By Ben Maynard, Director of Media and Educational Technology
October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. It is designed to help increase the awareness of dyslexia within the United States and empower those with dyslexia to share their experiences with others. It has given me pause to reflect on my personal and professional experiences. As a Dyslexic myself, I understand too well the struggles that confront students when they have to use written language. There’s a fear of looking dumb in front of your peers, of using the wrong word, or simply the paralyzing anxiety of not knowing where to start. In high school, I would refuse to read aloud in class to avoid embarrassingly stumbling over words, and I would spend hours on homework at night because I had to break my essays down into individual sentences and read them for content, context, grammar, and spelling. Yes, I worked in a world of simple spell check and no grammar checking abilities. Today, technology can help students with dyslexia with many of the tasks I feared, such as feeling expressing yourself and not using language you could easily spell as opposed to the word you wanted to use.
Today, I want to share some assistive technology (AT) that I believe will benefit any
student. Without support, students with dyslexia struggle in the classroom but technology helps to level the playing field by offering the opportunity to support learning while being unobtrusive in the classroom. Browser-based extensions mitigate the stigma that is sometimes associated with using AT, despite the fact these programs would improve the quality of any student’s work. There are many tools available to students, but for this blog post, I will be looking at three main categories that will help improve students’ literacy: reading comprehension, note-taking, and writing corrections. I am limiting the extensions to free options that work with the Chrome browser because I don’t want to talk about great tools but then they’re too expensive to use. I want to offer tools that can be used directly after reading this article.
If you are not using the Chrome browser, install it now and set up a Google Account. It allows many free apps and extensions that will help streamline your experience. Plus, you will need it to use any of the apps and extensions that I discuss below. After I describe a different tool, I will include a link to where you can download it.
First, students must be able to understand the material they are presented with in class. As the student with dyslexia gets older, this is an often confusing prospect because so much class material is covered in out of class reading. Unfamiliar words lead to misunderstanding and then complete confusion. It’s not hard to imagine why students with dyslexia would avoid reading altogether. Frequently, students are helped by having the text read aloud to them; however, until recently there has not been many tools to help students read web pages and handouts. At Noble Academy, we use Read&Write for Google, which can read any website or PDF document aloud. Common Sense Media calls it the “Swiss Army knife’s worth of tools for reading support.” It offers text to speech, dictation, note-taking support, and webpage simplification. Read&Write works great for shorter written assignments, but it’s not ideal for novel-length reading assignments. Often, I hear parents talk about using Audible, and that it is an excellent option if you want to pay fifteen dollars a month for one book. However, OverDrive is an attractive option for some readers because it offers the same books as Audible, but for free. OverDrive and a local library card can provide access to the North Carolina Digital Library (NCDL) that offer digital audiobooks, e-books, and periodicals for its members to download. Users can have five digital books checked out at a time; loan periods range from (7 or 21 days). Materials can always be renewed if more time is needed. The NCDL currently has both new releases and classic books available for download. If a book is checked out, a hold can be placed on the books, and it will automatically be checked out when it becomes available. The NCDL will send an email when the book is available. When the loan period is over, the book is automatically returned, so there are never any late fines for overdue materials.
Second, students must be able to take notes on the material being presented in class. Sometimes teachers can go too fast for students to keep up in their notetaking, other times students are simply daydreaming during class. Otter , an app created by AISense, can help these notetakers. It is a web and phone application that records the class lectures and transcribes it while timestamping each line. Students can go back to a specific section of the classroom lecture and read the transcript while listening to the teacher lecture. Otter is available in both a free and paid version. The free version does not impose any program limitations; the free version allows 600 minutes while the paid version allows 6,000 total minutes of recording time per month.
Third, students must be able to correct their writing and see what they have written and not what they think they have written. There are two chief editors for this - Ginger and Grammarly. Ginger, places a limit on the total number of corrections it will make in a given week, while Grammarly does not put a limit on revisions in its free version. However, both extensions limit the types of mistakes it will look for and correct with the free version. A web-based option is Paperrater.com. PaperRater is a website tool that allows students to receive an analysis of their paper and a numerical grade based on the mechanics of their writing. Students directly visit the website and specify their grade level and type of assignment and PaperRater will analyze their work in relation to students in a similar grade. Its results offer suggestions about correcting errors. Along with looking for spelling and grammar errors, PaperRater will also look for plagiarism, phrases to avoid, sentence length, vocabulary, passive voice, and readability. The free version only allows you to paste your papers into the engine to be analyzed, but the paid version allows longer files to be uploaded and analyzed.
Finally, these tools would benefit any student or teacher that uses them. Living with dyslexia taught me grit and determination that I had not known before. These tools are not a panacea; they will not in and of themselves change a student’s work overnight. Grit and determination will always be a cornerstone of any successful student. These tools make the job a little easier for students with dyslexia.