Giving SpEd Students Their Voice

08/17/2017
LEARNING AND THE BRAIN
By Na’ama Y. Rosenberg

The need for special education in schools is increasing every year, and educators are struggling to find new and effective ways to help students with unique learning styles. Traditionally, special education students were either placed in a standard education classroom with no modifications, or isolated completely into separate classrooms. Modern approaches, though, show that having students of all learning styles together in the same class can be beneficial, but only when proper accommodations are made for the students who require them.

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The need for special education services isn’t decreasing. In 2014, nearly 13 percent of students attending public school receive special education services, equaling 6.5 million students. IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, mandates that children with disabilities receive appropriate special educational services. Qualifying students are those identified by a team of professionals as having any of 13 types of disabilities that adversely affects academic performance and needs special education and related services.

Some of the disabilities that are covered under this law include: speech or language impairment, dyslexia, ADHD, emotional disturbance, autism and traumatic brain injury. In all cases where students qualify for special education services, the school works with the parents to create an IEP — an Individualized Education Program, which is essentially a contract that outlines how the school will support the child. Some of the tools used are extended time on tests, testing modifications, special electronic tools for communication, questions read to students during testing, group therapy and other supports.

In many cases, students who have been diagnosed with a disability that impacts their ability to learn in a mainstream school environment benefit greatly from scaffolding tools that allow them to express themselves without anxiety or the feeling of pressures of time, and in a way that dignifies them without making them feel stigmatized. Enter, EdTech — a variety of tools and software that are available and frankly underutilized in this endeavor. Educational Technology, or EdTech for short, is an emerging but exciting branch of education that offers electronic apps and programs for teachers and students to utilize and customize to best achieve their learning goals. Because EdTech is often customizable and adaptable, it can be uniquely tailored to the needs of every special education student regardless of their support needs.

With the recent push from school districts to incorporate more technology into the learning environment, many classrooms have access to iPads, Chromebooks, Smart Boards, and even Google Daydream — a virtual reality headset. With all this technology at their fingertips, teachers have the opportunity to create custom learning solutions for students who struggle with traditional learning methods. Most options can be found in apps that are designed for tablets, laptops and mobile device use. With hundreds and hundreds of EdTech apps available, though, educators need to find the solution that best meets the specific learning needs of their special education students.

For struggling readers, Raz-Kids is a reading program that has interactive and leveled reading materials that are appropriate for a struggling reader no matter at which level they are. Students can listen to books for modeled fluency, read books for practice and then record themselves reading so teachers can monitor progress. Because Raz-Kids offers a mobile app, students are free to practice learning at home or with a special education assistant. It’s essential that students feel comfortable and empowered when reading, so that they have the confidence to challenge themselves. This is especially important for readers with dyslexia, who are often apprehensive to read in front of a class, or even a teacher, due to a fear of misspeaking the words. The read-a-long feature in Raz-Kids can ease this fear, and demonstrate proper pronunciation of words the reader may commonly misspeak. Additionally, the read-along helps the student decode and identify words even if the letters seem to be mixed up at first glance.

Voki is another innovative app that is equipping special education students with the tools they need to succeed. Voki offers digital avatars that students can fully customize; hair, clothes, accessories, and skin color, eye color — you name it, and the student can personalize it. The most important piece is that the Voki can also speak for the student. Not only can the student decide what the Voki will say on their behalf by typing it into the speech box so that the Voki can speak their words, but the student can also play with the voice and accent, adding an element of whimsy. For the students who face challenges in communication, this is an amazing and fun way to express oneself without fear, and present oneself in any way he or she chooses. It is a powerful tool because it, in essence, bypasses the anxieties and fears some students have when they have to speak in public or verbally express themselves. Whether this inability to speak one’s thoughts is based in the mechanical or emotional, having an avatar that could look like a mystical creature speaking for you is empowering. A student with speech apraxia knows in their mind what they want to vocalize, but can’t always physically speak their thoughts. Voki is a game changer for these students because they have a personal speaking ‘concierge’ that can communicate for them, using an avatar that is designed to look like the student.

The world of educational technology is expanding and providing never before seen accessibility for special education students. The newest education standards and administrators all over the nation are placing an emphasis on using technology to address differentiation in the classroom.  Teachers today have unprecedented tools at their fingertips to assist and encourage students who aren’t neurotypical. With all that is available today, special education teachers should be embracing all of the advantages that EdTech offers to help them accomplish their, and more importantly, their students’ goals.

Na’ama Y. Rosenberg is a former educator and school administrator, and is currently the Director of Content Development at Voki, an EdTech tool that allows teachers and students to create their very own digital talking avatar.
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Issue 19.1 | Summer 2017

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