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Using Assistive Technology to Support Writing

Technology—and especially the subset of technology tools known as assistive technology—can be an effective element of the writing curriculum for students with disabilities. Assistive technology (AT) can be defined as a technology that allows someone to accomplish a critical educational or life task. Since writing is so integral to school success, AT is often indicated to assist students with disabilities. In this article, CITEd looks at how technology can support students’ writing.

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The challenges of writing problems

“My students hate to write!”

“The ideas are there, but jumbled.”

“If I could only read their handwriting, I might be able to understand what they are trying to say.”

These are variations on a lament often heard from teachers who work with students with disabilities, especially those language-learning disabilities that have a direct effect on their production of written language. These students might have problems such as the following: generating ideas, organizing ideas, finding the right words to convey ideas, using correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and handwriting. While there are no easy answers to these types of general problems, there are ways to create an environment using a variety of technology tools in which students will be more successful writers.

Selecting technology tools

In order to select appropriate technology tools to support writing needs, teachers need to consider the following: the individual student’s abilities and needs; the goals of the curriculum based on standards of performance; the growing body of effective instructional practices (e.g., defining a purpose for writing, providing authentic opportunities for self-expression, drafting, peer review, etc.); and ways to assess or monitor student progress.

Within this context, general and specific technology tools can serve an important role in offering many students much-needed support.

General technology tools

In this context, general technology can be considered as tools that can serve a particular and important purpose in writing for students with disabilities, primarily those with mild disabilities. Students with minor language production problems, difficulties transferring thoughts to paper, poor spelling, illegible handwriting, struggles in organizing their thoughts, and the like, can use standard text production tools.

Word processing and multimedia software

In addition to making writing legible, relevant features of standard word processing and multimedia software that could assist students with a range of difficulties are: sizable fonts, line spacing, spell and grammar checking, opportunities for outlining, use of tables to organize information, and incorporation of media to present ideas.

Tools to organize information

Graphic organizers help students generate and organize ideas through building visual relationships among concepts rather than having to use language-based mediation. New variants on such tools include visual thesauruses that help students build important vocabulary and information concepts through building ideas in physical space.

Specific technology tools

We can distinguish some technology tools for students whose disabilities are significant enough that the technology tools above are not sufficient to address their writing needs. These specific AT tools are those that are typically not used, or even available for use, by most students. This is not to say that such tools might not be worthwhile for many students, but simply that they are designed for more specific needs. We have divided them into three categories here: tools for physical and sensory access, tools for creating text, and tools for reviewing text.

Tools for physical and sensory access

The first group constitutes tools for those individuals with significant motor or sensory impairments that make it difficult to engage in writing and related school activities without a computer and specialized hardware or software. Appropriate tools can range from a larger keyboard that allows a person with movement disabilities to type, to a computer-generated voice (called synthesized speech, or text-to-speech, TTS) to read back what was written for an individual who cannot see the screen. Determining whether individuals with these kinds of physical or sensory challenges need AT tools for writing, and which ones, is relatively straightforward. Moreover, sometimes the use of an AT tool is all the individual needs to get on track with writing, assuming that they have not missed critical instruction and experience along the way.

Tools for creating text

Tools for creating text might be needed by students who have such significant spelling problems that a regular spell checker cannot offer suggestions, or by students with illegible handwriting who need to take notes in class, or by students who are unable to learn to type effectively. AT tools for text creation to consider for each of these students would be, respectively, word prediction, a small electronic keyboard, and speech recognition software. These AT tools offer students support for producing text that matches and compensates for the areas in which they have greatest difficulty and allows them to write at a level commensurate with their strengths.

Tools for reviewing text

Tools for reviewing text could help a variety of students, including those with learning disabilities who have difficulty reading (and therefore revising) texts they have created, even if poor handwriting has been avoided. Text-to-speech engines are the primary tool for reviewing and for reading back the text on the screen. Some students might also benefit from having the words highlighted as they are read back, to help visually track them as they are “spoken.” With text-to-speech, students can hear the text read back by an independent and non-evaluative reader, and thereby detect errors they made while writing. With this support, students have the potential of becoming independent in making a first revision of their work.

Requirements and challenges in using AT to support writing

Use of AT in writing ranges from essential to merely facilitative depending on an individual’s abilities and challenges. To some extent, use of AT also depends on the student’s environment. First, as noted above, the writing curriculum must be comprehensive. Furthermore, in all cases a knowledgeable AT specialist should be consulted when deciding on appropriate technology tools. In addition, the student’s teachers and team members must be trained to help the student use AT and integrate it effectively into the curriculum—professional development is crucial. In addition to the teachers involved, students may also have a difficult learning curve in using technology successfully for writing. When using a new technology tool, it is important that the student’s initial writing tasks be calibrated to balance the difficulty in learning to use the technology itself.

Finally, when technology is used to support an individual’s writing needs, the measure of the success or failure of the technology tool should be made based on an individual student’s use. Data about relevant parameters of writing should be collected from the student both before use of the technology, and on similar tasks after the student has gained mastery over the technology itself. This data should not be confined to simple mechanics, even if that is the student’s area of weakness, but also to a determination of the student’s attitudes about writing, in order to determine whether the student is more likely to continue writing with the technology or without it.

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