By Pascopella, Angela
District Administration , Vol. 38, No. 4
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girl-taller than other fifth-graders at Winston Churchill Elementary School in Schaumburg, Ill., and incredibly shy and withdrawn.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 I reading level. She still straggles, 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, be-all. 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. …