Learning Apps & Tools

Reason Enough to Buy Him That Phone

New rule: If your child gets a smart phone, he must download and use these apps for organization, reading & writing, and time management — high-tech tools for frustrated students.

Girl with ADHD looking at and holding cell phone while doing homework outside with coffee

Does your child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) need high-tech homework help? There are many gadgets, software, and other high-tech tools designed to help students with ADHD or learning disabilities compensate for their learning and executive function deficits and build on their strengths.

Given the wide range of products now available, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Focus on your child’s two or three most pressing school problems, and look for learning technology for kids that addresses these needs. Buy them well before school starts to give him time to get up to speed. If it’s slow going, or if he’s getting frustrated, consider hiring a tech-savvy tutor.

Use this guide as an introduction to tools that can help with organization, time management, reading, and writing — and allow your child to experience the exquisite pleasure of learning.

Staying organized and on time

Forgetfulness. Disorganization. Chronic lateness. If these ADD hallmarks are keeping your child from learning, two products can make an enormous difference.

Personal digital assistant. A PDA — essentially a pocket-sized mini-computer — can be helpful to kids age 12 and up. Standard features include a planner for keeping track of assignments and activities, a to-do list, a note pad, and alarms to keep your child on schedule. A stylus lets you peck at an onscreen keyboard or write directly on the screen.

Most of the basic models – such as the $99 Palm Z22 – feature a color screen and enough memory to hold additional assistive technology (AT) software.

Visual timer. Lacking an inner sense of time, ADDers need external cues to keep from running late. The $25 Time Timer uses a diminishing red disc to graphically illustrate time’s passing. Younger children like the $37 Time Tracker, a tower with colored lights and sound effects that signal when time is running out. Free PDA software called BigClock provides an eye-catching display of the time, a stopwatch function, and four alarms. Look for it at Download.com.

Reading, unencumbered

Most academic knowledge is imparted through the written word. AT tools that translate text to speech allow students to use listening skills instead.

Audiobooks. Learning Ally maintains a library of more than 100,000 recorded textbooks covering every grade level. The books are narrated by specialists in each subject, so charts, graphs, and illustrations are accurately described.

For a modest membership fee ($199), a student can borrow texts for up to one year.

The audiobooks are recorded in specialized formats to comply with U.S. copyright law, so you won’t be able to play them on a regular CD player. Specially equipped players, priced at $199 to $895, and special software, priced at $45 to $129, are available at the Group’s Web site. These digital playback tools let you move through an audio text almost as you would a regular book, jumping ahead, going back, marking pages, and “reading” at your desired pace.

For reading material other than textbooks – fiction, non-fiction, magazines – check out the National Library Service. This free government program is available to any individual with a medically documented reading disability, as well as to people with impaired vision or physical disabilities. The NLS provides the required playback equipment at no cost and mails the recordings to you. You don’t even have to pay postage when you return them.

Text-to-speech software. If the book your child needs to read isn’t available on audio, you can scan it into your computer and use text-to-speech software that reads it back in a synthesized voice. To do this, you’ll need a scanner (sold in electronics stores for about $75), and text-to-speech software.

Scanning pen. Perfect for library research and other reading that doesn’t involve a computer, this handheld device scans text as it’s dragged along the page. The pen displays the words on an easy-to-read screen, speaks them aloud, and provides definitions. Readingpen Basic Edition ($279) is designed for elementary schoolers. Readingpen II ($249) is for older students.

The process of writing draws on many skills, including the ability to organize thoughts, find the right words, and put them into coherent sentences.

Portable word processor. Children who have trouble writing by hand may benefit from this battery-operated device, which looks like a computer keyboard with a small calculator screen. Lightweight and durable, it can be brought to school for note-taking and writing assignments. Files are easily downloaded onto a PC or Mac for further work.

Basic models, such as Neo by AlphaSmart, cost about $250.

Tablet PC. This slender laptop types up what your child writes with a stylus on a touch-sensitive screen, making it a great tool for copying math problems and charts.

With the capabilities of a personal computer, and a serious price, tablets such as the HP Compaq tc4200 ($1,500 to $1,900) are for the high school or college student.

Speech recognition software. Also called speech-to-text software, this allows a student to read into a microphone and see his words appear on a computer screen. Programs such as Dragon Naturally Speaking 8 Preferred, for PCs ($199), and iListen by MacSpeech ($149), help children with good oral language skills who can’t seem to find the words when putting pen to paper.

Word prediction software. If your child struggles with spelling, grammar, and translating thoughts into words, look at Co:Writer Solo ($325) and similar programs. The software helps with spelling and builds vocabulary (a drop-down list of words provides options), and fills in words to speed up composition. Some programs read sentences aloud, so the writer can hear what he has written and catch mistakes as they occur.

Electronic spell-checkers and dictionaries. Enter a word phonetically, and these portable gadgets define the word and provide the correct spelling. Talking devices also read the words aloud. Franklin Electronics offers models beginning at about $20.