Answered by Dr. Todd Cunningham & The Academic Intervention Lab
Assistive technologies (AT) are devices that help people bypass an area of weakness; a wheelchair is a very common assistive technology. AT are excellent tools at giving students more independence to access things they couldn’t otherwise. For example, giving a student text-to-speech can help them bypass a decoding problem and let them practice their reading comprehension when they otherwise couldn’t.
There are hundreds of assistive technologies available, and simply too much information for one person to track. To help with this problem, Dr. Todd Cunningham, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto/OISE, specializing in AT, and his team of graduate students have gone through and compiled as much information and research as we could find. All this information is available on the website ATSelect.org, compiled into summary articles, each one on a different type of AT. The core of the website consists of a series of articles, each one describing a particular type of AT, its main features, and as much relevant, up-to-date research as we could find. These articles will help you understand what each AT is, and if that AT is appropriate for your situation.
To reach these articles, we’ve provided two methods that sort and label the technologies differently. These are called “Techs by Task” and “Techs by Skill”. Both of these links will, eventually, take you to the same AT articles. However one allows you to select an AT based on the type of activity you have in mind for your student (e.g. book report, spelling test, etc.), while the other allows you to find an AT that supports a particular type of skill deficit (e.g. phonological processing, organization, etc.). If you’re finding the website confusing, there are two guide videos on the main page that are intended to provide more direct instruction.
How to use ATSelect: A Case Study
Mike is a male student in grade 4. Mike is performing at grade level in most subjects. He loves to read and expresses interest in writing his own stories. However, Mike struggles to get his ideas onto paper as he has difficulty forming letters with a pencil and paper. He can become very defeated and disengaged during his written language work periods. He is rarely able to complete writing tasks within the allotted time. During journal writing, Mike has asked if he can just tell his stories out loud instead.
There are two approaches that can be taken. From the home page of the website, www.atselect.org, either the Techs by Task or Techs by Skill can be used.
Click here to view and download the Assistive Technology Selection Implementation Guide, which can help educators to identify the appropriate technology to support the specific learning needs a student may have.
Techs by Skill
This page is the simpler and more commonly used route. Mike is having trouble with writing. So select “writing” on this page, which will take you to a page breaking down all the subskills of writing. Search through the different subskills of writing, and find the one that suits Mike’s weakness the best. In this case, graphomotor seems to be most applicable. Graphomotor has 5 different ATs. Any of these five will help with Mike’s difficulty, but reading through the articles we find voice recognition has the best evidence showing how effective it can be. If budget or noise was a concern, keyboarding or pencil grips may be a better choice.
Techs by Task
This page is more complicated. The purpose is to break down the same information, but by which tasks a child needs to do. Many tasks are more complicated than we first think; it can be easy to overlook skills like vision, hearing, and motor coordination.
Mike’s task is journal writing, which is a writing task. Hover over “Writing” and find “Journal Writing” in the list of tasks. Select it, and the link will take you to a breakdown of all the primary academic domains needed for journal writing. Journal writing needs Reading, Writing, Organization, Sensory Input, and Attention. Based on what we know for Mike, writing is the hardest for him. Under writing there are ten different subskills of writing. Graphomotor seems to be where he’s struggling, so click graphomotor and you will be taken to a list of ATs that will help with graphomotor skills. Just like in the previous example, any of these will work, but reading the articles, we find that voice recognition has very good research behind it.
Either way, by using “techs by skill” or “techs by task”, you will end up at a list of appropriate ATs to choose from. The techs by skill side is a little simpler and helps when you know what skill your student seems to struggle with. The techs by task side is more helpful when planning an assignment, and you want to see that assignment broken down into its many components, to identify if your student might struggle with it.
Sample Tech Featurettes
In our experience, people, including ourselves, tend to find a handful of tools they know about and “settle” on those tools as general fixes. Here, we’re going to outline a few tools that have either become misunderstood or are simply not very well known, to encourage the casual reader to try a tech. Further to this point, we encourage experimentation, because no tech is effective if the student doesn’t use it because they don’t like it. Here are a few assistive technologies to consider:
Text To Speech (TTS)
Text to Speech, or TTS, is an icon of the assistive technology world. It is reliable and consistent for helping students with reading fluency or decoding challenges. A common misconception with TTS is that it will help with “reading” in general, however, it will not. TTS cannot support anything related to comprehension. Consider using TTS for a foreign language: you may be able to read fluently, but it will not help understanding in any way. This is one of the reasons we value TTS so much (it’s specific and targeted) but also a common frustration in the education community (it’s not an all-purpose fix). Our take-home message with TTS is: use it but use it along with teaching comprehension.
Event-, Time-, and Location-Based Reminders
These organizational apps are usually free features built into smartphones. There is a budding field of research using them in the healthcare field to help patients take their medications on time. Though they have not been used as much in research in education, the idea behind them is sound. Program reminders that will beep, buzz, send a text message or play music to signal event transitions, remind students to bring a form, sign their agenda, or check their homework. These triggers can be set to a certain time of day, after a certain amount of time expires, or even when the student leaves a certain location using GPS on smartphones. The GPS is very effective for “leaving home” reminders, like “check that you brought your lunch and agenda.” The GPS not yet good enough to tell two classrooms apart, but it can usually tell if you’re in the school library versus the classroom, and it will definitely tell if you leave your house.
A keyboard is a basic tool. It provides help in several areas related to organization and graphomotor ability. It also opens access to a wide suite of other AT tools, such as spell-checking. The important feature of using a keyboard we want to emphasize is that a physical keyboard is superior to a virtual or touch board, and it’s important to train typing fluency alongside the use of a keyboard. A threshold we recommend is 15-20 words per minute to have basic fluency.
This AT is like a search engine, but instead of providing topic lists (like an encyclopedia), it provides prompts or related content, based on written works already found online. This is a relatively new tool that we think can help older students with written works during their prewriting phase, especially if they struggle to get started.
These tools will provide properly formatted equations from hand-written inputs on a computer. While they’re used with math, they’re actually an organizational tool. Many students doing math work are good computationally but make mistakes related to messy work or careless errors. These tools are a great way to help students make sure those math problems are neat and lined up, without doing the actual math for them. For students who are neat and tidy, but struggle with calculations, we instead recommend a basic calculator.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: A lot of common ATs are not showing where I think they should be. For example, my student has to complete a spelling test, but when I select “spelling test” on the list of Tasks, I don’t see spell-checking technology. Why not?
A: We do not recommend using AT that supports an area that is directly being tested. A spelling test is the one time a student should not be using a spell checker. Our mandate with AT is to support an area that’s holding a student back from shining in other areas. For example, we advise using a spell-checker for writing essays. If a student used a spell-checker on a spelling test, then the test isn’t measuring the student, it’s measuring the spell-checker. To support a student with a spelling test, we advise using AT for the supplementary skills that are holding them back (writing fluency, organization, planning and test preparation, etc).
Q: Some of the most popular apps and programs we have in the classroom are not on your website. For example, all my students love DanceMat typing!
A: We make a distinction between assistive technology and educational technology. Many popular (and effective) classroom tools are designed to build skills. This website is exclusively for assistive technology, which can be thought of like a wheelchair. A wheelchair will not help you recover your ability to walk; it is a bypass to an area of weakness. The whole idea behind AT is the tool is doing one critical step entirely for the student. DanceMat typing does not bypass a step, it is teaching students how to type better, making it an educational technology.
To learn more about the difference between assistive technology and educational technology, click here to access an article on the ATSelect website.
Q: What types of AT are appropriate for students in a particular grade? I only teach grade three, for example, and I don’t see any way to filter the results based on grade?
A: There really isn’t data or research out there at this time that lets us confidently say that a particular tech works with students at a certain age range. We advise thinking about student ability, rather than age, when considering techs. Consider the following questions.
- Is the student losing access to other aspects of their schooling because of their area of difficulty? If so, consider AT.
- Are you trying to improve the student’s ability in the targeted area? If so, educational technology and practice may be better.
- Do both situations apply? Then consider using AT some of the time and mixing it with training in the area that the AT supports, without using the AT. For example, a student with weak motor skills might be using Handwriting Without Tears to train their printing skills for part of the day, then use a voice recognition program when they have to write in their journals so they can complete their written work.
With that being said, our loose guideline is that in the earlier grades (grade 3 and below) we recommend intervention and practice more than AT. As a student gets older, we recommend shifting more towards AT and away from practice.
Q: Which AT do you recommend? I know my student’s weakness but I’d like a professional opinion.
A: Our opinion is to pick AT that is supported by evidence. AT that is relatively well supported can be found by skimming through a given article to the summary at the end. This will tell you if a particular tech has good research supporting it, or not. If the tech has good research, then we recommend it. The goal of this website is to provide as much unbiased, evidence-based information to help you inform yourself. A rating system also risks over-generalizations, and we’d rather just provide the best information we can to you, and help you make the best choice for your students.
Thanks & Comments!
This website is an ongoing project maintained by a small team of school and clinical child psychologists specializing in technology. We hope to improve upon it and it make more useful to you over time. If you see a feature you would like, a comment you disagree with, a tech that you’ve found but we don’t list, please let us know! Your feedback makes this tool more useful for everyone. You may contact firstname.lastname@example.org for any comments or suggestions related to the website content. We always love hearing requests and will do our best to implement your suggestions in the future.