2000) remarks, "Educational computer software doesn't have to support just one disability, such as blindness, but can be used by children with all kinds of physical and learning disabilities or by those with none at all." In other words, software should ideally be flexible enough to be used by many people for many different purposes.
Tools and Products
Here are a few ideas to help get you started in thinking about the ways adaptive software can help you meet your students' special needs. For more information, check out LD Online (http://www.ldonline.org/).
- For emergent readers, Wiggle Works, from Scholastic, provides a series of often hilarious trade books with a software component that supports reading and writing. While reading a book such as Clifford the Big Red Dog, for example, children can create their own variations of the book and have their stories read back to them. They can also record their own voices as they read their stories aloud. And, for additional practice, you can send a child home with an audiotaped version of each book.
- For upper elementary readers, eReader, developed by CAST, is a "talking browser" that helps children with both reading and sight disabilities. It works by adding an extra toolbar to the top of the computer screen that can be used with any digital text, including material on the World Wide Web (http://www.cast.org/).
- For struggling writers at any grade level, Don Johnston's Co-Writer actually predicts which word students might type next while they're composing a sentence; children can then click on the right word. This can be a great aid for children who have fine motor problems. Co-Writer also helps children with grammar and sentence structure by predicting words that follow logically within the context of a sentence (http://www.donjohnston.com/).
Struggling writers or children with physical disabilities may also benefit from NanoPac's Dragon-Dictate, which allows students to bypass the keyboard altogether. With this program, students can control any Windows application using their own voice (www.nanopac.com/dragondictate.htm).
For interactive help with grammar and punctuation while writing stories, students in grades 48 can use Ace Publisher, from Mind Play (www.mindplay.com). For simplicity and ease of use, though, check out Write: Outloud, also from Don Johnston, a talking word processor that gives kids a multisensory approach to writing. As children listen to their stories being read aloud, they can take advantage of the talking spell checker to revise their work. (http://www.donjohnston.com/).
- For students with a wide range of motor difficulties, Intellikeys, from IntelliTools, offers an alternative keyboard with switch access (http://www.intellitools.com/). EZ Keys, from Words Plus, offers a new way for physically challenged children to control the keyboard using, among other features, a mouse simulation and next word prediction. (http://www.wordsplus.com/).
- For kids with organizational difficulties, consider Inspiration, or for K3 students, the company's new Kidspiration. Your LD students may be bursting with creative thoughts, but frustrated when it comes to separating main ideas from supporting details. These programs can help by giving kids a fun way to capture their ideas as they brainstorm, arranging their ideas into graphic organizers. Then with one mouse click they can transform the ideas in their graphic organizers into outline form (http://www.inspiration.com/).
Technology can't solve all teaching problems, of course, but it can offer children new, multimodal ways to learn. When you adapt new tools to students' unique learning styles, you open the door to knowledge that can be shared by everyone.
- LD Online
The very best all-around Web site on learning disabilities, helpful to students with special needs, their parents, and their teachers. Excellent links to relevant sites. http://www.ldonline.org/
- Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST)
CAST is dedicated to "the creation of computer software and learning models that are usable by everyone." Of particular interest is Bobby, free software that demonstrates how to create Web sites consistent with Universal Design for Learning. http://www.cast.org/
- Closing the Gap
This organization offers links to information and service providers, plus a searchable database of computer-related products for children and adults with special needs. http://www.closingthegap.com/
- National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities
Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, this site is dedicated to answering parents' questions and keeping them up to date regarding federal laws supporting the rights of the disabled. http://www.nichcy.org/
- Through the Looking Glass
Extensive information and links for children and adults with a range of physical and developmental disabilities. http://www.lookingglass.org/