Answered by Nathalie Paquet-Bélanger
The act of reading draws on many different processes simultaneously. A reader must decode words, know what they mean, understand words when they are strung together in sentences, understand the use of pronouns, make connections between ideas using relationship markers, create mental pictures, make inferences, sum up information, and so forth.
Most students with one or more LD in reading have difficulty identifying written words; this leads to difficulty with other processes, but only for tasks involving writing. For example, a student who listens to a story read aloud by the teacher will be able to perform the tasks related to comprehension successfully.
In a learning situation where word identification is not the goal of the assessment, educators can allow students with LDs in reading to use other processes required for text comprehension, such as screen readers or other text-to-voice technologies, in compensating for their disability. Once a remedial process and needs analysis have been completed, assistive technology may become a very useful tool. Here are a few tips for using assistive technology to compensate for major difficulties with word identification.
Tip Number 1: Teach reading strategies explicitly
Even when students use assistive technology, explicit instruction of reading strategies is essential.
Tip Number 2: Get the student involved
Sometimes, students don’t understand their disabilities and, as a result, are unable to articulate their needs. Is the student using assistive technology because he or she reads too slowly or is unable to be sufficiently precise or needs to conserve energy while performing a reading task? If educators involve their students from the beginning of the process, they will encourage self-determination and also help their students to feel comfortable using technological tools in the classroom.
Tip Number 3: Work as a team to pick the best tool
Most often, vocal synthesis is used to support students with LDs in reading. In this way, a student will listen to electronic versions of texts rather than decoding them. However, the choice of appropriate software (Kurzweil, Lexibar, WordQ, etc.) will depend on a number of factors: the profile of the student’s strengths and weaknesses (if needed, plan to use word prediction), the availability of digital materials (if needed, plan to use an optical character conversion tool), the computer skills required, the quality/cost ratio of the product, and so forth. It is best to work as a team, in order to draw on the expertise of each member in a field in which products are evolving rapidly.
Improvements have been made to several accessibility options recently, making it possible to support reading more cost-effectively or to use materials that are already available. One essential prerequisite for choosing the right tool is an in-depth analysis of the student’s needs.
Tip Number 4: Support the student as he or she learns how to use the tool
Assistive technology is not a magic cure. Using assistive technology requires training and support, which must be considered right from the beginning. The student must be able to handle the basic components (the memory, the updates, the preferences, the tools, etc.) and to deal with minor issues (incompatible document formats, loss of connectivity, slow processing speed, etc.). The student must also be able to manage his or her use of the tools, depending on the nature of the task (changing the speed, breaking text up, annotating, etc.). The greater the student’s mastery of the tools, the greater the likelihood that he or she will be able to handle more complex or anxiety-inducing tasks as well.
Tip Number 5: Support teachers
A key factor in the successful implementation of assistive technology in the classroom is teacher attitude. First, educators must have a good grasp of the needs of their students with LDs in reading. With this understanding, they will in turn understand the importance of addressing this invisible handicap, enabling these students to learn and to demonstrate what they have learned. Educators will benefit from support to plan their lessons, for example, anticipating situations in which their students would benefit from assistive technologies and preparing appropriate learning materials.
Nathalie Paquet-Bélanger is the French Learning Disabilities Consultant of the LD@school team. She is completing a Masters degree in education science at the University of Quebec at Rimouski. She holds a bachelor degree in special education from the same university and a certificate in ICT integration in education (TELUQ). She is also a sessional instructor for the integration of ICT in education at the UQAR. Her current position is special teacher at the Charlesbourg Public Secondary School where she enjoys working with teenagers and a diversity of learning difficulties. Nathalie is glad to bring her contribution and expertise to the LD@school team and to network with teachers sharing the same passion for the success of students with learning disabilities.