Classroom accommodations

Hardware essentials

Tablets & netbooks can provide students with an easy way to record lectures, take images of notes that are scrawled on a board, and have instant access to a spell-checker, a calculator, and a computer engine that will read aloud text on a screen or even allow them to talk to the device and have it write down what they say.

For the younger child, managing and supporting these tools may be beyond her ability, but having the technology platforms in the house or working with someone in school to have these technologies available is a good starting place for many of the most effective accommodations.

Visit the Tools section to see examples of how to take advantage of text-to-speech tools.

Beware! Poor (or fake) accommodations!

There are many accommodations that will make a big difference in your child’s life at school, there are some that do not work well. Unfortunately, these are often the first your child will be offered. The most common is extra time for test taking. Extra time can be a useful accommodation, but it should not be used merely as a way to allow a student to labor through a standard reading, writing, or spelling approach. Giving a person in a wheelchair extra time to get up the stairs makes no sense. If, however, going up the ramp takes longer than going up the stairs, or you need to spend time building a ramp before you can get into the building, then the extra time is appropriate.

There are three unsaid reasons for giving extra time that are not in your child’s best interest:

Dyslexics are slower. The first is an assumption that the metaphorical gears in the mind of a dyslexic are moving slower than in a non-dyslexic. Do not for one minute believe that this way of thinking adequately describes your child. We dyslexics are able to draw the right conclusion quickly when we have the right path to the information.

It’s cheaper. Often extra time is given because it is the lowest-cost accommodation for a school to provide. It presents the least bureaucratic hassle and is designed to make administering a test easier on the school’s part. It would be much easier for an institution to say to all people in wheelchairs: “Tell you what—since you’re a special person, we will give you extra time to get up the stairs, at no charge!” when what they actually want to say is “We will not spend money on concrete and architects to figure out how to make this easier.” Extra time is really in the interest of the institution: it places the burden on the individual to correct him- or herself rather than on the institution to improve the manner of testing. On top of this, the school administrators can say they have met their obligation and limit legal liability.

Stigma. The final reason to be cautious of extra time is that it can be one of the most socially stigmatizing accommodations. The student who uses extra time does not have an obvious symbol to represent his need for his accommodation, and other students will surmise that they too would benefit from extra time. Yet this is not the case. Extra time also requires that your child work on a different schedule than the other students in the classroom, thereby segregating her. Your child may also try to keep hidden that she gets extra time, which only increases her shame. Remember, your child has a right to the best accommodations. That is the standard that you should be seeking. It’s what is best for your child, and it is also what is best for the school that is trying to accurately assess your child.

Many states develop specific standards to articulate what accommodations are acceptable for their testing. You can find out information about your specific state in the Local Resources section of our Community page. Remember not to let administrators leave you with only extra time, which is the cheap and lazy approach to inclusion.

Don’t set your child up to have to rely on the goodwill of others. Always have access to the tools that your child needs in order to produce a high-quality exam. It’s better to have some uncomfortable and direct conversations before the exam than to wait until afterward to try to clean up a mess.

Taking notes the easy way

There are many different accommodations to make note-taking and documentation easier. Here are our favorites.

Recording pens: Livescribe manufactures the Smartpen, which is a computer embedded inside of a pen that will record everything you hear, say, write, and draw. Really. It can then wirelessly sync notes and audio to an Evernote account (see Organization, below) where you can replay, organize, search, and share your notes. These pens can hold up to two hundred hours of audio and are compatible with both PCs and Macs, as well as a variety of smart phones. It also has a number of embedded functions that can be helpful to dyslexics.

Flatbed scanners: Another piece of equipment that you may want to invest in is a flatbed scanner, which will be indispensable for digitizing all types of text into speech to be read aloud by a computer.

Using cameras to scan: Document scanners with a 5-megapixel camera and a lighting source built in can be the fastest way to capture a page. NuScan, Epson, and Elmo manufacture models that take clean, crisp images, or check out the following:

Mobile phones: Smart phones that have powerful cameras will be a key tool in your kit. These cameras can take a scannable image of text so that it can be used later with text-to-speech software. It’s incredibly useful for a student to have a text-to-speech engine built into a phone. It allows her to access texts, emails, or websites on the go, or to be sure that Facebook postings are spelled correctly. This may seem like a trivial matter, but being able to keep up with her peers and communicate easily is as much a part of daily life for a teenager as was attending a school dance back in the day.

Why they need headphones

Since audio reading is a key accommodation, headphones are also important. Standard earbuds have the benefit of looking the same as any other set a young person might be using to listen to music, thereby reducing any stigma your child might feel about ear reading rather than eye reading. However, you may want to purchase a higher grade, over-the-ear model to use at home: these are much better for blocking out surrounding noise. This will allow your student to focus on what he’s hearing and also ensure that the audio does not disturb others.

Text-to-speech software for ear readers

The main reason that you want to start training your child to use text-to-speech lies in the long-term ability for him to level the playing field with eye readers in terms of time. Standard human speech is substantially slower than standard human eye reading. A radio commentator speaks at between 100 and 120 words per minute. Most people can read text at more than double that speed, and strong readers are typically clearing 300 words a minute. If your child is using standard human speech as her main alternative to reading, she will forever be at a major time disadvantage.

It is extremely important that you begin training your child to use text-to-speech technology if she has reasonable strength in listening ability. However, be prepared for the difficulties she may encounter at the beginning. It takes at least a month before a child becomes comfortable with this tool, and it can take more than a year before she has genuinely mastered it. When you consider that a standard reading curriculum allows three to five years for students to become proficient in eye reading, this is not at all an unreasonable expectation.

Visit the Tools section of the website to see examples of how to take advantage of built-in text-to-speech functionality in a variety of devices.

Teaching Text-to-speech

Start your child using text-to-speech in the context of content that he will enjoy. If he is a sports fanatic, get him access to material regarding his favorite team.

Explain the use of this software in terms of how much time your child will save: “Imagine if your homework took you an hour less each night and you could use that time to play with your friends.” You can listen with your child and make it a joint project, which may help normalize using text-to-speech and reduce stigma.

It may take as much as a month before your child is willing to entertain the idea that this technology will be useful. Keep up the campaign, trying different products and voices and selling the idea as hard as you can. When you get to the point where your child asks to use the text-to-speech software in reading something on his own, it’s time to start accelerating the rate at which text is read back. Try increasing the rate by 10 percent to see if your child can follow along. Every time your child increases her speed by 10 percent, it will take her 10 percent less time to get through material. You can learn about this in the tools section.

A good rule of thumb is to increase the rate 10 percent every week, which will get a user to roughly a 50 percent increase within a month. If you can keep this up for another month you can get your child to a full 100 percent increase, which would be outstanding. This is unlikely to happen for anyone who does not have strong auditory skills to begin with, but if you can get there, it means your child will have better comprehension and will be able to more easily keep up with (and maybe even surpass) eye readers for speed and comprehension.

Digital versions of text with text-to-speech software are more useful than audio recordings for several reasons. Students often need to quote from a book for their papers. If you have an audio version, listening to someone speak and having your child transcribe the information can be a very tedious task. It’s better to have material that he can cut and paste out of the digitized version of the book. This allows your child to both see and hear, while having an accurate transcription of the content for quoting.

Software: Speech-to-text

Speech-to-text software is also extremely useful for creating and, just as important, editing written prose.

Far and away the best provider of speech-to-text software is Dragon, a brand owned by Nuance. They produce Dragon Naturally- Speaking for Windows and Dragon Dictation for the Mac. Just like using text-to-speech tools, mastering speech-to-text is a skill that your child will have to work to learn. Look in the tools section of this site to learn about it.

Generally, expect it to take at least a month before your child is fluidly using this tool. In the first week have him practice at least thirty minutes a day, writing about anything he likes. Then have him try it in place of standard writing for school activities. Be sure that your child is comfortable and competent using the tool before you have him use this technology outside of your coaching reach.

One important tip for using speech-to-text software is to get a high-quality USB microphone. Do not count on the basic microphone that comes with the software. Get a USB microphone that plugs directly into the USB port on your computer.

At school your child will likely need to have a private space in order to write, given that she will be speaking out loud. Requesting a separate room during exam time is a fairly standard element of many IEPs. While there is some stigmatization to being in a separate room from the other kids, being able to use the software is absolutely worth it.

Visit the Tools section to see examples of how to take advantage of speech to text software.

Audio Resources

Access to audio material begins with two free or low cost sources for content: Bookshare and Learning Ally.

Learning Ally provides digital download services that target texts most commonly used in elementary, college, and graduate school education.

Bookshare has a large archive of textbooks. They provide digital downloads as well, though they use a different method to create their content. Their content is almost entirely e-book DAISY files, a special format designed for people with disabilities that allows software to read the book aloud.

Both Bookshare and Learning Ally rely on the 1996 Chafee Amendment to the Copyright Law, which guarantees people with disabilities access to printed material. In order to qualify for these services, your child will have to have a formal identification of a print-related disability. Both of the services are sympathetic to the high cost associated with these identifications and will often accept a letter from your doctor or from a school learning specialist who will certify that your child is qualified.

Bookshare or Learning Ally books are available as MP3s, so they can be downloaded onto any digital music player. Learn more on their websites: and is another great source for audio content. This is a commercial service that is probably most useful for high school students and older because it delivers audiobooks for adult fiction and nonfiction as MP3 files for smart phones, tablets, or laptops. However, it’s always good to search their database to find out whether a particular title is available. This software uses human voices that can be accelerated, but not as much as with text-to-speech.

Last but not least, there is Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg. org), which offers free digital downloads of e-text that can be placed in a speech engine and read by a synthetic computer voice. They have a deep catalog of material that is in the public domain, e.g., works by Shakespeare or Melville.

Evolving towards accommodations

Not all accommodations require technology. The most obvious accommodation has been around for millenia: reading aloud to your child. Parents typically do this with their children early on, and you’ll want to extend the practice until your child is comfortable with speech technology.

Another great accommodation is to allow your child to study in groups and to work with other students on projects. You will want to structure environments where your child is encouraged to partner with people by using her strengths to help the other student, and vice versa.

A popular accommodation is requesting that take-home papers be assigned instead of in-class exams. Having your child create a paper can make him feel just as capable as the students taking an in-class test. It also gives him extra time to get help with proofreading or to discuss the material. You should push for full accommodations during exams, but this is a good first step.

Supporting your child with proofreading is also important. As you move toward using speech-to-text software, spell-checkers and other elements will improve written output, but it’s useful to have a human intervention as a backup. It may be useful to identify a professional proofreader whom he can work with, especially for term papers or college essays. For a student who may be embarrassed about getting help, having to rely on Mom or Dad constantly is not ideal.

Make sure that the proofreader will enter the changes directly rather than ask your child to enter them. Standard proofreaders assume that your child will be able to accurately perceive the markup on a paper version. It is better to have the editor work directly on an electronic version and then accept changes after your child has reviewed them, preferably with text-to-speech software reading it aloud.

How to stay organized

Keeping organized can be a major task for students who are dyslexic.

To keep track of papers, you may want to try free software called Evernote (which also works with Livescribe, the recording pen). This tool is especially helpful for students who think of information visually. On the desktop interface for this software you can sort your information as you might go browse through album covers, flipping through whiteboard images, emails, or audio content easily. But for a dyslexic person there are some especially useful features. You can use Evernote to capture images of printed material that you might need to reference later. This includes handwritten notes on a blackboard or whiteboard in a classroom. The premium software is so sophisticated that it can allow you to search those images later simply by recalling a piece of content. Instead of frantically looking for notes or trying to recall what the whiteboard said three months ago, it’s all in your phone or on your desktop!

Maintaining a calendar can be an important tool for someone who’s dyslexic. There is often some extra effort that needs to go into coordinating accommodations, and a calendar will come in very handy. Empowering your kid to be part of this planning process will help him feel in charge of his world. The low-tech version would be to get a large calendar that you can write on in order to keep track of your child’s homework, projects, and assignments.