Free Apps & Extensions That Improve Productivity & Learning
Find out how to make any curriculum more accessible and engaging through the use of learning tools for Chromebooks, iPads, Windows, and Macs
The following apps, extensions, and program features make it easier for distractible students (and adults) to make better use of their time spent on tablets and computers, to stay organized, and to practice better reading and writing skills — no matter the platform.
Tools to Stay On Task
These tools are based on the Pomodoro Technique: work steadily for a set time interval, then take a five-minute break. These programs can help students eliminate distractions while they work by blocking access to content that isn’t used for learning.
How? They work by labeling sites as “blocked” or “allowed” so that students aren’t wasting time on Twitter or Fortnite when they should be working.
- Block Site (Chrome Extension)
- Stay Focused (Chrome Extension)
- Strict Workflow (Chrome Extension)
- SelfControl (Apple)
- Settings > Screentime > Content & Privacy > Restrictions (Built into iOS 12 for Apple)
- Cold Turkey Blocker (Microsoft)
Tools to Stay Organized
Everything must stay in its designated place. This is a key tenet of organization, but the black hole in your child’s backpack proves it’s not being heeded. Avoid losing important information by storing notes – and other crucial information – digitally or in the cloud.
- OneNote by Microsoft: Available as an installed web app or for free online, this program allows you to create shared notebooks for one or multiple subjects; add PDF files or pictures; draw notes if using a tablet; and collaborate in real time. Notes are saved in the cloud and the program is device agnostic, so notes can be accessed anywhere if a student leaves a device at school or at Grandma’s house. Just log in here.
- Keep by Google: This is like Post-It notes on steroids. Take notes on a digital sticky, which you can export into a Google Doc to continue to develop thoughts that get too long. To organize notes, tag them with a common topic or color, and schedule reminders for date-sensitive subjects. Easily share with collaborators and access them from any logged-in device.
- Notes app by Apple: This app integrates with the device’s camera and across Apple products through iCloud. Use it to insert sketches, type, or add pictures.
Cloud File Storage
- Google Drive: Integrates with all Google suite apps. It provides unlimited storage for school accounts, and 15 GB for personal. Use it to create shared files and folders to organize documents by subject, and for real-time collaboration. Students should always start by opening the appropriate folder, and creating a document from there, so it’s automatically saved in an organized hierarchy.
- OneDrive: This is Microsoft’s version of online storage. It integrates with all Office Online/Office 365 apps. Storage for school accounts depends on the plan purchased, and personal accounts come with 5 GB. Use it to create shared files and folders, and for real-time collaboration – students can work together in files at the same time.
- Dropbox: Personal accounts are limited to 2 GB of storage, and schools do not typically purchase accounts for students. It is not built into any particular suite of tools, but allows for installed drive access on most devices. Use it to save shared files and folders.
Tools to Improve Writing
Writing takes a huge amount of concentration, and that can be very difficult for students with attention issues. Many have great ideas in their heads, but releasing them in an organized fashion is a big challenge. Dictation tools can remove that obstacle.
- Voice Typing tool: Built into Google Docs and Google Slides, this hidden gem is accessible from the Tools pulldown and uses your Chromebook’s built-in mic to work. This works best in a flexible classroom where students can find quiet corners to work, or for doing homework.
- VoiceIn: This extension adds a microphone to the browser for voice-to-text functionality outside of Google Docs. After speaking into the microphone normally, words show up.
- Microphone key: On the iPhone and iPad keyboard, use this tool with any app by speaking into the device instead of typing.
- Hotkeys: This app allows users to activate a built-in microphone for dictation.
- Dictate: Activate this button — built into Office 365 (Word, PowerPoint, and Outlook — and then speak into the built-in microphone on your device.
Tools to Build Reading Skills
Text-to-speech functionality is available on most devices, and it can help provide audio to aid easily-distracted students when reading long passages.
- Chromevox screen reader: Built into the operating system, this tool is used widely by people who are visually impaired and listen to text on the screen read out loud.
- Read&Write extension: Reads words, passages, or whole documents aloud with highlighting, and displays the dictionary meaning of words.
- Read Aloud extension: Reads an article with one click of a button, and allows users to choose from several voice options and reading speeds.
- Speak It extension: Reads selected text aloud, with a pause button for easy breaks.
- Mercury Reader extension: Clear the clutter from your web page! Activate this extension to strip away everything except the text – including side captions, text boxes, or columns.
- BeeLine Reader extension: Add gradient color to every line of text to help with tracking and reading.
- Use the accessibility settings built into the operating system, such as…
- Speak Selection: Reads a highlighted passage
- Speak Screen: Reads the entire page from top to bottom with a two-finger swipe
- Immersive reader: This Word Online tool, found under the View menu, reads text aloud. Microsoft Word: Customize the Office Ribbon so that the Select and Speak tool is available in the toolbar. Then select the text to be read aloud.
- Rewordify.com: Copy and paste text from another article into the site. It improves readability by adjusting the reading level – easing complexity of the sentence structure and vocabulary to aid with comprehension.
- Learning Ally: An online audiobook library for students who qualify.
This advice came from “Apps, Extensions, and Tech Tools for ADHD Brains: A Learning Guide,” an ADDitude webinar lead by Janet DeSenzo in October 2018 that is now available for free replay.