An Overview of Benefits of Technology for Students with Dyslexia
The research is definitive regarding technology and instruction for students with dyslexia. When students have access to effective technology, their overall performance improves. Technology has many benefits for students with reading difficulties, but the opportunity to access rich content ranks at the top. Technology tools allow students with dyslexia to be equal participants in school-based learning experiences.
The Texas Education Code (TEC) §38.003 defines dyslexia in the following way:
Dyslexia means a disorder of constitutional origin manifested by a difficulty in learning to read, write, or spell, despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence, and sociocultural opportunity.In addition, the International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as follows:
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.
Effective instruction can help students overcome the difficulties described above, and current research indicates that a wide range of options in technology can be an important part of that effective instruction and an important part of student support. Much of the technology intended for instruction can be used in an assistive manner to support all students, especially those with dyslexia (Puckett & O’Bannon, 2012). As technology in general adds more useful features, the challenge for educators is to discern ways to use appropriate forms of technology to accommodate students with dyslexia.*
In order to grasp how technology can support students with dyslexia, one must understand the following definitions. Assistive technology is any technology that can “increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with disabilities” (Individuals with Disabilities Act Amendments, 2004). Instructional technology is any technology that is readily available in the classroom and is used by all students (Puckett & O’Bannon, 2012). The beauty of technology is mobility; it allows for continuous learning opportunities both at home and at school. For instance, a cell phone, once considered cutting-edge technology, is not only used to make phone calls but also can provide access to text via the Internet. For the purpose of this resource, the term assistive technology, often associated with special education, will be used in a broader sense as any type of technology that will provide an appropriate accommodation to assist students with dyslexia in their learning.
Although the technology addressed in this resource is increasingly available in educational settings, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is being used effectively. Therefore, there are considerations to be made in matching appropriate technology to students' needs. Decision-making teams ought to ask the "remediation versus accommodation" question when determining appropriate technology. Remediation requires the teacher to fill in the gaps and teach the skills that students have not mastered. An accommodation is intended to reduce or even eliminate the effects of a student's disability. More specifically, decision-making teams must determine what percentage of time and effort should be devoted to instruction through remediation and what percentage of time and effort should be devoted to accommodation (Edyburn, 2006).
To understand an appropriate accommodation via the use of technology, consider the following scenario: An adolescent learner who is reading below grade level is not able to decode enough complex words from his science text to read well, despite receiving high-quality, explicit instruction. To accommodate for this challenge, he may listen to the science text read aloud via text-to-speech software on the computer. This allows the learner to read with his ears as well as his eyes. As he listens to text read aloud, he follows along with printed material online. When he encounters a new, complex academic vocabulary word, he can click on it to determine the pronunciation and/or definition, rather than laboriously sounding out the unknown word. Since the student is not a strong decoder, the visual display coupled with the audio reinforcement can be enough support to generate meaning from the text. Additionally, his teacher can explicitly guide him through a deeper understanding by encouraging the student to look up the word, accessing an online graphic dictionary and creating a graphic display of the word. Such accommodations, combined with quality instruction, allow this struggling reader to access grade-level material and understand new words with which to build vocabulary. With this scenario in mind, consider the remediation/accommodation equation (Edyburn, 2006). As this student accesses grade-level content through an audio-visual accommodation and receives explicit vocabulary instruction from the teacher, remediation is happening (Filippini & Morey, 2012).
Research confirms the use of technology in a variety of areas. The most common ways in which technology is used to support students with learning difficulties are computer-mediated instruction and synthesized speech feedback to improve basic reading as well as access to electronic texts to aid in comprehension (Hecker & Engstrom, 2005). Furthermore, time management, note taking, exam preparation, and written responses are all enhanced through the use of such technology as a supplement to direct teacher instruction and intervention (Hecker & Engstrom, 2005). Studies demonstrate the effectiveness of tools such as word processors, word prediction, voice recognition, spell checkers, and graphic organizers as successful supports for student writing (Hecker & Engstrom, 2005). Whether the technology is accessed for personal use, instructional use, or assistive use, the accommodations can be effective in helping to compensate for the reading and writing difficulties that accompany dyslexia (Puckett & O’Bannon, 2012).
Technology provides a bridge between students’ current skills and the tasks they must perform. The goal is to support students in skills not yet mastered by providing access to instructional/assistive technology in conjunction with learning strategies and targeted reading instruction (Hecker & Engstrom, 2005). Such a combination results in student success.
Using Technology to Assist with Reading
One of the best ways to use technology is in combination with instruction in reading strategies and processes (Pisha & O’Neill, 2003). Technology is not intended to take the place of quality reading instruction. It should be used in combination with teacher-directed instruction and intervention. Technology should never be used as a substitute for quality instruction; it is intended to supplement, not supplant. In fact, technology shows mixed results in improving phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary, with computer-mediated approaches having no clear advantage over teacher-directed instruction (Hecker & Engstrom, 2011).
Assistive technology does, however, have clear benefits in supporting fluency and comprehension (Hecker & Engstrom, 2011). For example, text-to-speech (TTS) software removes the burden of decoding, allowing for a focus on comprehension. Reading software programs that read digital text aloud can highlight text as students read. Students can regulate the reading rate, adjust voice type options, read text files and text on the Internet, and choose writing options. When choosing an appropriate technology for a student with reading difficulties, careful consideration should be paid to the tasks that need to be completed (Hecker & Engstrom, 2011).
Using Technology to Assist the Writing Process
Several research studies have confirmed the use of word processing in combination with revision instruction as a means for improving the amount and quality of revision as well as the overall quality of students’ writing. In addition to word processing, studies have examined and confirmed word prediction and voice recognition as a path to quality writing (Hecker & Engstrom, 2011).
Despite the array of support in writing for students with dyslexia, students need to know when to ask for assistance in the writing process. When students identify a writing barrier, then decisions can be made regarding assistive technology. Technology tools can include visual mapping software, word prediction, voice recognition, text-to-speech (TTS) software, word processors, portable keyboards, and mini-computers or tablets.
Visual mapping software reduces the need for writing because concepts can be expressed in brief phrases while the visual array represents relationships between concepts. Students who struggle with keyboarding, spelling, and word retrieval may increase writing fluency using a word prediction program. Some students, however, may find predictive text frustrating due to the number of decisions required when using such a program. Students using voice-recognition software will not automatically improve the quality of their writing but can usually produce more writing with less effort. This allows for more focus on ideas and organization with less frustration due to difficulties with handwriting, keyboarding, vocabulary, and/or spelling. However, educators should be mindful of the limitations of some voice recognition programs including the time and effort required to train the software to recognize a student’s voice (Hecker & Engstrom, 2011).
Using Technology to Support Study Skills
Study skills offer a concrete way to assist the brain in processing and retaining information. Working memory is not equipped to retain all the information contained in a textbook or a lecture, so strong study skills are necessary to foster information processing and to transfer data into long-term memory (Hecker & Engstrom, 2011).
A TTS program allows the student to annotate text by highlighting headings, keywords, and phrases. Annotated text can be used to create a study guide or to summarize text. Summaries can also be created in a visual form with the assistance of visual mapping software. A two-column note-taking strategy provides a system for documenting important information from a class lecture so that the notes later become an effective study tool. This two-column note-taking strategy is easily created in a word processing program. The two-column template is also useful in combination with voice-recognition software, making note-taking accessible to students with handwriting difficulties (Hecker & Engstrom, 2011).
* It is important to keep in mind that while some accommodations may be appropriate for instructional use, they may not be appropriate or allowable on a statewide assessment. Any question related to accommodations for statewide assessments should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Online tools, such as the Matching Person and Technology (MPT) Framework; the Student, Environment, Tasks, and Tools (SETT) Framework; and the TechMatrix Framework offer direction for determining appropriate technologies to accommodate students' needs. Educators need a thoughtful process for selecting the best technology for students as well as introducing it in a way that promotes success from the start (Hecker & Engstrom, 2011). The following websites provide support in matching appropriate technology to student needs:
Matching Person and Technology (MPT) Framework – This framework provides an individualized approach for matching a student with the appropriate technology.
Student, Environment, Tasks, and Tools (SETT) Framework – This framework is a four part model intended to promote collaborative decision-making in all phases of assistive technology service design and delivery.
TechMatrix Framework – This online website provides a powerful tool for locating educational and assistive technology for students with disabilities.
As districts begin the task of evaluating technologies to meet the needs of diverse learners, a thoughtful process must be in place to ensure success. Consult the rubric for guidance before making decisions regarding the purchase of new technologies.
(Clicking on the rubric below will open in a new browser window or tab)
As technology advances, educators must know where to access the most current information. Among the recommended sources are David Edyburn’s annual reviews of top articles in the area of special education technology and his daily online journal, Special Education Technology Practice. Other sources include the National Assistive Technology Institute, Assistive Technology Outcomes Measurement System project, Consortium for Assistive Technology Outcomes Research, as well as The Horizon Report 2014 Edition. Online journals include Closing the Gap and AT Benefits and Outcomes (Hecker & Engstrom, 2011).
At the state level, there are professional organizations that hold conferences focusing on reading resources, technology for special populations, and mobile technology. For example, there is the Texas Library Association Annual Conference, the Texas Computer Education Association State Convention & Exposition, and the Texas Assistive Technology Network State Conference. In addition, each of these organizations has publications and supporting materials to assist educators. Regional education service centers provide professional development opportunities in these areas as well.
Even though it is important to acquire skills that remediate or address reading difficulties, at some point, students must learn to compensate for their reading differences. Whether through the use of technology or via some other accommodation, students need access to the curriculum in order to keep up with the content that reading affords (Puckett & O’Bannon, 2012).
Important points to remember:
Technology provides academic support for all students.
Technology has a place in remediation and accommodation.
Technology best supports students when their strengths and weaknesses are assessed before specific tools are selected.
Technology is constantly evolving.
Technology is not a substitute for good instruction.
The limitations of the specific technology should be considered in decision-making.
Technology is intended to empower students.
Technology impacts learning at school and home through the use of mobile devices.
Technology that is appropriate in the classroom for instructional purposes is not always appropriate for assessment purposes.
Educators should not simply teach technology for the sake of becoming technologically savvy. Technology should be approached as a tool to empower students, including students with dyslexia, to master and use all aspects of technology to support learning and increase opportunities to build upon academic success. Enabling students with dyslexia to use and even select their own beneficial tools of technology opens the doorway to continue success as lifelong learners.
Useful Technologies to Support Students with Dyslexia
Technology Available for Free or at a Minimal Cost
Operating System FeaturesAll computers have customizable options and settings included in the standard features of the operating systems. On the Macintosh (Mac) computer, these options are located in System Preferences in the Universal Access Window. In Windows, they are located in the control panel. Educators who work with students identified with dyslexia should start with exploring and adjusting the following customizable features:
Auto Correct and Auto Text - This feature allows a user to change how word processing corrects and formats text while typing.
Auto Summary - With this feature, a user can highlight the key aspects of text and assemble them to create a summary. For example, a student can use this feature to auto-summarize a collection of science articles or even create an abstract for a finished history report.
Contrast or Color Display - A user can adjust the settings to make text and images on the screen appear larger and improve the contrast between items on the screen. This option allows the user to set a high-contrast color scheme that heightens the contrast of text and images on the computer screen, making items more distinct and easier to identify.
Document Template - With this feature, a user can create a document template using a pre-formatted file-type. In the template, many features, such as font, size, color, background, and pictures, are pre-formatted; however, a user can also edit them for personal preference.
Movement of the Mouse - A user can change how the mouse pointer appears and turn on other features based on personal preference to make using the mouse easier.
Readability - With this feature, a user can check the readability statistics as part of the spelling and grammar check. For example, this feature provides information about the number of passive sentences contained in a text and gives scores for Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.
Speech Recognition - This feature allows the user to access speech recognition to navigate the computer by voice rather than via keyboard and mouse.
Speed of the Keystrokes - This feature allows the user the option to set filter keys to run when logging on to Windows. For example, changes can be made to ignore keystrokes that occur in rapid succession and/or keystrokes that are held down for several seconds unintentionally.
Spelling and Grammar Check - The user may correct typos and misspelled words while composing text using the AutoCorrect feature. AutoCorrect is set up by default with a list of typical misspellings and symbols, but a user can modify the list to suit specific needs.
Text to Speech - This feature allows a user to access a basic screen reader called Narrator, which reads text on the screen aloud while using the computer.
Thesaurus - A user can click on an individual word or phrase to get alternative word choices.
For further information and instructions regarding customizable features, consult the Microsoft in Education Teacher Resources.
Digital books websites can be useful. Individuals with dyslexia are eligible to obtain digital books, including digital textbooks. In some cases, a verification of disability is required. The following websites provide information about access to free digital books:
Local Public Library (check with your library to determine access)
Text-to-Speech (TTS) software provides students access to print by reading the contents on the screen aloud. The following websites may be beneficial for students with dyslexia:
State approved adoptions (NOTE: When new state-adopted materials are chosen, districts should determine if TTS is available.)
Speech-to-Text (STT) software translates spoken words into text. The following websites may be beneficial for students with dyslexia:
Concept Mapping can assist students in organizing and synthesizing information to make the broader connections necessary for reading comprehension and writing assistance that result in improved performance in content-area instruction. The following is a list of examples of free or low cost software:
Bubbl.us - This is an online brainstorming website that exports images, such as mind maps.
Gliffy - This is an online diagramming software tool with flowcharts, floor plans, Venn diagrams and more.
Inspiration - This visual thinking software is suitable for grades 4 to adult. The software is designed to help students develop and gather ideas, organize thoughts, analyze and interpret information, clarify understanding, and communicate ideas clearly.
Kidspiration - This visual thinking software is suitable for grades 1-3. Students combine pictures, text, numbers, and spoken words to develop vocabulary, word recognition, reading comprehension, writing, and critical thinking skills.
Lucid Chart - This is a website that allows students to create collaborative flow charts and organizational charts.
Mindmeister - This is a website – also available as an app – for collaborative concept mapping.
Mindomo - This site allows students to create mind maps for a long-term project. Maps can be exported to Microsoft Word and Excel.
MyStudyBar - This software comes with a literacy toolbar that includes mind mapping, screen masking, word prediction, talking dictionary, and text-to-speech to help students convey their thoughts in writing.
Quicklyst - This website provides an organizational process for taking notes in an outline format.
Slatebox - This website provides mind-mapping collaborative slates.
Time Line Maker - This website allows for the development of time lines with a choice of templates.
VocabularySpellingCity - This site is meant to improve a child’s spelling and vocabulary skills.
Webspiration - This website is suitable for grades 5-12. Students will use visual frameworks to aid in writing skills.
Vocabulary can be explored by using websites. For students with dyslexia, slower or difficult reading leads to reduced vocabulary knowledge. The following tools can be explored to support students in accessing difficult vocabulary:
Lexipedia - This is an online visual semantic network supporting six different languages.
MathWords - This is an online interactive math dictionary.
Visual Thesaurus - This online dictionary analyzes and generates a list of useful vocabulary words from any text.
Visuwords - This online graphic dictionary allows students to create a graphic organizer for individual words.
VocabAhead - This website provides a visual dictionary using short vocabulary videos for SAT/ACT test preparation.
WordSmyth - This website provides a traditional look and feel to an online dictionary.
Web 2.0 Tools
Web 2.0 Tools have made the Internet a participatory, interactive place where readers create, collaborate, and share information, bringing new and powerful opportunities to the classroom. Students can interface via text-to-speech (TTS) and screen reader (SR) by accessing a variety of resources. The following are tools that can be used by all students; they are especially helpful for increasing content knowledge through collaboration.
- Blogs are a personal journal published on the World Wide Web consisting of entries, known as "posts," typically displayed in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first. Blogs are usually the work of a single individual (occasionally of a small group) and often are themed on a single subject. The following is a list of examples:
- Multimedia Tools include a combination of text, audio, still images, animation, video, and/or interactive content forms. Teachers and students can access such tools for educational and recreational purposes. The following is a list of examples:
- Project Share is an online environment of educational resources that incorporates the use of today’s digital tools. Available for public school teachers and students, Project Share offers an opportunity to move beyond the walls of the traditional and expand the learning environment through multiple avenues, including online courses, wikis, digital portfolios, and more.
- Wikis offer users the ability to add, modify, or delete content via a web browser using a simplified markup language or a rich-text editor. Most Wikis are created collaboratively. They serve many different purposes, including knowledge management, collaborative learning, and content attainment. The following is a list of examples:
- Word Processing using Google Drive, formerly known as Google Docs, is a free, web-based office suite and data storage service offered by Google. It allows users to create and edit documents online while collaborating in real time with other users.
Technology Available for Mobile Devices
The price, capacity, and flexibility of handheld devices make them attractive complements to laptop and desktop computing for students with dyslexia. In addition, tablets and other touch devices make text more accessible. The following apps are a sampling of what is available for free or at a low cost; however, students must have access to a mobile device in order to use them:
Classroom Uses of a Handheld Device, and/or Tablet
Handheld technology has the ability to offer quick access for students. This technology is usually readily available, mobile, flexible, and convenient. When budgetary constraints limit the purchase of permanent technology, mobile devices, such as smart phones and tablets, may be a more plausible purchase. The following are examples of classroom uses of mobile devices:
Language Development - Students use the voice recording feature to podcast their work. After reading a book, a student develops a book report that includes a brief summary of his or her story and then records the report using a handheld device. The teacher posts the podcast to the class website where it can be accessed from home or the classroom.
Lesson Review - Students use the video feature to capture lesson examples in the form of short video clips. The students then review the lessons at a later date and share ideas with each other.
Organizational Skills - Students organize their daily class work and homework assignments using the calendar application.
Reading Fluency - Using the voice recording feature, students record themselves reading to improve their accuracy, rate, and prosody. Students then listen to each other’s recordings and follow along with the books.
Reminders Feature - Students set appointments and are sent reminders based on the time of day or their location as indicated by the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Video Conferencing - Students use "Facetime" or other video conferencing software that works with Wi-Fi to collaborate on homework assignments.
Additional Sources for Educational Apps
The following websites provide collections of apps that may be helpful to individuals with dyslexia, parents of students with dyslexia, and education professionals.
Dyslexia Help Success Starts Here: http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/tools/apps
A Methodology for Providing Technology for Students
Technology has the potential to be one of the most powerful tools to support students identified with dyslexia. The challenge, however, is to ensure that the technology is current and effective and that the educators have the skills to effectively use the technology. In an ever-changing technological world, educators must adjust and adapt in order to prepare students for the challenges of the post-secondary setting. Consequently, technological training, in both hardware and software uses, is critical for teachers and students. School districts have the challenge of staying on the cutting edge and providing teachers with the needed pedagogical support to meet the needs of all students using technology.
Districts/campuses have a responsibility to appoint a team to implement a process for providing effective, current technology to students. Assisting all students with suitable technology is critical; however, appropriate technological support for students with dyslexia is particularly vital. In order for districts/campuses to provide the most current, appropriate technology for students with dyslexia, the following process should be considered by the appointed team:
Attend trainings on the benefits of technologies in supporting students identified with dyslexia. Training is available in a variety of formats, including the following:
On-line Course(s) Posted via District Websites - Courses provided by the State Dyslexia Office, the regional education service centers, and/or districts are available on ESC and district websites.
Project Share Course(s) - Courses provided by the State Dyslexia Office, the education service centers, and/or districts, are available via Project Share.
Project Share Wiki/Blog - An on-going, online chat opportunity maintained by the State Dyslexia Office is offered via Project Share.
Workshops at the 20 ESCs - Training sessions by individual service centers is available for campuses and districts within their regions.
Create an Inventory of Resources
Create an inventory of resources to determine what purchases have been made, including both hardware and software.
Conduct research and visit other schools to gain the latest research, best practices, and successful strategies for using technology with students.
Evaluate technologies that will support students with dyslexia in accommodating their learning differences. Teachers from all content areas should be involved in this step of the process, as many of the challenges for students with dyslexia come in the reading of content-rich text.
Ensure Pedagogical Support
Ensure pedagogical support for teachers to meet the needs of students.
Match the Needs of Identified Students
Match the needs of identified students with the appropriate technologies so that students with dyslexia have technological access across all content areas.
Identify Gaps in Technology
Identify gaps in technology so that districts can determine what technologies they already have and what new technologies should be purchased.
Ensure that teachers are thoroughly trained on the use of the technology chosen
Ensure that teachers are thoroughly trained on the use of the technology chosen, including the various features of technology that is already available to them (i.e., word processing tools, tablets, smart phones).
In addition to the challenge of staying current in new technologies, educators must also be able to evaluate technology and determine an appropriate implementation plan. They must discern whether a particular technology is a good match for a particular student. Selecting suitable tools in any field is a challenge, but perhaps more so in the field of dyslexia, where student needs are so varied. Consider the following methodology for providing technology for students with dyslexia. Planning and organization are critical for the success of any implementation:
A Methodology for Providing Technology for Students with Dyslexia
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