Assistive Technology and the Multiage Classroom: These Tips and Technologies from the Special Needs Classroom Can Help Teachers Reach Struggling Students

By Lankutis, Terry; Kennedy, Kristen | Technology & Learning, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Assistive Technology and the Multiage Classroom: These Tips and Technologies from the Special Needs Classroom Can Help Teachers Reach Struggling Students


Lankutis, Terry, Kennedy, Kristen, Technology & Learning


Special needs educators have long known that technology can come close to working miracles in bringing students with physical and learning disabilities into the general education curriculum. Assistive technologies such as text-to-speech and word prediction software remain invaluable resources for struggling readers and writers, while multimedia-enhanced Web sites and concept mapping software have opened new pathways for students with alternative learning styles (see "Promising Technologies," page 40). Whereas full-time aides once shadowed learning-disabled students, reading worksheets aloud or helping with writing assignments, new technologies now allow students to work independently, and as a result, they are better able to participate in the regular curriculum.

Since the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990, which first mandated that IEP teams explore the use of assistive technology to help students with disabilities, schools nationwide have been working slowly toward the goal of improving the educational outcomes of these children. New provisions of the law now require schools to provide coordinated intervention and support to improve their performance. One step toward reaching this goal has been to increase the successful participation of students with physical and learning disabilities in the general education classroom. While technology is an important part of the move toward inclusive classrooms, exploring new teaching models is an equally vital component of creating a transformative learning experience for all students--with and without recognized disabilities.

How Technology Is Helping Students with Disabilities: Emily's Story

Darla Torix is head teacher of a two-room schoolhouse in rural Galata, Mont., where she and an assistant teach the full array of elementary and middle school subjects to 10 students in grades K-8. In addition to building lesson plans and sharing playground duties, they both help students with special needs complete their IEP goals. This multiage environment--where students of different ages, levels, and abilities work together--offers an ideal scenario for Emily, a student who has cerebral palsy, because of its naturally inclusive atmosphere. And like many students with disabilities, Emily depends upon technology to lessen physical barriers to learning and assist her integration into the general curriculum.

When Emily entered school six years ago at the age of four, Torix could see that technology would be a tool essential to both Emily's academic success and her participation in class activities. Since Emily often uses a motorized wheelchair and has limited use of one hand, Torix initially prescribed IntelliTools' IntelliKeys with Overlay Maker, a customizable keyboard and software combination that lets Emily write word by word instead of letter by letter; and IntelliTalk, a text-to-speech word processing program that allows her to see and hear what she writes. Emily, who just entered fourth grade, is now using Don Johnston's Co:Writer SmartApplet word prediction software for a portable memory-enhanced keyboard called the AlphaSmart. Due to Torix's gradual process of testing out different technologies, Emily is no longer physically isolated in the computer station in the back of class. With the mobility she gains with her AlphaSmart, Emily can work anywhere she wants in the classroom--at her desk or alongside her peers in a group activity.

The Multiage Classroom and the Struggling Student

While Emily's success is due in part to powerful assistive technologies like the AlphaSmart, Co:Writer, and IntelliKeys, it's also indebted to Torix's innovative way of making the multiage classroom work to each child's benefit. For Emily, this means an inclusive context where her physical difference from her peers is part of, rather than isolated from, the educational program, and which serves as a positive model of inclusion. …

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