Ed-Tech Policy

Writing Takes a Digital Turn For Special-Needs Students

By Lisa Fine — January 30, 2002 6 min read
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Donna White remembers how her 14-year-old son would struggle for hours to finish simple writing assignments. Sometimes, his frustration would boil over into temper tantrums, making him completely unable to write.

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To help alleviate some of the boy’s frustrations, his teachers began letting him use an increasingly popular keyboard device called an “AlphaSmart” to type his assignments. Instead of worrying about the physical act of writing the words, the teenager, who has a nonverbal learning disability that makes it difficult for him to write, had more time to focus on the ideas he was trying to convey.

Ms. White said the machine made “a world of difference in the level of his writing and his ability to cope.”

But after two years of using the keyboard, she decided to take it away from him because she was worried it was becoming a crutch. Like many educators and parents, White concluded that the devices were a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they help students become more confident in their writing and complete their assignments. On the other hand, the machines may offer too much assistance to young writers.

This is especially the case when the machines are equipped with spell check and word prediction software, which senses when a student has hesitated to finish typing a word. Based on the first few letters typed, the computer then will either finish the word, or offer a menu of suggested words.

“We don’t know the efficacy or consequences of using these keyboards,” said Alan M. Warhaftig, the coordinator of Learning in the Real World, a Woodland, Calif.-based nonprofit group that examines the pros and cons of computer use in schools. “The proof is in the pudding. If the technology is effective and helps the students to learn, that’s great. But it has to be piloted and studied before we know the answer to that. Companies are selling hundreds of thousands of these units to schools without knowing if it works.”

In addition to AlphaSmart, other word processing keyboards—such as DreamWriter and Co:Writer—are competing for a share of the school market and are a hot topic of conversation on several special education Internet mail groups.

At $250 or less, the keyboards are less expensive and easier to use than laptop computers, some educators and parents point out.

The tiny word processors look like the keyboards from personal computers and either have skinny screens on top, or larger ones that fold open like laptops.

But Mr. Warhaftig says he worries that schools are too quick to use any products that will help students with special needs when there is little, if any, research showing that those products actually help youngsters learn.

Also, some educators say eager parents often buy the devices for their children to use in school before the educators have figured out how to use the technology effectively in the classroom.

Developing Thoughts

In the past five years, the 45,700-student Howard County schools in Maryland acquired about 300 AlphaSmart keyboards for its students, said Nancy L. Farley, an occupational therapist for the district’s assistive technology team. Many special education students in Howard County are identified as needing the AlphaSmarts when their individualized education plans are drawn up. Teachers can also check out keyboards from the library to use them in their classes, Ms. Farley said.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based AlphaSmart Inc., has been making the devices since 1993.

Yet not all parents in Howard County embrace the idea of a student using a keyboard, especially those with word-prediction and spell-check features. Some parents were initially worried their children wouldn’t get enough practice writing and spelling, Ms. Farley said.

But she says that skepticism tends to wane quickly once parents see how the machines can help their children.

“I think using the keyboard helps them spell and write better by longhand because it improves their confidence,” Ms. Farley said. “Once they can see what they are capable of writing, they will attempt to write more” without the aid of the machines.

Brian S. Friedlander, a school psychologist in the Green Township Public Schools in Greendell, N.J., and a national consultant on special education technology, says that keyboards with word-prediction software are an essential tool for students who need them.

Sometimes, he said, “you do get to a point whereby the student is no longer progressing and you need to find an alternative means for them to be able to produce written work.”

“AlphaSmarts and word-prediction software are no more a crutch than that of the student who needs to wear glasses to read,” Mr. Friedlander said.

Others agree.

“The students who use the keyboards in my class tend to write more than they previously did,” said Beverly Barnes, a reading specialist at Patuxent Valley Middle School in Howard County. “They can focus on developing their thoughts rather than writing out sentences.”

One 7th grader in Ms. Barnes’ class—where students both with and without special needs use the keyboards—recently used his machine to type an essay about snakes. With a big book opened to a page with brightly colored snakes next to him, Willy Shaw, 12, wrote about how he doesn’t like to touch snakes.

“It’s far easier to write with this,” said Willy, gesturing toward his machine. “It was frustrating in ways to write by hand. It took longer.”

Testing Raises Concerns

Despite the popularity of the keyboards and their word-prediction features, questions persist. For instance, should students with special needs be allowed to use the devices when they take state-sponsored tests?

In Nebraska, decisions about testing accommodations are made on a case by case basis. In Maryland, students can use word processors when taking state tests, but not machines that are loaded with spell-check or word-prediction software. Meanwhile, in California, students must get waivers to use the devices.

Some advocates for students with special needs argue that to allow those youngsters to use the keyboards in their daily academic lessons and then prohibit their use on tests is unfair.

A lawyer for Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal group based in Oakland, Calif., has filed a class action against the California Department of Education to halt administration of the state’s high school exit assessments, which the group says are unfair to students with disabilities. The lawsuit is currently pending.

Because California requires students to get waivers to use the word processing machines during tests, a “student has to take the test using the keyboard and then has to wait to hear if its use was approved and their score will count,” said Melissa Kasnitz, a staff lawyer for Disability Rights Advocates. “Why should they have to take that gamble?”

Since test results won’t be used to hold students accountable until 2004, a spokesman for the California Department of Education, Doug Stone, said the assessment is a “work in progress"—and so, any accommodations given to special education students will also be under review. But Mr. Friedlander argues that the word processing machines don’t give students a leg up on tests— they just level the playing field.

“The AlphaSmart and word-prediction software are not going to write the essay or answer the question on these tests, but simply allow the student the opportunity to show what they are capable of doing,” Mr. Friedlander said. “That is why it is called assistive technology.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2002 edition of Education Week as Writing Takes a Digital Turn For Special-Needs Students


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