How many times do copy machines need to get jammed before teachers stop relying so much on worksheets?
Sure, when I was a full-time teacher, I went through my fair share of paper and toner. But in an age of laptops, mobile devices, and Chromebooks, paper worksheets should be on their way out, and it’s not just my environmental conscience telling me that.
As more students are identified as having learning disabilities and differences, greater emphasis is rightly being placed on accessible educational materials (AEM). Students with learning difficulties like dyslexia can use assistive technology (AT) to complete fill-in-the-blank exercises, but they need to do so electronically.
If the learning materials are already in electronic form, students can use text-to-speech tools, which will read the instructions and questions aloud to them. They can then answer the questions using other AT tools, such as dictation technology and word prediction.
The good news is that more teachers than ever are spending less time in the copy room and more time providing their students with accessible, electronic materials. There are still times, however, when paper worksheets creep back into the classroom.
Here are a handful of ways students can convert inaccessible paper worksheets into digital versions they can complete independently.
The technology that enables text accessibility is called optical character recognition (OCR). Basically, OCR converts images of words into text that is selectable and editable on an electronic platform. In the process, many OCR tools strip away the formatting of the original document, but the following desktop programs all retain an exact image of the hard copy after executing character recognition. This is important when it comes to worksheets, which often have blank lines, images, and word banks. Additionally, the programs all have automatic OCR, making the scanning process simple.
An all-in-one literacy program, Kurzweil’s scanning and OCR functions are combined in a one-click button in the toolbar. After a worksheet is scanned into the software, students can use the built-in text-to-speech feature to read the questions aloud before adding their responses. Kurzweil also allows students to control which text is read aloud (useful for skipping over long word banks) with a feature called Zone Editing. Learners can then print completed worksheets or save them as PDF documents in order to submit them to teachers.
Read&Write, another multipurpose AT program, also features one-click scanning and OCR. To maintain worksheets’ original formatting, students should scan them as PDF files. The selectable text of the worksheets can then be read aloud with Read&Write or a different text-to-speech tool on the computer. Students may add answers to the worksheets by combining dictation or word prediction with the various annotation features of desktop PDF readers.
Adobe Acrobat is a productivity tool familiar to many people outside the assistive technology realm. In terms of providing assistance for accessible educational materials, the program allows students to scan worksheets directly to an editable PDF document, creating electronic versions that can be completed with various AT tools.
Desktop software can be expensive, and many of these programs rely on an external scanner to produce document images. But several economical iPad apps can utilize the device’s camera to create accessible worksheets for students. They do require a high-quality camera, though, so older iPads will not work as well as newer ones. The following apps retain the exact appearances of the original worksheets while making them accessible.
SnapType is an easy-to-use app that lets students take pictures of worksheets and overlay text boxes to add their answers. The size of the text boxes can be adjusted, and students with spelling difficulties can use the iPad’s built-in dictation or word prediction to complete their responses. SnapType does not support OCR, however, so the worksheet questions cannot be read aloud with text-to-speech.
ClaroPDF is a full-featured app that allows students to convert paper worksheets to completely accessible ones on their iPads. First, students can use the device’s camera to take a picture of a worksheet, which is imported into the app as a PDF image. Next, the PDF image can be converted to an OCR-enabled text PDF so that the worksheet questions can be read aloud with text-to-speech. Finally, the app contains several annotation tools that allow students to add diagrams, images, and words, depending on what kind of response is required for the assignment. For written responses, the iPad’s dictation and word prediction can help to correct spelling.
The popularity of Chromebooks in schools has necessitated another way to make worksheets accessible to students who use assistive technology. Texthelp, the developer of the Read&Write lineup of programs, has created a Chrome app that students can use to convert paper worksheets to electronic versions that are compatible with various AT tools.
Snapverter (Read&Write for Google add-on)
Snapverter works in tandem with the Read&Write Chrome extension. To convert a hardcopy worksheet into an accessible PDF document, students first need to take a picture of the worksheet with a standard camera app on a mobile device. The photo then gets emailed and saved in the Snapverter folder in a student’s Google Drive account. Once in Snapverter, the image is converted to a PDF file whose text can be read and edited in the app. To read the questions aloud, students can use the text-to-speech feature of Read&Write for Google, and can easily add answers using the extension’s annotation tools. Like each of the other AT tools in this article, the converted PDF retains the exact formatting of the original worksheet.
If you're interested in learning more about how assitive technology can help your studies, check out other articles by Jamie Martin on assistive technology, such as, Google for Dyslexia: Using Chrome for Reading and Writing.