K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

About this series

Special education: Telling facts from fiction

As a teacher, hearing that students in your classroom have a diagnosed learning disability or other special need can be overwhelming and even intimidating. Preparing lesson plans for twenty students already seemed difficult enough. Now you are expected to provide specialized instruction with no real training or guidance from special education staff!

It’s perfectly natural to feel concern or frustration. And you’re not alone — many teachers have been in your shoes at some point in their careers. This blog is here to help.

Each article in this series considers a commonly held belief about special education, providing special instruction to students with special needs, and the behavior problems you might encounter in an inclusive classroom. Many students with learning disabilities also have underlying behavioral or processing disorders, and researchers have struggled to design ways to reliably identify those problems and to treat them. Here, though, we’ll concentrate on classroom practices. The authors look at each issue, ask what the research says, and offer teacher-tested strategies for teaching students with learning and behavior problems.

This series is based on LEARN NC’s blog of the same title, which ran during 2009–10.

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Related pages

  • Understanding twice-exceptional students: This article discusses the twice-exceptional student, defined as a student with both gifts and a learning disability. The author lists three categories of twice-exceptional students, addresses the challenges involved in identifying these students' exceptionalities, shares strategies for teaching twice-exceptional students, and emphasizes the importance of supporting the students' social skills.
  • Back to the future! : In this lesson plan, students research the history of an important invention and present what they've learned through an annotated timeline, historical fiction journal accounts, and VoiceThread technology.
  • Inclusion in the 21st-century classroom: Differentiating with technology: While most teachers recognize the need to differentiate instruction, many face barriers in implementation. These barriers include lack of time to prepare lessons, the need to cover a wide range of content in a small amount of time, and extensive classroom management needs. This article advocates for using technology as a means to overcome some of these barriers.

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The myth

Students with disabilities cannot use the same technology that typical students use.

The facts

Technology can be the great equalizer in a classroom with diverse learners. Whereas teachers can find it difficult to differentiate instruction for 30+ students in one class, all with different needs and abilities, “assistive technology” (devices and software to assist students with disabilities) can often help teachers personalize lessons and skills enhancement to each child. Children with learning disabilities often have better technology skills than their teachers and are drawn to computers and other gadgets, so using them in the classroom makes perfect sense. For children with physical disabilities, technology can give access to learning opportunities previously closed to them. E-readers help students turn book pages without applying dexterity, and voice adaptive software can help students answer questions without needing to write. Computers are engaging and more advanced than the typical modified lesson allows. The widely-used teacher education textbook Educating Exceptional Children has a special section in each chapter focused on assistive technology explaining how it is used with exceptionalities ranging from giftedness to autism.

Assistive technology is not always just for students with disabilities; it can be used to help any student with motivation, academic skills, and social development. Here are some helpful resources for teachers looking for assistive technology for their students:

  • UNC’s Center for Literacy and Disability Studies uses technology in their mission to promote literacy and communication for individuals of all ages with disabilities. The Center has developed a three-part video on reading assessment and assistive technology that explains evidence-based practices of improving literacy through technology. Additionally, the Center has developed “alternative pencils” for students with disabilities who cannot hold a traditional pencil or see a page, including children with deaf-blindness. These technologies include alphabet eye gaze frames allowing children to “point” to letters with their eyes, onscreen keyboards that are controlled by switches, and electronic flipcharts.
  • LEARN NC offers an extensive set of resources to help teachers meet the needs of all learners, including “Reaching Every Learner: Differentiating Instruction in Theory and Practice,” a series of articles and web conferences about differentiation. In addition, LEARN NC’s technology integration page provides links to web resources, lesson plans, articles, and online courses designed to help educators incorporate technology into their teaching
  • VoiceThread is a free software program that captures student voices and photos in order to collaborate on a topic. It is a technological substitute for written papers and allows students freedom to narrate their own projects.
  • Sounding Board is an iPad/iPod Touch app that lets a student turn their device into a story board communicator. Students with writing disabilities and communication disorders can use the symbols to create their own messages in the same way that traditional symbol boards work, but easily and with a limitless supply of symbols.
  • TechMatrix offers consumer guides and links to software and assistive technology devices for students with disabilities. The site is sponsored by the National Center for Technology Innovation and the Center for Implementing Technology in Education. TechMatrix gives information and links to resources for teaching science, math, reading, and writing using technology with special education students.

The bottom line

Most students with disabilities can and do benefit from technology in the classroom. Incorporating technology increases students’ motivation to learn and personalizes lessons to a student’s individual needs. Even the students with the most severe and profound disabilities can use assistive technology to join a classroom of typical students, and their potential can be reached in ways we didn’t have before.