Low Tech Tools Of Empowerment



One steadfast question for the IEP team is the appeal for direction toward assisting, supporting and guiding students with special needs in a manner that promotes efficient and meaningful inclusion. Today’s parents and general educators are aware of a continuum of low to high-tech assistive technology (AT) available to increase deeper engagement and learning for all learners, in order to reduce barriers and ensure access to curriculum. In fact, IDEA 2004 requires the IEP team to consider the AT needs of every student who receives special education services. IDEA defines AT as any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf,  modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability. Broadly utilized within contemporary classrooms are examples of AT, ranging from low-tech pencil grips to increase the physical production of handwriting, mid-tech visual timers to assist students with executive function challenges relative to visualization of elapsed time, and high-tech word processing programs equipped speech recognition software.

The 21st Century expectation of infusing our classrooms with software and multi-media is becoming a realization at an increasing rate. Classrooms are undergoing redesign and re-engineering to accommodate the arrival of digital learning devices such as laptop computers with text to speech capabilities, tablets with interactive reading and math programs, and wireless LED projectors. This growth offers a shift in instructional methodology that allows greater access for students with and without identified disabilities leading to decreased barriers and increased engagement. It continues to be vital that strategic adjustments to support systems for students with identified learning disabilities be considered through determination of whether or not AT is appropriate in order to ensure access a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).

AT consideration is typically a brief process conducted during development of each IEP. During discovery, it is critical for the team to determine how the student’s disability affects involvement and progress within the educational program. Through such constructs as the SETT Framework, a collaborative planning and  decision making tool developed by educational specialist Joy Zabala (2005), guidance is offered to IEP teams involved in determining tools that may improve performance within the educational environment. SETT, a fitting acronym for Student, Environments, Tasks and Tools, includes the needs, abilities, and interests of the student. It also provides details of the environments and explores the specific tasks required of students in those environments. Zabala explains the premise of the framework, as one driven by the development of an appropriate system of tools through a seeking of a shared understanding of the student. Furthermore, Zabala notes that consideration of customary environments and the tasks that are required for student to be able to do or learn to do to be an active participant in the teaching/learning process that lead to educational success are foundational elements of consideration within this process (2005). Critical to the inquiry process are shared knowledge, collaboration, communication, multiple perspectives, pertinent information, flexibility and patience, and an understanding that this is an on-going process (Zabala, 2005). The typical questions that have arisen when seeking guidance to determine AT needs have previously been limited to:
• What is it that we expect the student to be able to do in the educational program that he or she is currently unable to do because of the identified disability?
• Would AT provide a solution for that?

Through her evolved and extended question focus, Zabala’s innovative pathway in the AT inquiry process delivers a student-centered comprehensiveness that special education consideration has historically adhered. This process is a thorough and simple approach that will lead to tools, such as devices, services, strategies, accommodations, modifications, training, etc., that are well matched to student needs and abilities to perform the natural tasks of living and learning (Zabala, 2005).

As reflection occurs during the exploration of possible AT tools, consideration of low- to mid-tech are areas that invite the art and science of teaching to come into focus, as we look toward tools to include within the general education classroom and/or the homework scene. Oftentimes, in the case of a student with a low-incidence disability, such as a student who is deaf or hard of hearing, blind, or has mobility impairment, AT needs are evident and often involve high-tech devices. However, students identified with high incidence disabilities do not necessarily exhibit observable hurdles. High-incidence disabilities include students with specific learning disabilities, attention deficits, or speech/language needs. Students within this category often require scaffolds that support access to curriculum that fall within the low- to mid-tech AT range. This type of AT often appears similar to those structures utilized within the differentiated instruction paradigm and fit the needs of students with and without IEPS. Across the lifespan, low- to mid- AT devices are evident in the day-to-day lives of many individuals in our society, to promote independence in numerous areas of daily living. For example, using a grabber to remove items from a high shelf at home is a simple low-tech AT device, as are the Velcro bindings on a pair of shoes for an individual with arthritis or limited ability to tie. The rubberized grip I use to open jars and bottle tops in my kitchen is a piece of low-tech AT that I use daily. For some, the use of a magnifying glass to examine coins or read small print is an essential low-tech AT tool.

Low-tech devices typically require little or no training, whereas mid- to high-tech devices may require moderate to extensive training. Therefore, the simplicity and ready availability of low-tech devices should be explored in order to enable the student to learn to use the tools at an independent level within a variety of environments; thereby, address and overcome obstacles that may well lead to abandonment or under-implementation of AT tools. In addition to teaching the student the purpose and functionality of the tools, the student’s IEP team members should work together to ensure that home and school educational caregivers are coordinating to assist the student in using the tools and provide for monitoring relative to the on-going process of possibly reducing or adjusting tools as student needs change.


Spelling challenging for those who have difficulty with memorization or have visual or auditory processing deficits. The Try-It Card offers students a detour around their roadblock until they are able to build foundational skills.

Why Do: Concentration on thoughts, rather than spelling rules. Students who are provided with tasks that are appropriate to their levels demonstrate less frustration and increased engagement and learning. Through  appropriate exposure to the material and focused supportive feedback, a schema is created for future learning.

How To: Across curriculum, instruct student to try it on the Try-It Card, when in need of spelling help.
• Fold index card in half.
• Write “Try It” on the right and “Teacher” on the left.
• Student jots down the try and sets card up for teacher’s perusal.
• Student leaves a blank space on the writing project or lightly pencils in the try, until teacher comes around and checks card.
• Try ABA strategies like prompting, approximation, chaining and reinforcing. Example: write the sounds student verbally offers on the Try It side and then proceed in the teacher role.


LOW-TECH AT TIP SHEETS: AT is an important piece of the whole support system for individuals with learning disabilities to navigate hurdles within their learning community. Low-tech AT can provide easily accessed tools for life across all learning environments. Providing these tools has the potential to lessen the cognitive load, in order for meaningful learning to commence. Here are some examples of low-tech AT successfully utilized by students across learning environments:


Basic math facts often takes longer for students with attention, memory, or processing deficits to memorize. Assist student to discover patterns and relationships through a visual and kinesthetic mode. Provide a graphic organizer for the student to construct and utilize with the assignment of the day.

Why Do: A low-tech AT support—such as a graphic organizer, rather than a calculator, to solve the basic facts needed to solve multiple-digit multiplication, division, fractions, factorization, and other more complex problems —offers the opportunity to increase procedural competencies through practice of more complex algorithms. This will allow basic facts to transfer into long-term memory through physical manipulation of learning experience and visualization of results. Based upon landmark work of educational researchers Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001), the more students utilize the two primary ways of learning, including linguistic (reading or hearing lectures) and nonlinguistic (visual imagery, kinesthetic or whole-body modes), the better they are able to think about and recall what they have learned (Developed by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Portland, Oregon)

How To: As students come across a problem that contains an unknown basic fact, they may fill in the appropriate column (to times tens to check for accuracy). Students use a blank template for each new assignment-even at home. Prepare a reusable, blank multiplication chart for students:
• Display digits from one to 10 across the top and along the left side of 10×10 chart.
• Place counting points with the displayed digits along the top, such as those used in the TouchPoint math program.
• Place template inside clear plastic sheet protector and package with an overhead pen.




Visual materials materials that contain clutter and distractions not relative to the skill set being practiced may prove challenging for students who have visual processing or executive function deficits (ADHD or ASD). Providing chunking or masking for these materials, when modification of the worksheet is not a viable option, is a scaffold to access of curriculum.

Why Do: Appropriate tools to address barriers promotes access and independence in the moment and prepares students for problem solving and creative thinking in future situations.

How To: Be prepared with highlighters, index cards, imagination, and a #2 pencil tucked behind your ear, as you cruise the learning environment.

WRITE ON: This designed-on-the-spot AT tool, was created to assist a 1st grade student with an executive function disorder to access basic math facts that were presented in a visually overstimulating format. Access to lesson was gained through this simple tool. Parents were aware of how to assist him to utilize the tool that night during homework, with Smartphone photo and messaging.



Mechanics of Writing are oftentimes slower to develop with students that have a processing or executive function disorder. Challenges with writing production and/or spacing can be supported through a pencil grip or spacing stick.

Why Do: Encourages proper pencil grasp using the tripod fingers (thumb, middle, and index fingers) to work together. This will help student to control the pencil and write neatly at a reasonable speed. Keeping track of the whereabouts of pencils, pencil grips, and the like can be a challenge for students with processing or planning deficits.

How To: Using a small piece of tissue, an on-the-spot grip is created for student use.



Editing visual attention to detail and organization are challenging skills for students with processing or attentional deficits.

Why Do: Providing a low-tech interactive visual scaffold maintains engagement and planning to increase educational benefit.

How Do: Utilizing a classroom strategy, such as an acronym, for the visual tool will support student access to the curriculum.

CHECK IT OUT: Place the AT in a sheet protector and provide a drty erase pen for check off; A wheel or flow chart device is an effective way to scaffold for attention and organization.



Angela Shaw, Specialized Academic Instructor within Snowline Joint Unified School District in California, collaborates with families and staff to promote success and encourage life-long learning beyond 12th grade, through blending her Special Education background and experience with her Pupil Personnel Services Credential. Shaw found her public voice during her college radio station days at KSAK. Today she enjoys the opportunity to provide further educational collaboration and out-reach to the special needs community through her various works on topics relative to special education. Articles such as “Historical and Background Perspectives Critical to the Journey toward Bridging Curriculum Access through Differentiation” (September 2010, EP) and “Collaborative Connections: Strengthening Partnership with Today’s School Counselor” (May 2016, EP), have provided Shaw learning and sharing opportunities.

Northwest Educational Technology Consortium (NETC). Focus on effectiveness: Research-based strategies.
Retrieved April 6, 2010 from NETC http://www.netc.org
Smiley Zabala, J. (2005). Using the SETT framework to level the learning field for students with disabilities [Electronic version]. Sharing the SETT Framework. Retrieved April 11, 2016 from

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