The significant growth and use of microcomputers in special education oyer the last few years can be attributed to a number of factors (Blaschke, 1985).
First the passage of public Law 94-142 has generated a demand for the new technology both in terms of a reduction in paper work needed to comply with the Law (assessing, evaluation, placement, student monitoring and reporting) and in instruction. Secondly, funds allocated to special education have increased. This has spirited the development of software for learning disabled students. Thirdly, parental realization that the new technology can help to improve their children’s academic work has brought pressure on state and local education agencies to provide these methodologies to their children. Finally, the Special Education division of the U.S. Department of Education has allocated funds for the development of systems to be used with learning disabled students.
As a result of these factors the successful use of computers with LD (Learning Disabled) students has been reported in the literature. The paper presents a sampling of those studies which have found gains from using word processing programs on dyslexic students to teach writing skills.
Word processing packages provide users with the ability to erase, edit, and move written text. Packages differ on the techniques used to accomplish these tasks; however, the ability to compose written material without being concerned about format, spelling, and punctuation remains the greatest utility of word processing systems. It is these features of word processing programs which has been found to help dyslexic, or learning disabled students.
Rosegrant (1985) reports on a four year project which has used a word processing program with “non-readers.” The students in this project were 6 to 10 year olds who were reading at least two years below grade level and who had difficulty decoding the written word. The word processing program designed for the project included a synthesized speech feature. The program said the letters or words as the children typed them. The software could also say aloud, every word of text on the monitor, as often as requested. Students had daily 20 minute sessions on the program.
After the first 6 months of the project the students had shown a significant improvement in their reading and writing skills. At least one year of improvement was seen; length of writings, word choice, punctuation, and use of more complete and complex meaning units were used.
Several relevant variables were identified as being responsible for the improvement in writing skills. First the computer program provided visual, auditory and motoric support for the students. The computer keyboard allowed students to write without having to be concerned about handwriting. The monitor screen provided practice in visual tracking and visual pattern recognition without being a drill and practice exercise.
Additionally, the speech synthesizer allowed students to hear letter names, word sounds, letter combinations, and string sounds. In other words three modalities were being used by the computer to improve writing and reading skills.
The second factor identified as particular to the use of a word processor was to lower the risk of making errors. The ability to edit, delete and insert text made students more willing to try new sentence construction and different word choices. Students could experiment without having to rewrite every word, which could present a problem to students with limited motor skills.
Third, the high degree of control over the reading and writing task enabled students to explore writing.
A similar analysis was presented by Mokros and Russell (1986). These authors reported on a survey of the ways in which teachers used computers for special education students. Word processors were used in a variety of ways including correcting punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Dictionary meaning of words were also included in word processing programs to aid writing. The teachers surveyed indicated that there was an increase in the children’s willingness to write, and in the quality of the writing. However, the teachers in this survey, in general, did not use the computer to teach the writing process; they were mainly concerned with the mechanics of writing. However, as the use of the computer became more widespread and the teachers became more familiar with the capabilities of the program, its use for teaching writing was improved.
Several other authors have characterized the writing of learning disabled students as less cohesive (Bryson & Siegel, 1986), shorter and poorer in overall quality (Poplin, Gray, Larsen, Banikowski, & Mehring, 1980). Furthermore, LD (Learning Disabled) students’ compositions contain fewer structural elements and have more spelling, capitalization, and punctuation errors (Poplin et al.).
A study reported by MacArthur and Graham (1987) compared student compositions under three methods of text production. Handwriting, word processing and dictation were used by a group of students to write stories using pictures as stimuli. The authors identified several variables which might have an effect on the writing composition of these students as a function of the method used. Dictation was the easiest of the three methods to use. In this method the student dictates his story to the teacher who writes it down. Students produced the longest and most complex stories using this method. In effect, students are free from the mechanical and conventional demands of producing text. In comparison to handwriting and word processing, dictation does not interfere with the putting of text on paper. Handwriting and word processing demand that the student use mechanical means of producing the story. Because of this, students’ stories using these two methods were not significantly different from one another. However, composition rates and revision rates were significantly different. Students made more revisions in the word processing methods. Significant content changes were made using this method; large sections of text were added. The rate of composition was slower for the word processing methods, since students had to learn the placement of the keys and how to use the editing technique. The authors conclude that typing skills need to be taught prior to beginning a computer word processing program, but that the use of the computer to help teach writing may be a useful too].
Degnan (1985) reports on a project which reduced teacher reluctance to use word processing with special education students. The author found that most often teachers are apprehensive about including computers into the program. The chief means of promoting computers as tools for writing is to convince teachers that the computer is a labor saving tool. Students with mechanical as well as perceptual problems could practice these skills and also learn the process involved in writing. Increases in motivation have been evident in computer labs since students can share their writing by making multiple copies. Seeing their compositions in print helped with word recognition and grammar.
In conclusion, word processing programs used to teach writing skills to non-readers have been found to produce gains of one to two years after only six months of use. The factors which have been identified as contributing to these gains include the use of multi-modality input, the low risk involved in experimenting with new construction, the ease with which editing and correcting can be done, and the lack of interference from poor mechanical skills.