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Free Online Resources for Special Education

Over the past few years, decreased funding has  forced teachers to become even more creative with the supplies and resources that they currently have in the classroom.  Luckily there is a wealth of high-quality, FREE online resources that can be implemented in your classroom to spice up your daily lesson plans.  The sources listed below should encourage students to communicate, participate, interact, learn life skills and build intrinsic motivation.

Teachers Helping Teachers

Teachers Helping Teachers is a website developed for teachers, by teachers.  On this site you will find lesson plans (including a special education section), educational links, a forum, topics and poems of the week, and stress reducers.  Under the special education lesson plans section, there is a large variety of easily adaptable plans.  Lesson plans range from reading, spelling, and notetaking to classroom management, activity modifications, and behavioral systems.  Many of these lesson plans provide learning strategies to build skills based on Individual Educational Plans (IEPs).  These lesson plans can easily be used in conjunction with other lesson plans and links provided throughout the site.

Kathy Schrock’s Guide for Educators

Kathy Schrock’s Guide for Educators is a wealth of online resources.  The special education page for this site includes approximately 20 links for educators.  Some of the sites are research-based sites that provide standards-based approaches for teachers to reach their special education students.  Other links are for teachers to use as teaching aids or activities for their students in their classroom.

SEN Teacher

SEN Teacher is a regularly updated and current website that provides free online teaching and learning resources for special education teachers.  This site was created by a former teacher with experience working with students and young adults with intellectual disabilities.  The three sections of this website I found most useful were printables, web links, and downloads.  The printables page has a wide variety of worksheets, games, and tools for learning concepts such as time, money, handwriting, vocabulary, and communication skills.  I especially like the printables that involve game pieces like spinning wheels and fact fans.  The downloads page is one of the most interesting pages with categorized downloadable programs and games for a variety of subject areas.  They are all FREE full versions of programs (not demos) that can be integrated into your core curriculum.

Do 2 Learn

Do 2 Learn is a website that was created by a group of advisors and staff that has extensive experience working with and researching a wide variety of disabilities and how to best educate special education students.  The Do 2 Learn site offers a variety of free activities, lessons, games, and organization tools on their website.  The best thing about this site is that they provide teachers with creative ideas to teach special education students real-world skills such as social skills, fine motor skills, organizational skills, and communication skills.  The interactivity and interest level of the activities will make learning meaningful and fun for special education students.

Article by Laura Ketcham

Free Teacher Resources | Special Education by Learning Today

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Audio Books in the Classroom

While working with 3rd grade students one summer, I realized the benefit of using audio books in the classroom.  The major focus of the summer program was for remediation in reading and mathematics and to better prepare the students for the next grade level.  As one of the requirements, the students had to complete summer reading and book reports both on assigned and free choice books.

There was one student, in particular, that was reading below grade level and was becoming very frustrated with reading.  He would refuse to read at all, only wanting to be read to by me or other students.  He would not join in on ‘pop corn’ reading sessions, he would just sit and not read during silent reading time, and he even refused to follow along in the book if he was being read to by a teacher or fellow students.  I tried so many different strategies to encourage and provide him with the skills to be a successful reader.

One weekend, after a particularly hard week, I knew I had to think of a strategy that would encourage this student to read.  The following Monday, the students would start to read the mandatory reading assignment, Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing.  I reflected back to my children’s literature course that I had taken just a few months earlier and decided that possibly an audio book would help.  I went to my library and was able to pick up a copy of Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing on CD.  When I got to class on Monday and we started our reading block, I called the student over to the CD player (with fuzzy headphones attached) I had set up on a desk in the classroom.  I told him that I was going to allow him to listen to the book on the CD.  He was very excited!  However, I threw in one little catch – I told him I would only let him listen to the story on CD if he also followed along, reading the words silently as they were read to him.  I also gave him a pencil, turned it around to the eraser side, and then told him he could use the pencil to help him to follow the words in the story.

After each chapter I asked him to pause the CD.  I would then verbally ask him the comprehension questions on what was covered in the chapter and also to summarize what the chapter was about and how the story had changed.  He then would write down his answers on the worksheets.  I was so surprised to see how much he retained using this strategy!  The worksheets were then used to help him to write his book report.  For the book report the students had a variety of projects they could complete.  He decided to make a book jacket including a story summary on the back.  I won’t say it was easy for him to complete, but he had made it through one of his first chapter books successfully. He was able to complete the project more independently than he had on any other assignment up to that point during the summer program.

This then spurred him to check out classroom books to take home.  He used the same strategy I taught him in class.  Either he would ask his mother to get the book on CD from the library or his mother or older sister would read to him, but he would always follow along in the book reading with them.  This positive experience allowed him to understand the magic of reading!

Free Audio Books

Most popular children’s books (including Newberry Award Winners) can be found on CD at your local library and checked out for free.  They can easily be transferred from CD to a digital format to be used on an MP3 Player.

Free audio books can also be found online.  These audio books are of books that are part of public domain and no longer under copyrights.  Some examples are Call of the Wild, Anne of Green Gables, 2000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Tom Sawyer.

Audio Books for Free

Buying Audio Books Online

Many stores, online and off-line, sell children’s books on CD or on a digital format for an MP3 player.  Below is a list of resources where you can purchase audio books for your classroom.

Audible

iTunes

Barnes & Noble

Borders

Article by Laura Ketcham

Photo by Basykes

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You Heard it Here – Speech Recognition Software and Special Education

Speech Recognition Software (Speech-to-text)

For students who have the ability to speak, but may have a mobility impairment that makes it difficult to type, speech recognition software makes using a computer in the classroom more accessible.  Speech recognition software has also been proven beneficial for dyslexic students.

Speech recognition software allows an individual to speak into a microphone.  Then, what is spoken is either typed into the current application, typically a word processing program, or used as commands to navigate the desktop and programs on a computer.  Speech recognition software is widely used for voice dialing on cell phones and also for voice-activated command prompts when you call customer service lines; however, it is not as mainstreamed for day-to-day computer use.

Operating Systems & Office Suites

Windows XP and Windows 7 include speech recognition software.  In Windows XP, this tool is accessible under the control panel speech icon.  In order for the feature to work properly, it is highly suggested that you ‘train’ the computer with the voice of the student who will be using the feature. The program learns their inflection and pronunciation so it can be used more effectively.  This tool can be used to navigate the computer desktop and access various programs via voice commands.

Office 2003 also has speech recognition software.  When activated, this will allow students to speak into the microphone, and then what is said will be typed on their Office documents.  They can switch between dictation mode and voice commands.  Dictation mode is when what the students speak into the microphone is being directly added to their file.  Voice command is when the student speaks commands to access menus and tools in the program, like the File menu or Bold.  The mouse and keyboard are still active when you are in dictation and voice command modes and will still typically be used in conjunction with the speech recognition program.

Dragon Naturally Speaking

One of the best speech recognition software programs is Dragon Naturally Speaking by Nuance.  The advantage of this program is that it works with many types of operating systems and office suites, including the most recent versions of Windows and Office.  This program has more advanced features and recognition ability than the programs that are integrated into the Microsoft products.

Hints for Using Speech Recognition

  • Be sure to train the program –, this will improve accuracy.
  • Train the program in the room and circumstance in which it will be used.
  • The room you are in must be fairly quiet in order for it to work properly.
  • Purchase a higher-quality microphone that has a mute button.

Article by Laura Ketcham

Photo by Sun Dazed

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Low-Tech Tools in Special Education

Technology is typically perceived as electronics or machines; however, technology actually includes the application of science to create inventions and advancements that assist in making tasks more effective or ‘easier.’  This means that technology can also be considered low-tech tools.  In special education there are many low-tech tools that can help students reach their learning potential by making tasks easier to accomplish.

Specialty Pencils & Pencil Grips

Sometimes traditional pencils are not the tool of choice when taking notes or completing assignments because of their size, material, or lead hardness.  There are so many different alternatives to the standard number 2 wooden pencil that may be a better option for some students.

Students with grip disorders, caused by a wide variety of different health and mental disabilities, may benefit and write more comfortably when taking notes and completing assignments with non-traditional pencils.   Primary pencils can allow students to have a better grip on their pencils.  The larger size, softer lead, and ability to write clearly without a very sharp edge, make these pencils a high-quality alternative.  If a student is having difficulty applying enough pressure to a pencil to have the lead mark dark enough to read, then pencil weights are an easily attachable device.  This allows for increased pressure of the pencil lead to the paper.  If you have a classroom where desks may be slanted or pencils easily roll off, triangular pencils (also available in primary style) can be used.  These pencils are not round, but are made with three distinct edges, like a triangle, so they do not roll off the desk.  Another added benefit is that they may assist students in gripping the pencil correctly.

In addition to specialty pencils, pencil grips, may make writing easier for special education students.  There are several different types of pencil grips.  Pencil grips can soften the texture of a pencil, or assist a student in holding the pencil correctly.  One specific type of pencil grip, referred to as the C.L.A.W., aids students to learn to hold their pencil correctly.  Learning this skill can be overlooked by many teachers, but is an important skill and helps to improve handwriting effectiveness and speed.

Highlighters & Highlighter Strips

Highlighters can be a valuable assistive device that can make learning more accessible for special education students.  Highlighting is a technique that, if taught properly, can assist students with staying organized and comprehending written material.  One way that I have encouraged the use of highlighters is to color code items in homework agendas.  One color would stand for homework, another for test and quiz dates, another color for study or review, and another color for other necessary notes.

Highlighters can also be used in reading.  Using different colors of highlighters, students can come up with a system of highlighting key vocabulary, main ideas, and other important text.  This can assist the student when going back to read the text over again in preparation for assessments.  One idea to keep in mind is that, while teaching this strategy in class, students may not be able to use highlighters on standardized tests.  If this is the case, make sure that you help students transition to using a pencil to underline and circle key facts during these tests.

Highlighter strips are an overlay that is placed on top of written text.  This strip allows the student to focus on the line that is currently being read.  This low-tech tool assists students with comprehension difficulties, dyslexia or other vision impairments.

Post-its & Mailing Labels

Today, post-its come in so many different sizes, styles and colors.  The possibilities of using post-its in special education classrooms are endless.  The large post-its can be used for brainstorming ideas in small group sessions.  The small post-its can be used to write down information that students don’t want to forget or for labeling centers and activities in your classroom.  The flag post-its can be used by students to mark the areas of a text they do not understand or to mark their location in a text.  Standard-sized post-its can be used to write notes for parents to check and read in a student homework agenda.  Post-its also come in sticky sentence strip forms.  They are also great tools to use in different classroom review games.

Pre-printed mailing labels are an unlikely, but useful. low-tech tool for the classroom.  Students can have pre-printed labels with their name and basic class information.  This way the students can just place labels on their assignments and tests, rather than writing it on every assignment.  This can help to save a lot of time in class.  They can also be used to label students’ belongings so that they can find their materials and books easily and not have them confused with another student.

There are many more low-tech tools that can help to make learning more accessible to your students.  Check out the links below for more low-tech tools for your students.

Low-Tech Tool Sites

University at Buffalo: Assistive Technology Project

Assistive Technology Toolbox

Family Guide to Assistive Technology

Article by Laura Ketcham

Photo by Lloydcrew

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Technology Tools in a Special Education Classroom

I am very fortunate to have a projector, document camera, and interactive whiteboard in my classroom.  I have become so accustomed to using these tools every day, I could not imagine teaching without them.  Projectors, document cameras, and interactive whiteboards increase student engagement, support a variety of learning styles, and increase learning outcomes.  They can be especially effective in special education classrooms with students with hearing and visual impairments. Since it is the time of year where planning for budgets and grant writing is really picking up, these three tools should be at the top of your ‘must have’ list.

Projectors

Projectors display images from your computer screen onto any flat, light-colored surface.  The image can be projected onto a standard whiteboard, a white wall, a projector screen or an interactive whiteboard.  Projectors can be mounted on the ceiling of a classroom or used from a mobile cart or table.  There are HD, LCD, and DLP projectors, all of which are standard size and formatting.  A more recent projector technology is the portable projector. They are projectors that are small enough to fit into your pocket!  Costs vary depending on size and quality.  Projectors are great for visual learners to be able to see and experience what you are teaching.  In my class, I use my projector to show students presentations for section reviews of the textbook, review games, for step-by-step lessons on how to use the various Microsoft Office products, along with class updates from my website.  Projectors are also great to show movies or video clips that can help to make learning come alive!  To make projectors even more powerful as a tool in the classroom, they can also be used in conjunction with an interactive whiteboard or a document camera.

Document Camera

Document cameras are the 21st century version of an overhead projector.  When used in conjunction with a projector, document cameras can be used to display printed materials, books, worksheets, review answers, or lecture notes.  You can zoom in and zoom out of the documents or freeze what is on the screen.  In a special education classroom, the zoom function of a document camera can be especially useful for students with low vision.  You can also place 3D objects under the camera and see live ‘shots’ of what is under the camera.  Some document cameras also include a microscope attachment.

Interactive Whiteboards

Interactive whiteboards allow teachers and students to interact with the board digitally rather than using chalk or markers.  Your computer screen is projected onto the board with a projector. Then, with digital markers, erasers, and other various selected tools, you and your students can interact with the board.  This tool is great for special education students as it allows them to be more hands-on with their learning.  In my class, I create review games within my presentations that are interactive.  An example would be a matching vocabulary game where the students have to literally select and drag or draw a digital line connecting the term to the definition on the board. I also use my interactive whiteboard by incorporating pictures of the various menus and tools in the Microsoft Applications and then the students have to select and move the correct answers to the labeled area. Pictures, videos, and audio files can also easily be incorporated within a presentation on an interactive board.  These visuals make learning meaningful for students.  Most interactive whiteboards also come with software applications that make using the board as an interactive tool in the classroom easier.  They also supply pre-made templates for games similar to Jeopardy or Millionaire.  There are so many different ways to actively involve students in learning while using an interactive white board.

Projectors, document cameras, and interactive whiteboards are all technology tools that are great resources to have in a special education classroom.  They allow presentations and lectures to become more interactive through hands-on lessons and the ability to visually show students the meaning of what you are teaching.

Article by Laura Ketcham

Photo by Sridqway

Special Education Resources by MangoMon

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iCan. Using iPods for Special Needs Students

iPods. We see students using them everywhere. On the bus. In the home. At the park. Are we ready to see them in the classroom?

The Special School District of Saint Louis County has taken that well-known device and integrated it into the classroom. Since students are already using iPods so much throughout the day, they wanted to offer a more positive and educational use for the device in the classroom.

Vicki Nelson, a special education teacher, is a strong advocate of using technology with students with special needs. Starting with iPods, she sent home training information for the communication devices. She explained how parents can access the iPod and use it for building vocabulary skills and reading comprehension.

By adding video and audio lessons onto the iPods for the students and parents to be able to access at home, she noticed her students were starting to recognize material she hadn’t yet taught in the classroom. She then started using the iPods with children who had to use sign language. She had another teacher interpret stories using the iPod as a video portfolio. They were able to shoot video of themselves and the students performing a specific skill and then send it home to the parents.

The iPods were also serving as a replacement for written communication logs between staff and parents. By recording a simple voice memo, teachers can quickly record messages about each student. These messages can then be downloaded from iPod and saved for future references.

Vicki Nelson noticed that her own students had improved skills and vocabulary knowledge. They had a better ability to comprehend stories, too. Because the students were able to take these videos or audio clips home, they were becoming more familiar with the terms they were using everyday. The students were engaged and involved while using this technology. Parents loved the iPods because they were using compatible signs and could use extra reinforcement at home.

This is just another example of integrating technology into the classroom to help students with special needs. With technology constantly updating, it is important that students of all needs are being involved.

Free Teacher Resources | Special Education by MangoMon

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The Best Things in Life Have No Fee

The other day I inexplicably found myself in a workshop that espoused the rejuvenating effects of a life giving source found abundantly in nature, drum roll please, the product is: water. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, you too can begin to reap the awe inducing benefits of water for a low, low fee. Although I deeply wish I were being facetious, I am using this example to illustrate that like the water salesperson, I will attempt to bring to your attention a myriad of educational resources that can most often be found right at your very own fingertips.

I am a strong proponent of you get what you pay for, but I also graduated from the school of “when there is a will there is a way”. Armed with a bit of techno-wanderlust and a commitment to high quality, together we will explore a plethora of tools to provide academic support for your student or child. In order to give knowledge to others one must, in my opinion, continually enhance their own knowledge. Even if you are completely at home in the world of technology, optimizing the use of technological tools at your disposal will allow you streamline your instruction to provide what our children so desperately need today, an innovative education geared towards a new generation .

starfallThere are many web-based tools that are highly effective and at little to no cost to use. If you have difficulty accessing the Internet, I would suggest joining your local library or explore the media center at your child’s school. The first introductory tools I would suggest for your perusal are StarFall, www.starfall.org; and SmartTutor, www.smarttutor.com.

StarFall is a free, web-based tutorial that exposes beginning and emerging readers to basic skills in Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, and Emerging Fluency.

SmartTutor is a great low-cost Reading and Math Program that can be used in your classroom or home with the added benefit of individualized assessment and tracking of each learner’s progress.

These websites are colorful and interactive, but most importantly they promote the learner’s independence. When working with students with special needs, you may need to provide minimal assistance with computer mouse manipulation, but once your child has mastered this skill, off they go!

So on this President’s Day, I would like to empower you, citizen trembling behind your mouse or computer aficionado reading this amongst multiple applications running simultaneously. Si Se Puede! Yes, you too can further incorporate technology into your classroom, your home, your life even, and you don’t have to be a techie to do it. Oh, and don’t worry, the fee for reading the article this time is on me.

Article by Tai C. Hinkins

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Mice – so many choices! What is best for your students?

Wireless or corded?  Standard or trackball?  Trackpad or mini-mouse? Left-handed or right-handed?  Optical or laser?  There are so many different types of mice to choose from, all with their own specific advantages.  Special education students may benefit from the use of non-standard mice, allowing them to more comfortably utilize a computer in the classroom setting.

Standard Mouse

The mice I currently use in my classroom are standard corded mice that came with the computer systems that my school purchased.  One good quality of these mice is that they are easily adjustable to be used by left- and right-handed students.  In Windows, you can swap the function of the left- and right-click buttons.  In Windows XP, go to Start, Printers & Other Hardware, Mouse, and then select Switch primary & secondary buttons.  Under this menu there are also many other useful features that enable you to adapt the mice and make them more user-friendly for students.  Other options include increasing or decreasing the cursor speed, left-clicking and dragging without having to hold the left button down (ClickLoc), making the pointer larger or a different color, and modifying the wheel functions.

Wireless Optical Mice

I currently use a wireless optical mouse.  One advantage to this is I can flip over my clipboard where I write down anecdotal records, and then I am able to walk around with my mouse and still interact with what is showing on the SMART Board.  One disadvantage of this mouse is that it needs batteries.  For this reason, I keep plenty of rechargeable AA batteries on hand.  However, a consideration that you should take into account when purchasing wireless mice is that students might accidently pack them with their belongings if switching between classes.

Trackball Mice

While both of the previous types of mice may work well in your classrooms, there are other options that are also available.  One type of mouse that I have used with students who have mobility impairments or difficulty wrapping their hands around and moving the mouse is a Trackball. With this type of mouse, the movement of the mouse is controlled by a ball that is placed on the top.  Depending on the placement of the ball, the mouse can be controlled by just using your thumb or by the palm of your hand.

Laptop Mice

If you are using laptops in your classroom, you will have to decide if you need to purchase additional mice.  Using the TrackPad is the default method of tracking the cursor on a laptop.  Your students may find this method difficult to manipulate, as it is even difficult for the everyday computer user.  However, there are alternate options.  One option would be to purchase a small laptop mouse.  This mouse was developed to be smaller than a regular mouse and is easy for traveling.  They are typically wireless and are connected through a USB receiver.  Another option is a mini handheld trackball mouse.  However, because of its small size, it may not be the best choice for some special education students. Standard and larger trackball mice are also compatible for laptops and may be the best option for your students.

Laser & Bluetooth Mice

The most recent adaptations to mice are the development of laser and Bluetooth mice.  Laser mice allow for more accurate and precise movement when compared to an optical mouse.  Laser mice are typically used by gamers and by graphic and video designers. Bluetooth connections allow for a mouse to be wirelessly connected either with a small USB receiver or with built-in technology on laptops.

There are many choices of mice on the market.  Taking into account your classroom needs now and in the future can help you to better determine which type of mice will work best in your classroom.  For a relatively small investment, your students will have more accessibility to computers in your classroom.

Article by Laura Ketcham

Photo by 1Happysnapper

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Text-to-speech Software for the Special Education Classroom

The concept of text-to-speech (TTS) software was first conceived in the 1950’s.  TTS software processes written text into spoken words.  Since the 50’s, this technology has gone through many changes and has developed into an affordable technology tool that is a great asset in special education classrooms. Students who have a limited field of vision, have dyslexia, or may be struggling readers can benefit from TTS software.  This technology can play a vital role in making computers accessible as a tool in the classroom.


One of the most famous individuals who uses TTS software is Stephen Hawking.  Hawking is a famous scientist who has ALS and has relied upon this technology to communicate since 1985.  He is almost completely paralyzed and uses a wand-style device attached to his glasses, activated by his cheek, to enter words and phrases into a computer system.  His system uses a word recognition program.  He enters the first few letters of the desired word and the program narrows down choices based on his use.  All of the words that are entered into the computer system, which is carried in his wheel chair, are then synthesized and spoken through his computer.

Similar software can be used on a home or school PC.  TTS software, that is included with the Microsoft Windows operating systems, is relatively simple to activate.  To activate TTS, all you have to do in Windows XP is select Start, All Programs, Accessories, Accessibility, and Narrator.  Read and then follow the directions on the command prompt to setup the computer for TTS navigation for your students.  TTS can also be integrated with Microsoft Office.  In Office 2007, you will first need to install a simple macro (program).  This link provides easy to follow directions for installation.

TTS is also integrated on many websites.  Most government run websites have accessibility sections where articles and important information are available in audio format.  There are also free sites where you can copy and paste text and then have it read aloud to you.  Two examples of sites that offer this free service are AT&T and Google.  Many of my students also use www.dictionary.com to look up their Language Arts vocabulary words.  This site provides audio pronunciation where you can select to hear the word read aloud.

Other popular electronic devices also use TTS as a means for learning and communication.  LeapFrog has developed the Tag (ages 4 to 8) and Tag Jr. (ages 2 to 4) reading systems where the student uses an electronic pen to interact with the many high quality Tag books.  The words and other sounds effects are then read aloud to the students as they swipe the pen over the text.  This is great tool for students to learn to read and as they progress, they become less reliant upon the pen less and begin to read on their own.  LeapFrog has an educational department where schools can purchase a variety of packages as a classroom set.  All of the packages include the computerized pens and sets of books that can be used with the system.  This would be a great addition to the Pre-K-5th grade special education classroom.

Many free and inexpensive TTS software tools can make computers learning accessible to many special education students.

Article by Laura Ketcham

Photo by eirikso

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