Word Prediction Makes the Difference: Learning Disabilities in Middle School

Fall 1996, Vol. 8 No. 1

by Danielle Niemann

I was recently given yet another lesson on how important technology can be in the lives of students with disabilities. This lesson was different, though. I did not learn from my textbooks; I did not learn from my professors. I learned from a 14-year-old named Josh and his parents. Josh is an eighth grade student in a southern New Jersey school district. He enjoys many of the pastimes that other 14-year-olds do. He listens to music and talks to girls on the phone. He likes to play baseball, soccer, and roller hockey and attends sleep-away camp in the summer.

Deficits in Written Language

At a young age, Josh was found to have severe learning disabilities which have resulted in significant academic deficits, specifically in written language. When people think of learning disabilities, they often think that a person has problems in only one area of development. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Josh . Josh's learning disabilities are evident in any subject that requires organization, handwriting, spelling, or composition. In the short amount of time that I spent with Josh and his parents, I was able to catch a glimpse of the intense frustrations that they have all experienced due to these deficits. Josh's parents handed me a stack of letters that Josh had written the previous summer from sleep-away camp. I glanced through the crumpled pages trying to make out a word here or there. In most of the lett ers, I was only able to decipher the date, the greeting "Mom & Dad," and the salutation "Love, Josh." The illegible words were not even written on any lines. They zigzagged up and down the page. They looked as if they were not organized in any logical fashion whatsoever. His parents described to me how they would sit together and try to read the letters. Usually, they could not decipher more than a sentence or two, if that. They explained the frustration of not knowing what their son was trying to tell them. Spelling: A Major Obstacle Josh's parents pointed out that even if you can get used to his handwriting, the next obstacles are spelling and composition. Josh has difficulty understanding the connection between sounds and letters. This, in turn, cr eates big problems with spelling. His phonemic unawareness was evident as I tried to read through the camp letters. His parents explained to me that Josh has less difficulty with oral expressive language. Since his expressive language is at a much higher level than his written language, he finds it frustrating to complete writing assignments. Imagine basically knowing what you want to say, but not being able to get it down on paper. This is something that Josh experiences every day.

After trying WriteAway, Josh wrote a sentence and asked, "Can I write some more?" This was the first time he had shown any competence or interest in writing.

When Josh was in the seventh grade, his parents were referred to the Center for Enabling Technology, a non-profit computer resource center in northern New Jersey which is part of the national Alliance for Technology Access (ATA). I spoke with Debbie Newton, the assistive technology specialist at the center, who conducted a computer evaluation on Josh. While at the center, Josh had the opportunity to try different software programs which might help him with his writing, such as Storybook Weaver Deluxe (MECC) and Spell it 3 (Davidson).

WriteAway: A Solution

After analyzing Josh's interests, learning deficits, and academic needs, Debbie thought that Josh might benefit the most from word prediction software and decided to try WriteAway (Assistive Technology, Inc.). Josh wrote a sentence, then turned to his mother and asked, "Can I write som e more?" Josh's mother was overcome with emotion. This was the first time she had ever seen her son show any competence or interest in writing. WriteAway was the word prediction program chosen because it was compatible with Josh's home and school computer s (IBM). The way that the program works is that as Josh begins typing the first few letters of a word, a numbered list of possible words beginning with those letters appears at the bottom of the screen. Josh then chooses the word he wants by typing in the number. This way, Josh does not have to type the entire word and struggle with the spelling of the word. This allows him to be free to focus on the content of what he is writing. Word prediction is very beneficial to a student like Josh because it 1) enables him to avoid spelling mistakes, 2) reinforces the correct spelling of words, and 3) develops his writing skills.

Completing Schoolwork Independently

Josh uses the program to complete his writing assignments in school and homework assignments at home. Josh's parents are very pleased with the way his writing has progressed. After he began working with WriteAway, he was able to complete quality homework assignments. He now does his weekly vocabulary assignments on the computer. For the assignme nts, he has to write original sentences using his vocabulary words. In the past, Josh would either write the sentences out, which usually meant that they were illegible, or he would dictate the sentences to his mother and she would type them on a word pro cessor. Now, Josh is able to do these types of assignments on his own. This is important progress for an adolescent in middle school. WriteAway also has an auditory component which Josh has not yet been able to use. A sound card enables the program to pro vide voice output word-by-word or sentence-by-sentence. His parents feel that this would be a beneficial feature, but the computers at home and in school are not equipped with the needed sound cards. When available, the speech output feature will help to focus Josh's attention. It will provide a multisensory approach to writing in which he will be able to write, read, and hear his words. Josh and his parents are very pleased with his accomplishments since he has been using the computer with WriteAway to complete his writing assignments. His parents made it clear that they would like to see other types of technology available to their son and other children with learning disabilities. They would like to investigate voice recognition software. With it, Josh would be able to speak into the computer and his speech would be converted into text. This would enable Josh to make use of his fine expressive language without always worrying about spelling and the available vocabulary. Josh's mom summed up her feeling s about Josh's progress with technology when she told me, "I think that technology is the key for these kids to unlock what it is they really know. You can't find out what they can do if you don't give them a way to do it."

Product Information:

Storybook Weaver Deluxe
MECC (800)685-6322 $62.95 (School Edition)

Spell It 3
Davidson(800)545-7677 $79.95 (School Edition)

Assistive Technology, Inc. (800)793-9227 $199

Danielle Niemann is a graduate student in the Department of Special Education at The College of New Jersey.

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