Computers and their related technologies have been heralded as a cure for learning disabilities. Many people have come to believe that computer technology will make students smarter, yet they do not seem to understand that this technology is nothing more than a tool – just like textbooks and chalkboards are considered learning tools – quite simply, a tool is only as useful as the person using it. For computer technology to be used effectively as a learning tool, one must ensure that the subject at hand is addressed through the proper use of teaching strategies. This article will focus on the learning disabled (LD) student and the effective use of teaching strategies and technology to enhance the student’s learning. As the education system moves toward a model of inclusive education, chances are that teachers will have to deal with learning disabled students and must, therefore, be well versed in technological and instructional strategies to aid the LD student.
For the first five years of my teaching career I taught special education students. I taught developmentally disabled children (for example children with Asperger Syndrome) and children with learning disabilities (dyslexia, severe language learning disability) even though I had absolutely no formal training in special education (I’m trained as a secondary education French immersion teacher). Those five years were a learning experience for me! I soon learned:
- Learning disabled students are just like any other student.
- Assistive technologies that are meant to help learning disabled students do not always meet their needs. Often times, the most common computer applications that are found on most computers were more useful in helping the students achieve their goals.
It should be noted that the field of learning disabilities is a complex one and that there are many approaches to helping LD children. With that in mind, I want you to understand that the strategies provided in this article are global in nature; that is, they might not necessarily help all LD students, but they should point you in the right direction.
Understanding Learning Disabilities
Blackerby and Jay (1998) define learning disabilities as “…difficulty in processing and remembering information” (p.2). These disabilities can run the gamut from visual comprehension disorders, such as dyslexia, to more severe disabilities such as mild to moderate developmental disabilities which are often manifested both physically and mentally. The challenge for the teacher is to understand how the specific disorder can impact the student’s learning, and to use appropriate strategies specific to the disorder to improve the student’s chance of academic success.
There are three very important factors that the teacher must understand if success is to be achieved for the student. Firstly, understand the disability – what is the learning disability, and how does it manifest itself? The same learning disability might present itself differently in different students. For example not all dyslexics have the same learning problems. There are varying degrees of dyslexia as there are varying degrees of all other learning disabilities. Simply put, understand the problem before a solution is sought out.
Secondly, find out what strategies have worked best for the student in prior learning environments. Each individual is unique and has particular strengths. What might work for one student might not necessarily work for another. Talk to the student to find out what works best for them. This will provide you with a baseline from which to work.
Thirdly, understand what you are trying to get the student to achieve. What outcome is the student to meet? How will this be done? What teaching strategies will you use? Are there common education technology applications that the student can use to meet these goals?
Classrooms Are Changing
There used to be a time, when children with learning disabilities were shunted off to ‘the special classroom down the hall’. After all, they were different than the other kids and needed ’special’ help. Quite frankly, they are not that much different than their peers; they just learn differently.
School jurisdictions have come to realise that segregating learning disabled kids often has a negative impact on a child’s self-esteem and is of little educational value. With that in mind, they are moving toward an inclusive classroom model which requires the teacher to adopt a differentiated instruction approach. Differentiated instruction simply means targeting instruction to meet the needs of all learners in a given classroom.
Technology is a delivery tool that can be used to complement teaching strategies that lend themselves well to differentiated instruction. The primary goal of using technology as a learning tool is to create learning experiences for students geared to their learning abilities. Technology, if used wisely, can address the particular learning needs of students with learning disabilities.
Standing Out In The Crowd
You can often spot the LD student in a school – he or she is the only child with a laptop computer in the classroom. Well-intentioned educators think that a laptop will help the student, but in reality it makes the child stick out like a sore thumb. In my school, there are three LD students who have laptops that they are supposed to take to each class. They refuse to do so because other students are jealous that they don’t have access to a personal computer as well.
How do we keep LD students from standing out in the crowd? The simple answer is to let all students use the same common computer applications or programs. Let’s look at two basic applications that can be used by all students that can benefit LD students
Spell Check As A Tool
Some teachers refuse to allow their students to use spell check. Their argument is that students will never learn how to spell correctly if they rely on this application. The counter argument is that making students memorise spelling rules often sets up the LD student for failure. Our aim should be to provide all students with the necessary tools to help them be successful. Let’s face it; most of us rely on spell check when
Spell check should be used as a tool rather than a crutch. Right-clicking an underlined word in a document and accepting the first word that spell check suggests is comparable to looking up a word in a dictionary and using the first definition without considering the context. Simply put, the technology is of greatest value when it is used for its intended purpose.
An excellent strategy to use when students are using a word processor is to not allow them to correct spelling mistakes until they have finished typing their electronic document. As they are editing their work, they must explain to a teacher or a peer the spelling rules for the particular word that is misspelled. LD students can benefit greatly from this approach, because often times they understand the spelling rules; they just can’t seem to be able to write the words out correctly. Using this simple strategy will help all students, and keep the LD student from standing out in the crowd.
Students with learning disabilities are often overwhelmed by an overload of information. This results in the student not being able to comprehend the material as it is presented. Therefore it is imperative that the information be presented in manageable amounts (Rainger, 2003). Best practice suggests that any learning material or concept should be broken down into ‘chunks’.
Many LD students see the big picture, but they have difficulty putting all the pieces of together. It is best to provide the student with an overview of the material and then to break it down into smaller pieces information which the student can easily comprehend. Key points must be emphasised (Palmer, 2003). This should help the student to create links.
Mind mapping tools can help the student to create these links (Draffan, 2003). There are a number of online applications available (for example bubbl.us, Wise Mapping, Inspiration software and so forth). These brainstorming tools create graphical images for the student which, in many cases, are easier for the student to understand than the written word. This tool will allow the student to grasp the concept much more easily.
These strategies can be used with all students – once again to avoid the LD student from standing out in the crowd.
We must meet the needs of all students in our diverse classrooms. The challenge is to ensure that students with learning disabilities do not stick out like sore thumbs. Technology allows us to level the playing field so that all students can achieve based on their abilities.
Blackerby,C. & Jay C. (1998). Hope is not a method: How instructional strategies and technologies for the learning disabled can benefit traditional learners.. Retrieved April 21, 2012 from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED416919.pdf
Palmer, J. (2003). Universal instructional design and learning disabled (LD) students – on-line course materials. Retrieved April 22, 2012, from http://www.tss.uoguelph.ca/projects/uid/LDelearn.pdf
Rainger, P. (2003). A dyslexic perspective on e-content accessibility. Retrieved April 21, 2012 from, http://www.texthelp.com/media/39360/USDyslexiaAndWebAccess.PDF
Steve Gillis, BA, M Ed, is a junior high school teacher by day, and the President and Chief Learning Officer of Net Learning Solutions Inc by night. Steve writes a blog, Classroom Technology Help (www.classroomtechnologyhelp.com), for teachers that feel challenged by educational technology, yet want to learn how to use it in their teaching practice so that they can engage their students.
He has also created a YouTube Video about SmartArt for Teachers (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hIz0MYirVo )
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