During in-person instruction, Vikram Nahal would correct console grips in his role as a Resource Specialist Program (RSP) teacher in Northern California. Learning console grips helps students develop the hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills necessary to correctly form shapes on a page. He could provide grip tools for pencils or guide students’ hands with his own, familiarizing them with the strokes.
During virtual education, he relied on reference materials and parent assistance when available. An adult in the room could help demonstrate grips, steer hands and inform Nahal when additional resources were needed.
Despite the difficulties of offering support remotely, Nahal found that virtual learning allowed him to experiment with new technologies that supported his students with learning disabilities. Speech-to-text technology allowed them to more easily transfer their ideas onto the page. This especially helped his students with ADHD and processing-related disabilities, such as auditory processing disorder or working memory deficits.
Speech-to-text tools also saved time, which is helpful for students who might forget their ideas once they try to write or students who struggle with getting any words on the page at all, feeling unable to transfer their thoughts. For some, this was because of the intimidation of writing academically, with spelling and grammar anxieties prohibiting them from starting. For others, the time taken to write out initial thoughts caused them to forget later conclusions and analyses, given the lack of immediacy in writing.
“Coming into the distance learning, I was really worried about these kids. But what I found was through using the speech-to-text feature, they were able to get their ideas on paper. They didn’t have that physical transfer where they had to go and write it out and lose what they were thinking about in the process. And they really evolved as writers,” said Nahal.
The process of vocalizing their ideas and watching their words simultaneously appear on the screen relieved much of the stress around writing. Students could watch their thoughts fill a page, proving for some that they were capable of doing so. They could then go through and revise their grammar and ideas, correcting anywhere the technology misheard them and getting practice editing their own writing.
The initial skill required of students wasn’t spelling or grammar, but the ability to transfer their ideas to the page. Natalie Conway is a teacher who works with students with disabilities in grades Kindergarten through 3rd at a statewide online charter school in Oregon. She has been teaching online for seven years. She said that specifically identifying which standard is being assessed, and providing accommodations for the standards not presently up to bat, can help make school more accessible for all students.
“Those accommodations are going to benefit kids who are unidentified (in disability) and who just would enjoy learning that way,” said Conway. “So if you make it available to everyone, it’s not stigmatizing to anyone. And students are going to self-select what’s going to work for them. They know themselves, too, especially the older they get.”
Writing is Rewriting
Nahal eventually transitioned his students off speech-to-text, encouraging them to write phonetically in a subsequent phase but with the same initial indifference to spelling and grammar encouraged by a first draft from speech-to-text. Then, once the ideas were on the page, Nahal and his students could comb through their work, updating spelling and modifying their language to meet academic conventions.
“Through the process of correcting their work and typing, they’ve become better writers,” he said.
He spotlighted spell check as a simple way students could see that they misspelled words, with the automatic underline quickly notifying students of a mistake. That helped make editing for spelling and grammar less difficult online. Speech-to-text technology accelerated his students’ writing skills during virtual learning.
“These gains would have not happened had we been in person. I mean, it would have happened, but not so rapidly in my estimation,” Nahal said.
Conway spotlighted speech-to-text technology as liberating for kids with writing disabilities and fine motor needs. Beyond writing homework assignments, the technology can also be used for quick in-class responses. If a teacher asks all students to put an answer in the virtual class’ chatbox, for instance, a student who might not feel confident in their ability to write their thoughts can use transcription software to still participate. And for chat boxes with microphone transcription enabled, they can participate even more quickly.
“It’s giving students independence, instead of having to have a scribe all the time or having to have someone read to them all the time,” said Kathleen Kane Parkinson, a diverse learner teacher in Chicago.
In the past, many students would only be able to practice their pronunciations in a classroom setting. Now, this technology and related technologies allow for pronunciation practice to be incorporated into at-home work. Some teachers, like Parkinson, may choose to continue using some form of voice-recognition software for out-of-class assignments moving forward.
Parkinson mentioned, however, that the technology does not yet fully accommodate students with speech and language impairments. The transcription of their speech may not accurately reflect what students said into their microphones, which can cause confusion and frustration.
Repeated Read Alouds
The related but inverse technology of text-to-speech, also known as read-aloud technology, helped Nahal’s students improve their reading skills. The process of hearing text read aloud ensured that words or lines weren’t skipped, improving comprehension. Students could also highlight new words to hear pronunciations or learn definitions, strengthening vocabularies.
For students who might not feel confident reading grade-level material, or who process information better when listening, read-along features for books and articles can be pivotal. Students with attention deficits might benefit from the ability to pause a story to process or take notes, and then press play to resume reading without losing their place.
“[For] kids who might have working memory deficits or trouble recalling information, the ability to listen to something over and over or listen to it as they read it, following along — that can be really powerful,” Conway said.
Jodi Dezale, a speech language pathologist at Jefferson Community School in Minneapolis pointed to online books as a key resource brought about during virtual learning. The read-along audio feature provided students the autonomy to read books on their own. Tie-in videos from publishers like Scholastic gave students an additional level of engagement for books, encouraging new modes of interaction with familiar images and stories.
“One of the tools that we use to build comprehension is repeated readings of the same thing. So getting comfortable with seeing something in different ways and using it multiple times was very helpful,” said Dezale.
Engagement with both audible and visual modes of learning can also be achieved through closed captioning in class video software. Offered on both Google Meet and Zoom, closed captioning can have benefits for all students. It can make virtual classrooms that don’t have sign language translators more accessible for students who are deaf and hard of hearing. Students with unimpaired hearing can also utilize captions as a secondary cue for their minds, allowing for another way to perceive the material.
“You’re pairing verbal input with visual input and it’s just more likely to stick in your brain and make sense to you,” Conway said.
Access to technology is an equity issue. Students gained technological skills during virtual learning that they might not have otherwise gleaned. Many schools engaged with new learning and accessibility tools they didn’t have the bandwidth or funding to try during in-person learning.
Increased familiarity with online platforms and technologies may lessen the digital divide between the schools that had embedded technology before the pandemic and those that newly engaged with modes of digital education over the past year. This offered more students digital skills that may be needed after graduation.
“They’ve got to be computer literate,” Nahal said. “It’s a literacy issue for me.”
Teachers who work with students with disabilities specifically can supply their students with tools and methods of enabling accessibility technologies that they can take with them into general education classes.
“When they’re in, say, a humanities class or a science class, that’s where those tools are going to come in handy. And it’s a matter of teaching them how to use the tools,” Parkinson said.
This not only makes education more accessible, it encourages students to take agency in their learning, spurring greater independence.
For teachers who work with students with disabilities, the instantaneous nature of online assignments’ feedback saves time. Sandra Zickrick works with middle schoolers with disabilities. She shared that before virtual education, she would take each student aside to assess their skills and determine where additional support was needed. Now, she can have all of her students complete simultaneous virtual assessments and immediately receive the results, allowing her to spend more class time providing specific support or doing activities with the entire class.
Beyond the new technologies learned, a number of students with disabilities preferred learning online. For some, doing school from home induced less social anxiety, which led to increased academic confidence.
Attending school from home was less optimal for many students, with many facing challenges of family distractions, Wi-Fi connection issues or an inability to find a quiet place to work. Yet some students were better able to concentrate on schoolwork at home, whether from reduced distractions in virtual school compared to social classroom settings, or from decreased social stress. Online education can allow for greater control over a student’s environment, which can limit external distractors or overbearing external stimuli, benefiting some students with autism, ADD and ADHD.
“A lot of the physical distractors that happened in a building, that happened in a physical classroom, aren’t the same at home,” Conway said.
Conway also pointed to the ability for students to revisit lectures, to rewind, rewatch and take their time, as another accessibility tool. The more methods teachers offer for students to access the material and demonstrate that they’ve learned it, the more accessible school becomes for all students.
When students can select how to best prove their knowledge — be it in an essay, video, PowerPoint, Google Doc or other tool — they not only take agency in their learning, but can unlock new creativity. This creativity will be an asset in higher education and in the workforce, Conway said.
“They now have skills to communicate in a variety of ways, collaborate with other kids and be creative and think critically about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it,” she said.
The specific tools and technologies a school may take on during virtual education may depend on the school’s location, technology team and budget. Yet the fact that more students received technological devices and more schools explored assistive technologies during virtual education helped in the movement to make education more accessible.
“I think the biggest takeaway of this online experience is just that there are things out there for free that we can use,” Conway said. “The sky’s the limit and you just need to Google whatever it is you want.”