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Computers and students with learning disabilities.


Computers are useful tools in many aspects of our everyday lives. They are also valuable tools for students with learning disabilities. Computers are engaging, motivating, and fun for students who have trouble staying on task, and can be of great benefit in the areas of reading, writing and mathematics. They provide stimulation not available through conventional teaching methods. Using the computer is also of great assistance for those who dislike writing. Computers make the revision and editing process much easier for the student, allowing writing to be more enjoyable. Overall, with the use of the computer, students with learning disabilities have a better chance of success in their academic careers.


The computer is here to stay; it is not a trendy gadget that will fade into a distant memory. In today's society, a person not able to use the computer is considered to be as illiterate almost as if he or she was not able to read or write. Most schools have computer labs, and frequently, classrooms have computers as tools for the students. We tend to encourage out students who are above average intelligence or classified as "gifted" to use the computer. They are more than capable of understanding and using the technology. What about the students who are considered "at risk" or as having "special needs", don't these students deserve the same opportunities as their peers.

computers are quickly becoming the most powerful devise to aid the learning process. In fact, computers have been found to offer the most help to students at both ends of the educational spectrum, from those who are gifted to the student with special needs (Casey, 1997). Casey states there are advantages for all students using the computer:

(1.) Computers are motivating, they are fun. All of us love challenges and love to make things happen.

(2.) Computers with good software can be highly interactive as opposed to books, tapes, films, radio, and television. With a computer, the user controls what happens.

(3.) Computers are nonjudgmental and they have infinite patience. You can work slowly or rapidly, it does not make faces or criticize, it never gets tired or crabby.

(4.) Computers with hypermedia cannot only explain concepts in a more interesting, visual, or animated manner, but can respond to inquiries in various ways depending on how the user chooses to access materials.

(5.) Computers can simulate situations too complex, dangerous, or costly to do in a classroom. Chemical reactions, ecosystems, space travel, can safely be explored.

(6.) Using hyperstudio and other authoring systems, children can create reports and research for their peers. It is in problem solving and in the creation of these materials that real-world learning occurs.

(7.) Through telecommunications, computers bring the resources of the world into the classroom and allow students in one classroom to communicate with others anywhere in the world.

(8.) Computers foster the writing process by making editing and creating materials much easier. They also make the final product look professional (p. 62).

Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) vs. Teacher Aided Instruction (TAI)

All individuals learn differently. This was documented as far back as 1936 (Gillingham & Stillman, 1936). Computers may be a way of addressing more than one learning style with a single program. Essential learning styles for the computer are auditory, visual, and kinesthetic (McCabe, 1983). Computer aided vs. teacher aided instruction is a topic of discussion in today's educational arena. Few studies have been done in this area. In one study done by Hall, Hughes, and Filbert (2000), only 17 empirical studies were found in the literature covering a ten year period. More research is definitely needed. Problems exist when comparing TAI to CAI. For example, there is a failure to control for instructional design variables with computer programs. It is also difficult to interpret results due to lack of adequate intervention descriptions between the two types of instruction (Hitchcock & Noonan, 2000). Computer applications for students with learning disabilities are different from those for student without learning disabilities (Torgensen & Young, 1983). For students with learning disabilities, the computer can be used as an instructional tool as well as a management tool. (Torgensen & Young, 1983). The few studies that have been done show that students with mild disabilities can learn twice as much through CAI (McCabe, 1983). According to Quenneville (2001), by using the computer, students with learning disabilities can compensate for the challenges they face in learning.

There is evidence that some CAI is also beneficial for students who learn at a slower rate that normal learners (Torgensen & Young, 1983). One explanation for this may be that the computer is more attractive and motivating to the student. It seems to promote engagement (Hitchcock & Noonan, 2000). Students prefer programs that use hypermedia; higher interaction requirements as well as the use of animation, sound and voice features (Hitchcock & Noonan, 2000). Tasks on the computer can be adjusted and customized to fit the needs of each individual student. Difficulty levels can be adjusted either up or down and, as the student progresses levels can be increased, giving the student a sense of accomplishment and pride (Zimmerman, 1988; Pratt, 1999).

Benefits of Using the Computer

Research has found positive results for students with and without learning disabilities in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics and can help students with disabilities overcome the barriers to success (Zorfass, Corley, and Remz, 1994, MacArthur, 1996). Computers require more assistance from the teacher as students are learning new skills. As they gain mastery, they begin to work independently. The computer is able to illustrate some concepts and mathematical principles that are difficult to teach by traditional methods (Torgensen & Young, 1983). It is likely that cognitive deficiencies contribute to the problems students with LD experience in critical thinking and problem solving skills. The computer allows for the exploration of higher-level thing skills particularly in the area of problem solving. These skills are easily controlled and follow a sequence of steps (Zimmerman, 1988). Computers create more opportunity for practice.

Many programs cut across academic disciplines. Programs help develop literacy skills. They can also teach a nonverbal student to make his or her needs known using pictures and touch screens. While attending to the development of free motor and cognitive skills, students also learn to wait, take turns and interact during social situations (Pratt, 1999). Children with multiple disabilities develop many skills they would not be able to develop without the use of the computer. The computer has been shown to aid in the development of language, social-emotional skills, cognitive and physical development, and provide the opportunity to become more independent. They learn these skills through active exploration and engagement not provided by other means (Pratt, 1999).

A supplemental benefit is available for teachers and parents. Computer programs can help with Individual Education Plan (IEP) management and provide parents with objective information about their child's progress. They can help guide learning objectives and assist the teacher in addressing state standards (Kelly, 2001; Pratt, 1999). Assessments done on the computer are measured with impartiality and a controlled testing environment that captures the interest of the student and adds motivation and incentive (Zimmerman, 1988).

Benefits for Reading

Reading is the skill that most broadly affects overall academic achievement and success. Computer software has the potential to provide practice in individual word reading skills not available through regular methods (Torgensen & Young, 1983). Struggling readers often cannot decode. Some students, such as non-native English speakers or late learners, may have a better chance of comprehending what a word means and how it works in the context of a sentence if he or she simultaneously sees it and hears it read aloud. In addition, standard approaches may not address specific learning styles. The computer allows for the multi-modalities of auditory, visual, and tactile learning (Lankutis, 2001).

Reading and language are often the cornerstone to which new technologies are first applied in special education (Tyre, 1988). Three aspects of individual word reading skills that can be addressed by use of the computer are increased perceptual recognition speed, increased richness of a child's knowledge about meamng and potential uses of words, and increased speed gaining access to semantic word knowledge while reading. Students may also benefit from the acquisition of rapid word reading skills (Torgensen & Young, 1983). One study (Kelly, 2001) has shown positive results and success with reading for a group of eighth graders. The students were able to see the value of reading in real-life applications. Students in the study, classified as special education students, were able to increase their reading levels by an average of 2.4 grade levels from 1998--1999, while students in general education, not using the technology, only increased 1.2 grade levels.

Benefits for Writing

Students with learning disabilities have problems with writing in the areas of mechanics, story schema, cohesion, inclusion of extraneous ideas, and unclear referents (Wetzel, 1996). Programs that provide a supportive social context for writing and instruction in the writing process, can improve the writing of students with LD (Wetzel, 1996; MacArthur, 1996). Word processors were introduced into classrooms of students with learning disabilities in the 1980s. Documentation of the benefits of the word processors, spell checkers and speech synthesizers began. The computer helps student express themselves, monitor their own writing process and take part in the entire process essential to good writing (MacArthur, 1988, Montague and Graves, 1993). Students who are experienced writers spend a lot of time on the planning process. For students with LD, little time is spent at this stage. They often have trouble generating sufficient content and thus produce shorter compositions. They may lack the awareness of common text structures. The word processor allows these students to produce a neatly printed paper; errors may then be corrected without messy erasures (MacArthur, 1996).

The word processor supports basic writing skills. Students are able to produce legible text with correct mechanics. The visibility of the text on the monitor is a distinct advantage. This allow for discussion between the students and the teachers as the writing process unfolds. The encourages collaboration between students and student and teacher in the writing and editing process (Zorfass et al., 1994) One of the most frustrating parts of the writing process, especially for the students with learning disabilities, is that of revision. In the past, the students would frequently have to rewrite the entire page, if not the entire paper. Word processing allows students to make revisions easily and frequently. The teacher is able to model cognitive strategies and analyze each draft as the process continues. When the final draft is completed the teacher should encourage the students to reflect on themselves as authors and how the technology of the word processor played a role in their success (Zorfass, 1992).

Word processing allows students to perform functions normally out of their reach academically. For example, using a spell checker or grammar checker may identify errors. These need to be used with caution, however. Spell checkers miss approximately 40% of misspellings, due to limitations such as correctly spelling the wrong word, or not being able to identify the correctly spelled words. Speech feedback may be a solution to this problem, allowing the reader to monitor his or her own writing and edit as the process continues (Zorfass et. al, 1994). Some word processing programs have word prediction and word banks. These were originally designed to help students with physical disabilities reduce keystrokes. The predictions are based on frequency of use, grammatically correct usage of words, and the most recently used words. As the user types a letter, the software predicts words accordingly (Quenneville, 2001). picture banks, allowing students to view the printed word as well as the picture to help with word selection, accompany some word banks. These are most appropriately used during the writing rather than the revision process (MacArthur, 1996). These are also excellent tools for vocabulary development.

Voice recognition software is a tool that can help students write compositions that are substantially longer with superior quality compared to handwritten compositions (Wetzel, 1996). Combining voice recognition with speech synthesis, the student hears what he or she has written. This process helps bridge the gap between what students want to express and the skills they have (Quenneville, 2001). Voice recognition scaffolds both the reading and writing processes. The major difficulty with this type of technology lies with the speaker. If the speaker is not fluent in English or cannot speak clearly, the program may not recognize the intended word (Wetzel, 1996).

Enormous Potential

Students with LD fall progressively further behind because the general education classroom moves at a pace requiring them to move to a higher level before mastery of a component skill is acquired (Torgensen & Young, 1983). Students using computers are able to improve skills more rapidly than those who do not (Hitchcock & Noonan, 2000). This allows them to advance at a faster pace and participate more in the general education classroom. With computers, the ability to find instructional materials based on student interest is higher (Torgensen & Young, 1983). Computers can be used as tutors, to present materials, concepts, and information or skills normally taught by traditional methods. They have the capacity to measure the time for responses. Through game formats, students are pressured to give responses that are more rapid. Use of games also helps to strengthen information processing skills. A variety of formats can be used to maintain and sustain interest.

This is not to say that using the computer is perfect for everyone and every class. Teachers need to collaborate with computer programmers to continually develop software that is appropriate for different grade levels, skills levels, and disabilities. Most programs give auditory prompts and directions, which makes it difficult for deaf students to fully benefit from the programs. Another area that needs to be addressed is the lack of developmentally appropriate programs for older students (Torgeusen & Young, 1983). Many older students with LD have the same difficulties with decoding and writing as the younger student. This area needs to have more collaboration between the computer companies and special education teachers. Hopefully, these issues will be addressed in the near future. With the potential for improving academic skills, the computer seems to be an underutilized, highly motivating tool. It allows for individualized student instruction and practice, helps with implementing and maintaining IEPs, and gives impartial assessment. One of the greatest assets of computers is they never tire of the repetition needed. They don't care how fast or slow the user is, best of all, they never become frustrated and crabby.

There are many programs available on the market today. The Learning Company has an online store ( that offer a variety of different programs and topic choices. Touch Window and the accompanying software are available from Keytec, Inc at www.magictouch.com_ There are many other sources of software for the child with LD. Caution needs to be taken when choosing the software to make sure it is appropriate for the tasks intended.


Casey, J. M. (1997). Early literacy: The empowerment of technology. Englewood, CO.: Libraries unlimited, Inc. and Its Division Teacher Ideas Press.

Gillingham, A. & Stillman, B. (1936). Remedial gaining for children with specific disability in reading, spelling, and penmanship. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.

Hall, T. E., Hughes, C. A., & Filbert, M. (2000). Computer assisted instruction in reading for students with learning disabilities: A research synthesis. Education & Treatment of Children, 23(2). 173.

Hitchcock, C. H., & Noonan, M. J. (2000). Computer-assisted instruction of early academic skills. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 20(3), 145-158.

Kelly, R. (2000). Giving an assist to struggling readers. (Assistive skills and strategies incorporating special technologies). Reading Today, 18(6), 14-16.

Lankutis, T. (2001). Picks of the month- Reaching the struggling reader--Our take on some creative reading software that individualizes instruction and motivates students at any grade or age level. Technology and Learning, 21(10), 24-35.

MacArthur, C. A. (1988). The impact of computers on the writing process. Exceptional Children, 54(6), 536-542.

MacArthur, C. A. (1996). Using technology to enhance the writing process of students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(4), 344-354.

McCabe, D. (1983). Not what, but how do individuals learn? A microcomputer challenge. Academic Therapy, 18(5), 529-532.

Montague, M. & Graves, A. (1993). Improving students' story writing. Teaching Exceptional Children, 25(4), 36-38.

Pratt, B. (1999). In the curriculum--Special needs--Making it work: Using technology in a classroom for young children with multiple disabilities. Learning and leading with technology, 26(8), 28-31.

Quenneville, J. (2001). Tech tools for students with learning disabilities: Infusion into inclusive classrooms. Preventing School Failure, 45(4), 167-170.

Torgensen, J. K., & Young, K. A. (1983). Priorities for the use of microcomputers with learning disabled children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 16(4) 234-236

Tyre, T. (1988). Technology gives kids with special needs the power to learn. Technological Horizons in Education Journal, 15(10), 14-16.

Wetzel, K. (1996). Speech-recognition computers: A written communication tool for Students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(40), 371-380.

Zimmerman, S. O. (1988). Problem-solving tasks on the computer: A look at the performance of student with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities 21(10), 637-641.

Zorfass, J. (1992). Promoting successful technology integration through active teaching practices. Teaching and Learning: The journal of Natural, 6(3), 22-24.

Zorfass, J. Corley, P. & Remz, A. (1994). Helping students with disabilities become writers (includes related article). Educational Leadership, 57(7), 62-67.

Kathy Hoover is a graduate student in special education, she is teaching special education in an elementary school.
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Author:Hoover, Kathy
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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