Academic success with the help of a tablet

Apr 19, 2012

Students with learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders have found new ways to learn using tablets such as the iPad and Samsung Galaxy. Speech-language pathologist Joan L. Green discusses how technology helps them progress and gives them new opportunities in the classroom.

READ: iPads especially helpful for special-needs students

Hi, and thanks for joining us today to chat about iPads and kids with special needs. I'm thrilled that Joan is here to chat with us. She was a big help to me when I started doing research for this story, and she has lots of great information to share about apps and using technology in therapy and special education. Let's get started!

My brother is 61 years old, has a 9th grade reading level, and works in a job where he is required to do much paperwork. Although he was never diagnosed with dyslexia in the 70's, I'm pretty sure he deals with this. He has great difficulty spelling and calls me often with simple words to spell for him. Do you know any programs I could buy for him to use on his job? Could he say the word, and have it spelled back for him? Thank you for any help in what I could purchase for him.

There are quite a few potential solutions. Voice recognition has recently really come a long way. To use it, the person says something and the computer/SmartPhone/Tablet writes it. To use some of the software in the past was very difficult and required intensive training. Now the new iPad and iPhones have it built in and can be very accurate- the key is that the person speaking has to be relatively easy to understand. It does not do as well with imprecies/heavily accented speech. 

There are also software programs available that help with spelling. The following come to my mind first:

WordQ/SpeakQ- This program reads aloud text as you type which helps iwith word retrieval and catching errors early. It also offer word prediction so that as a person types the computer shows a list of words that the typist may want to say next. Many students use this to help with spelling. This program also offers text to speech- reading text aloud in nice voices and voice recognition- the user speaks and the program types.

  • Another program that comes to mind is Ginger Software. You can try it out online for free on their website. It is a spelling and grammar checker and much more effective that something like the spell check with MS Word.  Based on the context of each sentence, Ginger corrects your spelling and grammar mistakes in MS-Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, IE, Firefox, Chrome. The program also offers text to speech.

My nephew (age 14) has autism and began using an iPad a little more than a year ago. He is non-verbal, and for many years used limited sign language to communicate. Prior to using the iPad, he used another device (with pictures and buttons) to communicate, but it was somewhat limited. I have been amazed at the progress he has made since using the iPad and how it has helped him to communicate with his family, teachers, aides and caregivers. These kinds of devices greatly assist in communication but are not always inexpensive. Have you found that this type of technology is listed in IEPs? Are already cash-strapped districts generally open to including these in IEPs, or have some balked at using them given their relative newness and cost?

My impression from speaking with several public school districts is that yes, some IEPs that would have in the past included other kinds of communication devices are now including iPads. I think they are generally open to the idea but I definitely got the impression that this is in its very early stages. Loudoun, for example, cited 12 in use in its school system as communication devices. And the educators I spoke with were very clear in saying that while tablets are a great solution for some kids, they are not the best for EVERY kid. I think they are taking it on a case-by-case basis. The cost aspect is something I asked pretty much everyone about, but most people pointed out that iPads are much less expensive than traditional assistive communication devices.

How do you see tablets helping children who have AD/HD and reading disabilities? Are there any particular programs or apps that you find particularly helpful? What about children who have disabilities and are also gifted?

We talked about reading disabilities when I visited the Lab School. The ability to put white text on a black background has helped some students. They also like apps that help build reading fluency, especially ones where you can record yourself reading, and then play it back to hear what you sound like. That helps some kids better understand what they need to do differently.

Great Question! I devoted 50 pages in my book toward providing info about technologies to improve reading. I believe that tablets help kids with ADHD and reading abilities because the most effective apps are very engaging and enjoyable.  The text comes to life and many apps use great reinforcers so that the students want to do well. I have worked with quite a few students who are "twice exceptional." My approach for everyone is the same-  capitalize on strengths and improve/compensate for areas of weakness while trying to have a good time in the process.  The solution depends at what level reading is breaking down. Reading is actually a really comlicated process .

  •  I have found it very helpful to have kids use text to speech software. The computer reads aloud the text on the screen. Research has shown that this actually improves reading ability. Some parents are reluctant to go this route because they think of it as a crutch- but it helps kids "read to learn" while improving reading ability.
  • For reading books, Kids in the US with a documented "print disability" can use Families can get their own account or go through the school. It comes with reading software to read aloud digital versions of books and is wonderful!! There are now iDevice and Android apps for Bookshare so the books can be accessed on tablets. The Kindle eReader also offer text to speech. 
  • There are also programs to help with online reading. can be downloaded into a brower. It declutters websites by removing ads and other extraneous content  and make text more appealing visually. I also really like Natural Reader Silver Educational Software that can be downloaded to a PC to read text aloud that is online. It also offers other helpful features for reading.  
  •  If you are looking for drill and practice software to help with reading- here are some programs and apps that might be helpful (in no particular order):


How do you find out about schools (public or private) that use iPads for all children, or just special-needs children? Parent of a near normal child. Thank you.

In the case of private schools, it's probably as simple as calling them. The ones I spoke with told me either yes or no, plain and simple. With large public school systems, it's more complicated. Some, like the four middle schools in Prince George's County I mentioned in the story, are using them for all of the kids. Other districts are using them in special ed only. Still others are only using them for kids who absolutely need them as communication devices. Word of mouth helps too, finding out from parents of other kids in the school.

Hello. I'm a learning disabled adult who wishes he had these tools while being educated in special schools. While I can overcome many of these disabilities, others will still be with me until I've gone to my reward. Question: Given that some learning-disabled folks have problems with touching the tablets, are there apps that can be used on the iPads that use styluses instead of touching the screen? Thanks.

Yes. There is a stylus for the iPad and I believe the other tablets as well. Some clients I work with prefer a stylus to use of  a finger. I just did a quick search for "ipad stylus" on and came up with quite a few..

I have a son that is currently speech delayed and is receiving services through the local school system. I have heard that one might be able to obtain an iPad through insurance. How would one begin to look into this and what would the process be? Thank you.

The only time I have heard of an iPad being funded by insurance is when it is used as a dedicated communication device for an individual unable to speak. Usually it is sold by a vendor and includes the app such as proloquo2go among other. I have also heard for people getting reimbursed for particular apps. I have not heard of insurance paying for an iPad in the situation you describe but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. My practice is private pay/cash so I don't deal directly with insurance. Sorry I can't be of more help.

We received a notice from Alexandria Friends School about a revised STEM-iPad middle school program starting next year. Are there other public or private schools that have such programs? Are they only for special-needs students?

I did not hear of any other programs like this one when I was reporting the story. It sounds interesting, though. As time goes on and tablet use continues to grow, I expect to see more of this type of thing. Schools are working hard to keep up with the fast-changing technology.

My child has trouble learning math facts, I believe due to language and learning disabilities. He completely understands the concepts behind multiplication, division, addition and subtraction and can make these computations accurately in his head given some time. But he is having a hard time developing the rapid regurgitation of math facts that the school demands. Any suggestions?

Your son sounds a lot like my son, who can do the work but cannot memorize the facts easily and definitely doesn't do math quickly. Joan may have some great app suggestions. My son is allowed to use things like 100s charts, number lines and multiplication tables during testing because he has a documented disability with his memory. Those might also be good solutions for your child, in addition to apps that will help build his memory. Good luck; I know it can be frustrating!

There are lot of great math apps. I tend to work more with kids and adults who have trouble with speaking, reading, writing, thinking, organizing etc  so I am not as well versed on the math apps- but here are some that come to mind..

Math Fact Master

Fast Facts Math

Visual Math

There are actually quite a few drill and practice apps for learning how to do it quickly. 

If the readers out there want to send me lists of their favorite apps I will include results in my next free online enewsletter. To get it just subscribe on my website at

I have a son who will be entering kindergarten at a catholic school in the fall. He has some developmental delays related to low muscle tone which has impacted his articulation and fine motor skills. The school is aware of my son's needs and we have already begun discussing accomodations for him, including adaptive technology and an iPad. Any recommendations on how an iPad could help him? Thanks.

For my son, who has low muscle tone as well, the iPad is helpful because it requires less fine motor control. Touching the screen is much easier than writing with a pencil or using a mouse. That aspect alone is tremendous. Your son might also benefit from using an app like iWriteWords to practice his handwriting. I think of it as kind of like Handwriting Without Tears, on the iPad. Good luck as he enters kindergarten!

I think an iPad would be great to help in many different ways. Can others understand him?  Low tone, as you know, may make speech hard to understand and it may be hard for him to learn to write. Tablets can be used to augment communication by having him select pictures to express himself when others can't understand him. It would need to be customized to be effective and you would need to see a speech pathologist for help setting it up. 

There are also many great apps for working on articulation and expressive language as well as receptive language development. The touch access, fun interactions, ability to record speech and to view videos/pictures makes it a great learning tool. Some apps would be used by the therapists and teachers and other apps would be good for your son to practice at home.  There are thousands of great apps- it's hard for me to match the best ones to meet his needs without knowing more. Feel free to check out the top apps mentioned in the Washington Post article today.

Just want to let you know how helpful it is to have this type of information. My dyslexic son is doing college slowly, and these type of technologies not only help make that possible, they help him be successful at work.

Thanks for reading, and writing in!

Can you recommend any apps for elementary age students with good reading fluency skills but who fail to make connections to the text or to understand character actions/motivations, kind of like reading the social cues in the text? Also, do you have a recommendation for an app that helps elementary-age children develop speaking fluency: describing something that happened, retelling a story from their own lives or from a book they have read? Thank you!

Great question. The second is easier for me to answer so I will start there.. I like the apps that record speech to develop speaking fluency. Here is what immediately comes to mind- I am sure there are more..

  • Story Builder- This app offers a few levels of support. Basically, the user is given a picture with a series of questions and some help with response. For instance there may be a picture of a cowboy trying to capture a train. There is a question presented aloud and/or by text that asks a question and the user records their verbal response. There are then a few more questions about the picture. At the end all of the responses are pieced together so that the person can listen to a story they have told without the intervening questions. In my experience, kids and adults like this.  
  • Another way I might work on speaking fluency/telling a story is by putting pictures together in a book , writing out text on pages and recording narration. Pictello is one of many apps that can be used for this- essentially creating "talking books." 
  • There are quite a few apps that present situations and then ask the user to "say what happens next" or "talk about what is wrong" but don't record responses. Examples include some of the Super Duper Apps which are availabel for Android or Apple tablets.It is up to the therapist or teacher to determine the accuracy of the response and provide feedback. 
  • Another suggestion- not an app- would be to use the video camera on the iPad and role-play situations and then view responses. Talking about what to say ahead of time and writing down some target words or an outline of what to cover helps.


For the social cues question- I just went to a two day conference by Michelle Garcia Winner and your question made me think of her. I love her approach. The best app I can think of using the social thinking concepts is Social Express. I really can't think of a perfect app that gets exactly at improving social cues in text- but this may help.

It seems most of these children are older. I have a niece who is 4 years old, non verbal and has mobility issues. How young are some of these apps focused? When would you recommend supplementing traditional therapy with a tablet?

Some of the apps listed here are for children as young as two or three years old. The story focused on using them in schools, but there are definitely ways to implement them with younger children as well.

For the youngest kids I think that the most important activities in their life should be play, exploration, imagination and social interaction- rather than academics. I think the apps are a great way to supplement the above activities when a table top activity is needed to keep them active and learning.

 I have worked with kids as young as 2 years in therapy- but even younger may be ok- using an iPad. It's all about how you engage them and what their goals are. You may be working on joint or shared attention or teaching cause/effect with someting like I love Fireworks. . You may be trying to stimulate speech sounds or teaching gestures. With the little ones if I am working on gestures I really like Signing Time. If I am working with a child with motor speech issues/apraxia I may try VAST Autsim or a music app like Wheels on the Bus.  Young kids typically are quite engaged by these apps.

My child has a frontal lisp. Are there an tech recommendations that provide practice and feedback on articulation disorders?

There are qutie a few great articulation apps that can be used. The user selects the sound, position in word and often the length of utterance (word, phrase, sentence) and then the therapist/ parents keeps track of performance. The app can't decide if the sound is produced correctly or incorrectly so unless the parents i really good at helping the child first hear if the sound is right or wrong, then be able to say the sound then carry it over into longer utterances- a speech pathologist should be involved to at least train the parent. Here are a few great artic apps..

There are many more but this should get you started. 

I have a child who is not yet in school but being recommended for special pre-school because of a language disability. Are there other services that we could consider or do that may be covered under insurance?

It depends on your child's diagnosis, the type of therapy and your insurance, so it's hard to say. I have found in my situation that while the schools have been good about giving my son services, he also needs private therapy, so he gets additional services outside of school. Our insurance, thankfully, covers some of it. There are lots of practices that specialize in pediatric speech and language therapy, or social skills therapy. Good luck!

Can you post contact info ? I volunteer with D.C. public library's adaptive technology librarian at MLK Library. There will be a Techee Talk expo at MLK library on Saturday, April 28, from 9:30 to 3:00 pm.

Thanks, everyone for joining us today for the chat!

My pleasure. It would be great if people would sign up for my free e-newsletter at I never sell the list or share with others. I send it out about twice a month with new favorite apps and other helpful tech resources. 

In This Chat
Joan L. Green
Joan L. Green is a speech-language pathologist and author of the book "The Ultimate Guide to Assistive Technology in Special Education."
Mari-Jane Williams
Mari-Jane Williams is a news design editor at The Washington Post and a regular guest contributor to the On Parenting blog.
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