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When Words Don’t Make Sense, Magic Pens Can Help

High-tech Devices Aid Students with Reading Disabilities

Jenny Green feels she can do well in her English classes – as long as she gets a little help with the reading part.

“When I read something, I don’t get it in my head,” said the Lowell High School junior. “My brain shuts down and I have to read it over again.”

On the other hand, she said, “When someone reads to me, I can process it.”

Fortunately for students with serious reading difficulties like Jenny, help is available – from both teachers and technology.

Lowell High uses a combination of teachers and aides who read tests aloud, and, at testing crunch times, a computer program that reads the tests to students. Using a nifty tool called the Livescribe Smartpen, teachers write and pre-record the test questions, which students then listen to on computers and write down the answers.

The Livescribe-written tests enable students to pause and replay questions to make sure they understand correctly. For students like Jenny and Lowell senior Corynn Rogers, that’s a big plus.

“It’s helpful,” Corynn said. “You can go at your own pace when it’s read to you.”

Meanwhile, at Kent City Elementary School, some students use a self-styled “magic reading pen” to listen to books recorded by a teacher. They just press the AnyBook Reader pen onto a sticker placed on the page and, voila, the printed text becomes oral story.

Both are examples of how teachers are using high-tech to help students for whom the written word can be a maddening mystery.

Leveling the Playing Field

Of the 29 percent of Kent County’s students with documented learning disabilities, the highest proportion have difficulty reading, said Laurie VanderPloeg, director of Special Education and Early Childhood for the Kent ISD.

The most common problems are an inability to decode the meaning of individual words and difficulty comprehending overall content, VanderPloeg said. Typically such students are at least two grade levels behind, she said.

It’s crucial to get students up to par by third grade. If they’re not, their grades in most subjects will suffer and their likelihood of graduating diminishes, VanderPloeg said.

Special-education teachers give extra help to those students either inside or outside the general classroom. In their efforts, the ever-increasing wonders of technology have become a powerful ally.

“It just levels the playing field for the student to have equal access to the curriculum,” said VanderPloeg, noting students can take their high-tech devices with them into college.

Standing ready to help teachers employ the latest learning gadgetry is Kindy Segovia, assistive technology coordinator of the Kent ISD. She presides over a lending library of more than 500 devices and pieces of equipment, many of them aimed at lifting the veil of confusion between students and words. The library is part of the Kent ISD’s Regional Educational Media Center (see related story).

A former occupational therapist for students with disabilities, Segovia started the assistive technology program a dozen years ago. She puts on training programs for teachers, maintains a website and helps them learn how to use high-tech devices before deciding whether to buy them.

“It’s the most rewarding part of my job, to go out into classrooms where some of these tools are being used and see the benefit to kids,” Segovia said. “We can’t solve every problem that a struggling student has. But there are so many tools these days that make quite an impact on kids.”

Fostering Independence

Technology is no substitute for sound instruction, but it can sure be an asset, Segovia and others say. And it can help both special-education students as well as regular-education pupils who have more than the usual difficulties.

When it comes to reading, the traditional method of people reading aloud to students is no longer enough, Segovia said. For one thing, there aren’t enough paraprofessionals and other staff to do the reading. For another, reading to a student doesn’t help foster independence.

“Their reading challenges are not likely to completely go away,” Segovia added. “So we need to make sure we are teaching them tools they will be able to use once they leave our system. There’s not going to be anybody available to follow them around and read to them.”

At Lowell High School, a shortage of readers prompted officials to go to pre-recorded tests for heavy testing times, like the end of a marking period. A large percentage of the school’s special-education students need to have their tests read aloud, said Heather Sneider, who chairs the school’s special-education department.

Previously, the school needed eight readers to read the tests aloud. But for the past three years, Sneider records most of the tests herself with the Livescribe Smartpen. She records the questions into the pen, which then loads them into the computer.

Students see only the question numbers, not the actual questions, which guards against their taking “screen shots” to show other students. Plugged into headphones in Sneider’s office, they can change the speed and volume of the questions as they write their answers on paper.

Prepping Them for High-Stakes Tests

Between 30 and 40 students typically take their exams this way. While it lacks the human touch of a teacher or aide reading the test, it prepares students for standardized tests, such as the ACT, which are pre-recorded by the testing company.

“I feel like we are giving the kids practice at taking high-stakes tests in a sterile fashion,” Sneider said. “It is sort of getting them in shape for that kind of testing environment. You want them to feel confident and successful.”

At Kent City Elementary, another kind of magic pen helps some students read story books and not feel left out of reading time.

Nicole Andreas, a computer science teacher, has recorded more than a dozen books with the AnyBook Reader, made by the Franklin educational products firm. Some teachers and their students record them, too, by speaking into the pen pressed against a sticker on the page. Students can then hear them by pressing the pen onto the sticker.

“They don’t have to get what the older kids would call a ‘baby book’” in order to read, Andreas said. “It increases their confidence.”

She has used a similar technology for migrant students learning English. She provided them with Hallmark recordable storybooks, on which the students recorded and re-recorded themselves reading.

Over time, listening to stories may help some students learn to read them on their own, Andreas said.

“It sets a really great example of reading, and reading out loud,” she said. “Instead of trying to read it cold turkey, and getting stuck in that ‘I can’t do this’ kind of feeling, they can at least give it a try.”


Livescribe Smartpens

AnyBook Reader

Kindy Segovia’s assistive technology website

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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