Mobile Instructional and Assistive Technology for Literacy

Mobile Instructional and Assistive Technology for Literacy
Mobile Instructional and Assistive Technology
for Literacy
by David C. Winters and Elaine A. Cheesman
ince the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in
2010, the potential for widespread access to mobile technology is becoming a reality in homes, classrooms, and businesses
throughout the world. Smartphones, tablets, and other mobile
devices provide new avenues of access for everyone, whether or
not a person has dyslexia or other literacy learning disabilities.
Mobile devices have several key characteristics that distinguish them from other instructional technology (IT) and assistive technology (AT) devices. First, they are portable and can be
used in places where being connected by a cord would be
unadvisable or where electricity is not easily accessible, such
as when walking down the street. Second, they are lightweight
and small enough to fit in a person’s pocket or small personal
bag. Third, their integrated functioning allows them to be used
without additional components such as keyboards or monitors.
Fourth, they have a means to transmit and sync data, often
wirelessly. Fifth, most devices have a rapidly expanding number of applications (apps), the software that performs desired
tasks. Finally, they allow easy and often automatic updating of
apps and the operating system.
Both the hardware and applications of mobile devices fit
well with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
and inclusion, especially in the ways that they help “make differences ordinary” (McLeskey & Waldron, 2007). As described
in the introduction to this issue, UDL has three driving principles: multiple means of representation, multiple means of
expression and action, and multiple means of engagement
(CAST, 2011). Mobile devices, especially smartphones and
tablets, uniquely provide options for all three of these guiding
principles in a single device. In addition, because of the popularity and widespread acceptance of these smartphones and
tablets, app use does not necessarily identify a person as having
a disability, since people without disabilities often use the same
apps to enhance their own functioning. Although mobile devices other than smartphones and tablets, such as the SmartPen
(discussed below), might have a more limited scope, they too
are valuable to persons with or without dyslexia or other literacy learning disabilities.
Mobile devices function well for both instructional and
assistive technology. Mobile devices as instructional technology refers to using the devices while learning new concepts or
practicing skills. When used as assistive technology, mobile
devices allow a person to perform a function independently
with which they would normally have difficulty.
Instructional Technology
When used as IT, mobile devices assist teachers and learners to expand reading and writing skills either as part of
a) independent student practice or b) explicit teacher-led
introductions. Although many different mobile devices are
available, this discussion will be limited to iPads and their apps
for teachers, educational therapists, and their students.
Perspectives on Language and Literacy Fall 2013
Apps for Independent Practice
iPads have the potential to increase student motivation, prolong focus, and build confidence (Bennett, 2012; McClanahan,
Williams, Kennedy, & Tate, 2012). However, to improve student
achievement using iPads, or any other medium, the activities
must have a clear focus that is connected to student needs and
one or more of the areas identified by research as essential for
proficient reading, spelling, and writing—letter identification,
phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development, 2000). To engage learners for sustained, focused
practice, an app must also have a professional design. These
characteristics distinguish effective apps: a) accurate content
validated by research; b) appropriate scaffolding to assist learners; c) timely feedback; d) professional sound and images to
support learning; and e) intuitive and user-friendly interface
with clear instructions (Ishizuka, 2011). All apps mentioned in
this article meet these standards (see Table 1).
Word identification skill apps focus on the alphabet (identifying and writing letters), phonological awareness (noticing
sounds in spoken language), phonics (mapping letters to
sounds), and learning common sight words. For practicing the
naming or writing of letters with no associated sounds, useful
apps are Handwriting Without Tears (,
Letter Find (, Write-on Handwriting (, and Cursive Writing
(Horizon Business). For linking sounds to letters, Preschool
University’s ( ABC Magic Phonics and
ABC Magic 3 Line Match are among the few apps that use
voices of children and present x as /ks/ as in fox rather than /z/
as in xylophone. The latter also matches initial sounds to pictures to develop phonemic awareness. Other apps by Preschool
University—ABC Reading Magic and ABC Spelling Magic—link
sounds to letters explicitly and sequentially. Fry Words
(Innovative Mobile Apps) presents sight words in groups organized by frequency, pronounces each word, and includes a
game-like quiz for each level.
Interactive book apps include a) beginning readers that
explicitly link letters to sounds and b) children’s literature to
strengthen language comprehension skills with mature vocabulary, complex sentence structures, and interesting content.
Starfall Learn to Read ( and Bob Books
Reading Magic ( are multi-book
series in which children connect letters with sounds to spell
words within carefully sequenced decodable stories. Children’s
literature book apps bring favorite stories to life with highlighted narration and clever animations. The Cat in the Hat and
other Dr. Seuss titles ( and all
titles by Loud Crow Interactive ( are
a perfect introduction to “real” reading. Hearing text read
Continued on page 44
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TABLE 1. Mobile Instructional and Assistive Technology Chart
Apps for Independent Practice: Handwriting
Handwriting without Tears
Letter Find
Write-on Handwriting
Cursive Writing
Horizon Business, Inc.
ABC Magic Phonics
ABC Magic 3 Line Match
ABC Reading Magic
Free - $0.99
ABC Spelling Magic
Free - $0.99
Apps for Independent Practice: Word Identification
Fry Words
Innovative Mobile Apps
Apps for Independent Practice: Interactive Book Apps
Starfall Learn to Read
Bob Books Reading Magic
The Cat in the Hat (and others)
Loud Crow: Various titles
$1.99 to $3.99
$0.99 to $4.99
Apps for Independent Practice: Intermediate and Advanced Learners
Vocabulary Spelling City
A+ Spelling Test
Innovative Mobile Apps
Poems by Heart
Free to $0.99
Find the Synonym
4 Pics 1 Word
iTunes Store, Google Play
Explain Everything
Smart White Board HD
Pad Read
Free to $0.99
Draw Everything! GLOW Note
Free to $1.99
Jae Kwang Lee
Vocab Rootology
Apps for Explicit, Teacher-led Instruction
Doodle Buddy
Sound Literacy
Pinger, Inc.
Mobile AT for Reading
Speak It!
Read to Kids
Free to $0.99
Mobile AT for Spelling and Written Expression
Dragon Dictation
Inspiration Maps
$119.95 to $219.95
Mobile AT for Note-taking
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Perspectives on Language and Literacy Fall 2013
Mobile Instructional and Assistive Technology
aloud or reading with the narration (and being able to record
your own voice in some apps) helps foster reading fluency.
Several useful options exist to provide instructional practice
for intermediate and advanced learners. Vocabulary Spelling
City ( is a powerful app with a plethora
of vocabulary, spelling, cursive handwriting, and alphabetizing
activities available for pre-set or teacher-entered word lists. A+
Spelling Test (Innovative Mobile Apps) allows an adult to enter
and pronounce custom lists for the student to spell. Poems by
Heart ( uses dramatic readings of
classic poems to enhance memory and oral reading fluency. In
Find the Synonym ( the player combines
the seven letters in each game to find the synonym or antonym
before time runs out. 4 Pics 1 Word challenges the player to use
problem-solving skills, vocabulary, and spelling skills to guess
a word that four images have in common. Fortunately, provides answers for downloading. Vocab Rootology ( provides 10 different ways to learn the most common prefixes,
suffixes, Latin roots, and Greek combining forms.
Apps for Explicit, Teacher-Led Instruction
Research evidence supports direct, explicit instruction led
by a knowledgeable teacher (Clark, Kirschner, & Sweller,
2012). For group instruction, an Apple VGA adaptor allows the
iPad to connect easily to an LCD projector with a separate
audio cable to project sound. This allows the teacher to project
images from the iPad display to a screen or whiteboard. A VGA
2-port switcher will enable the teacher to switch the display
seamlessly from iPad to computer.
Apps can replace many of the traditional tools of the trade in
one device. Mirror apps (i.e., applications that turn your device
into a mirror) are useful for teaching articulation as part of phonemic awareness. Drawing apps, when projected, can replace
the traditional whiteboard or Smart Boards, allowing the user to
write with a finger or stylus. These apps go beyond a traditional
display of information, though. Many can record sound and
import photos or PDF documents as a background. For example, the user can import examples of cursive letters to trace for
handwriting, orally describe the strokes as he or she writes, and
then save the finished recording that can be played back at any
time. Using graphic organizer templates as background facilitates instruction in vocabulary, comprehension, and composition skills. Explain Everything (,
Smart White Board HD (Pad Read), Chalkboard (Presselite),
Draw Everything! GLOW Note (Jae Kwang Lee) and Doodle
Buddy (Pinger, Inc.) are three such drawing apps with good
reviews and free or low cost versions.
Another valuable app, Sound Literacy (http://soundliteracy.
com), replaces phoneme charts, Elkonin boxes, blank and tiles
with vowel and consonant graphemes (b, sh, ng, aw), and cards
for prefixes, suffixes, and roots. Flashcard apps allow one to
create customized “decks” of cards. On one website (www., teachers can browse over 150 products
with descriptions and reviews to find the product that meets
their needs. Some apps allow the user to “shuffle” the decks or
Perspectives on Language and Literacy Fall 2013
continued from page 42
hide “mastered” cards. Other apps store sets of saved decks in
a Dropbox ( account, a free cloud-sharing
app, for use by multiple users.
Hundreds of new apps appear weekly; finding ones that
are both engaging and accurate is a daunting task. One can
find detailed reviews of specific apps as part of an occasional
series featured in the online IDA Examiner (
Assistive Technology
When used as AT, mobile devices help a person with a function that he or she would normally find difficult or be unable to
do at all. For people with dyslexia and other literacy learning
disabilities, mobile devices can help with reading, spelling,
written expression, and taking notes.
Mobile AT for Reading
Many individuals with dyslexia and other literacy learning
disabilities struggle to decode print accurately and efficiently
into meaningful language (Shaywitz, 2003). Therefore, many
AT efforts have focused on developing hardware and software
that converts text into speech, such as the computer-based
Kurzweil 3000 (, a software program
that takes scanned or entered text and reads it aloud. Although
these programs have become technologically sophisticated,
many of them require extra hardware, such as scanners, or use
on a desktop or laptop computer, which limits their portability.
With the introduction of smartphones and tablet computers, the
process of converting text to speech has become much more
accessible and portable.
For example, to complement the extensive Kurzweil 3000
program, the company recently released firefly for the iPad.
While the app is free, users need a web license to one of the
Kurzweil 3000 products for full use. The free app does have a
number of sample materials, including several classic literary
works. The app includes several voice choices for the reader as
well as variable speed control and text highlighting. As long as
the iPad has an Internet connection, a person can access any
document in his or her Kurzweil Universal Library from
If a person does not have access to the Kurzweil 3000 program, Speak It! ( is a low cost app available for the iPhone and iPad. The user chooses one of four
voices to read text entered into the Speak It! window, either by
typing or pasting from another document on the iPhone/iPad.
The voices are clear and easy to understand. While the user
controls are not as extensive as firefly, the app provides settings
for text size, voice volume, and voice speed. Besides the four
voice choices provided with the initial app, over 20 voices in
several languages are available for in-app purchase. Interestingly,
these voices not only read text in the native language but also
English with an accent in that voice’s language.
In addition to text-to-speech apps, the low-cost Read to
Kids ( iPhone/iPad app allows a
person to create an audio book using his or her own voice.
Thus, a teacher or family member can record a book that is
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not otherwise available for a person with a literacy learning
disability. This app also allows that person to follow the text in
the actual book. Besides having a familiar voice do the reading,
the app allows the audio book creator to add an auditory page
turn indicator while recording. To allow people to try the app,
the developer does offer a free version with a one-minute
recording limit.
Mobile AT for Spelling and Written Expression
Although people with dyslexia and other literacy learning
disabilities have difficulty with reading, they can also struggle
with spelling and other aspects of written expression (Shaywitz,
2003). Computer-based applications such as those discussed in
Edyburn’s article in this issue provide important support to
these writing difficulties; whereas, mobile devices primarily
focus on text generation, including spelling and planning.
Word prediction was one of the first text generation strategies adopted by smartphones and tablets to help with both
spelling and word choice. Word prediction software can guess
what word the user is trying to type based on the first couple of
letters. Depending on the phone or tablet operating system, the
user may see a short list of possible words fitting the letters
already typed and can choose the appropriate one. Some operating systems, such as on the iPhone, automatically insert a
word after briefly showing it with an option for the user to keep
the word as originally typed. Unfortunately, sometimes this
autocorrect word prediction feature produces unintended and
often comical changes. However, for a person who struggles
with spelling, this feature can be very beneficial.
A second text generation strategy that aids both spelling and
text generation fluency involves converting speech to text.
Dragon Dictation is a free app for the iPhone and iPad with
several elements of its full-featured desktop companion, Dragon
( Although the app requires an Internet
connection, it is easy to use and quite accurate. After dictating
the text, the user can use the device’s pop-up keyboard to edit.
The app gives several choices to save and share the text, including through email, Facebook, or Twitter, as well as by cutting or
copying to paste into another program on the device. The app
also allows the user to choose among numerous languages.
With the introduction of the iPhone 4S and iPad with Retina
Display, Apple added a dictation feature to convert speech into
text as part of the operating system. This feature allows an individual to dictate text rather than type as long as the device has
an Internet connection. The user accesses it directly in an app
such as email or messaging by tapping a microphone icon next
to the space bar on the pop-up keyboard. Punctuation and
some formatting commands such as capitalization can also be
dictated. When finished dictating, the user taps the “Done”
button, and the software converts the dictated speech into
text that can then be edited with the regular keyboard. This
conversion happens fairly rapidly, depending on the amount of
text dictated, and has good accuracy.
Besides assisting with text generation, mobile devices can
help writers with planning. Inspiration Maps is a low cost iPad
companion app to the computer-based Inspiration concept
mapping program ( While users can
integrate files between the mobile and computer-based
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versions, they can also use Inspiration Maps as a stand-alone
app. The app includes several helpful templates in various content areas as well as the ability to create original maps. The app
easily switches between diagram and outline views and
includes several formatting and sharing options.
Mobile AT for Note-Taking
Although AT may help persons read and write more accurately and efficiently, many struggle with taking notes during
classes or meetings, even persons with dyslexia and other literacy learning disabilities who have responded well to reading,
spelling, and writing intervention (Mortimer & Crozier, 2006).
Although many persons use laptops to take notes, others have
begun to use mobile devices, especially those that allow a person to audio record while writing notes or drawing diagrams.
The SmartPen ( is a powerful note-taking aid, yet small enough to fit in a pocket or handbag. The pen
includes a small infrared camera, microphone, processor, and
memory for 200–800 hours of recording time. The pen records
audio while the person takes notes on special microdot patterned paper. After finishing the session, the person can replay
the audio that has been synchronized to the notes from the pen
itself or on a computer or other mobile device. Since people
often do not have time to listen to an entire session again, the
listener can easily move the recording to a specific position by
tapping the pen at the desired spot in the notes.
For individuals with an iPad, Notability (www.gingerlabs.
com) is a low-cost, powerful note-taking app. Users can simply
take notes by typing, writing, and drawing, or they can record
audio while taking notes. In addition to many formatting
options, the app allows the user to insert media such as pictures
and webclips (i.e., shortcuts to specific websites). While the
app synchronizes the audio to typed notes and media, allowing
the user to easily jump to specific parts of the recording as with
the SmartPen, it does not currently synchronize to handwritten
notes. Notability has numerous ways to share notes, including
printing, emailing, and storage in cloud-based services.
Besides mobile devices and apps that allow a user to both
audio record and take notes, the built-in cameras found in
smartphones and tablets provide another option. These cameras allow users to take photos of projected materials during
lectures and presentations as well as document pages as they
are passed around the group. Many of these cameras also allow
video recording of a presentation, class, or meeting for later
review. In addition, apps such as Skitch (
skitch) allow a user to add notes, arrows, boxes, circles,
highlighting, and other annotation marks to photos, PDFs,
documents, and even screenshots.
Mobile devices have become an important resource for
individuals with dyslexia and other literacy learning disabilities
and those who teach and work with them. Whether used for
literacy instruction or to assist a person with a difficult literacy
function, mobile devices provide flexibility, portability, and
easy-to-use strategies for all learners in a way that “makes
differences ordinary” (McLeskey & Waldron, 2007).
Continued on page 46
Perspectives on Language and Literacy Fall 2013
Mobile Instructional and Assistive Technology
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How use of an iPad facilitated reading improvement. TechTrends: Linking Research
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classrooms. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42(3), 162–168. doi:
Mortimer, T., & Crozier, W. R. (2006). Dyslexia and difficulties with study skills in
higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 235–251. doi:
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of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading
instruction. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Premier college preparatory boarding school
for students in grades 7-12 with dyslexia or
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continued from page 45
David C. Winters, Ph.D., Fellow/AOGPE, is an associate
professor in the Department of Special Education at Eastern
Michigan University. He has been a classroom teacher,
tutor, diagnostician, administrator, and tutor/teacher trainer
for over 30 years and is a member of the International
Dyslexia Association Orton Oaks. He currently teaches
courses introducing preservice teachers to special education as well as instructional and assistive technology, writing,
and assessment in special education for preservice special
educators and speech language pathologists.
Elaine Anne Cheesman, Ph.D., is an associate professor at
the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Her primary
research, teaching, and service interests are teacherpreparation in scientifically based reading instruction and
the use of technology in literacy education. The reading
courses she developed are among the nine university
teacher-preparation programs officially recognized by
the International Dyslexia Association for meeting the
Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading
(IDA, 2010).
Disclosure: A portion of the profits from Sound Literacy
(, an application described in this
article, supports the International Dyslexia Association.
n Remediation through structured, multisensory,
Orton-based phonics language curriculum
n 100% college acceptance
n Small class sizes (3-6 students)
n 152 students, grades 7-12, from 26 countries and 20
n Co-ed Summer Program, ages 8-16
Learn more about the life-changing Gow experience at or call 716.687.2001
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