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Dr. Tracy Gray

Tracy Gray

Tracy Gray, Ph.D. is the Director of two OSEP funded projects, the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) and the Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd) at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). Dr. Gray is a nationally recognized expert in education and technology who has led numerous projects in the U.S. and abroad that examine the impact of technology on educational achievement. Dr. Gray holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Education and Psychology from Stanford University. For more information, visit Dr. Gray's AIR webpage.

Questions and Answers

Where can we find information about apps for the iPad in special education?

My school is getting iPads to work with our students in special education next year. We've had one to "play with" and have used many of the educational applications that our computer center downloaded for us. Are there other specific apps out there that you would definitely recommend for using with students in special education? Are there any apps you would recommend for use with upper elementary students? We've found that many are aimed at students in the primary grades but would love to have more choices for our older students.

As more and more schools look towards integrating the iPad and iTouch into their classrooms, the range of educational applications available is growing. For specific apps that may be helpful for students with disabilities, you may want to check out iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch Apps for Special Education, an extensive list compiled by assistive technology specialists and helpfully broken down by category (communication, math, writing, music, art, etc.). For another view of how the iPad might be beneficial for students with disabilities, The iPad: a Near-Miracle for My Son with Autism chronicles one mother's use of assistive technology and educational apps with her autistic son; she has some great suggestions and videos of her son using different apps.

For older children, apps like The Elements are exciting examples of what is possible with the iPad, as students can explore the Periodic Table in an interactive, media-rich and engaging way. Penultimate is a popular note-taking app that students may enjoy; students may also do well with fun games that teach math skills, such as Alien Equation. Apps for astronomy, Star Walk and Solar Walk would also be good choices for older students.  BrainPop has just released a free app that delivers a new featured movie every day, teaching students about a wide variety of topics.

There are so many educational apps available, with new ones coming out every day, that it can be hard to keep track of them all. You may want to check out reviews of educational apps from other teachers to help you find those that are worth checking out for your students. I Education Apps Review has a collection of reviews from teachers that can help get you started.

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Where can I find more books to use with a reading pen?

I recently bought a book that uses an audio pen to read the pages. You point the pen at the text in the book and can hear it read aloud. I'm wondering what kind of technology is involved here and if more of these books are available? Is there special software needed to convert text into encoded dots so the audio pen reads them?

Your question depends a bit on what type of reading pen system you are using, as different companies use different technology. Products such as LeapFrog Tag and VTech's Bugsby Reading System use specially-designed books with their reading pens. In order to access more titles, you will need to purchase their books, most of which are targeted towards younger or early readers. The benefit of books like these is that the text is typically read by a human voice, rather than a computerized voice. Children can also click on different icons within the text to get more information or sound effects while reading. The disadvantage to such products is that they can only be used with a limited number of titles and so may not be a good solution for a student with disabilities who needs to access a wider array of books. You may also look at the different types of reading pen/scanners available — many of these tools you use like a highlighter, running over printed text and getting instant speech feedback. While most of these pens are not appropriate for reading an entire book, they can serve as a valuable support for difficult words, definitions, and pronunciation.

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What resources are available for assessing student use of technology?

I've started using new media tools (blogs, wikis, etc.) in my classroom to differentiate instruction, and have recently begun to explore the use of virtual worlds and social networking with my kids. They seem to really enjoy using technology, and I'm seeing some of my struggling learners become more engaged with the material.

Are there resources available for assessing 21st century skills? If my students are learning in non-traditional ways, how can I show their progress?

Technology and media skills have increasingly been recognized as a necessary component of education for today's students. As more and more teachers integrate 21st century skills, new media, and web 2.0 tools into their classrooms, the challenge of assessing these skills has become a hot topic among educators.

In looking for ways to assess your students' learning with technology tools, start with the groups that are at the forefront of determining technology standards and practice: the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Both organizations have written extensively on what children must know to be productive members of a technological society. Both groups have also produced guidance on assessing technology skills.

A number of teachers have used these materials to create their own rubrics and ideas for assessing student blogs, Twitter use, or wiki creation. Digital Age Assessments lists a variety of rubric suggestions; the forums in Classroom 2.0 can also be an excellent place to confer with other teachers about how they assess their students' work with technology.

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What technology tools can help my son with spelling?

My third grade son has problems with spelling; even if he practices a word several times, he cannot remember it. Often, he writes the word down the way it sounds to him. How can I help him with his spelling?

Spelling can be challenging for students with learning disabilities, especially if they struggle with reading. The types of tools you might want to try with your son depend both on his difficulties with spelling and the importance of spelling to the task that he is trying to complete. For example, on a writing assignment, it may be more important for your son to get his words out on paper and express his ideas than to spell every word correctly. In those situations, your son could benefit from a writing program with word prediction or the use of a contextual spell checker. By using software to remove the need to know how to spell every word correctly, your son can focus on the act of writing as a way of demonstrating his knowledge.

If the assignment for your son is to improve his spelling, it is important to give him a number of opportunities to practice and reinforce his skills. In addition to practicing at home with flash cards and rewriting words multiple times, there are a number of online spelling games and practice sites that you could try. Some online sites let you test your spelling skills with pre-generated lists, while others allow you to enter in your own spelling words to practice. Check out a few different options until you find one your son enjoys.

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How can I find information about creating readings for blind or dyslexic students?

I am interested in finding out more information about creating readings for the blind or dyslexic student. I am particularly interested in early elementary school literature or textbooks and reading on tape or disc. What can you tell me about working in this area?

Providing accessible text to students with disabilities has received a lot of attention in recent years as both technology tools and publisher standards have modernized. The increasing availability of digitized texts from a variety of sources make it easier than ever before to find most materials available in multiple formats. For harder to find texts, software and hardware options are available to help you convert texts into formats more readily accessible by individuals with print disabilities.

If you are trying to find electronic text and audio books, there are several free options available for students with documented print disabilities: Bookshare and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic are both popular options for finding texts for students, and may be a good place to start if looking for academic texts and grade-level literature. Project Gutenberg is another option for free eBooks, and Librivox has free audio books available for download. Both websites offer books in the public domain, so they may not always have everything you are looking for.

If you can't find the texts or the materials you need, or if you prefer to create your own alternate formats for student readings, a number of software programs and scanning options are available; see this customized Tech Matrix for digital text. For students who are blind, you may be interested in purchasing a Braille printer or refreshable Braille displays; check out the customized Tech Matrix on Braille for suggestions.

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What technologies can help my third grade daughter organize her writing?

My daughter cannot organize her writing at all. She becomes frustrated beyond belief when she tries to put her ideas on paper. Can you give me a list of suggested technologies?

Your daughter's challenges echo those of many struggling writers, and while there are no quick and easy fixes, there are technology resources that can help. Tools known as "graphic organizers" may be particularly useful to your daughter as she works to get her ideas on paper in a coherent manner. These tools help students generate and organize their ideas through building visual relationships among them.

Graphic organizers can be as low tech as an arrangement of sticky notes on a sheet of paper or as high tech as online, interactive tools like bubbl.us, a free website which allows you to create and share colorful mind maps, and ReadWriteThink's Essay Map, a free step-by-step guide to organizing essay content. View this list of graphic organizer sites for more free options.

More complex software solutions, like Draft:Builder or Inspiration, have features that help students arrange their ideas, create an outline, and transition from an outline or concept map into a draft. This customized matrix from the www.TechMatrix.org shows many software solutions that use graphic organizers to support writing. Compare products' features, and click on a product's name in the column header to see a full review of its capabilities and purchasing information.

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Would a portable book reader be appropriate for a child with visual processing issues?

Do you think that the Amazon Kindle e-reader would help a child with visual processing issues? My son is in fourth grade and needs large print books. I'm having difficulty finding grade level appropriate books with larger fonts. Could Kindle be a good solution?

Amazon's Kindle is a wireless reading device that does allow the user to adjust font size, so it might be appropriate for your son. The Kindle offers variable font size, with the largest font appearing to be about the size of a typical large print book. Currently there are 200,000 books available, but most of them are targeted to adult readers.

The Kindle is also rather expensive, so you may want to do a little research first. If your son needs something larger than a typical large print book, the Kindle's largest font may not be what he needs. Another good place to do some research and ask questions is the Kindle discussion board on Amazon's website. Here you can ask other users about their experiences, talk to other parents who may use the Kindle with their child, or even arrange to see a Kindle in your city so you can try it before you buy. Find other reading hardware and software options in the article, Reading Software: Finding the Right Program.

If your child has a diagnosed print disability, he is eligible to receive texts in alternate formats through his special education program. Discuss this option with the school. Learn more in these articles for parents: Accessible Textbooks: A Guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities and Making the Written Word Easier for Readers with Print Disabilities.

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What options are available for audio versions of textbooks?

My son is using a textbook that does not have an audio version (tape/CD) available. Is there software that will copy/scan and convert to audio?

Scanning and converting a text to audio can be time consuming and expensive, depending on the software you use. If you only need one textbook (and all of his other textbooks are available in audio format), it may not be worth it to purchase software for yourself. Start with Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic or Bookshare.org; they often have textbooks available when you may not be able to find them elsewhere. If your son has a documented disability, he can access any books from RFBD or Bookshare.org.

If you cannot find his textbook through a source such as RFBD or Bookshare.org, or you think you'll need to scan and convert texts on a more regular basis, you may want to consider purchasing a scanner and accompanying text-to-speech software. What you end up purchasing will depend on your needs and how much you want to spend. Solutions for having text read aloud range from the incredibly simple - scanning in text and using built-in voices to read - to the more complex - scanning in text and using human sounding narration and converting to an mp3.

For example, Adobe Acrobat Reader and Microsoft Word both have very simple text-to-speech capabilities. If your son just needs to have the text read aloud to him while sitting at the computer, and doesn't mind synthesized speech, this could be a very basic solution. However, if you'd prefer something with more natural-sounding narration, you might need something with more features. Find a variety of solutions for scanning and text-to-speech in this customized search on the TechMatrix.

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What technology is available to help a nine-year-old read?

My 9-year-old has trouble reading. He is getting help from his special education teacher in school, but he's still at least two grade levels behind. Is there anything we can do at home to help him improve his reading skills?

Reading doesn't come naturally to some students, but there are many things you can do at home with your child to help improve his reading skills. The Reading is Fundamental website has a great list of 20 Ways for Parents to Encourage Reading, and Reading Rockets has a robust parent strategy section. You can find helpful suggestions at both of these sites.

There are also a number of free games and activities online that can help encourage struggling or reluctant readers. Depending on your son's reading level and maturity, some of these websites may feel too young, so it is important that you give him a variety of options and see what he likes best. A good resource to help you get started is Learning to Read with Multimedia Materials. The article discusses the different ways multimedia tools can be used to support reading instruction and provides a resource list with suggestions of different websites and games to help kids build reading skills.

Starfall has a collection of online books and activities for different reading levels and ages. Students can hear words read aloud and read at their own pace. The section I'm Reading might be most appropriate for your son. Sylvan Learning has a free website called Book Adventure that may also be motivating for your son. Students read books, take a short quiz and earn points. Points can then be redeemed for prizes (books, games, etc.). Book Adventure also has a page for parents with suggestions for encouraging reading, making reading fun and recognizing reading challenges.

A game format can be a non-threatening way to practice reading. If your son enjoys the game or wants to find out what happens next, he may be more motivated to read. PBS has a great selection of educational games and activities for students. PBS Kids Cyberchase is designed for slightly older elementary or middle school students. While not a reading game specifically, there is a significant amount of text for students to read. All spoken dialogue is also shown on screen, and players have to read signs and other information in the game. This type of experience may help your son practice reading without even realizing it. The Kaboose Family Network also has a page with a variety of free online reading and spelling games for different age groups.

If you're interested in purchasing a software program for use at home, educational publishers such as Tom Snyder and Houghton Mifflin sell a number of programs, both games and skill building tools that can help struggling readers. You can also search for and compare reading programs using the Tech Matrix.

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What is the role of technology in Response to Intervention?

Responding to intervention has been prioritized in my district. How do I convince teachers that technology is an appropriate intervention tool?

Response to Intervention (RTI) is a multi-tiered approach to identifying and supporting struggling students. In this approach, all students receive the same high quality instruction and assessments. Students who do not respond to this instruction (as revealed by frequent in-class assessments) will then receive more targeted and intensive instruction. Students who continue to struggle will receive further interventions, possibly in the form of direct one-on-one instruction.

For some students these tiered interventions may be enough to accelerate their learning and help them catch up with their peers. For others, their lack of response to the intervention may signal a need for an evaluation for special education services. Because data on each student is collected at every stage, much of this data can then be used to help determine the presence of a specific learning disability.

Technology can play a key role in the response to intervention process, both as a means of assessment, and as a means of intervention. It might be helpful to check out the CITEd webinar on the Role of Technology in Response to Intervention. There are two national centers providing technical assistance to schools and districts, see the National Center on Response to Intervention and the RTI Action Network.

A critical part of response to intervention is ongoing student assessment and progress monitoring, often through the use of curriculum-based measurement. This data can help teachers make decisions about student learning and identify areas of difficulty right away. A variety of progress monitoring tools are software based, allowing teachers to quickly assess individual students and keep track of student data.

The relative ease of using technology to track, monitor and graph student assessment data may be an enticing benefit for teachers. It allows them to quickly determine student achievement and level without having to deal with data collection and recording themselves, leaving them more time to focus on teaching. The National Center on Student Progress Monitoring has a helpful chart of tools and the content areas they cover.

Technology tools can also be used as a part of the intervention process with individual students. Students who are identified as needing extra help may benefit from the use of skill-building technology tools. The use of these tools can help teachers differentiate instruction, which can be especially helpful when students require extra help in a particular area.

CITEd has an online module on differentiating instruction using technology that may be helpful; they also include a discussion forum and a number of helpful resources. The CITEd webinar on the same topic may also help teachers see how technology can assist in the teaching of different students at different levels. Each of these resources provides practical advice on using technology in the classroom to address the diverse needs of students.

Once teachers are comfortable that technology is an appropriate intervention tool, you can direct them (or technology coordinators for your school) to the Tech Matrix to find tools that match specific student needs. Because evidence-based instruction is a critical component of RTI, be sure to check out the research support articles listed with each tool.

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How can we e-mail a textbook page home to a student with dyslexia?

We scan materials for students to use on Kurzweil 3000 at school. Could you recommend an efficient way to scan and email a textbook page home to a student with dyslexia? He has Natural Reader on his home computer, but he does not have Kurzweil. Using the .doc extension results in a poor reproduction; the original layout would be preferable.

There are several options that might be appropriate for this student or for others in a similar situation. Some scanners come with software enabling the user to scan directly into a PDF document; however, it is more likely that you will have to purchase either Adobe Acrobat or third-party software that will allow you to convert scanned documents into PDF.

Converting the scanned image would enable you to maintain the original layout of the document and still work with Natural Reader since it is capable of reading PDFs as well as MS Word documents. Having the capability to convert documents to PDF could also be beneficial for other students, as the newer versions of Adobe Reader have improved read out loud capabilities. This could be helpful for students who don't have access to a screen reader at home. You could convert any text to a PDF and students could hear it read aloud using the free Reader program.

If purchasing additional software is not a feasible option, you may also try searching for a digital version of the text online. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic has audio versions of many textbooks, and websites such as BookShare and Project Gutenberg have electronic books freely available for download (BookShare provides books free for users with documented print disabilities).

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Where can I find software that can read websites aloud to me?

When I'm reading, it is helpful for me to both see and hear the word. Where can I find software that can read text to me when I'm online? I need something that can read websites and other text aloud to me.

If you are regularly downloading articles or documents to read that are in PDF, you can use the built in screen reader in Adobe Acrobat Reader called Read Out Loud to hear any text in the document read aloud.

If you need assistance with reading MS Word documents, or to have the text of your writing read back to you for editing purposes, one good option might be WordTalk, a free program text-to-speech program for Microsoft Word. You can also use the built-in screen reader/text-to-speech features on your computer.

Both Microsoft and Apple have simple text-to-speech programs built into their operating systems. Microsoft's Narrator is relatively limited in features, and is intended for users with visual impairments. However, some of the features may be helpful for you. Apple's VoiceOver has similar capabilities and can assist users with reading typed text, windows, menus and controls.

If you are mostly concerned with being able to hear text on websites read aloud, you might consider Talklets. Talklets is a small web-based application that allows you to hear any web text read out loud. Because it is web-based, you don't have to install software, which may be useful if you are using different computers (at the library, in the classroom, etc.). Talklets is free for a few websites (Google, Wikipedia, the BBC) and charges a monthly fee for unlimited access to any website. ReadPlease and Natural Reader also have free text-to-speech programs with limited functionality that may be sufficient for your needs. Several options are available from a basic copy for free download, to a more full-featured version for purchase.

If these free tools don't provide you with the level of functionality you need, you can also try searching the TechMatrix to find other text-to-speech products and compare features by selecting the Subject Area of Reading and the Learning Support of Access to multiple formats of text, notation, and symbols.

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Where can we get recorded books for our students who read slowly?

Some of our students read very slowly. We are wondering about providing recorded books. We would like to give them access to print as they learn to read. Can you tell us where we can get recorded books? Any advice on how to make the textbooks and other stuff available recorded while we teach them to read? We don't have a lot of money in this school district.

Fortunately, there are now a number of fairly inexpensive ways to provide struggling readers with access to printed materials by providing text digitally, see An Educator's Guide to Making Textbooks Accessible and Usable for Students with Learning Disabilities. Once you have digital text, you have many options.

Many publishers now offer their textbooks on CD-ROM and teachers can easily scan print materials into their computer to create digital versions of texts. One of the easiest (and least expensive) ways to provide students with recorded text is use text-to-speech features built into your computer's operating system to read digitized text. These simple programs can read text files aloud for students and are freely available with all Windows and Macintosh operating systems. Although they lack more sophisticated control options and choices for speaking voices, they may be an appropriate solution for helping students read short pieces of text.

Another free option for helping students access text is to download books from a website such as Project Gutenberg or LibriVox. The books available from these sites are in the public domain, so you will not be able to find newer books here. However, they are freely available to all and may be a good solution for providing electronic versions of popular classics (Pride and Prejudice, A Christmas Carol, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, etc.). Files are usually available in HTML, PDF or Text format, which can then be read aloud using any text-to-speech program. The Adobe Reader has a built in Read Out Loud feature which allows the user to have any part of a PDF file read aloud. You could also use this feature with any hard copy text that you scan and save as a PDF.

A third option is to obtain audio books from Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. Membership is required in order to access audio books and a special player or software is necessary to play the books. Another site, Bookshare provides digital talking books for students of any age with disabilities. Students with qualifying print disabilities can now access the entire Bookshare collection free of charge. Additionally, audio books can be ordered from websites such as Amazon, Audible, or Barnes & Noble. However, this option will likely be more expensive than the cost of a RFB&D membership.

The most flexible option (and also the most expensive) would be to purchase software capable of converting text files into audio files. A quick internet search will reveal several downloadable programs for running text to audio conversions. However, for a school purchase, it might make sense to investigate programs that can be used for a variety of reading and writing tasks such as Kurzweil 3000, Proloquo, TextAloud and WYNN. With these tools, you can convert any text file to a sound file; students can then listen to text using an MP3 player, their computer or CD player. Using a scanner, you can easily scan any print material and create recorded text for your students for any book, textbook, handout, or article you use in your teaching.

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Can you recommend any computer programs to help my son, who is dyslexic, with his writing?

My son is going into 11th grade. He has a learning disability with a very "hands on" learning style. However, he cannot write to save his life, take notes, etc. What computer programs do you recommend? What laptops would you recommend?

An expanding array of technological devices provides new options for minimizing the writing difficulties experienced by students with learning disabilities. Programs and devices, such as talking word processors, word prediction programs, child-friendly voice recognition, and portable note-taking devices may assist your son with his writing.

Tech Tools for Students with Learning Disabilities: Infusion into Inclusive Classrooms will provide you with detailed information on each of these options.

Using Assistive Technology to Support Writing is another valuable resource that can assist you in selecting the best technologies to meet the needs of your son and may be worth sharing with his teachers to ensure that he has the support he needs in the classroom.

In October, check out the Tech Matrix, which will launch a new free online resource on writing products, reviewed for accessibility and instructional features. Related research on the use of technology for students with special needs will also be included with this tool to inform your decision on the best programs to provide support to meet your son's needs.

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How can public libraries better support people with learning disabilities?

I work in a public library and want to be sure that our resources are accessible to all our patrons, including those with disabilities. What resources should we make available and where can we find additional information about making libraries accessible to individuals with learning disabilities?

Many public libraries have grappled with the same issues, so looking at how other librarians have worked to make their libraries accessible is a good start. Many libraries provide their patrons with online resource lists (on accessible websites), in addition to offering a wide variety of accessibility options within the library building. It may be helpful to get in touch with other librarians, either online or in person to ask how they met their patrons' accessibility needs. The American Library Association has a number of excellent resources available to assist librarians in thinking about and respecting the needs of their patrons with disabilities. The ALA also has several options for connecting with other librarians, from online forums to an island in Second Life.

Some accessibility options for your patrons may include providing helpful links on your library website, pointing users to both local and national disability groups. Within the library, it is important to make sure that media is accessible — books on tape, audio books, captioned videos, descriptive videos, magnifiers and large print books can all help ensure that a variety of media is accessible to many of your patrons. Many librarians also provide patrons with assistive software and hardware where needed. This may include reading and writing software, software capable of reading text aloud (text-to-speech), software that can enlarge text on the screen or Braille embossers for blind patrons. Check out the Montgomery County Public Library website for a good example of the types of tools you might offer. For further ideas, check out the ALA's disability-specific Tip Sheets on Learning Disabilities, Children with Disabilities, Autism & Spectrum Disorders, and many others.

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Additional Resources

For more answers to technology questions, visit Dr. Gray's Tech Expert section on our sister site, LDOnLine.

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Maria Salvadore
Maria Salvadore
June 29, 2011
"A book is a gift you can open again and again." — Garrison Keillor