George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Assistive Technology Success Stories: Opening the World of Education to All Students

With some technical assistance, there is no limit to what these kids can accomplish.

May 1, 1998

With an assist from interactive phonics programs, one student's reading and writing skills improved dramatically.

Credit: Yuri Wellington

Elijah is an eight-year-old student with tousled blonde hair, an engaging smile, and a gentle demeanor that makes him popular with his classmates. A third grader at Hana High and Elementary School in the remote town of Hana, Hawaii, Eli is also one of approximately one-hundred students at the school who qualify for special education services under the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students at Hana are taught in a "mainstream/full inclusion" setting, with minimal pullout activities to reinforce specific skills and meet specific needs.

For Eli and other Hana students like Camille and Taba, technology is becoming indispensible. Using a range of tools, from interactive software and speech-to-text technology to alternate keyboards and overlays, these students are able to meet their own needs, excel in areas of strength, and work in a regular classroom setting with specific accommodations for their disabilities. Equally important, the technology is helping them practice independent and leadership skills with their peers without feeling stigmatized by their different abilities.

Overlays, which fit over programmable keyboards, can be custom-designed by the teacher or student to match a specific lesson activity.

Credit: Intellitools, Inc.

Eli: Reading with Eyes and Ears

In September 1997, the beginning of his third-grade year, Eli could not yet read. He could not, for instance, make the connection between the letter "p" as it appears in print and the sound we make when we say the letter. Due to his learning disability, Eli essentially lacked the basic decoding skills upon which reading is based. Eli's writing skills were also extremely limited. And because he likes to be in control of any situation, the obstacles presented by Eli's specific learning disability often frustrated him.

To help Eli develop decoding skills, we incorporated interactive phonics programs and other software in his curriculum plan. With an interactive phonics software program, Eli is introduced to three or four letters of the alphabet, one at a time. As each new letter appears on the screen, Eli can listen to the associated sound by clicking on the letter. Simultaneously, a picture of an object whose name begins with the same sound appears on the screen. For instance, for the letter "p," a picture of a peanut might appear. After all the letters have been introduced and are visible on the screen, the program forms words, and a computer-generated voice says the words out loud.

With the support of such programs, Eli's reading and writing skills improved dramatically thoughout the year. These decoding skills have enabled Eli to plunge into previously unattainable tasks, such as daily journal assignments, creative writing compositions, and even weekly spelling tests. By year's end, Eli was reading at the early second-grade level, with a rapidly growing sight vocabulary of about one-hundred words. Whereas earlier in the year Eli's contributions in class were primarily verbal (and sometimes disruptive), the combination of interactive phonics and speech-to-text has made it possible for him to use reading and writing to record and recall his thoughts and feelings.

Eli's progress in reading and writing and his growing competence with computers helped to unleash his innate gifts as a teacher and mentor. By the time his classmates went to the computer lab for the first time last fall, Eli was already familiar with the functions of a computer. He mentored other students on specific applications he had mastered, coaching them by giving hints or examples designed to trigger the right answers. The positive attention and feedback from peers has significantly increased Eli's self-esteem and made him much more willing to try new, challenging tasks.

Eli loves working on the computer and considers it a "game." More traditional approaches to teaching reading and writing failed with Eli because he was so easily frustrated. He now enjoys school and has a very positive attitude.

A custom keyboard with enlarged keys enabled a student to work more productively.

Credit: Yuri Wellington

Taba: Writing with Voice

Taba is nine years old and in the third grade. He is interested in just about everything, especially science and nature. Taba is very intelligent, but because of his specific learning disability he cannot translate his thoughts into writing. At the beginning of the school year, this obstacle frustrated Taba because he "knows" a lot of information and he felt that he should be able to do the same kind of work as his classmates. As a result, Taba did not enjoy coming to school and was frequently late or absent.

During the fall we purchased a speech-to-text software program that allowed Taba to "talk" to the computer. Using a special microphone in conjunction with the software, Taba learned to dictate his thoughts and ideas, and then, with the dictated text appearing on the computer screen in standard English, he learned to edit, format, and save his work. Before long, Taba could participate in daily writing activities like journaling and creative writing without becoming frustrated when the "words don't come." He also began to write notes to people to relate messages or remind them of things. One of Taba's stories was included in a class publication and distributed to class parents. By year's end, Taba loved school so much that he didn't want to leave at the end of the day!

Camille: Working with Precision

Camille is eight years old and in the second grade. She is knowledgeable, independent, and eager, especially when technology is involved. Camille also has Down's Syndrome. She began the year working on the computer almost daily for her classwork. But with a lack of hand/eye coordination and small-motor control, she often made mistakes while inputting information into the computer. Camille was not able to be as productive as she would like and, as a result, often became frustrated with herself.

We assembled a combination of assistive devices to make it easier for Camille to work productively. These include a two-button track ball and an IntelliKey ® keyboard. The keyboard, large and brightly colored, can be programmed using specialized software. The software itself allows the user to "implant" a specific set of instructions onto the overlay. Each overlay acts somewhat like a touch-screen, wherein the user touches a picture or icon on a flat surface instead of hitting the keys on a keyboard. The user selects the placement, size, shape, and color of each button on the overlay. Then the user programs each button to perform a specific function, such as printing, cursor movement, or typing a specific letter, number, or phrase. There is no limit to the number of overlays one can create and their functions can be as general or specific as desired.

The combination of technologies helped Camille work more productively and with less stress. By year's end, she could duplicate most basic computer functions such as opening applications from the launcher and work independently on class assignments.

One hallmark of these technologies is that they can be adapted to meet a student's evolving needs. For example, as Camille grows and her academic needs change, new custom overlays can be created. Because each custom overlay is programmed to produce specific computer functions, these overlays can also be used to teach basic skills or processes such as editing texts or creating graphics to go with a story. In time, Camille may even be able to create her own custom overlays for special projects or presentations.

Lessons Learned

Our work at Hana reveals how important technology is in meeting students' special needs. We know that many students love computers and that, in many cases, technology motivates them to learn. We know that computers and adaptive technology allow students to perform the same or similar work as their peers but at their own pace and in a setting where the information is presented in a manner best suited to their individual learning styles and needs. From our experiences at Hana, we also know this: that the benefits Eli, Taba, Camille, and other students with special needs have derived from the technology make all the effort worth it!

Yuri Wellington was technology coordinator at Hana High and Elementary School.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Technology Integration
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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