Assistive Technology: A Remediation Tool

Technology 7I have wanted to write a blog about the use of Assisitive Technology (A/T) as a remediation tool for some time now.  Many teachers and parents of children with Learning Disabilities agree that Assisitive
Technology is a great tool to compensate for a child’s learning deficits but many do not understand the role of A/T as a tool in the remediation process.  Classic remediation tools are very important especially in the early years and students can make significant learning gains with these strategies.  The question I am asked the most by many of my fellow educators and parents alike is “How does Assistive Technology help the student learn to read and write?”  While many of us understand how A/T can help compensate for learning deficits we may not be familiar with how to use Assisitive Technology as a remediation tool.

My colleague Alicea Fleming and I spent some time researching how Assistive Technology was being used as a remediation tool for reading and writing.  We presented our findings at the 2012 Laubach Literacy Conference at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.  Our suggestions for using Assistive Technology as a remediation tool for reading and writing follow.

Using A/T to improve Phonological/Phonemic Awareness

Learners can utilize text-to-speech technology to read small text selections aloud. Then, phonological awareness tasks can be practiced with the help of a tutor (Phoneme: Detection, Isolation, Completion, Blending, Deletion, Segmentation, Reversal and Manipulation).

Using A/T to improve Decoding Skills

1) Digital Texts (e.g. audio books, e-books) can be used to help improve decoding skills: Provides Multi-modal (Visual and auditory involvement) input to the student (multi-sensory) and allows students to add content/notes to the text, modify the text, and use other tools (such as a dictionary and text to speech software).

2) Text-to-Speech Software: Reads text aloud, allows students to control voice and pace and allows students to listen for main ideas and important details.

Using A/T to improve Fluency

Use Digital Text and/or Text-to-Speech Software: Reads text aloud and models fluent reading, allows for echo reading, allows for choral reading, and allows students to listen for main ideas and important details.

Using A/T to improve Comprehension

Use Digital Text and/or Text-to-Speech Software: Built-in highlighters allow for paragraph shrinking, reads challenging words that they would otherwise need to guess or skip and provides visual reinforcement (multimodal learning) for students who have auditory processing difficulties.  It also allows for repeated exposure
to new words. Technology 6

Using A/T to improve Writing Skills

1) Speech Recognition/Speech-to-Text Software: Dictate thoughts and information into various programs, allows students to focus cognitive energy on the ideas they would like to express (without using excess resources on spelling).

2) Word Prediction Software: Can be used to assist with typing thoughts and information into various programs, and is good for students with some phonemic
awareness.

3) Graphic Organizer Software: Can be used for developing pre-writing strategies (brainstorm webs, writing models, timelines, flow charts, etc…)

Assistive Technology software is not a replacement for a teacher or tutor. However, it can offer invaluable assistance to both teachers and students by providing opportunities for drill and reinforcement as well as providing opportunities for students to practice reading skills independently.

You can find our presentation from the 2012 Laubach Literacy Conference here: Assistive Technology: A Tool for Literacy Success 

The Write Stuff: Handwriting Difficulty in Young Learners

Multiple-print-reversals-e1331590434434-300x286The first time I reviewed my son’s grade one assessment binder that came home from school I was overcome with worry.  Flipping through the pages, I noticed that every page had some letter or number reversal.   I got even more concerned as I read his teacher’s notes about the number of reversals he was making.  I had excused his writing because of his young age but now having a seasoned grade one teacher comment was making the gears in my head turn.  As a teacher myself who works with students with learning disabilities, letter reversals in writing is not new to me.   I knew how to help my son; I had all the right tools to help him improve his writing, tools that I regularly use with my students.  What I didn’t know was why these reversals occur and what is typical for younger children and what isn’t.  I dove right into books and articles to learn as much as I could about letter reversals in children.

frustrated writingWhat I learned from my research was that letter reversals in young children were common until about age 8 because generally, children do not develop directionality until that age.  Directionality means up/down, right/left and forward/backward.  Another issue is that some children do not learn to properly form their letters and what helps is to re-teach them how to write.  I also learned that for children who have dyslexia, 8 out of 10 will have an issue with directionality.   Younger children who have Dysgraphia will have trouble with forming letters, maintaining word spacing, and will complain about having sore hands.  These students may also have trouble forming ideas about what to write about.  Their writing may be illegible and may not fall on lines or within the page margins.

It’s a lot of information to take in and in my son’s case I’m not yet sure if the writing troubles are because of his age (he’s in the second grade now) or because there is an underlying issue affecting his handwriting.  As an educator, I know these handwriting issues will not just disappear regardless of the outcome and some work needs to be done.  While I strongly support modification and accommodation to support a student with difficulties I am an advocate for remediation in whatever capacity possible.   It’s the basis of our ABC123 Tutoring Program and it’s what I utilize with my students and my own son.

wetdrytryIn the ABC123 program, I have used the Handwriting Without Tears  program and while researching writing difficulties I came across their iPad app Wet-Dry-Try  and purchased it to try with my son.   He immediately took to the program and was willing to practice printing.  With the program he learned to properly form his letters from top to bottom, something I had tried to do with paper and a pencil, but which only frustrated him.  The app has been a game changer in our home, and my son has been learning how to form his uppercase and lowercase letters and numbers.

With students who have difficulty with writing it’s important to learn what strategies will work best for them.  For my son it was the iPad, for others it may be paper with raised lines or finding the right pen or pencil.  Practicing letter shapes through motor activities such as finger tracing in a tray of sand, or forming individual letters and numbers with play-doh are other methods that help students learn.  It’s also important to ensure that the student is using good writing hygiene, meaning that they are sitting properly, holding the paper down and have a good grip on the pencil since many of these bad habits will be harder to unlearn later on.  With many of my students, their grip is awkward which makes writing with a pencil difficult.   A strategy I learned from an occupational therapist was to have the student ball up a tissue in their hand to grip their pencil (see picture below).  For my son and many of my student’s it’s helped to find a commercial pencil grip that works for them.

kleenex grip

In the end, a wait and see approach is risky and many bad writing habits are difficult to change later on.  If you have a child or student with a writing difficulty, it’s beneficial for them (Dysgraphia or not) to try to remediate these difficulties because it’s likely that they will not improve on their own.  After remediation has been thoroughly examined accommodations such as keyboarding or Assistive Technology can be further explored.  For my son, I am taking it one day at a time and working with him to improve his printing for now.

To read more about Dysgraphia and the warning signs: http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/dysgraphia/what-is-dysgraphia

Strategies for Success: Making this school year a positive one for your students with ADHD

It’s hard to believe that another summer has gone by and that it’s time for school once again.  I’ve always loved the beginning of a new school year.  It’s a refreshing new start and an opportunity to begin with a clean slate.   Image In a few short weeks, the ABC123 Tutoring Program at the LDAWE will recommence for the new school year.  For me, it’s always an exciting time as I prepare new language and math activities in anticipation of the students I will be working with and also freshen up some of my existing material.   Soon, I will be seeing my students that I have gotten to know very well over the last three years and I will be meeting new students that are joining the program for the first time.   My students are all diverse, with their own unique talents and their own set of challenges.  It’s a busy time especially in the beginning as I begin to map out the program in ways that will help each individual best.  One of the challenges I face is not the materials I prepare or the individual assessments I make.   The most difficult part of my job is managing the classroom with so many students, many of who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). “Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurobiological disorder that can be noticed in the preschool or early grades of school. ADHD affects between 5-12% of the population or about 1 or 2 students in every classroom.”

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Individuals with ADHD will have at least one symptom that includes: Hyperactivity, Impulsivity and Inattentiveness.  (Read more about ADHD signs and symptoms at the LDAO website: http://www.ldao.ca/introduction-to-ldsadhd/introduction-to-ldsadhd/what-is-adhd/)  It can be a very busy and loud classroom environment and can be an enormous challenge for even the most seasoned teacher.

I believe that teachers can make the difference for students with ADHD and can contribute to a student’s success in school.  How a student feels about himself/herself is important and feeling confident and positive about their capabilities can help them achieve greater success in school.  I’ve had the opportunity to try various techniques and classroom management strategies that I’ve read about or learned in other teacher’s classrooms.  Over the last three years I have narrowed those ideas down to a few key strategies that work well with my students and help create a positive learning environment for everyone:

  • Create classroom rules with students and display them where everyone can see them.  Students are great at coming up with rules and will take ownership of the rules when they participate.   They are aware of what is acceptable and unacceptable in a classroom environment.  Get them involved to get them on board with the rules.
  • Refer to the rules when a student is not displaying appropriate behavior.  I take it a step further and help the student understand what it is they should be doing instead.

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  • Provide clear instructions.  Breaking down instructions into smaller parts can help keep students stay focused and on task.  Giving too much and saying too much can be overwhelming for any student including a student with ADHD.
  • Provide frequent breaks.   Let’s face it; working hard on school tasks can be too much sometimes, especially for students who struggle.  Giving frequent breaks can let them blow off some steam or just relax until they are ready to get back to their work.
  • Provide fidget toys or objects.  I have a small bin of squeeze toys and balls for my most fidgety students.  Having something in their hand helps eliminate some of that energy they have and helps them focus on what they are doing.  My rule is that as long as it’s not distracting to others they can use these objects freely.
  • Use positive reinforcement.  I never want to embarrass my students or punish them for their behavior when I know they have trouble controlling their impulsivity and hyperactivity.  I set some goals for each student to work on and reinforce the desired behavior with praise, small prizes or free time.
  • Never single out a student.  I try not to single out my students or call attention to their ADHD.  If I need to speak to them about a behavior I do it discreetly or privately.  I also used secret signals with students to let them know when they are off task or when they need to refocus.  The last thing a student who already feels alienated from their peers needs is to be humiliated in class in front of their peers.
  • Come prepared with lots of patience and kindness. Go with the mindset that students with ADHD can have a hard time learning because of impairment to their executive functions.  As teachers we need to be patient and help them navigate through this.  It’s not their fault; they are not lazy or stupid.  Be kind.  Put yourself in your student’s shoes.  What if this was you? What if this was your child?  As a mother it helps me look at my students as “my kids” and to treat them the way I’d want my child’s teacher to treat him.

I love the time I spend with my students even if it is a challenge at times.   I frequently remind myself that even though I have worked with many students with ADHD they are all unique. Image Strategies that work with one child may not work with another.  As a teacher I know I need to be flexible and to treat each student as an individual.  I also know that at times I may not have the answer, and I may need to reflect on that.  I do try to have fun and not sweat the small stuff; it makes for a more relaxed environment where students are not afraid to be themselves and are more open to learning in a classroom community.

What strategies have you used in your classroom with your students? 

What was that again?

Just before I graduated from the Faculty of Education, I began volunteering in a grade five classroom one day a week. The teacher pulled me aside one day and asked if I could read with Michael*. “He has some trouble with reading,” she said. As I sat with Michael, I was amazed at how well he read to me. It was perfect and he never stumbled, not even for one single word. I couldn’t understand why this student needed anyone’s help, much less mine! As I was wondering if the teacher had paired me with the wrong student, Michael turned to the question page that went along with the story. What happened next shocked me. As Michael began reading the questions it was evident that he couldn’t remember much of what he had read. He couldn’t really explain what the story was about. As I started prompting and quizzing him about the passage he had read, the more evident it became. Michael didn’t understand what he had read and he couldn’t comprehend the story. As I looked over at Michael, bewildered, I felt terrible for him. He was humiliated and frustrated and was done with the reading work. This experience was my first encounter with a student with comprehension difficulties and, unfortunately, not my last.

Frustration 2

As a Literacy Facilitator with LDAWE for almost three years, I have worked with countless students that have reading comprehension difficulties. While there are many different strategies for teaching comprehension, these are a few that I use with my students that have proven helpful:

1. Monitoring. Teach students to monitor their understanding when reading. When they are not understanding, they need to stop and identify what is giving them difficulty. Then they should use appropriate action to remediate the difficulty. These actions may include re-reading the text, looking back to a previous page, moving forward in the text, or asking someone for clarification. Once students are able to identify when they don’t understand something, they can then take steps to improve their understanding.

2. Identification. Have students use highlighters to identify important parts of a story. Teach them to look at only one page at a time and to highlight important text. For fictional stories, this may include names of characters or places. For non-fiction, this may include dates, names of places, or difficult words. Ask them what it is that they think is important and work with them in separating what is and isnot important

3. Use graphic organizers. Graphic organizers help students construct meaning from the text that they are reading. Students can use a KWL chart (Know, Want, Learn) to activate their background knowledge prior to learning. Using their personal connections, students can then enter what they know about the topic, as well as the things that they want to learn about. Students can enter specific questions they are hoping the text answers. Finally, after reading the text, students can fill in what they learned. Character and Story maps (or Problem and Solution charts) can also be used to keep track of what is taking place in the text. Other graphic organizers can be found here: http://www.readinga-z.com/more/graphic_org.html

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4. Paragraph Shrinking. My favourite strategy to use is paragraph shrinking. Students will summarize each paragraph (for younger students, each page) and identify: 1) the who or the what of the paragraph; 2) the most important thing about the who or what; and 3) the main idea of the paragraph. Students should identify the main idea in 10 words or less, which encourages focus on comprehension.

5. Make Connections. Students will understand text they are reading if they can make a connection to it. I ask students, “Does this remind you of anything?”. If students have a schema about what they are reading, the text will be more meaningful and they will comprehend better. Connections can be a personal connection, a connection to something they have read or seen on TV, or something that they have heard about. When I sit with students, I will use self-talk to explain how I am making a personal connection to the text.

6. Read and Search. Teach students to re-read the text and search for answers. Students can read through the first time using the strategies mentioned above. Once finished, have the student read the question and then go back through the text until they find the answer. Often, students don’t realize that they should refer back to the original text. This is an important strategy for students to learn.

7. Visualize. It’s important for the reader to visualize what they are reading. I like to tell them to turn the information into a movie in their mind. I will start with reading to the students and having them close their eyes to imagine what is happening in the story. It’s interesting for a group of students to hear about other’s visualizations in order to see how everyone’s individual schema plays into the text. The next step is for students to independently read a paragraph and visualize what they are reading.

8. Read with Good Fluency. When students struggle with reading, their comprehension may suffer too. All the reader’s energy is being used to decode the words and get through the text, which means their focus is not on what is actually happening in the story. Good fluency helps with reading comprehension. One of the best ways to help students improve their fluency is to re-read short passages. For younger readers, re-reading their short stories a second time is a wonderful way to help improve fluency.

One of the most important things I have learned as an educator is that a one size solution does not fit all. It’s important for teachers to know how and when to differentiate. Every individual has their own strengths and weaknesses, their own likes and dislikes, and their own preferred methods based on their learning styles. I teach my students to know what it is they need in order to be successful and to learn to advocate for themselves. To speak up and say “I need this in order to learn.”

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These are my experiences and this is what I do. There is no manual to follow when teaching people to read. You do what works for the individual. Sometimes you really have to work hard to find what works. You search and experiment. When you fail, you go back and try again. When the “Aha!” moment finally comes for the learner, your inner teacher will jump for joy and you’ll know then that, in the end, it’s all been worth it.

*Name has been changed.