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Assistive tech tools for all learners (Spread the word!)


Readers, it’s time to celebrate!

The tools we now have to address varied needs of learners, of ALL learners, have expanded.  They are easily available. And mostly, they are free.

At Edubloggercon EastKaren Janowski and Cheryl Oakes led Making Assistive Technology Mainstream, a lively discussion surrounding the wealth of resources available that can potentially ensure that every learner has the tools he or she needs to learn. 

Karen says,

It is vital to get the word out because these tools level the playing field for all kids, especially for struggling learners. They allow kids to show what they know. They remove obstacles to learning, they empower and equip kids.

All teachers need to know these tools are available.  All parents too. Our library workstations need to be equipped to serve all our students.

In the session, Karen pointed to an amazing blog post that she regularly updatesI recently worked with Karen to create a wiki for collecting these powerful tools. (If you are patient, you can visit the UStream of their talk somewhere in the middle of the recorded afternoon session.)

In her post Karen writes:

My passion is to remove the obstacles to learning for all students and these free tools offer opportunities for struggling learners that promote academic success. When material is digital or electronic, it is flexible and accessible. It is our responsibility as educators to provide materials that promote success. Please encourage all educators to consider using these free tools.

I asked Karen to share some of her favorite tools.  She had trouble selecting from among the many she uses regularly, but decided to start with text-to-speech:

One of the most essential tools for every computer everywhere is text-to-speech programs. Students don’t have to struggle with decoding to have access to curriculum, to be able to access to grade level vocabulary. If we don’t provide this type of support, learning gaps will continue to grow.  This is a huge disservice to kids

Karen notes that text-to-speech software is not only essential for struggling readers, it supports the writing process, especially when learners are editing and revising their work.

  • CliCk,Speak is an open source extension for the Firefox web browser, designed to read web pages.

  • For Mac users, a text-to-speech feature is built into the operating system. (Go to System Preferences>Speech>Text to Speech).  Karen suggests using Command R (for read) as a short cut. 

  • For Microsoft Word and Outlook (PC only), Word Talk highlights each word as it reads it.  It features both a talking spell checker and thesaurus.  Check out Karen’s TeacherTube video for a demonstration.

  • Karen suggests that we don’t ban call phones, but teach kids how to use them strategically. Jott is a tool that converts voice into email and text messages. It allows students to record messages on their cell phones, to specify a destination (even specific groups and folders), and to easily convert that message to text. Check out Karen’s Jott blog post for an impressive list of possible classroom applications.

  • I was only a little surprised by Karen’s next pick, VoiceThread.  She calls my current favorite tool for digital storytelling a fabulous tool for differentiation. At the Edubloggercon workshop, Karen asked her colleague Beth Lloyd to share the story of a first grade girl, a selective mute.  She would talk at home, but at school, no one had ever heard her voice. Her teacher, who needed someway to assess her reading, introduced VoiceThread. Left in the room with a computer station and the book she was reading, the student read the story and shared evidence of her reading ability.  When the teacher played the VoiceThread, the class responded dramatically.  "Oh, her voice is beautiful!"

Karen told the story of another student, a girl whose slow processing skills affected her motor skills, as well as her independence.  Every week the girl struggled with those darn spelling sentences. Then she learned to use a separate VoiceThread page to record each of those 20 darn sentences.  The quality of her sentences greatly improved once barriers relating to her processing challenges and her physical ability to write were removed.

Kids who are struggling readers and writers hate to do book reports. Karen’s suggestion: VoiceThread as a strategy for students to share their understanding of their reading and to engage audience as other people comment upon their thoughts. 

  • Karen endorses many of the resources coming out of CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology), especially the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Book Builder.  This authoring tool allows student and teachers to create, read, and share engaging digital books that build reading skills for students . . . according to their individual needs, interests, and skills.  Book builder allows authors to embed prompts and think alouds, to provide–in line with UDL philosophy–multiple methods of engagement, expression and representation.  The prompts are represented by tiny "coaches."

Pedro prompts kids to think (such as, "make a prediction, what do you think this book is about?") Hali gives them hints (such as, "we can make predictions based upon the pictures and the title"), and Monty shares model responses (such as, "Based upon this picture, I predict…").

Karen’s work is greatly influenced by work of Mel Levine, who believes there is no such thing as a disability.  Students have different abilities and different learning styles. As adults we don’t to expect ourselves to be great at everything.  Why should we expect kids to be?  Every child wants to learn, to be successful. Our kids who struggle with learning struggle go through their school day trying not to be humiliated.

These tools help kids feel better about themselves as learners.  At our discussion in Boston, Cheryl and Karen asked, "So, why aren’t we implementing them? Why aren’t these tools available on every workstation? What are the best ways to get them into the classroom to give kids an opportunity to explore and see what works best for them? 

Any struggling learner needs to know that there are tools that will help her succeed in the face of any specific barriers to her learning.  We don’t have show everything. If we simply make the tools available, if we promote awareness, learners will pick and choose the tools they need for their individual learning toolkits. They will realize they don’t have to struggle and that they can carry these tools along with them when they leave our classrooms and libraries.

It has never been easier, it has never been less expensive for us to meet the learning needs of all the students we touch.

In the coming school year, how can we, as school and public librarians, and as teachers, lead in spreading the word to parents, other teachers and learners?

Please start by sharing and helping us grow our new wiki!

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. KarenJanowski says:

    Thank you so much for getting the word out about all the free tools that are available. The wiki you created will be an excellent resource for educators everywhere. My mantra is, “There is no better time to be an educator!” Keeping this information to ourselves does a great disservice to our students. But this post will definitely spread the word!
    Thank you so much for highlighting the Free Tech Toolkit for UDL!
    Great job!

  2. Cheryl Oakes says:

    Yes, thanks for spreading the word! All is good.

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