Assistive Technology to Build Literacy

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The Journey from Techno-Phobe to (Almost) Techno-Literate

My Technological Walkabout

This comic is a highly abbreviated interpretation of my love-hate affair with technology, meant to highlight my snobbery and fears. I realize that by putting those emotions aside, I have become a better educator. The pink unicorn is a composite representation of my students.

Assistive Tech and Me (and You!)

In my first year of teaching, I tried incorporating only one form of technology: tape recorders, with an actual cassette tape, to help my students edit and revise their writing (aside from my daily SmartBoard slides). I saw that my students, a group of ninth-graders with varying writing levels from about second grade through sixth grade, needed more supports on producing written work that showed some kind of process. I thought back to my own practices and realized that I had, in my own years of schooling, trained the inner voice in my head to read my work aloud to hear for mistakes, not see them.

So, I had students record themselves reading the first draft of their writing assignment, and in doing so, they automatically made significant corrections and produced better work than I had yet seen from them. These students have developed in a different world than I, and I quickly understood how necessary it was not to simply acknowledge their experience but to incorporate the foundations of their techno-literate world to teach skills I had learned in very different ways.

Two years later, I recognized that the needs of my newer students were far different from those I taught previously. I would need to learn about more valuable tools that would help make the inclusive classroom truly inclusive, as well as giving all students a chance to succeed at meeting our state standards (to which all students participating in the general education curriculum, in a community high school, IEP or not, are held).

I joined the assistive technology inquiry group with TCICP in an effort to enrich one particular student’s educational experience, as he was significantly behind the literacy levels of the other students in his class section. I had no idea that assistive technology could be something as “light” as using a sticky note to mark up a novel read in class, or as “high” as a communication device (which is what I really believed to be assistive tech before attending the inquiry meetings). I ended up focusing mainly on medium tech. I shed my fear of Apple products, determined to learn how to use the iPad with my students in the classroom (totally awesome and not as scary as I originally believed), and it is only after this foray into technology that I stumbled upon the two following products, on which the majority of my inquiry is based: and smartpens.

So, Why Did I Bother?

I am a proponent of inclusive education, as I have seen significant social growth amongst both students with IEPs, and students without. However, it can be extraordinarily difficult to teach a group of students who have extremely varied needs. I have struggled most to ensure that I am providing a useful, rigorous literacy curriculum, that isn’t solely skill-based, to those who are well-behind “grade level” in terms of reading and writing.

Since all of my students with IEPs are meant to take the English Regents before graduating, this has become one of my greatest areas of concern. Although, I always worry about my students graduating high school having actually learned to read and write. About 75% of my students with IEPs are not reading at a high school level.

How I know about my students’ literacy levels:

  • Reading Levels tested three times throughout the school year using Scantron Performance Series and reading records.
  • Writing and organization “data” collected weekly for short writing assignments, and once a marking period for essays that require evidence of the writing process(pre-writing, drafting, editing, revising, publishing).

I determined that assistive technology might be the inquiry group best suited to my needs; if our students are so entrenched in technology use in their daily lives, then I need to make use of what they know, to teach them what they do not know.

My initial inquiry question is as follows, and continues to provide me with a focus for my assistive technology use: How can I build literacy skills in my students who have lower reading and writing levels through the use of assistive technology in the inclusive classroom?

Behold, the SmartPen!

Smartpens are pens with audio recording capabilities. They are used with a special notebook, allowing consumers to record audio that aligns with the marks of the pen ink on the note page. For example, a student who has difficulty keeping up with note-taking in the classroom may record the audio (either by verbally recalling information or by recording in close proximity to the teacher) and take only brief written notes. So, if a student is trying to take notes on new vocabulary, that student may simply write the word down, while recording aurally the definition.

These pens are great because the student may return to a vocabulary word, press the pen onto the written word, and immediately have that specific recording. The pens have a small camera that connect the moment of audio recording with a specific placement in the notebook. Additionally, audio files may be uploaded to the website and saved. Here is a demo of a Livescribe pen.

My Experience with the SmartPen

I had the good fortune to win a smartpen in a lottery during our inquiry meetings (they generally run from about $120 and higher in cost) and decided to try it out with one particular eleventh-grade student. I have been teaching this young lady since she was in ninth grade, and had been noticing her recent inability to maintain focus in the classroom (this likely has to do with ADHD medication). As a result, her grades in all subjects were dropping, often below the failing mark, and though she reads at about a 7th-grade level, she had failed the January English Regents.

Through discussion and practice, I’d determined that part of the reason she was ill-prepared for the exam was that she hadn’t been able to focus on class discussions about how to infuse a higher level of understanding of a literary work required in Regents-style written responses. Since we both had to learn how to use the pen, I decided to keep it simple and use it solely for the purpose of teaching the student how to independently organize her ideas for a critical lens essay (which requires students to interpret a quote, and prove it true or false using examples of literary elements from two texts).

I sat with the student, one-on-one, and drew the graphic organizer, shown below, with bullet points for where I wanted her to place her information. Using the smartpen, I recorded the explanation of the organizer and then passed it along to the student so that she would be able to work independently on her essay.

What Worked?

The smartpen was ideal in helping the student work independently. She responds well to auditory cues that mean to keep her focused, and she was thankful that I needed to check in with her progress far less frequently. The student was definitely able to follow along with my verbal instructions, especially because she was able to start, pause, stop, and move behind and ahead of the playback. Additionally, I thought that the pen might make her feel “different,” but during our one-on-one sessions, the students who wandered by became enamored with its “coolness” and also wanted a try.

What Didn’t?

I really only got the opportunity to use this a couple of times with this particular student. I have seen instances where regular use of the pen is extremely helpful in building notetaking skills and making content accessible for students, but I would have had to use this more often, on a daily or weekly basis, to ensure its effectiveness.

The student did not pass her June English Regents, though this time it was not due to writing structure and organization. I have faith that this pen could be really useful for students who have trouble focusing in class. Next year, I am going to use it with far more frequency and will continue to do so with the same student, to see more significant growth. Additionally, all of our practices happened outside of the actual classroom, and I would like to see how the student functions with the pen in the class setting.

My Rating: * * * 

(Rating is based on a 5-point scale. 1 represents technology that is extremely difficult to navigate. 5 represents technology that is extremely user-friendly for the average person). 

Next Steps

My next steps are: come up with one specific goal for students, implement pen into daily classroom activities/instruction to build fluency for both student and teacher, and ensure pen is actually helping student to meet this goal.

Audio Recordings in the Classroom? Don’t worry, It’s a Cinch. is a free internet-based radio blog (SoundCloud is another great alternative). The blog allows you to upload audio in three different ways: record using a microphone attached to your computer, record directly to the free app on either Android or iPhone/iPad, or call the toll-free hotline listed on the website. Audio files can accompany images, as well as text.

My Experience with Cinch.FM

Alternately from my experience with the SmartPen, my trials with were based on a larger group of students that spanned across the grades, in age, and in literacy levels.

Participants included one high school, where I teach, and two partnering elementary schools from my inquiry group. Special thanks are in order to my twelfth-grade English ICT co-teacher for working with me on this project at the high school level. Below is a breakdown of the plan and process for incorporating into literacy development.

The Plan

High school students will read and record books up through a 3rd grade level on to be later used at the elementary school listening stations.

  • 12 students
  • 1 twelfth-grader
  • 5 eleventh-graders
  • 5 tenth-graders
  • 1 ninth-grader
  • 2 male students, 10 female
  • 7 students reading between second and fifth-grade levels
  • 5 students reading at or above the seventh-grade level
  • Students had mixed reading levels and fluency abilities
  • Students with lower reading levels read for the purpose of practicing fluency, reading with a purpose, and understanding of the audience
  • Students with higher levels provided an opportunity for heterogeneous grouping and modeled “good reading”
  • Students were told the project was for the purpose of entertaining a young audience and providing them with listening center material for auditory supplements for emerging readers
Where and When
  • Practice and Recording sessions were held once a week, after school
  • 1-2 hours
  • Small groups at a time
  • A 2-month span of time for the duration of the project
  • All students recorded books leveled up through 3rd grade
  • Students practiced reading a book of choice for one full session, generally
  • Practice 2-3 more times before recording at the next session
  • Practiced reading aloud to small groups, no larger than 3, sometimes including one of the teachers.
What Worked?
  • All students had a strong desire to “help” younger grades
  • Excitement over the potential future prospect of Skype interaction with elementary students
  • IEP students had the opportunity to feel special, and that this project would benefit the community
  • Positive collaboration/laid-back work atmosphere
  • Connection to children they hadn’t met, through technology
  • Showed signs of slowly building fluency and understanding of reading with/for purpose
  • More work could be done with comprehension as the project continues and levels increase
  • Reinforced importance of working hard to attain a goal and practice makes perfect!
  • May be shared with other schools who use the same texts
  • We all had fun!
What Didn’t?
  • sometimes did not work on DOE wifi server in the school, which made recording a lengthy process
  • Recordings happened after school, which halted fluidity of regular attendance and reading growth
  • Students became nervous about recordings, even though they did not have the pressure of an immediate audience

Rating: * * * *

Next Steps can actually be used for a multitude of things, and I plan to try many of them this year! It was awesome to have students consistently practice reading aloud and recording and I would like to somehow incorporate this into more of a whole-class/in-school setting, rather than during after-school intervention. I would also like to continue the relationship between schools and students and have some kind of Skype-through-the-smartboard reading program with regularity. I would also really like to use for other recordings, such as the This I Believe curriculum (for writing personal statements!), performance poetry, and reading with expression at a higher level.

School Context

The setup of the special education program is as follows: there are currently four sections in total, per grade. One of these is an inclusive section, made up of both general education students and students who have IEPs (for a multitude of reasons). The inclusive section is where almost all students who have IEPs primarily receive their instruction. These sections are co-taught with the general educator and special educator, who is dual-certified by subject area. I am certified to teach English so I co-teach inclusive English classes from 9-12 grades).

Since the needs of our students with IEPs are so varied, as are the needs of our “GenEd” students, we are so often looking for new ways to ensure that everyone is actually learning. It’s really hard to “differentiate” for 34 students, and the use of certain technologies (I have learned, post-inquiry) plays a big part in promoting learning for many different students. I really needed to find a way to truly teach all of my students, especially those who so often are left behind because we can’t “figure them out,” and become a better educator. For me, my practice, and my classroom, the incorporation of assistive technologies seems to be just the tool to help me.


Reflections and Suggestions

Ultimately, focusing my efforts on a couple of technological options really allowed me to learn more about using it in the classroom. Through this practice, I saw my students work with excitement. In the end, I probably learned as much as they did, as the students were able to guide me in learning how to use technology (the iPad, for example), as I tried to guide them into growing as readers and writers. The sources below are useful for aiding in the incorporation of mid-level technologies in the classroom.


iPads can be used with, as well as simply to enlarge texts for students who have limited vision.

Tarheel Reader

Tarheel has a variety of shorts texts on lower reading levels. This is a free site, which includes a text-voice function in the voice of a child, woman, or man. My favorite has to be this version of Lord of the Flies, which I can use to help summarize the novel in my tenth-grade class, among other things.

PowerPoint Sources

PowerPoints, if you don’t already use them, are an excellent start when attempting to incorporate technology into the lesson. These sources have tons of pre-made slides for topics spanning all grade levels. The great thing about these sites is that you can edit these slides for your specific needs. Sometimes, all you need are some great visuals and audio to help support your lesson. These can be very useful when planning interdisciplinary lessons and projects.


More about the author: Nicole Sackler

Nicole Sackler is a dual-certified special education/English teacher in a South Brooklyn high school.