Assistive Technology: Empowering Students with Learning Disabilities

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Otterbein University]On: 16 April 2013, At: 03:09Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Assistive Technology: Empowering Students with LearningDisabilitiesKaren E. ForgraveVersion of record first published: 02 Apr 2010.

    To cite this article: Karen E. Forgrave (2002): Assistive Technology: Empowering Students with Learning Disabilities, The ClearingHouse: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 75:3, 122-126

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  • Assistive Technology: Empowering Students with

    Learning Disabilities KAREN E. FORGRAVE

    ecent advances in the field of technology are not R being employed as widely in schools as some experts argue they should be (Edyburn 2000). Unfortu- nately, many teachers, special educators, and adminis- trators do not realize how new technology can benefit their students. My purpose in this article is to demon- strate some of the possibilities that technological inno- vations hold for middle and high school students with learning disabilities in reading and writing.

    I will focus on reading and writing because many students with learning disabilities have problems in these areas, despite the fact that they have average to above average intelligence. Reading problems vary, but most students with learning disabilities display slow and effortful word decoding skills (Lundberg 1995). These lower-level decoding problems lead to poor com- prehension of textbooks and course reading materials, an area of particular concern in the middle and high school years. The academic performance of students with learning disabilities can also be hindered by their writing difficulties. Many have problems with basic skills, such as spelling and grammar, as well as higher- level skills, such as the planning, organization, and revision of a piece of work (Graham et al. 1998). Mechanical difficulties, including difficulty with hand- writing, also contribute to the fact that children with learning disabilities produce less written work and work that is lower in quality than their typically achiev- ing peers (Lewis 1998).

    The good news is that certain mainstream computer programs are now in use in regular classrooms to sup- port the literacy efforts of students with learning dis- abilities (Edyburn 2000). Word processing programs with spelling checkers facilitate writing for students

    with learning disabilities by compensating for some of the students' difficulties with the writing process. New assistive technology enables students to complete tasks more efficiently and independently and results in improved performance on a variety of reading and writ- ing tasks, which in turn leads to greater academic suc- cess. Lewis (1998) describes assistive technology as having two purposes: to build on individual strengths, and to compensate for their disabilities to enable them to better perform a given task.

    In the following sections, I will focus on three areas that have promise for students in the middle and upper grades; namely, speech synthesis programs, organiza- tional software, and voice recognition software. I will review recent studies in each area and examine the advantages and limitations of these technological applications. In addition, I will outline considerations for the successful adoption of assistive technology by teachers and school district personnel and make sug- gestions for future research.

    Speech Synthesis (Text---Speech) Studies have shown that word recognition plays a key

    role in reading comprehension (Perfetti, Marron, and Foltz 1396). Students with learning disabilities have problems decoding words (making accurate sound- symbol connections). When errors occur in reading, the student receives less than complete information from the text, and comprehension is adversely affected. In addition, the cognitive resources that could otherwise be applied to higher-level processes, such as making meaning from the text, are instead used to decode words. This interference leads to significant compre- hension problems.

    Karen E. Forgrave is a teacher and a master's degree candidate in the Faculty of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies in Education at Brock University, Ontario.

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  • Vol. 75, No. 3 Assistive Technology 123

    Speech synthesis programs work by translating text that appears on the computer screen into computer- ized speech (Lewis 1998). The computerized speech is produced by matching the text to preprogrammed pro- nunciation rules. Text can be entered either by typing directly into the speech synthesis program or into another word processing program that is compatible with the speech synthesis software. Text can also be entered by using a scanner and optical character recog- nition software.

    Students can instruct speech synthesis programs to read only selected words, whole lines, or an entire text selection. The immediate speech feedback allows stu- dents to correct their reading errors by clicking on a word they do not know in order to hear the correct pro- nunciation of the word. Text-to-speech programs reduce the frustration of inaccurate decoding for stu- dents with learning disabilities and allow for more complete comprehension of the text (Lundberg 1995; Montali and Lewandowski 1996).

    Despite concerns that students using text-to-speech software will not be practicing important reading skills, several studies have shown that the use of this software is not only assistive in nature, but also provides reme- dial benefits. Olson and Wise reported that when stu- dents with word recognition problems used speech syn- thesis software while reading stories on the computer, they demonstrated significantly improved decoding and word recognition skills (as cited in Higgins and Raskind 2000). Torgesen and Barker (1995) also report- ed significant improvements in word recognition and phonological decoding abilities after students used books with a voice component. In a longitudinal study reported by Lundberg (1995), students who began the experiment with lower scores on word recognition and spelling ended the experiment three years later with higher scores than students in the comparison group who were not supported by computer use.

    Penney (as cited in Montali and Lewandowski 1996) has reported the improved recall of textual information when it was available both visually and auditorily. In a study by Montali and Lewandowski (1996), eighteen average readers and eighteen poor readers in eighth and ninth grade were presented with content-area reading exercises on a computer. Each student participated in reading tasks that were visual only, auditory only, or bimodal (the text on the screen was presented at the same time as the words were read aloud by the comput- er). In the bimodal condition, students who were poor readers reached the comprehension levels of average stu- dents who were reading the text silently (visual only). The authors use this finding to suggest that the bimodal presentation has a potentially significant benefit for stu- dents with learning disabilities. The use of speech syn- thesis technology can be particularly beneficial in con- tent-area classes such as science or history, where

    unfamiliar vocabulary can impede the reading process for students with learning disabilities. When students can hear the unfamiliar words read to them (without having to ask the teacher or a nearby friend), reading speed and comprehension can improve dramatically.

    The effectiveness of speech synthesis software varies with student age and program quality. Anderson- Inman, Knox-Quinn, and Horney (1996) found that older elementary students (fifth and sixth grades) were more successful in using computers with this software than were younger elementary students. The synthe- sized speech can be difficult to understand, and MacArthur (1998a) suggests that students must have practice listening to it. It could be that younger stu- dents require more experience working with synthe- sized speech software before they are able to take full advantage of the benefits it can provide.

    The use of speech synthesis software may increase students' motivation to read by presenting them with a more successful reading experience (Montali and Lewandowski 1396). When students with learning dis- abilities are motivated to spend more time reading, studies have shown that increased reading skills (such as phonological decoding and word recognition) and improved overall reading ability result (e.g., Lundberg 1995). Thus, the use of speech synthesis technology in middle and high school classrooms can assist students with learning disabilities in becoming more indepen- dent readers and can help them experience greater reading success.

    Organizational Software Students with learning disabilities often have diffi-

    culties with writing (Bahr, Nelson, and Van Mater 1996; MacArthur et al. 2001). The low-level processes, or mechanics, of writing such as handwriting and the use of spelling and grammar rules are often problem- atic (MacArthur 1998a). Focusing on these low-level writing skills interferes with students' abilities to par- ticipate in higher-order processes such as organization and revision, which are essential to high-quality writ- ten work for students at the middle and high school level (Graham 1999). Their stories are characterized by less-developed ideas, the omission of important details, and illogical progression of the story line (Bahr, Nelson, and Van Meter 1996). Difficulties with writing can have a negative impact on the motivation and self- esteem of students with learning disabilities. As a result, they are likely to avoid writing whenever possi- ble, limit their work to the minimum length required, and avoid using words that they cannot spell correctly (MacArthur 1998a).

    Difficulties with writing can clearly have a profound effect on the academic capabilities of students with learning disabilities, but technology can help in addressing some of these problems. "Technology can

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  • 124 The Clearing House January/February 2002

    support the basic skills of producing legible text with correct mechanics as well as the more complex cogni- tive processes of planning, drafting, and revising text" (Graham et al. 1998, 410). Organizational software such as Inspiration helps students to organize infor- mation better.

    Inspiration helps students to organize information and ideas through a variety of "webs" or concept-maps on the computer screen. Brainstormed ideas can be entered as visual organizers, which the program then translates into outlines for the students to follow while writing (Lewis 1998). Information included in the organizational web can be in the form of text, graphics, or Internet hyperlinks. The outline's headings and sub- headings can be easily manipulated to reflect different organizational styles. This type of software can be used to gather information before writing a project or a research paper. As students add new information to their organizer, the outline is automatically rearranged to accommodate the new information in a logical sequence. Students are then ready to write from the organized outline and can type right into the outline window of the program. Studies have shown that using visual organizers ( e g , semantic maps, webs, and out- lines) to plan the writing process significantly improves the quality of writing for students with learn- ing disabilities (Graham et al. 1998).

    This technology can also be used to help students summarize information they have read. Organization- al programs facilitate this process by creating a visual format that reflects the important relationships between ideas or key concepts. Studies have shown that when students with learning disabilities use these com- puter-based organizational programs to facilitate their study in content-area subjects (such as social studies), higher test scores result (Anderson-Inman, Knox- Quinn, and Homey 1996).

    Of course, one possible disadvantage of organiza- tional software is that students may spend more time playing with the graphics than on organizing and writ- ing (Bahr, Nelson, and Van Meter 1996). Teachers need to monitor how students are using the software to obtain maximum benefits. Anderson-Inman, Knox- Quinn, and Homey (1996) demonstrated that explicit instruction on the use of the organizational software allowed the students to use the programs more effec- tively and attain greater success. It is important that teachers know how to use the programs effectively.

    Voice Recognition Software (Speech-to-Text) Voice recognition software can help students bypass

    their problems with lower-order writing skills by dic- tating their written work (McEwan 1998). When stu- dents use voice recognition software they wear a head- set and operate the computer by voice commands. Graham worked with learning disabled students in

    fourth to sixth grades to demonstrate that writing essays written with voice recognition software was sig- nificantly faster than typing or handwriting (De La Paz 1999). Speech-to-text software allows students to get their ideas down before they are forgotten because of slow typing speed. A meta-analysis of five studies found that stories that students wrote using speech-to- text dictation were longer, more complex, and con- tained fewer grammatical errors than ones composed using other methods. When students with learning dis- abilities improve the legibility of their work and decrease the number of errors, research has shown that their marks will improve (Graham 1999).

    Studies have also found this type of technology to have remedial benefits. Higgins and Raskind (2000) hypothesized that the benefits are a result of students' having to attend carefully to what is being written on the screen as they dictate their work. For example, when an error is made in the translation process, and the student instructs the computer to "correct this," the computer posts a list of alternative possibilities for the word it has just printed on the screen. The student must then read the words on the list to figure out which one is correct (i.e., what they intended the com- puter to write). Because the alternatives that appear are usually very similar in spelling, the student must attend carefully to the structure of the words to select the right one.

    In one study involving thirty-nine students, aged nine to eighteen, working with voice recognition soft- ware, the researchers found significant improvements in reading comprehension, spelling, and word recogni- tion scores over a control group (Higgins and Raskind 2000). I t was interesting that when students used con- tinuous speech recognition programs (with which they can speak at a normal rate, without pausing between words), they also showed improved scores on tests of working memory. The reason for this improvement could be that students working with continuous speech programs must simultaneously concentrate on what they are saying, remember what they have said, and compare it with what is appearing on the screen. Stu- dents who used discrete speech recognition software (which requires significant pauses between each spo- ken word) did not show the same improvements in their working memory scores. Overall, however, researchers concluded that both continuous and dis- crete voice recognition software can be used successful- ly across a range of age and ability levels, not only to compensate for students' writing difficulties, but also to improve their writing skills.

    There are disadvantages to using voice-recognition technology. First, training the program to recognize students' voices can be difficult and time consuming (Higgins and Raskind 2000; McEwan 1998). Students must learn the special commands needed to operate

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  • Vol. 75, No. 3 Assistive Technology 125

    the program successfully, and some of the commands can be difficult to remember. Any coughing, laughing, or other noises are interpreted as nonsense words by the computer and will be added to the text as students dictate (De La Paz 1999). If students do not correct errors, their word files will become corrupted, and what they dictate will no longer be what appears on the screen (McEwan 1998). Higgins and Raskind conclud- ed that students with learning disabilities need exten- sive instruction and monitoring for voice recognition software to be an effective tool.

    With effective instruction on how to use it, students with learning disabilities can use voice recognition software to significantly improve their writing (Lewis 1998; MacArthur 199813). When students realize that voice recognition software allows them to produce neat work written within a relatively short period of time (compared to the laboriousness of writing by hand), their motivation to write will increase (Graham et al. 1998). Wanderman (1995) concluded that the end goal is to use the tool to share the depth and complex- ity of ones thinking in a form that others can under- stand (4). For students whose oral communication skills are far superior to their writing abilities, voice recognition technology has great potential.

    Discussion and Conclusion In this article I have presented evidence on three

    types of assistive technology-speech synthesis, organi- zational software, and voice recognition programs-to demonstrate how these tools can benefit middle and high school students with learning disabilities. These tools build on students strengths and compensate for their disabilities to improve performance on reading and writing tasks. Using assistive technology, students with learning disabilities are able to read information, organize their ideas, and write more clearly. The result is that students are given the means to complete well- written, organized assignments that truly reflect their knowledge and skills ( N e w technologies and applications for special education 1996, 4). I t is evident why studies have shown that the use of this technology increases students self-esteem and motivation to learn.

    In 1988, Congress passed into law the Technology- Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (commonly referred to as the Tech Act). One of its main goals was to provide financial support to states to develop assistive technology programs for people with disabilities (Edyburn 2000; Bryant and Seay 1998). The act was revised in 1994, making all states eligible to receive funding. An amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1397 specif- ically mandated that individualized education pro- gram (IEP) teams consider incorporating assistive tech- nology into the educational programs of students with disabilities.

    To ensure that students are matched with the appro- priate technological tools, teachers and administrators need to be educated on their use (Edyburn 2000; MacArthur 1998a). Bryant et al. (1998) called for incorporating assistive technology into teacher educa- tion programs and including preservice experiences in schools that have elaborate assistive technology resources and staff expertise. Edyburn suggests that the students who receive access to assistive technology tend to be those with strong parental advocates. Edy- burn calls for systematic screening to ensure the evalu- ation of all students who could benefit from assistive technology in the classroom environment. He states that school boards should have panels of experts in special education technology to review and recom- mend technology to classroom teachers working with students who have special needs. Many elements need to be considered if such a program is to be effective, including internal factors (e.g., a students skills and abilities) and external factors (e.g., the classroom envi- ronment and the support available). If these elements are not carefully considered by the IEP teams, the tech- nology will not be adequately matched with students needs, and desired outcomes will not be attained (Raskind and Higgins 1998). Expert support should be available not only during the acquisition of assistive technology, but also during the implementation and training of staff and students, and for follow-up evalu- ation of students progress (Edyburn 2000). Moeller and Jeffers (1996) caution that technology can help individualize teaching and learning, but its effective use requires careful planning and design (44).

    Research needs to be conducted on how assistive technology can be most effectively incorporated into middle and high school programs and how teachers and other education personnel can obtain the infor- mation that will enable them to accommodate stu- dents learning needs. In a review of fifteen years of research on the use of assistive technology, MacArthur et al. (2001) highlighted findings of several studies that suggested that the mere use of, or exposure to, assistive technology is not sufficient to dramatically improve students literacy skills or competence. Some students, especially those with severe reading difficulties, require the explicit teaching of reading and writing skills in addition to instruction and practice with the assistive technology. Teachers must be adequately trained to integrate effective instruction with assistive technology to maximize student success.

    In addition, more research needs to explore how stu- dents can benefit from using a range of software appli- cation programs for various purposes. The majority of empirical studies to date have focused on one specific program in isolation. Students are likely to benefit from access to a variety of hardware and software tools (e.g., scanners and speech synthesis programs for read-

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  • 126 The Clearing House January/February 2002

    ing, organizational software for planning and writing). Wong (2001) commented that researchers should give more thought to what actually pertains to students current learning in their classrooms when they make decisions about what electronic enhancements to design and provide (364). To help educators realize the potential of assistive technology, they need to see the results of research that closely reflects their class- room environment.

    In reviewing the research cited in this paper, I found the usefulness of some results to be limited by small sample size. For example, the study by MacArthur (1999) contained only five students with learning dis- abilities. Future studies should also examine the impact of technology on students in various age groups, to determine how best to use technology as students mature, and to see how it affects students long-term academic progress.

    It is hoped that future research will include tighter control on students characteristics, the degree of their engagement with the software, and the amount of training and practice required, to offer further empiri- cal support for the use of assistive technology in todays classrooms. The results from this research should be used to make educational decisions about how assis- tive technology can be most effectively used to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities.

    Technology is not an answer to all the problems that students with learning disabilities face, but there are many reasons why its use should be considered for these students. When they have the means to build on their strengths and to compensate for their weaknesses in reading and writing, increased motivation, higher rates of learning, and improved achievement can result (Martin 1998). Educators need to understand how the increased use of assistive technology in the education- al environment can empower students with learning disabilities to work more independently and to com- plete assignments that verify their true strengths and abilities.

    Key words: learning disabilities, assistive technology, reading comprehension, organizational software

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