Jennifer Snelling
A girl listens to a book on her tablet

Assistive learning strategies have long been the domain of special education teachers, who have often been called upon to help general classroom teachers adapt lessons for students who need extra supports.

But all that changed during the pandemic. Many educators discovered they had to suddenly adapt their lessons for many students who were struggling in online classrooms. Teachers accustomed to getting assistance from special education teachers who were well versed in the Universal Design for Learning framework found they no longer had this resource. They had to go it alone.  

“The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) people were never busier,” says Chris Bugaj, host of AT Tips Cast and co-author of Inclusive Learning 365: EdTech Strategies for Every Day of the Year, which he wrote with Karen Janowski, Mike Marotta and Beth Poss.

Emergency remote learning made it clear that it’s not enough to have a few UDL experts at a school; all teachers need to understand how to adapt lessons to make online content accessible to all students.

Regardless of how comfortable you are with assistive technology, there are many free and simple-to-use tools teachers can use with students of all abilities to help them succeed. Below are some examples of strategies.

1. Use text-to-speech.

Almost any device can read text aloud. On the iPhone, for example, go to “settings” and select “accessibility.” Slide the buttons to activate “speak selection,” which allows you to select the text, and a menu pops up on the screen. Choose “speak” to hear the text read aloud while the spoken text is highlighted. Learners can adjust the voice and speed of the reading.

Students who are less comfortable with reading can listen and follow along with the highlighted text. Not only does this technique ensure the student is accessing the information in the text, but studies show it will help them become better readers.

“So amazing! This feature should be used by everyone," Marrotta says. "Built-in accessibility features are a hidden gem in all our technology tools. They exist in every device we have, yet many people don't even know that they are there.” 

2. Collect highlighted text.

This strategy is great for students struggling with organization and executive function. They can use a digital highlighter to mark notes by subject and organize them by color. For example, for a report on polar bears, the student can use yellow to highlight where polar bears live and green to highlight what polar bears eat. Students can also highlight words that they don t know and group them together as a study guide.

The Chrome extension Read and Write has this function, as does Google Docs using an add-on.

3. Maintain closed captioning with multiple tabs open.

Students researching a topic often need to toggle between multiple tabs. Did you know they can maintain closed captioning even as they navigate between tabs? On a PC, search for “closed captions” in settings to make captioning the default. On a Mac, choose the Apple menu > system preferences, then click “accessibility” and then “captions.”

Allowing students to use these tools addresses ISTE Standard for Students 1b: "Students build networks and customize their learning environments in ways that support the learning process." And 5a: "Use technology to create, adapt and personalize learning experiences that foster independent learning and accommodate learner differences and needs."

The book includes a description of how to do this with Google Slides and Microsoft PowerPoint. As an extension opportunity, have a learner turn on the caption during their presentation.

4. Practice for new social situations using virtual reality.

Imagine a student with autism is ordered by the police to comply with an order. If the student doesn’t understand and cannot comply, the situation could quickly escalate before the student can explain why.

Using Google Cardboard or Codespaces EDU, have students practice interactions with prescriptive phrases responding to police officers or other people in the community.

5. Supporting families in their home language.

Translation tools, such as Google Translate, make it possible to communicate with families about a broad range of topics in many languages.

Supporting families in their home language is another inclusive practice that helps build community and increase stakeholder participation, Poss says. “Technology can play a role in learning environments focused on diversity, equity and inclusion as a part of culturally responsive educational practices.”

An assistive learning tip every day of the year

You’ll find more strategies to embed assistive learning into your classroom in the book Inclusive Learning 365: EdTech Strategies for Every Day of the Year. By breaking up the strategies into different categories, such as reading, writing, general literacy or STEM, classroom teachers can try one strategy each day or look for a subject-based strategy in the index. All the strategies correlate to the ISTE Standards.

“We have the strategy first instead of the tool because the tools often change,” Bugaj says. “For instance, Google may soon put highlighters in the toolbar. The tools will be outdated, but the strategy will live on.”

Each page describes a strategy, along with what makes it inclusive, offers examples of common tools to use, as well as opportunities for extension, such as what else you can do with this strategy.

Read Inclusive Learning 365

Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon, and mom to two digital natives.