Paul Matia’s dyslexia made homework a daily frustration. Having a tablet PC with text-to-speech software has helped eliminate this roadblock.

Jul 22 2008

Overcoming Obstacles

Ohio's Lawrence School uses tablet PCs to aid students with learning disabilities.

Ohio’s Lawrence School uses tablet PCs to aid students with learning disabilities.

Paul Matia is a bright, athletic 17-year-old high school junior, but dyslexia slows his reading comprehension. When he was younger, he’d sometimes misread instructions and do his homework wrong. In fact, homework was often an all-night ordeal.

To compensate, his parents double-checked instructions to make sure he was doing his homework correctly. They also read his textbooks out loud to him every night, so he could finish the work on time. “He could always read by himself, but it was laborious,” recalls his mom, Sharon Matia.

Now, he reads much more quickly and by himself, thanks to a one-to-one computing program at the Lawrence School, an independent school in Ohio that educates students in grades 1 through 12 with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and other learning differences.

The school, with campuses in Broadview Heights and Sagamore Hills, equips its 130 high school students with tablet PCs and software that helps them overcome their disabilities.

For students with reading difficulties, text-to-speech software converts text, such as scanned copies of books, into speech. The program doubles as a speech recognition tool, allowing students with writing difficulties to speak into microphones and have their words converted into text on the computer. A second application acts like an electronic binder, where students with attention deficit disorder can take class notes and store their homework and school documents in a digital format and not lose anything. A third application, a software program called Inspiration, helps students diagram and outline their papers. Essentially, the technology helps students rise above their difficulties and allows them to succeed in school.

Pilot Pays Off

In the United States, 5 to 9 percent of K–12 students have dyslexia, according to the International Dyslexia Association.

“The technology levels the playing field and allows them to blossom,” says Ryan Masa, Lawrence School’s Upper School academic dean. “It removes the obstacles and assists them with what is most difficult for them, whether it’s reading, organization or another skill they struggle with.”

Paul, for example, no longer struggles with school work and has a grade point average that is above 4.0 because he took honors and Advanced Placement courses. The text-to-speech software reads his assignments and books to him. “It’s a lot easier to sit down and listen to a book than it is to read it,” Paul says. “It’s just the way my brain is wired.”

He finishes his studies so quickly now that he has time to pursue outside interests after school, including the Boy Scouts and playing for his school basketball team, his mother says.

Sally Garza, Lawrence’s director of technology, first piloted the one-to-one program during fall 2004 with 10 students and a few teachers. Students who received C and D grades started earning As and Bs. The next year, more students asked to join the pilot, and the program increased to about 40 students. The results were so positive, school administrators formally launched a one-to-one program for all high school students 18 months ago.

Garza and the school staff carefully tested the different technologies available. When choosing between tablets and regular notebook computers, they settled on tablets because they are more durable, have longer battery life and weigh less — important considerations because students carry them all day and bring them from home to school and back.

Choosing the Technology

Lawrence School standardized on Lenovo X61 ThinkPad tablets, which include a 12.1-inch screen, a 1.67GHz Intel Core Duo 2 processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM and an 80GB hard drive. The 4-pound ultraportable computer has a full-size keyboard and its eight-cell battery lasts about seven and a half hours, more than triple the battery life of a notebook PC, Garza says.

During the pilot, the school purchased the computers for their students. But with the formal one-to-one program in place, administrators are now requiring parents of incoming freshmen to purchase the computers.

Even though parents paid for the tablets, the student computer program still required the school to make a big tech investment. To handle bandwidth requirements, Garza upgraded the school’s network, built a Wi-Fi network and installed an online grade book, which allows students and parents to check homework assignments and grades online.

With the older students getting new computers, administrators transferred the school’s computer labs — totaling 56 computers — to the lower grades, so its elementary and middle school students can use them.

Garza and the Upper School tech coordinator troubleshoot most computer problems, such as reimaging software and replacing keyboards and hard drives. But if the problems are more complex, they ship the computers back to Lenovo for repairs.

Teaching with Tablets

Director of Technology Sally Garza helped create the school’s one-to-one tablet program.

Garza and two tech coordinators provide regular computer training to teachers and students. In fact, next year Garza will teach a new mandatory ninth-grade class on computer skills, Internet research skills and Internet safety. To better integrate the computers into classroom instruction, administrators have purchased interactive whiteboards, allowing teachers to use their tablets and project videos and other applications onto the screens.

Because every student learns differently, Masa says it’s critical for educators today to give students a “multisensory approach” to learning, from videos to hands-on projects, because it engages them and makes them excited to learn. High school science teacher Karen Callahan agrees and regularly incorporates multimedia into her classes. In astronomy, for example, students recently went to NASA’s website to track and view pictures of sunspots.

Instead of having students write only papers, teachers now ask students to produce PowerPoint presentations or even videos to show they comprehend the material they learn in class, says Adam Havel, a seventh- and eighth-grade history and world geography teacher. And when they do write papers, the Inspiration program helps the students visually organize their ideas, and the text-to-speech program helps them “proof” their papers by reading their work back to them.

“Our students’ confidence level increases. They no longer say, ‘I hate writing,’” Havel says.

Students Reach Potential

Paul Matia has three colleges on his wish list, including Notre Dame, and he is thinking about studying sports management. During the past year, he took Advanced Placement and honors classes, and he would never have had the opportunity to do so without the tablet and the educational software, his mother says.

“We always told him, ‘Try hard. You can do it.’ ” Sharon Matia says. “He’s always known he’s smart, and going to Lawrence has kept his confidence level up. The school, and the technology, has taught him to learn more about how he learns, and how he needs to get the material presented to him.”

“We want them to walk out the door totally independent in their learning, and the technology has helped fulfill their needs,” Garza says.

History of Dyslexia

Physicians began learning about dyslexia and developing treatments for it in the late 19th century. In 1877, German physician Adolf Kussmaul used the phrase “word-blind” to describe the learning disorder, according to the book How to Detect and Manage Dyslexia, by Philomena Ott in 1997.

In 1887, professor Rudolf Berlin, an ophthalmologist in Stuttgart, Germany, was the first person to use the word “dyslexia” to describe the condition, Ott writes (from the Greek dys-, meaning abnormal or impaired, and lexis, referring to language or words).

Today, the exact causes of dyslexia are still unclear. But studies have shown differences in how brains of dyslexic people develop and function, according to the International Dyslexia Association.

Implementing a One-to-One Program

Sally Garza, Lawrence School’s director of technology, shares these best practices:

  • Equip teachers with computers six months to a year before giving computers to students. This will allow teachers time to incorporate technology into their lesson plans.
  • Provide regular training to students, teachers and parents. Offer classes as well as individualized one-on-one sessions.
  • Build a software image and have your PC vendor install it for you before shipping the computers.
  • If parents are required to purchase tablets or notebooks, create different payment options, such as a monthly payment plan.
  • Purchase security software that monitors Internet activity and prevents children from surfing inappropriate websites or downloading music. At Lawrence School, students are allowed to use instant messaging (IM) software before and after school, but not during school.

Additional Information

Attention- Deficit/Hyper- activity Disorder and dyslexia are distinct conditions that frequently overlap. ADHD affects 3 percent to 5 percent of K–12 students. It is estimated that 30 percent of those with dyslexia have ADHD, according to the International Dyslexia Association.

Dyslexia is a neurological learning disability characterized by difficulty with accurate or fluent word recognition and poor spelling and decoding ability, according to the International Dyslexia Association.

Tablets or Notebooks?

Pros and cons of tablets

Form factor:

  • more durable (sturdier case, spill-resistant keyboard, tougher screen)
  • the ability to convert to traditional notebook mode and back
  • supports handwriting recognition, allowing students to write on the screen
  • allows teachers with interactive whiteboards to project to the screen while walking around the room
  • Lighter, which is important for students who have to carry them in their backpacks.

Cost: more expensive than notebooks Battery life: longer (roughly seven and a half hours)

Pros and cons of notebooks

Form factor:

  • traditional form factor makes it less complex, therefore easier to use, especially for younger students
  • heavier (7 pounds or more), which makes it difficult for students to carry around all day

Cost: more affordable than tablets (IT administrators, however, might want an ultraportable notebook that weighs less but costs more) Battery life: shorter (about two hours)

<p>all photographs by Greg Ruffing/Redux</p>