She was a gentle girl-taller than other fifth-graders at Winston Churchill Elementary School in Schaumburg, Ill., and incredibly shy and withdrawn.
Worst of all, Sandra couldn't read a word.
Three years ago, the girl moved with her family to Cook County school district from Chicago, having fled a shooting in their neighborhood. And while her parents told many stories, they couldn't read stories, says Wendy Berek, who was Sandra's special education/ resource teacher at the time.
At Churchill, she was immersed in literature and reading using books on tape and working with teachers. Then, the district purchased Start-to-Finish Books by Don Johnston, which are books that the computer reads to the student while the student follows the words on a computer monitor.
Sandra, now an eighth-grader, started with The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and took comfort in having the book read to her so she could hear the proper pronunciations of each word. She re-read chapters and took the book home with her at night.
By the end of fifth grade, Sandra was reading at a third-grade reading level. She still struggles, but Sandra has since auditioned for a lead role in a school play, raises her hand in class and participates in classroom reading, Berek says. "I'm not saying the technology was the end-all, beall. But it certainly was the catalyst in making the connection between the printed word and the meaning behind the word," Berek says.
When Sandra took the books home it piqued her parents' interest as well, Berek says. "They asked her, 'Do you think you could help us with this?' " Berek says. "So she started reading to her siblings and her parents."
Sandra's mother has since been promoted in her video store job, which was made possible by her ability to finally read, Berek says.
"So there are some good days," Berek says. "She's just bloomed into a fantastic young lady."
Sandra is among the roughly 2.8 million K-12 students, aged 6 to 21, to have learning disabilities. That's 4.5 percent of the total student population in the U.S. But unlike 20 years ago, hundreds of technology and software programs are available to help such students achieve, according to several experts and school administrators.
Some technological tools include: Talking word processors that allow the computer to repeat words that are typed; voice recognition programs, which has the computer write a word that the user speaks into the computer; word prediction, which predicts the word someone wants to type but is unsure; and whiteboard technology which automatically transfers a teacher's notes and diagrams on a whiteboard to a student's personal computer.
More than 20 years ago, students who did not know how to read or had other learning disabilities would likely drop out of school and/or get manual labor jobs. Now, education has become so important that the idea of dropping out of school is nearly unacceptable, teachers and administrators say.
The definition of a learning disability varies by state. But the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act defines it as a "disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations."
Most children with learning disabilities, although they are generally as smart as their peers, have problems with language skills, including reading, writing and spelling.
While the number of learning disabled has grown in the past 20 years, in part due to better identification as well as environmental hazards-such as lead, pesticides, and pollutants-that can create more learning problems, the number and sophistication of educational tools have also grown, according to Jane Browning, executive director of Learning Disabilities Association of America.
Christopher Lee, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Georgia and project coordinator for Georgia Assistive Technology Project, was diagnosed in second grade with a learning disability, mainly a cognitive processing deficit.
During his K-12 years, Lee says he would "scribble out anything I could, praying it would be recognizable."
But the computer, which he first used as a college freshman, allowed him to write more fluently, Lee recalls. "The letters were right there. It was quick. It was tactile."
Now, software vendors see a market for technological programs, but there is still no Consumer Reports for such software, says Lee, who attended the University of Georgia and later wrote two books with co-authors. So teachers rely on word-of-mouth to purchase products, Lee says.
"Technology levels the playing field for people with learning disabilities," Lee says. "It's not a magic pill that will fix the problem, but it will lay a strong foundation so the individual becomes more independent in school and in work."
The tools also reduce "anxiety and frustration," Lee adds. "It's keeping in mind that it's making writing easier and it frees up the imagination (for children) to express themselves."
Jacqueline Hess, director of the Family Center on Technology and Disabilities at the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, says special needs programs in schools were among the first to get computer budgets in the 1980s, due to the computer's graphics and hands-on work that help students particularly with learning problems.
"Computers also give you endless feedback," says Hess, who has Tourette's syndrome and was not diagnosed until later. "Teachers are human and they will lose patience. A computer doesn't lose patience. If a kid needs it, it will reinforce the information over and over again. And where the teacher can't take the time to individualize a program for each student, the computer can."
And children learn in different ways, Hess adds. If a student wants to see visual aides within a program, the student can hit certain buttons and the computer will get to "know" the student and what works best for that student and use that type of learning, she says.
"The Internet ... has been an enormous boon," she adds. "There is an enormous amount of information ... to support a child's education."
Parents can go online and find information about their child's disability and pass that on to the teacher. Teachers could also go online and communicate with other educators about what teaching strategies work and what products help specific groups of children, Hess says.
Don Johnston, who created his own line of products for learning disabled students, did not start to read until he was in ninth grade in a district just south of Pittsburgh. It was the 1950s and no one understood the problem back then.
"I think they thought I was lazy and just a troublemaker," Johnston says. "I think with a lot of kids like me you hope you could fool people. I would rather look as if I had a behavior problem than be perceived as being dumb."
Johnston recalls standing in front of class to give a book report, never having read the book and not saying much. After the teacher asked him for more detail, he refused. He would say, "I'm tired," and would get a paddling on his rear.
Most children in his situation dropped out of school and maybe took a manual labor job, he says. But one eighth-grade teacher, Doris Tedesco, believed in him, worked with him one-on-one, and pushed him to achieve, he says. "It was the first teacher that treated me like I had some potential," Johnston recalls.
Johnston went on to college and graduate school to study psychology and he developed compensation skills to "think differently" along the way, which allowed him to do math problems or read passages in ways he could understand.
He started Don Johnston Inc. in 1980, first creating products for kids with physical disabilities. Then, 10 years ago he started with literacy problem products. "There was much bigger awareness of literacy issues then," he says. "The awareness of making sure every kid becomes a reader is a relatively recent phenomenon."
The Start-to-Finish books have an actor or actress reading to a student over a computer so children can read the words and hear them pronounced. The readers also have accents so a book on Shakespeare will have a reader with a British accent, and if they are reading about Scotland the reader will have a Scottish accent, Johnston says. "When they are mimicking a Scottish accent they get into the whole rhythm and fluency goes way up," Johnston says.
Co:Writer is a word prediction program so if a student doesn't know how to spell a word, the computer can figure it out. For example, if a student wants to write "Once upon a time..." and starts with the letter "w" to sound out "once," the computer will automatically pick up on it and give the word "once" as the way to spell the first word, Johnston says. "The computer predicts words based on grammatical rules," Johnston says.
Cindy Morley teaches severely emotionally disturbed students at LaSierra High School in Riverside, Calif. While the students use various technology tools, including Start-to-Finish, they are succeeding at higher rates now. One sophomore had a first year and first month reading level and after using the Start-to-Finish books, he was reading at a third-grade level. "It was pretty amazing," Morley says. "His mom told me he was picking up (materials) to read on his own."
The students are also writing essays on their own. "For my students, that's a major accomplishment," Morley says. "I would get students with acting-out behaviors to avoid doing a report."
Morley, who has taught 19 of her 28 years with emotionally disturbed children, including those with learning disabilities, says technology and software programs never get frustrated. "There are no emotions from the teacher tied in, like, 'You're doing it wrong. Do it over again,' " she says. "They can do it as many times as they need to. If you have to work with teachers, we get frustrated sometimes. And we don't have the time to go over and over something."
Morley says some students keep in touch with her and have gone on to universities or started working. "There's a lot of potential here," she says.
All Children Need Breakthroughs In East Chicago, Ind., as well as 36 other states, young students are using Breakthrough to Literacy, a research-based comprehensive program. In part, it includes software that reads stories aloud to students and has children practice reading aloud using a microphone and comparing that to the model on the computer. The program sets the pace for students based on a student's ability. And it includes ongoing staff development to ensure teachers are aware of what to expect from each child, what children's writing says about their perception of language, and how to move a child along.
"There are certain things all children need," says Gerald Zimmerman, president and co-founder of Breakthrough. "They have to develop vocabulary, word recognition skills, phenomic awareness and phonics and if they have those tools ... they will become successful readers."
Gayle Williams, principal of Early Childhood Centers in Lawrence, Mass., says a small percentage of the 1,420 kids in the six centers have learning disabilities. And while Breakthrough works for all children, the learning disabled students mainly start to memorize the stories, as opposed to really reading them. "We make them believe they are reading," Williams says. "They can track one word to the next. In actuality, they are beginning to read. And it's building their vocabulary."
Williams says technology helps more students learn more. Before Breakthrough and other tools were used at her centers, she says, probably 30 percent of the kindergarteners knew all letters and none were actually reading by first-grade. Now, about 63 percent of kindergarteners are going to first grade reading at or above the benchmark, she says.
At Bergen County Special Services of Paramus, N.J., Adam Krass, assistive technology specialist, says roughly 100 of about 500 special needs students in K-12 have learning disabilities and use various technological tools, such as eBeam's whiteboard technology. "So many of the students have someone taking notes for them, or they copy their classmates' notes or they taperecord it," he says. "The other nice feature about eBeam is if [children are] unable to come to class or they have at-home instruction, they have the potential to participate from a live remote with a classroom or e-mail. I think we're looking at it for all students and not just the learning disabled kids."
Krass says one sixth-grader is a "really poor reader" and has difficulty with visual processing. So he uses the WYNN Reader program using a scanner. It displays one page of a book at a time on a computer screen and each word is highlighted as the computer reads the text. "If someone reads it to him he would understand it and comprehend it," Krass says. "The computer is doing that and he's also following along. That combination of hearing it and following along does help improve skills and he can do it on his own which is the other great thing. He's getting older and he doesn't like people helping him all the time. It's embarrassing for him. 'That's for little kids,' he thinks."
Lee envisions that these types of software programs, which are already used for students without disabilities, will continue to grow and get more popular. "The baby boomers are getting older and you have a lot of individuals having trouble seeing or hearing," Lee says. "They will need assistive technology devices to help them lead a productive life. I see them becoming more wise in technology and that will bleed down to their children and grandchildren."
Tools of the Trade
Here are a number of companies that provide assistive technology products for students with learning disabilities
The WYNN ($995) text to speech program reads material to students. Features include highlighting text, masking text, notetaking and built-in dictionary.
Breakthrough to Literacy, www.earlyliteracy.com
Individualized instructional program in which students (K-2) become engaged in language and print, learn letter names and sounds, develop the ability to sound out words and build vocabulary.
The EReader ($299) adds spoken voice, visual highlighting, document navigation or page navigation to any electronic text. The software can also integrate content from any source-the Internet, word processing files and scanned-in text.
Don Johnston, www.donjohnston.com
Reading, writing, word-study and computer access products, and professional development services for educating teachers on using technology to teach reading and writing.
Electronics For Imaging, www.e-beam.com
The eBeam portable digital whiteboard appliance system ($599) works with existing whiteboards and other writing surfaces to class notes and diagrams as they are created. Information is viewed, saved, edited, shared and printed using a Mac or Windows PC.
Computer-based, educational products for special education students. Flagship product is IntelliKeys, alternative keyboards that allow teachers to adapt curriculum to meet the needs of individual students. Also developing curriculum software to help students meet national standards in math and language arts.
Kurzweil Educational Systems, www.kurzweiledu.com
The Kurzweil 3000 ($1,095) is a scanning, reading and writing solution to help increase reading speed and comprehension for students with learning disabilities or reading difficulties.
LAB Resources, www.elabresources.com
Provides assistive technology to help individuals with physical and/or cognitive, learning or speech disabilities to perform functions that may otherwise be difficult or impossible. Assistive technology runs the range from inexpensive "low-tech" solutions to "high-tech" options.
Laureate Learning Systems, www.llsys.com
Publishes computer software for children with disabilities. Laureate's programs are appropriate for a wide range of students from those with severe profound developmental disabilities to mild language-learning disabilities.
Learning Tools/Media Nexus, www.learning-tools.net
WordQ Writing Aid software is a writing tool used along with standard Windows word processing software that uses advanced word prediction to suggest words and provides spoken (text-to-speech) feedback.
Lexia Learning Systems, www.lexialearning.com
Lexia software uses a branching system that allows severely disabled students to spend unlimited time mastering specific skills while less disabled students spend time only in the areas where they need extra help.
RJ Cooper & Associates, www.rjcooper.com
Provides a number of software programs and hardware adaptations designed specifically for students with special needs.
Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, www.rfbd.org
Audio textbooks for students who cannot read standard print because of a learning disability, visual impairment or other physical disability.
TextHELP! Systems, www.texthelp.com
Read and Write ($599) is a full text to speech word processor with speech support in the spell check window. Gives users the option of using word prediction.
Unique Logic and Technology, www.playattention.com
Play Attention is a patented computer-based feedback training system whose interactive format incorporates the latest brain research for rapid gains in attention. Play Attention's primary purpose is to help students learn how to control their ability to concentrate.
Angela Pascopella, email@example.com, is associate features editor.