What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Reading Supports

Many learners encounter obstacles with the reading process and for some, it is a pervasive problem. New estimates report that as many as 1 in 10 children have reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, that impact academics in the areas of word decoding, reading comprehension, reading fluency, word retrieval, reading speed and tracking.  So what can we do to help these struggling readers?  
  1. First, we can learn to recognize the common indicators so that students can be formally tested and diagnosed.  
  2. Second, we can learn about the remedial tools and resources that can help these students learn how to deal and manage these hurdles.

There are many interventions but one simple thought worth considering: Do you read aloud to your students? Is there ever a time when students are too old to be read to? Many teachers are firm believers in reading aloud -- even at the upper-grade levels.

Reading aloud continues to be important. Hearing books and stories read aloud provides grammar and language models, and introduces vocabulary and concepts within context. Reading aloud models fluent, inflected reading and introduces various forms of text: informational, stories, folktales, poetry, etc.

Author Jim Trelease in his book The Read-Aloud Handbook states:
"Reading aloud is a commercial for reading. ...Think of it this way: McDonald's doesn't stop advertising just because the vast majority of Americans know about its restaurants. Each year it spends more money on ads to remind people how good its products taste. Don't cut your reading advertising budget as children grow older."

Reading aloud to your students will help them to develop and improve literacy skills -- reading, writing, speaking, and listening, Trelease adds. And since children listen on a higher level than they read, listening to other readers stimulates growth and understanding of vocabulary and language patterns. (To learn more, visit Mind Shift's site on Why Reading Aloud to Older Children is Valuable.)

Not only will reading aloud to your students help to build the love of reading but hearing the text read to them (as they follow along) will support the gaining of knowledge in subject matters that students with struggling reading skills are often left out of.

Strategies such as the use of assistive technology (AT) can increase a student's self-reliance and sense of independence.  

If a student is having trouble reading but can easily understand the text, it may be time to consider exposing them to a text-to-speech program that can read a book out loud, allowing for greater independence while providing content and/or a greater love of the written word. Students who struggle in school are often overly dependent on parents, siblings, friends, and teachers for help with assignments. By using AT, students can experience success with working independently.

In general, AT compensates for a student's skills deficits or area(s) of disability. However, utilizing AT does not mean that a child can't also receive remedial instruction aimed at alleviating deficits (such as programs designed to improve poor comprehension skills). A student could use remedial reading programs as well as listen to audio books. In fact, research has shown that AT can often improve skill deficits such as reading.

Beyond instruction, consider:
  1. Audio books and publications - Recorded books allow users to listen to text and are available in a variety of formats, such as audiocassettes, CDs, Podcasts and MP3 downloads. Special playback units allow users to and search and bookmark pages and chapters. Subscription services offer extensive electronic library collections.  
  2. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) -This technology allows a user to scan printed material into a computer or handheld unit. The scanned text is then read aloud via a speech synthesis/screen reading system. Optical Character Recognition is available as stand-alone units, computer software, and as portable, pocket-sized devices. OCR is not needed as much anymore due to so many publications being available now due to all the previous scanning completed and texts being shared, such as what is available on Bookshare.
  3. Text-to-Speech - Software that can display and read aloud text on a computer screen, including text that has been typed by the user, scanned in from printed pages (e.g., books, letters), or text available on the Internet.
  4. Variable-speed tape recorders - although some may consider these to be "Old Fashioned" tape recorders/players which allow a user to listen to pre-recorded text or to capture spoken information (e.g., a classroom lecture) and play it back later are still useful tools. Variable speed control (VSC) tape recorders speed up or slow down the playback rate without distorting the "speaker's" voice.
  5. Consider PDF Readers with annotation tools (all free): all students to take notes and write comments while reading. This can make it easier to retain information. Annotation tools can be found on certain software or apps, or they can be traditional pens, markers, and sticky notes. Consider -
    1. FoxIt Reader: see Collaborate and Share on the website, then Commenting and Drawing Tools
    2. PDF-XChange Viewer: be sure to pursue PDF-XChange Viewer (free) even though the website attempts to "upsell" you to PDF-XChange Editor (not free)
    3. Adobe Reader v11: includes both Annotations and Drawing Markups under Comments in the toolbar; Annotations also has a Record Audio (voice notes!) and Add Stamp tool; great because virtually every computer has Adobe Reader
  6. Graphic organizers:  using visual representations, like diagrams and mind maps, of ideas and concepts can help students to take notes while reading, which can help with comprehension. Graphic organizers can be digital or used in paper format.
  7. Screen Display Controls:  will allow students to control how text is displayed. When reading on a screen, they can change the font, font size, color and spacing of text. Kids can also mask or cover parts of the screen to lessen distractions while reading. (When reading on paper, they can use a simple adaptive tool, like a reading guide.)
  8. Dictionaries and thesauri: provide definition supports for words not understood when reading. A picture dictionary is a popular tool that uses images to define words. A talking dictionary will read the definitions aloud.

Sites to Explore with a focus on improving reading:
  • 60second Recap wants to make the great works of literature accessible, relevant, and irresistible to today’s teens. 60second Recap video albums cover an overview, plot, characters, context, themes, symbols, motifs and a conclusion of a literary classic. They provide an alternative to text-­‐based study guides of literature.
  • Actively Learn (which has free membership with premium features) lets you import your text, add notes and comments to enhance understanding, embed questions throughout the text and you can "white out" the difficult text if there is too much. The student view allows text to speech and access to the built-in dictionary. It is an excellent tool to promote reading comprehension and for preview, and review (common IEP accommodations).
  • Book Adventure is a free reading motivation program for children in grades K-8. Children create their own book lists from over 6,000 recommended titles, take multiple choice quizzes on the books they've read offline, and earn points and prizes for their literary successes.
  • e-Books and e-Book Readers: "Increasingly, students are using e-books to access content. It is important for both the e-book (content) and the e-reader (delivery system) to be accessible." The CAST site provides resources which can help to determine whether or not each element is accessible.
  • Flex Books K-­‐12 Foundation is a non-­‐profit organization with a mission to reduce the cost of textbook materials for K-­‐12 by providing free on-­‐line textbooks. K-­‐12 allows users to create, customize, update, and print what is to be taught. This is done using different modules that may suit a learner's learning style, region, language, or level of skill, while adhering to the local education standards. Focus is on physical sciences, mathematics and life sciences.
  • Free Rice helps you to practice your vocab skills.  For each question that is answered correctly, 10 grains of rice are donated through the World Food Program to help end hunger.  
  • Homeschool Magazine has an article worth exploring if you are dealing with "When a Child doesn't Remember what he Reads" regarding strategies for comprehension.
  • Jog the Web provides 19 objectives such as Focusing on Main Idea, Focusing on Vocabulary and Practicing Identifying Main Idea with Websites for Students to Improve Reading.
  • Low Tech: Visual/Reading Supports provides a nice description of various tools worth keeping on hand for all students to use. As an aide becomes useful, the student will begin to adopt their tool of choice. By having them available for all, no stigma is attached. Minds in Bloom has an article about Reading Disabilities: 15 Causes and 15 Solutions. Dr. Erica Warren is a must-read for any teacher (or parent) who teaches reading or works with struggling readers.
  • My Hero: An Interactive Series is a non-profit educational project that brings information to a global audience. From peacemakers such as Nelson Mandela to scientific visionaries such as Albert Einstein, visitors can explore historical and contemporary heroes. Visitors are also invited to create web pages about the people who inspire them, providing thousands of children and their parents a chance to tell their stories.  
  • PowerMyLearning.org is a national nonprofit organization that helps students, teachers, and parents use digital learning to improve educational outcomes. It is a freely available platform anyone can access via the web, however, note that registration is required.
  • Reading Rockets - a national multimedia literacy initiative offering information and resources on how young kids learn to read, why so many struggle, and how caring adults can help.  
  • Read, Think, Write - Engage your students in online literacy learning with these interactive tools that help them accomplish a variety of goals—from organizing their thoughts to learning about language—all while having fun.  
  • Rewordify - Copy and paste text on the Rewordify homepage or enter the URL for the web page you want to simplify.
  • Speeder provides free practice for helping to improve reading and speed and comprehension.
  • StoryShare  - "More relevant stories. More engaged reading." As struggling readers get older, they become uninterested in content at their reading level, and unable to read content that appeals to them. Story Share exists to bring more age-appropriate, accessible stories to these readers, to get them reading again.
  • The Reading Matrix is an interactive reading resources that cover: Analyzing Text, Audio and Text, Proofreading, Reading Comprehension Advanced, Reading Comprehension Beginner, Reading Comprehension Intermediate, Short Stories, Vocabulary.
  • Vocab Sushi - Expand your vocabulary with this activity that uses real-world examples of sentences from various sources.  This site is also helpful for preparing for such exams as the SAT or GRE.  
  • Wonderopolis Created by the National Center for Family Literacy(NCFL), Wonderopolis is an online site for children that encourages reading and learning through the exploration of daily “wonders.”  Every day the site posts a question, such as Who Lives on Easter Island?  or What Do Bees Do in Winter? or Why is Cheddar Cheese Orange? Once a child clicks on a wonder, they can then read more about it, learn additional vocabulary words, try a craft or activity, and watch videos or see pictures.

And, I cannot stress enough: Bookshare, Bookshare, Bookshare. This resource is available to all students with a print disability, without cost, until the age of 26.