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Assistive Technology in the Classroom: Mr. Devers’ 6 Favorite Tools

By Chris Devers, Upper School Teacher at Park Academy

In my time as a teacher I have been on a constant search for good assistive technology.  I remember going to IDA conferences and sitting through presentation after presentation looking for just the right technology to bring back to our school.  I was excited the first time we got Franklin Spellers, which gave students the ability to quickly look up spelling words.  I was disappointed the first time I tried Dragon Speak Naturally, as the software kinks weren’t fully worked out, making it ineffective in the classroom. I was excited when we got iPads, and then disappointed we had to use them for all technical tasks. The visual and interactive abilities of iPads are great for some things, but do not help much when writing papers.

Assistive technology should not replace teaching.  It should support a student’s learning and enable them to produce grade-level work in spite of their learning styles.  That is why it is so exciting when you can hit upon something that really works for our students.  The following is a list of “Devers approved” assistive technology to use inside and outside of the classroom for middle and upper school students.

1. Chromebooks

At first glance, Chromebooks are nothing special.  They typically have light processors, low video processing power, and limited hard-drive space.  (Although, some of the new HP Chromebooks are changing the way people view them.)  The beauty of Chromebooks is the simplicity and the price.  They do one thing really well.  They sync with all Google products.  Every student has docs, classroom, pictures, video, and search at the ready.  Even students who are not computer savvy find Chromebooks really easy to use. This year’s introduction of Chromebooks to Park Academy students has been a resounding success. They love the ease of the technology and having all their assignments organized for them.

2. Google Docs

I have been using Google Docs for about six years.  In the early years, I would create class folders and share them with the students.  They would in turn make copies of the documents, fill them out, and share them back with me.  It was quite complicated but completely worth the trouble.

Nowadays, Google Docs is integrated into Google Classroom.  This allows me to post class-sets of documents for each class.  The students can do their assignments online without having to worry about sharing their work.  It helps the students maintain organization (no lost papers!) and affords me the opportunity to view their work in real-time. That means we can have meaningful discussions on their work as they are working. I can propose edits, answer questions, pose questions, and monitor progress from anywhere.  

One of the best advantages of using Google Docs in Chrome is the built-in voice-to-text tool. Speech to text is particularly helpful for students with learning and attention issues. The set-up is really simple. Allowing some of our more challenged writers to dictate their answers into the computer is amazing.  Again, the goal is to allow students to produce grade-level material.  

3. Read-Write Chrome Extension

This is an incredibly handy program for our students.  An extension is just a program that works within the Chrome browser.  What makes that amazing is that it will always show up no matter what computer the students use.  As long as they sign into their accounts, all their extensions show up.  The Read-Write extension allows all Google docs and websites to be read to them.  They simply highlight the text and click the play button.

4. No Red Ink

This website makes grammar fun.  I know that sounds like something only a teacher would say, but the students really do enjoy working on this site.  After creating a free account, the students are prompted to choose musicians, athletes, actors, tv shows, movies, and politicians they like.  The website then uses their interests to compose sentences based on grammar subjects I select for them.  So, students can be doing practice work on adverbs while reading sentences about Darth Vader and Homer Simpson.  What’s not to like?

5. Storybird

Do you have a reluctant writer?  Maybe they just haven’t been inspired yet.  Storybird is a website where students can use artist created works to write stories.  The site is free and the pictures are free to use as long as you use the website.  Students can share their stories with their classmates or to the public.  They can also read what others are creating.  This website really fosters a fun and creative environment.

6. LearningAlly or Audible

Either site is invaluable for dyslexic students.  LearningAlly is restricted to students who qualify with certain disabilities or attend specialized schools (like Park Academy).  The site provides audio versions of books.  The quality is not always top notch which is why I usually suggest Audible.  Unfortunately, Audible is not free, but the recordings are professional grade.  

Assistive technology is an excellent way to support students with dyslexia and other language-related learning differences. The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity has long been an advocate for using assistive technology and has extensive resources listed on their site. I use each of these tools in the classroom. They don’t replace instruction.  They allow students to do their jobs–learn.

Featured image Photo Credit: https://pnylab.com/pny/products/spellers/ph/sa98.71p.jpg

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