Assistive Technology Support for Students with Reading Difficulties

Supporting access to the curriculum and increasing capabilities for students with reading difficulties

IDEA defines assistive technology as any technology that can “increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with disabilities” (Individuals with Disabilities Act Amendments, 2004). There are many assistive technologies available that can support access to the curriculum and increase capabilities for students with reading difficulties. Many of these technologies are readily available in the classroom and can also be used at home to support a student who struggles with reading, writing, and organization. Assistive technology is never meant to replace instruction, but when paired with research-based instructional methods, it can bridge the gap between a student’s current skills and the material that they need to access. While they continue to build on their current skills, they are able to use assistive technology to gain access to higher level reading material, capture their ideas in writing, and organize for studying and writing.

Microsoft Word Strategies 

There are many simple adjustments that can be made in Microsoft Word that might help students who struggle with reading and writing. Simply changing the background color and text color may help a student with processing information on the screen. Text size can be adjusted for easier reading. Adjustments can be made to the margin width, spaces between lines, characters, and words to increase readability. The font chosen for a document can also impact a student’s perception of letters. 

Fonts

The font in which text is presented can make a difference in how well students are able to differentiate among letters. Fonts that have distinct shapes and minimize extra flourishes tend to be easier for students to read.

There are also free fonts available that have been designed specifically for increased readability. These include:

Screen Readers

Screen readers are able to read text on a computer screen out loud to a student. Some screen readers will highlight the text as it is read so that students can follow along on the screen. Some allow the student to change the voice, reading rate, text and background colors, font, etc. Some of the commonly used screen readers include:

Free Resources

  • Read:Outloud - Also available from Don Johnston, Read:Outloud is a screen reader with a built in web browser and support for outlining and supported reading guides. Read:Outloud is available as a site license in FCPS and can be used by any student. It can also be sent home for installation for students. http://www.DonJohnston.com
  • Natural Reader - Natural Reader provides a free version of their screen reader at their website. It functions as either a screen that you can copy and paste text into or as a floating toolbar that works with other programs that will allow for text selection. Text color, background color, highlighting color, and reading rate can be adjusted. http://www.naturalreaders.com/
  • Speak Tool in Microsoft Office - Microsoft Office 2010 introduced a new text-to-speech feature built into Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Word. Now you can use the “speak” button to have text read back to you. The speak button can be added to the Quick Access Toolbar for easy use. The speak tool will read aloud any text that is selected.

Commercially Available

  • Snap & Read - Commercially available screen reader that floats on top of other programs and will read text that is selected on the screen. There are a couple of voice choices and you can also change the reading rate. Adjustments can be made to highlighting colors and the degree of shading of background information can be adjusted. http://www.DonJohnston.com 

Online Tools 

  • Text Compactor - Text Compactor is a free online text summarizer. After pasting text into the provided box, the user can select the percentage of summarization. The program will then provide a summary of the text which includes the chosen percentage of the original text. The summarized text could then be read aloud by a separate screen reader. http://textcompactor.com/ 
  • Rewordify - Rewordify will present pasted text in a simplified version. Words that are changed are highlighted on the screen and the user can click on the highlight words to see and hear the original words. Worksheets and quizzes to help the user learn the original words can also be printed from the site and statistics such as reading level, number of unique words, and average sentence length can be accessed. https://rewordify.com/  

 iPad Features

The iPad has many accessibility features built in to the operating system. iOS8 features both speech recognition and screen reading capabilities, which can be helpful to students with a reading disability.

  • Speech Options - The speech options can be found in Settings→General→ Accessibility→Speech. 
  • Speak Selection - When this feature is turned on, a “speak selection” choice will be available when text is selected on the screen. 
  • Speak Screen - When this feature is enabled, the user can swipe down from the top of the screen using two fingers and the entire screen will be read aloud. 
  • Speaking Rate - The user can slow down or speed up the reading rate of the text. 
  • Highlight Content - When activated, this feature will highlight text on the screen as it is spoken. 
  • Speak Auto-text - This feature will automatically read auto-corrections aloud. 
  • Siri - Siri provides voice recognition for Apple devices. Instead of typing, the user can select the microphone on the on-screen keyboard, dictate what they wish to write, click “done”, and the words will be converted to text. Dictation will also work in other apps that allow typing. 
  • Third Party Apps - There are many apps that might support students with reading deficits. Some good sites for exploring apps include:

Accessible Text 

Some students require text in an alternate accessible format. IEP teams must consider the need for Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) at every IEP meeting. Accessible texts are usually provided in an electronic format that can then be read with a screen reader. Some companies provide their own screen reader to use with their products. Some students may qualify for access to free AIM materials through AIM-VA. 

  • AIM-VA - The AIM-VA center at George Mason University works with school systems to provide qualifying students with the accessible books that they require. For more information about AIM-VA, go to http://kihd.gmu.edu/aim . 
  • Learning Ally - Learning Ally provides members access to audiobooks, including literature selections. Some students may qualify for access to Learning Ally books through AIM-VA. For more information about AIM-VA, go to http://kihd.gmu.edu/aim. For information about Learning Ally, go to https://go.learningally.org/
  • Bookshare - Bookshare is another company that provides access to accessible books for students with print deficits. Bookshare is free to students who qualify. For more information about Bookshare, visit https://www.bookshare.org
  • Project Gutenburg - The Project Gutenburg organization provides access to thousands of free ebooks, most of which have expired copyrights. Many classic novels are included in the collection. https://www.gutenberg.org/  
  • FCPS Online Books - Fairfax County Public Schools students have access to many online book services through the Library Online Databases. These resources include myOn books, TumbleBooks, and PebbleGo among many others.
  • Commercial ebooks - Kindle, Audible, and iBooks all provide varied levels of accessibility in their books that are commercially available. Many students have personal devices and use these services for leisure reading. 

Writing Supports 

  • Speech-to-Text - Speech-to-text programs allow the user to dictate their writing to the computer. Some programs also allow for voice editing. In order to write by dictation, a student often needs to build a voice file through practice with dictating. Dictation requires some different skills than writing by hand or typing using a keyboard. Writing by dictation is a skill that needs to be taught in tandem with learning how to use the features of a speech recognition program. Some speech-to-text programs include:
  • Word Prediction - Word prediction programs offer word suggestions based on word completion, grammar, and patterns of word use. Some word prediction programs include:
  • Graphic Organizers - Graphic organizers allow students to collect and organize their ideas visually in order to plan for writing. Graphic organizers can be simple paper/pencil activities, or can be created using programs on a computer. Some commonly used graphic organizers include: 
    • SmartArt in Microsoft Word - The “Insert” tab on the ribbon in Microsoft Word includes a SmartArt choice in the Illustrations section. There are many choices of graphic organizers available that can be inserted directly into a word processing document.
    • Inspiration - Inspiration is a graphic organizing program that is available in most schools in FCPS. It is also available commercially. Inspiration provides both a diagram view and an outline view of information. Ideas can be supported with both visuals and audio recordings. For more information about Inspiration and to download a free trial of the software, go to http://www.inspiration.com/.
    • Kidspiration - Kidspiration was created by the makers of Inspiration for students in elementary grades. It offers many of the same features as Inspiration with a greater focus on the visual and audio supports. Kidspiration is available in most FCPS elementary schools and is available commercially. For more information about Kidspiration and to download a free trial, go to http://www.inspiration.com/Kidspiration
    • Inspiration Maps/Kidspiration Maps - These are iPad versions of the Inspiration and Kidspiration programs and are available for download in the Apple Apps Store. 
    • Tables-to-Text - Tables-to-Text is a strategy that can be used in Microsoft Word to provide a visual structure for writing paragraphs. A table template is provided to guide the student in entering the information to build the paragraph. The table is then converted so that only the text that the student has written is showing. 
    • Write:Outloud - Write:Outloud is a talking word processor that will read text that is pasted in or text that is typed into the program out loud. Write:Outloud is also available from Don Johnston. http://www.DonJohnston.com 
    • Draft:Builder - Draft:Builder is a program that takes students through the process of outlining, note-taking, and creating a draft. It provides a structure for completing these steps of the writing process by providing visual support and breaking down the steps into manageable sections. To learn more about Draft:Builder, go to http://www.DonJohnston.com