YOU might say it all started with spell-check. In the 1980s, with the introduction of word processing programs like WordPerfect, it became apparent that computerized proofreaders could come to the rescue of struggling spellers and bad typists. Thirty years later, an ever-growing array of assistive technology is available to help students read, write term papers and take tests. From pens that can remember to text that can talk, such technologies are now being held up as important tools for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, dysgraphia (trouble writing) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“These technologies help level a playing field for individuals who would not be able to demonstrate their capabilities as learners,” says Brant Parker, director of learning and innovation technology for the Calgary Board of Education in Canada. In his district, at least 90 public schools are using Dragon Dictate, a voice-recognition program that does the typing for you.
Take the case of Michael Riccioli, who noticed that his teenage son was not comprehending a novel assigned in class. Mr. Riccioli transformed the book into an MP3 file using software called GhostReader, which scans texts and reads them aloud. His son listened to the file on his iPod while reading along. “All went well with his test on the book,” Mr. Riccioli says.
Mr. Riccioli’s interest in voice-enabled technology derives from his teaching job at University of Paris-Dauphine, where he uses it himself to write and plan projects for his own students. That’s a textbook example of “universal design for learning,” a set of principles for designing technology that many educators, as well as the United States Department of Education, have embraced. The idea is that assistive technologies — like spell-check — should be useful to anyone, not just the disabled.
But Michael L. Kamil, a consulting professor at the Stanford University School of Education and an expert on adolescent literacy and technology, warns that not every product is going to be useful. “There is great variation” in learning disabilities, he says, and the utility of a technology may depend on the severity. One student may have such bad dyslexia that reading is virtually impossible while another has only a mild case. A text-to-speech processor might actually slow down the latter student because reading text silently is much faster than hearing it read aloud.
Before rushing to spend $100 for a smart pen to $1,500 for the color version of the Kurzweil 3000, Mr. Kamil advises consulting with the professional who has evaluated the student. “Beware of fads,” he says. And be aware that even the most well-designed technology can only accommodate a disability, not erase it.
Below is a sampling of the most popular assistive technologies on the market today.
TEXT TO SPEECH
Students with severe reading disabilities may benefit from computer programs that can scan words and “read” them aloud via synthesized voices, some of which sound uncannily human. One is the Intel Reader, a device that can plug into a laptop for reading on-screen texts and also takes snapshots of, say, a newspaper page to be read aloud. Another is the ReadingPen Advanced, a pen-shaped scanner that glides over printed words and pronounces them through a built-in speaker.
But the granddaddy of text-to-speech products is the Kurzweil Reader, which was designed by the inventor Ray Kurzweil in 1976 as a device for the blind. The latest version, a software package called the Kurzweil 3000, is stocked with features like word-by-word highlighting and foreign-language dictionaries.
Other programs: GhostReader for the Mac, TextHelp Read and Write, and free programs and plug-ins like TypeIt ReadIt and Click, Speak. And while the Macintosh OS X comes with a free built-in reader, it does not include multiple languages.
SPEECH TO TEXT
“Students often have trouble getting thoughts down on paper by pen or typing,” says Pauline Auld, a senior learning specialist for the Calgary Board of Education. Voice-recognition software allows them to talk into a microphone and immediately see their words on screen. The Dragon line of products are leaders in this industry; Dragon Dictate for Mac and Dragon NaturallySpeaking for the P.C. get high marks for accurate translation. An iPhone version allows portability.
But beware the gee-whiz factor: Depending on the disability and needs, the technology could slow down a student who has to spend extra time correcting errors and remembering punctuation commands.
Can software help organize thoughts, improve writing skills and keep track of tasks? A few programs, with visual prompts and templates, promise something close.
A product called Inspiration uses colored graphics — thought bubbles and hub-and-spoke diagrams — to help students when brainstorming and developing outlines for writing projects. The Kurzweil 3000 offers similar writing software and also gives users the ability to add virtual sticky notes and audio recordings to on-screen texts. Skoach, an online calendar and planning tool, provides visual feedback to warn you if your schedule is becoming overloaded.
Of course, lots of visual cues aren’t always a good thing, depending on the type of disability. Says Mr. Kamil, “It might even be more disruptive in that there might actually be too much information on the screen.”
Pen-based devices, designed to help keep notes organized, have many new converts. The LiveScribe Pulse SmartPen, for one, makes an audio recording simultaneously with pen marks on paper. A student can go back to a specific scribbled word in his notebook, touch the pen to that spot and hear a full recording of what the speaker was saying when the mark was made. Several students at Landmark College are using the pen to recall points made during class.
“You can put down concepts and words and you don’t miss a thing,” says Michael Nieckoski, director of educational technology at Landmark.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
• “Assistive Technology: A Parent’s Guide,” by Marshall H. Raskind and Kristin Stanberry. A downloadable PDF with worksheet helps parents match technologies.
• CALL Scotland, a unit within the University of Edinburgh’s education school. (CALL stands for Communication, Access, Literacy and Learning.) A Web site with studies and books on assistive technologies: callscotland.org.uk/
• National Center on Universal Design for Learning. A group advocating for products and services useful to all people, including those with disabilities: udlcenter.org
• Digital Text Notes. A blog from Landmark College with regular updates on news about how technology can help people with learning disabilities: digitaltext.wordpress.com /