Learning Challenges

Assistive Technology to Close the Learning Gap

Expert advice on how to identify your child’s reading, writing, or executive function challenges — and find the tools and tactics designed to lower those specific hurdles at school.

A group of high school students use assistive technology together on a lawn.
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Choosing the Right Tech

Which technology is best for a student with dysgraphia? Or trouble with algebra? Or issues staying focused? It depends.

The best software or app for your child is the one that addresses his specific learning challenges. Exploring and truly understanding the roots of those challenges is the hard part. But it's also the most important. That exploration points the way to apps and software that will help your child achieve his full potential.

The right assistive technology, used in conjunction with the right teaching methods, can help your child become a better speaker, listener, reader, writer, planner, organizer, and class participant. How? Read on.

An overhead view of a student using assistive technology to do schoolwork.
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How to Identify Poor Decoding Skills

A student with poor decoding skills may have a weak vocabulary, or reading proficiency well below his listening comprehension level.

Possible Learning Strategy:

For a student with strong auditory skills, improve reading speed, accuracy, and comprehension by using human-narrated audio books or e-texts with text-to-speech software. Listening to a human reader allows your child to hear the person’s inflection and tone of voice. The e-text, or a combination program like Kindle Immersion reading or LearningAlly audiobooks in “VoiceText” format has the benefit of allowing students to see and hear the text. E-texts often highlight words as they are read, and students can copy and paste text to create a study guide.

Students use assistive technology in the classroom
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How to Identify Difficulty with Visual Processing

Students with visual processing problems may have trouble staying focused on and visually tracking the text – skipping lines, losing his place, or omitting words while reading.

Possible Learning Strategy:

If this is your student's challenge, adjust the appearance of the text to provide guides for visual tracking and to remove distractions. Do this by changing the font, size, spacing, or colors of an e-text. Try splitting text into columns to make it easier for the eye to grasp chunks of words at one time.

Also try using an app like Voice Dream Reader that grays out all text except what is being read, and highlights each word as it is read. Similarly, screen-masking software like Read & Write Gold fades out certain aspects of a webpage and focuses on specific lines.

A student with ADHD highlights text in a book.
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How to Identify Critical Thinking Issues

A student with critical thinking issues may not clearly see relationships between parts and their whole, may need to ask clarifying questions while reading, and may have trouble with retention – signaling poor working memory.

Possible Learning Strategy:

In a print text, use highlighters and sticky notes to mark up the book. Create a system where headings are highlighted in yellow, important lines are in green, and vocabulary words are circled in red. In e-texts, use literacy and learning software like Kurzweil 3000 to use digital highlighters, sticky notes, bookmarks, and voice notes. Have students pose questions to themselves. Then, extract the highlights and annotations to a new document to create a study guide, vocabulary list, or fact sheet.

A student reading in class who would benefit from assistive technology.
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How to Identify Trouble with Composition Organization

A student who struggles to organize her writing may be a non-linear thinker, a visual learner, and have difficulty with parts-whole relationships.

Possible Learning Strategy

Give these students a framework for organization, like a graphic organizer that visually specifies here is the first paragraph, here is the body, here is the concluding paragraph. Use the POWER (Plan, Organize, Write, Edit, Revise) method or software like Draft: Builder to facilitate brainstorming and sequencing of the writing process.

Software like Inspiration or Xmind lets students see the same information in several ways: a text outline, a diagram, and a branched map. Students can write the information in the way that works best for them, then transform it into the format the teacher wants with a click.

Finally, give students writing templates that model correct writing forms (e.g., a persuasive essay, narrative), and scaffold the writing process with prompts.

A student's spelling error circled in red pencil. This student could benefit form assistive technology.
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How to Identify Spelling and Grammar Struggles

A student with poor spelling and grammar may have good verbal expression, but use much simpler vocabulary when writing to avoid spelling mistakes.

Possible Learning Strategy:

The right spelling tool can help create positive writing experiences that will encourage students with this challenge to work independently. A contextual spell checker like Ginger Software or Ghotit Real Writer uses all of the words in a sentence to understand spelling errors more like a human would – in context. Word prediction software like Co:Writer, Word Q or Speak Q can help fuzzy spellers who can recognize a word after typing the first few letters even when they can’t independently spell it on their own. In addition, text-to-speech software can help kids “proof-listen” their essays, as it may be easier for them to hear their errors than it is to see them.

A teen with ADHD uses assistive technology to complete her homework.
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How to Identify Poor Visual-Motor Skills

Poor visual-motor and visual-spatial skills cause students to write slowly and illegibly, making paper worksheets a bear to finish at school.

Possible Learning Strategy:

Ask your child’s teachers to create handouts using a PDF annotation software like Adobe Reader 11, Acrobat Reader DC, or Mac Preview. Then students who have trouble completing worksheets can use mouse and keyboard skills to enter their responses instead of overtaxing their writing skills. Alternatively, teachers can scan worksheets, exams, or PowerPoint slides to a PDF format where a student can annotate using the same tools.

A student writes in a notebook in the library. He could benefit from assistive technology.
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How to Identify Trouble with Class Note Taking

Even students with good auditory comprehension may have trouble taking notes if become overwhelmed by incoming information, can’t write quickly enough, or have poor working memory.

Possible Learning Strategy: For all of these challenges, reduce the material that needs to be copied, and supplement notes with audio or images for later reference. Have students take a photo of the assignment on the board, or ask teachers to take a screenshot of the electronic whiteboard to share with the class. Alternatively, record the audio of the class and then synchronize this with hand-written or typed notes using a tool like the Livescribe SmartpenNotability, or Microsoft OneNote.

A student uses assistive technology in a computer lab.
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How to Identify Difficulty with Focus

Students with ADHD often struggle to pay continuous attention and manage auditory, visual, and internal distractions.

Possible Learning Strategy:
First, identify the student's source of distractions (visual, auditory, or internal), then reduce distractions or change the environment. For visual learners, use a masking software like Isolator or Ghoster to block everything but a small section of the computer screen. Or, try an app like SelfControl or Cold Turkey that blocks access to certain websites and apps. For students who cannot filter out auditory distractions, allow them to listen to a white noise app or music. Let kids listen to a teacher through a wireless sound system. If a student is internally distracted, try to incorporate physical movement into his daily tasks, with fidget toys, wiggle cushions, or a sit/stand desk.

Binders full of papers and post-its — these could be replaced with assistive technology.
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How to Identify Organizational Problems

Many students with poor organizational skills struggle to keep track of papers and information, and have messy binders.

Possible Learning Strategy
Create a "place for everything," organize daily workflow, and create a dedicated daily or weekly filing time/strategy. Use accordion files or pockets instead of a three-ring binder to keep track of papers because, if students can’t find it or file it in six seconds or less, it won’t get filed. Create pockets or folders that are categorized by "next action:" to turn in, give to parents, give to teacher, or complete tonight.

Leverage technology and use a digital notebook or web clipper utility like Evernote to create a cumulative “knowledge bank” of prior learning. Students can clip information for a report. These programs simulate a paper binder and automatically retain a link to their source.

A timer sits on a desk as student with ADHD uses assistive technology in the background.
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How to Identify Poor Sense of Time

For many students, time is an abstract concept. There are only two dimensions: now, and not now.

Possible Learning Strategy
Make time real for students who struggle with task management and increase their conscious awareness of time passing by representing it differently. Use visual task timers like Watchminder to make time a non-abstract concept. Allow students to use a kitchen timer, Time Timer or app like DropTask to see time’s passage.

Have kids estimate the time they think they need for a task, and then track the actual times. Note which was longer. Increase awareness of “off task” behavior with an app like Rescue Time that provides an objective evaluation of how a student is using websites and apps so they can make good decisions to allocate time. Or use parental controls to limit computer usage.

A teen with ADHD uses assistive technology at an outdoor table while two other students look on.
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