Assistive Tech 101: Basics for Students with Dyslexia

Assistive technology (AT) is developing at a rapid pace, and it is easy to get caught up in the latest devices and software that make learning easier for students with dyslexia. Because there are still many kids, families, and teachers who are just learning how to use technology as an effective accommodation in school, it's important to consider the basics of AT for students who have difficulty with reading and writing.

With assistive technology (AT) developing at such a rapid pace, it is easy to get caught up in the latest and greatest devices and software that make learning easier for students with dyslexia.

Nevertheless, there are still many kids, families, and teachers who are just learning how to use technology as an effective accommodation in school. Let’s take a step back and consider the basics of AT for students who have difficulty with reading and writing.

What is Assistive Technology?

In a broad sense, assistive technology includes tools that are used by individuals with disabilities to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. AT has been helping people for a long time. Examples of AT include wheelchairs, eyeglasses, Braille printers, and alternative communication devices. For people with dyslexia, AT provides tools that ease the demands of reading and writing. Today, those tools are often found in computer operating systems and software, but they also include audio books and websites. The main thing to know about assistive technology is that it increases the independence of those who use it.

Basic Categories of AT for Dyslexic Students

Some of today’s assistive technology applications offer many functions, and some specialize in just one or two ways to help with language-based activities. Here are the basic categories of AT that should be in the tool belts of all students with dyslexia:

  • Text-to-Speech

Text-to-speech technology converts printed text to spoken words using synthesized voices. One of today’s most prevalent assistive technologies, it is built into computer operating systems, mobile devices, e-book readers, and websites; it is also an integral part of standalone applications. Examples of tools that feature text-to-speech are NaturalReader, Read&Write Gold, and Voice Dream Reader.

  • Audiobooks

Audiobooks feature recorded human narration. They are available in different formats, including audio CDs and MP3 files. They are a good option for students who cannot tolerate the synthesized voices of text-to-speech over the course of an entire book. Two good sources of audiobooks that can be played on multiple devices are Learning Ally and Audible. Also, check out Noodle's list of 11 educational audiobooks to get you started.

  • Speech-to-Text

Also referred to as dictation technology, speech-to-text converts spoken words to printed text. Since accurate dictation relies on context, this technology works well for students who are able to formulate phrases and sentences in their minds before dictating them. The leading speech-to-text programs are Dragon NaturallySpeaking for Windows and Dragon Dictate for OS X. Students can also dictate on their tablets and smart phones with the integrated dictation of mobile operating systems.

  • Word Prediction

Word prediction software provides dyslexic students with spelling assistance while they type. The technology anticipates and predicts the correct words after only a few characters are typed. Word prediction is an effective tool when dictation is not an option and when students wish to write with moderate assistance. Two high-quality word prediction programs are Co:Writer and WordQ. The technology can also be found in a number of third-party keyboards available for iPads.

  • Electronic Graphic Organizers

Electronic graphic organizers allow students to organize information visually while completing writing assignments, taking notes on textbook chapters, and studying for tests. Because they are digital, they are accessible to dyslexic students and can be used in conjunction with other AT tools for independent learning. Examples include Inspiration, Mindomo, and Popplet.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and AT

Today’s best teachers constantly create pathways to success for all of their students. They use an approach called Universal Design for Learning, which is made up of three principles that involve creating educational experiences that work for everyone.

The first principle asks teachers to offer information in more than one format, such as text, audio, video, and experiential learning. The second principle allows students to show their knowledge in more than one way. Examples include pencil-and-paper tests, electronic exams, and oral presentations. The last principle calls on teachers to find different ways to maintain student motivation, such as encouraging game play, allowing choice, and optimizing relevance of the subject matter.

Because approximately one in every five students is dyslexic, assistive technology plays a key role in UDL. By employing text-to-speech, audiobooks, and software that helps with correct spelling, teachers who follow UDL are providing their dyslexic students with the necessary tools for academic success. Most importantly, they are giving those students the opportunity to be successful alongside their non-dyslexic classmates.

Incorporating AT into Schools

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires Individualized Education Plan (IEP) teams in public schools to consider assistive technology as an accommodation for students with dyslexia, and an AT evaluation may be needed to determine the best technology tools for the needs of particular students. In addition, AT accommodations can be part of students’ 504 plans. Once dyslexic students enter college, they are responsible for seeking out their own AT accommodations, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects their rights to those accommodations. For more information on the legal aspects of incorporating AT into the education of dyslexic students, please explore Wrightslaw, a comprehensive website led by special education attorney Peter Wright.

In addition to the legal process, parents and teachers can work together for the good of students with dyslexia. Most teachers enter the profession because they care about kids and have a true interest in helping them succeed. Unfortunately, many educators do not have a complete knowledge of assistive technology and how it can help their students with reading and writing difficulties. Parents and teachers can learn about AT together, share ideas, and strategize the best ways to implement them in schools.

Another thing to consider is that private schools that specialize in educating students with dyslexia often incorporate assistive technology into their academic programs. In many cases, they have specialists who train students to use AT and help teachers incorporate the tools into their classrooms.

Looking for further information? Find a collection of expert-written articles and ask questions on Noodle's page on assistive technology.

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