Monday, November 18, 2013

Using Assistive Technology for Literacy Instruction

Photo courtesy Old Shoe Woman via Flickr

What happens when students fall behind in their reading skills?  As adolescents, "students should make the leap from learning to read to reading to learn and should be capable of reading to solve complex and specific problems (Urquhart Engstrom, p.30).  For many students in our school systems, a learning disability (LD) makes it difficult for students to make the shift to reading to learn, especially in text-heavy courses.

In Ontario, defined by the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario, "learning disability"
"...refers to a variety of disorders that affect the acquisition, retention, understanding, organisation or use of verbal and/or non-verbal information. These disorders result from impairments in one or more psychological processes related to learning (a), in combination with otherwise average abilities essential for thinking and reasoning. Learning disabilities are specific not global impairments and as such are distinct from intellectual disabilities." 
 One solution is to design the class to meet the individual needs of those most at risk of not doing well -- that is, students with special needs. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is defined by the Ministry as a "teaching approach that focuses on using teaching strategies or pedagogical materials designed to meet special needs to enhance learning for all students, regardless of age, skills, or situation". The catchphrase, "necessary for some, good for all" sums up the general idea well.

Common Misconceptions of Learning Disabilities:

The most common misconception is that students with LD have cognitive impairments or limitations; in fact, students with LD are able to function at age appropriate cognitive levels when they are provided appropriate tools to accommodate for their LD. Generally, students with LD have difficulty in oral communication, writing, reading, and mathematics.

Another misconception centres on how an individual "attains" an LD; in fact, learning disabilities are biological in nature.
"Learning disabilities are due to genetic, other congenital and/or acquired neuro-biological factors. They are not caused by factors such as cultural or language differences, inadequate or inappropriate instruction, socio-economic status or lack of motivation, although any one of these and other factors may compound the impact of learning disabilities. Frequently learning disabilities co-exist with other conditions, including attentional, behavioural and emotional disorders, sensory impairments or other medical conditions." (Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario)
So, since students with LD are cognitively able to do grade or age appropriate work, then what are some of the technological accommodations available to help with literacy? What tech tools can teachers embed into their classes using Universal Design?

Common Tech Tools for use as Assistive Technology in UGDSB:

Education for All (2005) defines assistive technology as "any technology that allows one to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of an individual with special learning needs (Edyburn, 2000). Its applications and adaptations can help open doors to previously inaccessible learning opportunities for many children with special needs (Judge, 2001)" (p.127). In Ontario, many of these tech tools are provided, at no charge, to students.

top logo
Read & Write for Google: This web-based Google application (to be used in Chrome) will read aloud text in multiple formats - Google Docs, the Web, PDFs, ePub, and Kes (Kurzwell 3000 Files). The application sits right over top most pages launched in Chrome and is activated either through a drop down tab & menu or through the extension link in your toolbar. The voice can be customized (multiple choices and accents are provided as it is a global market); students are able to create their own, printable dictionaries (standard and pictorial) and vocabulary lists; a prediction tool helps with spelling; and students can directly search terms that may not be clearly defined in the reading. 

kurzweil educational systems
Kurzweil is software which promotes independent reading and writing in students with LD by converting scanned text and images into pages that can be read aloud by the computer (students can choose from a number of voices). Files are editable, so that students can also write tests and compose their own writing on computers. 

Word Q and Speak Q: these programs suggest words and read aloud words for students while sitting overtop their regular software programs. Especially useful for those with challenges with spelling and auditory processing.


Dragon Naturally Speaking: speech recognition software which allows students to dictate their notes, tests, essays, etc. Students can train the software to recognize their voice and essentially allows students to run their computer programs using their voice, which is significant for those with processing delays or students having difficulty writing.

Promethean & Activ Inspire: Promethean multi-touch, interactive whiteboards and the sophisticated software allows students to actively engage and collaborative in a digital context. Students can interact with the software through their tablets or interactive devices, allowing teachers to collect data and provide immediate feedback to students.

Smart LogoSmart Ideas: SmartBoards and the software, Smart Ideas, allows students to actively engage with a touchable and computer-like, interactive whiteboard screen. The package is engaging, collaborative in nature, and appeals to multiple modalities in students. Smart Clickers also allow teachers to collect data from students and provide immediate feedback.

Need help with these programs? Contact your Resource teachers and those with Special Education Specialists. Much of the software is available through the OSAPAC (Ontario Software Acquisition Program Advisory Committee). 

Why use these technological supports?

Today's technology allows students with LD to participate like never before; many tools are free to all students in Ontario (through OSAPAC) and require little training. Most importantly,
"Two major reviews of the research in assistive technology (MacArthur, Ferretti, Okolo, & Cavalier, 2001; Okolo, Cavalier, Ferretti, & MacArthur, 2000) confirmed the utility of computer-assisted instruction and synthesized speech feedback to improve students’ phonemic awareness and decoding skills, as well as the benefits of electronic texts to enhance comprehension by compensating for reading difficulties. Assistive technologies include text-to-speech software, word-processing programs, voice-recognition software, and software for organizing ideas.While these technologies are relatively new, they hold the promise of bridging the gap between a student’s needs and abilities." (Urquhart Engstrom, p.31). 
Integrating explicit instruction of reading strategies and assistive technology can improve content area comprehension. Students can improve accuracy, speed, and comprehension of text which will therefore allow them to better demonstrate their understanding of course material. More importantly, students with LD are cognitively capable of grade-appropriate work and need academic challenge; limiting critical thinking, using low level vocabulary for academic vocabulary, or substituting easier texts for challenging texts should not be accommodations. Rather, teaching students how to access these texts using assistive technology will enable success. To best accommodate our students with learning disabilities, we need to ensure careful planning and classroom instruction which will accommodate for any deficits a student may be experiencing. 

Ministry of Education (2005). Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6  "Computer-based Assistive Technology” Ch. 10, pp. 127-138. 

Ministry of Education (2010). Caring and Safe Schools in Ontario:  Supporting Students with Special education needs through progressive discipline,  Kindergarten to Grade 12

Urquhart Engstrom, Ellen (2005). "Reading, writing, and assistive technology: An integrated developmental curriculum for college students." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 49:1. pp. 30-39.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Cross-Curricular Connections in Literacy

"Literacy floats on a sea of talk..." James Britton (1970) in Think Literacy, p.4.
I have been really fortunate over the past week; I have participated in a number of really rich professional learning experiences with a focus on literacy, all of which were cross-curricular in nature. Additionally, all of the sessions had one key thing in common: the focus on talk (or academic discourse) as the foundation of literacy.

First, the Ontario Ministry of Education did a fantastic job of rolling out the new Social Sciences and Humanities curriculum. Part of the success of the two day sessions was the use of protocols, or talk structures to encourage equitable participation in conversation and encourage thinking (for examples, see the Facilitator's Guide for the ALG).  As a discipline, the social sciences and humanities rely on using non-fiction; teachers are, by necessity, teachers of literacy.  This expectation is fully embedded into the curriculum:

"Many of the activities and tasks that students undertake in the social sciences and humanities curriculum involve the literacy skills relating to oral, written, and visual communication. For example, students use language to understand sources, to analyse and evaluate arguments and evidence, and to present findings in oral, visual, and written forms. In all social sciences and humanities courses, students are required to use appropriate and correct terminology and are encouraged to use language with care and precision in order to communicate effectively" (Ministry of Education, 2012, p45).

Literacy GAINS resource
Foundational to Ministry documents and revised curriculum is the recently released Adolescent Literacy Guide, a resource which outlines a new vision of literacy for adolescents focused on three core skills: the abilities to read, write, and think (see graphic above).

Additionally, Literacy GAINS have created classroom-ready ALERTs (Adolescent Literacy: Engaging Research and Teaching). These practical documents use the foundations laid out in the ALG and apply them to grade 7-12 contexts. At our Literacy Symposium, one presentation focused on the "Talking to Learn" ALERT, which shares classroom ready strategies for teachers alongside the research to support the best practice. The two teachers presenting were able to share strategies that work in all classrooms (the presenters were an English teacher and a History teacher).

Later in the week, the Student Success Literacy Committee hosted the Upper Grand DSB Literacy Symposium on Friday, November 8, 2012.  Keynotes were delivered by Lucy West and Kathleen Gould Lundy, and workshops were led by over twenty UGDSB educators, who shared effective literacy practices with their colleagues in seventeen sessions. These sessions were cross-curricular in nature and covered at least one of the components (see diagram above) relating to the recent publication, Adolescent Literacy Guide (2012), published by the Ministry of Education through Literacy GAINS. Presentations ranged from discussing literacy in alternative education programs to using specific strategies in a novel study to using TED talks and Genius Hour in Geography classes to using inquiry to build knowledge in all grade 9 classes... The sharing was rich and teachers were excited to hear from each other. Participants walked away with classroom ready ideas.

Both of the keynote speakers focused on talk structures. Lucy West's focus on academic discourse involves the teacher facilitating the discussion through specific practices to ensure that all students are held accountable for the learning. The teacher should:

• Write relevant student statements, vocabulary, and/or representations on white board or on technology board—make language and diagrams, tables, etc. visible for all learners

• Have students turn and talk to a partner to explain the idea or representation and be able to explain the idea/representation to the entire group

• Ask clarifying questions to the presenter

• Ask members of the group to explain, restate, or paraphrase what was just said or demonstrated BEFORE agreeing, disagreeing or adding to the idea and BEFORE expressing another idea. In other words, the community works to keep one important idea in play until all members of the class can engage in the conversation. (Lucy West, Metamorphosis Teaching Learning Communities)
Lucy West's focus was clearly cross-curricular; as a former mathematics teacher, many of her specific examples were not those traditionally seen at a literacy conference. However, they were clearly relatable for all teachers in the room. The need to engage students in accountable talk is a cross-curricular best practice. (For an example of a protocol from Lucy's website, see Talk Circles).

Kathleen Gould Lundy was also able to share her effective practices in an engaging and often humorous way. As a drama and arts teacher, Kathy has developed several talk structures which hold students accountable for deep thinking while engaging students. Her book, Talking to Learn, contains several specific structures that help the teacher assess oral communication, embed metacognition, scaffold talk, model talk, create informed talk, and help students present their ideas. Amazingly, woven throughout her presentation were artifacts (literal and figurative) that she uses to demonstrate the true cross-curricular nature of her work: student voice was included through student poetry created in various classes. 

On Friday and Saturday, I was fortunate to participate in the "Sharing the Learning Summit" which was the culmination of the TLLP project through OTF; the Teacher Learning and Leadership Project is a self-directed professional learning opportunity supported (financially and purposefully) by the Ontario Ministry of Education. This conference was an opportunity to set up a display to share the learning from my project while seeing others' results as well. In addition to seeing many excellent projects which were truly cross-curricular in nature, we also heard fantastic speeches from Annie Kidder, of People for Education; the Minister of Education, Liz Sandals; and Ann Lieberman, a Stanford University researcher who praises the TLLP for it's lofty goals and rich action research. I found their presentations interesting and attempted to share the ideas through Twitter, which is a fantastic tool for students to use to summarize, annotate, and comment on what they find important. Brevity is important when you only have 140 characters!

Again, what resonated in this experience was another element of talk: the importance of stories. Both Kathy Gould Lundy and Lucy West spoke of the importance of story-telling as a talk structure or for discourse; Annie Kidder shared personal anecdotes about her children's experiences in education and Ann Lieberman shared about her research in Chile and China.  Even Twitter, in it's truncated form, is about story-telling. All of these speakers wove stories throughout their presentations, making them effective by allowing for personal connections in the audience. For students, a great story can pull them in, activate prior knowledge, transmit new learning, consolidate their thinking, and even help recall important facts and details. By using the narrative structure, especially in oral forms, we enable students to understand non-fiction better, creating more personal connections to a text.

All in all, I return to one of Canada's great thinkers, Northrop Frye and his essay, "Don't You Think It's Time to Start Thinking?". Frye argues that the liberal arts and humanities are essential for today's students and the development of what we would today call critical literacy.  This great essay argues its thesis by using George Orwell, a great author of fiction and non-fiction alike.  Moreover, Frye stresses the importance of talk, for
"...ideas do not exist until they have been incorporated into words. ... The operation of thinking is the practice of articulating ideas until they are in the right words."


Frye, Northrop. "Don't You Think it's Time to Start Thinking?" in Thinking Through the Essay (1993). Eds. Judith Barker-Sandbrook and Neil Graham. McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

Literacy GAINS (2012). Adolescent Literacy Guide. Curriculum and Assessment Branch, Ministry of Education.

Ministry of Education. Think Literacy: Cross-Curricular Approaches, Grades 7-12. Queen's Printer.

Monday, November 04, 2013

What Are Your Students Reading? And WHY?

What resources we use in the classroom are often dictated by forces beyond our control: budgets limit purchases of new novels, textbooks are over a decade old, photocopying is limited... But, teachers can be creative and source new materials -- especially those in the digital realm. New media has given us video, Tweets, blogs, and a variety of other "texts" for students to read and create on their own. Our challenge is to find the right text for the right student at the right time.

Cris Tovani writes about the importance for texts to be authentic. Students need challenging texts that will push their thinking in different subject areas. Current articles, in a variety of genres, can help pique students' interest.
"If we don't begin to find accessible text for all adolescent readers, they will continue to fail, only to become someone else's problem the following year. More students will become turned off to the content we love." (Tovani 42).
It's important to remember that even students who have difficulty reading may still be able to access challenging texts if we provide them with the appropriate supports. In secondary school, content area teachers can help teach reading strategies; in fact, they might be better positioned to do so. I know science teachers who are some of the most effective teachers of reading -- not only do they convey a passion for their subject area, but also, they bring in current readings and videos to ensure that their students are accessing current thinking, controversies and theories in science.

In addition to the need for texts to be authentic is the inclusion of student voice and choice in reading materials. We need to honour the choices they make and include new media forms. In fact, we need to help them decode, deconstruct, and dissect texts (in all forms). Moreover, we need to do this so they can then construct them. Good readers become good writers. There is a fallacy that because students are accessing text online, they are able to effectively read online.
Photo courtesy of Dallas Theological Seminary
"As new technologies increasingly become a part of classroom lessons, teachers are discovering that many students do not possess the new literacy skills required to successfully read and write with the many new technologies that regularly appear in today’s world." 
(International Reading Association [IRA], 2001, cited in Henry 615)

Laurie Henry provides a framework, SEARCH, for students to utilize online text effectively. Firstly, Henry outlines the need to locate information -- if a student is unable to locate useful, quality information, then all further activities related to research (comprehending, synthesizing and communicating ideas) becomes moot (616). Henry's framework is useful for adolescents as it's fairly straightforward:
1. Set a purpose for searching.
2. Employ effective search strategies.
3. Analyze search-engine results.
4. Read critically and synthesize information.
5. Cite your sources.
6. How successful was your search?
I would argue that the last step is especially important; not only do students need to be able to research independently, but they need to evaluate their own performance (metacognition). Of course, in order to reflect, students need to have been explicitly provided direction about the purpose for reading (which can easily be communicated through learning goals).

Understanding purposes for reading and writing will also help students become proficient readers and writers. Tovani quotes one of my favourite thinkers about reading, Kelly Gallagher (2003):

"We adults have already found a multitude of reasons to read. Sometimes we are conscious of these reasons; but often, I suspect, many of these reasons have become internalized. We often take them for granted because we have long ago acknowledged their value. We motivate ourselves to read, consciously or unconsciously, because the benefits of doing so are ingrained in us. Unfortunately, this is not often the case with our students. Just because we have internalized a number of reasons why reading  enriches our lives doesn't mean we should assume our students have done the same." (in Tovani 52)
Teachers need to scaffold purpose for students in the same way we scaffold other activities; students often need to be told the purpose for reading (especially if we are assigning the reading!). Eventually, though, we need to help them determine the purpose themselves. Tovani (p.61) outlines seven key ways to "hold your thinking" (that is, determine purpose, especially when reading a 'boring' text):
  1. Look for interesting details that could have multiple meanings.
  2. Ask questions about titles and subtitles.
  3. Ask questions about the piece.
  4. Look for the author's opinion.
  5. Read a piece to learn new information.
  6. Make a connection to the piece.
  7. Who is the author?
Photo courtesy
Students need to practice, discuss, and evaluate texts with a variety of purposes if we want them to internalize these processes. The use of protocols such as the 4A's Text Protocol (Assumptions, Agree, Argue, Actions) or the I Say, It Says, and So Protocol help students by providing structure to ensure they all participate to create understanding and therefore internalize good reading habits.

In the end, it's important that we expand our reading choices for students. Ignite their curiousity by giving them new and interesting readings that will challenge them intellectually. Provide opportunities for students to engage in lively discussion and debate to really explore authentic texts. Engage in new literacies and help students become proficient readers and writers of digital texts, whatever form they take.


Henry, Laurie A. (2006), "SEARCHing for an answer: The critical role of new literacies while reading on the Internet." International Reading Association. pp. 614–627.

Tovani, Cris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke.

Ministry of Education. Think Literacy: Language / English, grades 7-9. Queen's Printer.