Wednesday, March 25, 2015

3 Apps for Reading and Writing Success

March is the month where our 4th grade classes embark on the great "Famous Hoosiers" writing project.  Students are asked to research and write a paper on their chosen Hoosier.  I get a lot of calls this time of year from 4th grade teachers.  Their comments usually go something like this:

"He has a lot of great ideas; he just can't write them."

"She hates to write.  We can't get her to put anything down on paper."

"He loves to write.  I just can't understand anything he writes!  The spelling is SO bad, the letters are so entangled..."

This is a fun time of year because usually we see at least one student who struggled before become a great writer with the use of technology.  This year was no different.  With the help of three wonderful apps and an iPad, we are seeing some real magic from a couple of kids who were deemed "struggling readers and writers."  Below are the magical apps we are using.

Voice Dream Reader is an app that allows students to have text read out loud to them, highlighting the words as they are being read.  For a student with a vision or reading disability, it's like a life boat for someone swimming in the middle of the ocean. Winston Chen, the developer of the app, has an amazing story (read about it hear!) and is one of the most diligent and helpful developers I have ever come across.  He is responsive to his user's needs, makes frequent updates to the app based on those needs, and is open to your suggestions on how to make it even better.  If that's even possible.  This app is providing our students who have below grade level reading abilities a way to "read" the research on their Famous Hoosier from the internet (the app also provides access to Project Gutenberg books, PDF files, Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, Bookshare, etc.) It's also providing our students with Dyslexia a way to listen and read grade level books with a preferred font.  

This app has been such a game changer for those worksheet loving classrooms!  Snaptype allows you to take a photo of a worksheet (anything, actually) and edit over that photo with text.  This means that students who struggle with fine motor challenges, a student who struggles with visual impairment and can't see the text on a worksheet well, or a disorganized student who loses worksheets regularly can now have a digital tool that snaps a photo and makes the document accessible in seconds.  This is key to filling out a graphic organizer for the Famous Hoosier project.  Our students need to participate in a planning process for their papers, but more worksheets and more handwriting trips them up.  This takes away those barriers.

The Word Prediction App
Notice I am not including a picture of any particular app in this section.  I don't have a favorite word prediction app; I let my students preview and play with several different word prediction programs and allow them to choose one based on their preferences.  There are several that I like but when it comes down to it most are offering great support and just have a few cosmetic or features differences that sometimes don't make a lick of difference and sometimes make ALL the difference.  Which is why I let the student choose.  So rather than discuss one specifically, I'll let you be the judge of what is the best fit.  Here is a chart that compares several that I am a fan of and have had student success with: Word Prediction App Comparison Chart
Word prediction apps allow a student to get their words into a document by removing the spelling barrier.  Sometimes spell check or the native word prediction on an iOS isn't enough.  Sometimes a student really needs a heavier program to predict their words based on a more phonetic approach to spelling.  Instead of spending five minutes trying to spell "pharmacy" correctly, a student can type in "farmo" and get the correct word into the document ASAP.  These apps also provide text to speech so the student can listen to their writing being read back to them, allowing them to listen for errors.

A Happy Ending
For the last three weeks I have been checking in everyday to see the work that three different students are producing after putting these apps into place.  I have "before" samples, and comparing them to the Famous Hoosier reports is astounding.  It didn't take a long time to teach them how to use the tech, and it didn't make more work for the teacher to put the tech in place.  It's magic!  I'm so proud of all three students (and their teachers for advocating for them!) but the real water works came when one of the 4th grade students was initially introduced to the tools.  This is a kid who is reading at a Kindergarten/1st grade level.  You can imagine how difficult the task of researching Jim Davis (author of the Garfield comics) was going to be for him.  I wasn't too surprised he choose Jim Davis, as he had told me comics were the only thing he could read independently.  I introduced him to Voice Dream Reader, using the book Peter Pan (because it was free and available to quickly upload to the app through Project Gutenberg.)  As I explained to him how the app worked, he interrupted me to ask, "What's this book?"  I told him it was Peter Pan.  "The REAL Peter Pan?"  

He went on to explain that he had read lots of versions of Peter Pan before.  Baby versions.  He then explained that he loved to read stories, but he was "very busy in school.  When the other kids read for fun, I have to work.  I have to leave the classroom with other teachers and I am so busy." With all the intervention groups, resource room support, and extra time needed for assignments he's right; he's a busy boy.  I asked him if he ever read for fun at home. "Well, I can't read.  The letters are too mixed up for me.  Sometimes my sister will read to me, but her books are for older girls.  Mrs. Ashton...are you telling me I can read the REAL Peter Pan?  By myself? I can keep this?"  I told him he could start reading right after he chose a font that made the letters on the page look the best.  Without guidance, he went straight to Open Dyslexic.  Imagine that.

The "before tech" writing samples I had been provided from his team of teachers included mostly four word, single sentences.  Below is one of his more successful paper/pencil attempts at a paragraph.  The thought of him writing a full research paper without it taking the rest of the school year seemed impossible.  Just two days into using SnapType to plan out his writing within a graphic organizer and using a word prediction app to write the paper, he was writing three detailed paragraphs on Jim Davis.  His teacher sent them to me beaming with pride, "I didn't help him hardly at all!  He's doing it by himself.  We are all crying over here!"

As he walked out of the office that first day we looked at the apps he turned around to say to me, "Mrs. Ashton? This is going to be really good for me."  So it's really not a happy ending, but a happy beginning for a 4th grader who will now begin to read and write. All by himself.

Before Assistive Technology

With Assistive Technology


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