Advice for using technology to help struggling readers and writers

About one in every five to seven individuals find reading and/or writing a struggle. Often, to the point that this difficulty negatively affects their success in school or work, as well as how they feel about themselves.

You likely know someone who struggles with reading and/or writing, perhaps even yourself. One option for support involves assistive technology (AT). Assistive technology includes anything that helps a person do a task that is usually difficult or even impossible to accomplish on his/her own. While teachers can use technology as part of instruction, the focus of AT is to support — rather than teach an individual.

AT can range from low-tech, such as a pencil grip, to high-tech, such as a computer. Low-tech AT does not use electricity (battery or cord), is usually relatively inexpensive, is generally simple to use and normally focuses on one specific task. High-tech AT uses electricity, can be quite expensive, may be fairly complex to use and may support several tasks.

Over the past several years, the number of AT devices and software programs (now commonly called apps) has mushroomed. Unfortunately, with this technology explosion, you may find that choosing among the numerous options is confusing and overwhelming. As you begin to consider your choices, keep the following points in mind.


Do

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  • focus on the specific tasks or skills requiring support
  • try low-tech AT before high-tech
  • sample before you buy
  • include the user in the choice
  • use a team approach
Don't

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  • believe that what works for others will work best for you
  • skip training
  • forget to consider maintenance and repair costs
  • give up too soon
  • go for complex when simple will do

David C. Winters, Ph.D.‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do focus on the specific tasks or skills requiring support

Before considering an AT device or app, consider the task or skill needing support. For example, do you (or the person you know) need help enlarging small print or do you need help recognizing words? For the first issue, a magnifier or screen print enlarging program would be appropriate. And for the second issue, a program that reads text aloud would work. But something to enlarge the print will not help actual word recognition.

Sometimes, a simpler, more-focused AT approach will work much better than an expensive, complex multi-task one. For example, if you are having trouble correctly spelling words, an app or simple AT device focusing on just spelling correction would be all you need. You would not need an app that predicts words or guides you through your writing step-by-step.

Do try low-tech AT before high-tech

Whenever possible, try a low-tech solution before a high-tech one. Low-tech AT tends to be less expensive than high-tech, and low-tech AT can do as good, or sometimes even better, than its more expensive counterpart. Because low-tech solutions don’t require electricity, they also tend to be more portable. For example, a magnifier bar might better suit enlarging print than using a specific computerized enlarging device.

Even when a low-tech option does not work for you, consider less complex, less expensive high-tech options first. For example, a small electronic spell checker device for use during everyday writing tasks may be better than ensuring access to a word processing app on a computer–even if it has a spell checker.

Do sample before you buy

Since many high-tech AT devices and apps can be quite expensive, engage in a trial period whenever possible. If the user is school-age, check to see if the school district has a device the student can use for several weeks to see if it is appropriate.

Many states offer a short-term, statewide AT device lending program for schools and individuals. To see if your state has such a program, visit: http://assistivetech.net/webresources/stateTechActProjects.php. In addition, check with family and friends to see if they have a device that you can borrow for a few weeks.

Some reading and writing apps, especially ones available on smartphones and tablets, have a “lite” version or offer a trial period. While this version may not have all of the functions as in the full version, it will usually give you a good idea if the full version will work for your situation. Apps that offer a trial period often have full functionality for a limited number of days or uses.

Do include the user in the choice

After spending time, money and other resources on AT, nothing is worse than finding out that the user does not use it. Often this happens for several reasons. First, the people choosing the AT didn’t consider the user’s characteristics, abilities and/or interests. Second, because other people made the decision without including the user, he/she doesn’t feel any “ownership” in the decision. When the user has a sense of ownership in the decision, he/she will be much more likely to take the time needed to learn how to use the device or app.

You should almost always actively include the user throughout the AT decision-making process. Begin by asking questions about how the user hopes to use the device or app. Include questions about what the user has found helpful and unhelpful in the past. Also allow and encourage the user to ask questions. You might want to give the user a few options concerning devices or apps to try. And, as in the point above, whenever possible, give the user a trial period.

Do use a team approach

When considering AT, you don’t need to be the sole decision maker. AT success becomes more likely when you involve others in the decision-making process. Besides including the user as part of the team, team members can include parents, spouses, other family members, teachers, therapists and AT specialists. Each member of the team will bring a distinct perspective and area of expertise. Collectively, the team will make better-informed decisions that should lead to ultimate success.


David C. Winters, Ph.D.‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not believe that what works for others will work best for you

The number of AT devices and apps is growing at a very rapid rate. As you talk to AT users and experts, you will hear about some very specific and popular AT devices/apps. They may strongly encourage you to use what has worked for them. However, keep in mind that each person who uses AT has unique abilities, challenges, skills, interests and needs.

Therefore, an AT device/app that works superbly for someone to whom you are talking may not be appropriate for you or the user you are trying to help. Be sure to consider the user before investing resources in an AT solution. And remember to have the user try the AT solution before making a final decision.

Do not skip training

Many apps and devices–especially those that are low-tech–are simple and intuitive to use. However, some are much more sophisticated and can be daunting to the new user.

If the user becomes frustrated when first trying to use the AT solution, he/she will likely stop using it and continue to struggle with the skill or task. Therefore, ensure that the user, and sometimes the user’s support network of family, teachers and friends, have adequate and appropriate training.

This training should take place over a period of time. Only an hour or two of training when the person first gets the device/app will likely leave the user overwhelmed. Instead, the training should be spread out over a number of days or weeks–and structured for mastery of the basics before moving to the more advanced information.

Always keep in mind the needs and desires of the user when teaching the features of the device/app. In addition, strive to give the user opportunities that lead to successful practice.

Do not forget to consider maintenance and repair costs

Often, people focus on the initial cost of the device/app. However, they forget to consider maintenance and repair costs. For some sophisticated devices, repair can be expensive and even routine maintenance costs can add up. In addition, you may want to consider insurance for the device, if available. You should also think about the cost to replace or upgrade the device at some future point, if needed. Before settling on the device/app, factor in all potential costs.

Do not give up too soon

Even with the best decision process and training in place, the user may initially have difficulty learning to use the device or app. Sometimes, the user may have believed that he/she would see immediate improvement. When this does not happen, some users will be tempted to give up. Helping the user set realistic expectations even before beginning to use the device/app can be important. While the temptation to give up is quite understandable, encourage the user to give it more time. You might want to set a specific trial timeframe, such as two more weeks. In addition, be sure to give the user additional training, support and successful practice.

Do not go for complex when simple will do

You may be inclined to choose the fanciest, most visual/auditory or most complete “bells and whistles” AT option. While that option could be the best choice for you or the user, be careful to not over-complicate the task, especially if a simpler option would accomplish the task with similar results. For example, a person who has trouble using a pencil when writing may do much better with a rubber pencil grip and would not need a speech-to-text device that requires a tablet or computer and printer.


Summary

Individuals with reading and writing difficulties have a large number of AT options available to them. Choosing from among these options can be overwhelming and confusing. However, by keeping several points in mind, the likelihood of a successful AT solution will increase.

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