Assistive technology programs can be a wonderful gift for many people who struggle with daily literacy tasks. However, when they are used as a crutch or replacement for hard work with children who are struggling with literacy skills – they become a kryptonite, and do far more harm than good, especially as students move on to secondary education or beyond.
In today’s education landscape, more and more students are being assessed as having a learning disability (see image below).
Moreover, once diagnosed, these students are given accommodations to ‘support’ them in keeping up with their classmates. Too often, the focus of these accommodations are assistive technology programs for literacy skills.
Suddenly, when students are given their assistive technology devices, it’s a revelation: problem solved! But no – the problem is not solved; it’s just become more complex. Instead of intensive, focused literacy instruction, the student begins using assistive programs to listen to reading materials, and voice to text program to produce writing. Yes, they can begin to participate in more classroom activities, but as other students are learning and growing as readers and writer’s, the students using assistive technology are only falling further behind.
In a perfect educational landscape that values a growth mindset and long term goals for students, once diagnosed with a learning disability students would be given assistive technology as a support, but also significant, intensive, and focused literacy instruction both at home and school.
Sadly, though, in my experience as a secondary language teacher for over 15 years, this is not what happens in 90% of these situations. What happens is that students become dependent on their assistive technology programs. What happens is that schools don’t have the staff or resources for daily, intensive literacy programming. What happens is that parents think the problem is ‘solved’ and give up on grinding literacy skills at home because it’s hard, uncomfortable and onerous. What happens is that everyone forgets that these students have literacy skills frozen in time at the level they were at when they were given assistive technology. What happens is that these students never learn to read or write and suddenly they are 14 years old and in high school – NOW WHAT?
The reality we see, in many secondary language classrooms, regarding students who have been given assistive technology at an early age for a learning disability is heartbreaking. We see students who are reading and writing at the primary level as teenagers. We see students so embarrassed about their literacy skills that they won’t even take a note off the board or write their name on an assignment. We see students with limited letter recognition or ability to blend sounds. We see students who don’t post on social media – only share images and videos – because they know that their writing skills are so poor. We see students who have given up any hope of being able to read and write independently. But most of all, we see students who we know are unemployable and unequipped to communicate and understand the world around them. We see students without futures – and they know it.
Literacy is central to success in life – academically, socially and financially, but like everything else it comes easy to some and much harder to others. Unfortunately, since it is literally the vehicle of education this becomes incredibly problematic for children who struggle with literacy skills, their parents and teachers. We all desperately want a solution to support them in moving along with their classmates, but handing them a computer with assistive technology programming is not the solution we should be leaning towards – it should be intensive, evidence based instruction – both at home and school. For literacy intervention to be successful, there needs to be a “all hands on deck” approach.
When we are faced with students struggling with literacy skills there is hard work ahead. Assistive technology can and should be used as a support, but it is far from a one and done solution. These kids need independent literacy skills and ignoring that opens a Pandora’s Box in secondary education that no one knows how to deal with.
What is your experience with assistive technology as a literacy support in your home or classroom? Comment below. Share your story and opinions.