How wikis, podcasts, and laptops help students with learning disabilities

I am passionate about helping kids with learning disabilities. (I'm not sure the PC word but that's the one I'll use.)

Any teacher can teach a smart kid — a “smart kid” with regular learning abilities can learn from an inanimate object — a book. They can teach themselves on the Internet. Teach them and you are knowledgeable about your subject. But it is the child who has challenges — you are true teacher when you accommodate and reach that child.

I speak from experience. My younger sister was in fifth grade when she was labeled as “slow” and “dumb.” She was belittled by classmates and put on the “stupid” track according to her peers. She couldn't spell, couldn't read her own writing, couldn't read her math problems, and was frustrated because her two older sisters had achieved so much academically. She thought she was adopted! She was tested in the 2nd grade and 5th grade and nothing showed up. Then, her sophomore year Mom and Dad had it! They sacrificed and took her to Atlanta Speech where she was tested for two days and viola — learning disability with spatial processing, dysgraphia , and a few other issues.

My Mom took the recommendations from Atlanta Speech and typed up a list of responsibilities along with our learning lab coordinator, Mrs. Grace Adkins. They had a list of what the classroom teachers would do, what the learning lab would do, my parents, and ultimately my sister.

Let's make a long story short — after accommodations and my sister “learning how she learned” (and taking notes with a laptop) she went from the bottom third of her class to the top third of her class from the 1st day of her junior year to the last day of her senior year. She graduated 3rd in her class from Brenau University, received a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design in Graphic Arts (Magna Cum Laude), and her MFA from there (Magna Cum Laude Again.) She now works in the Disney Travel Department as a Graphic Design intern designing ads. She couldn't draw sticks in 10th grade. Now, she can draw or paint anything and loves what she does!

She says her turning point was when she realized that she wasn't dumb — she just learned differently!

I have another friend who was dyslexic and couldn't learn to read. He was taught to read using special accommodations and joint work between his parents, teachers, and the learning lab. He is completing his final residency and received offers of five major fellowships around the country.

But it hit home 2 years a go. My son was a “third grade melt down.” I had suspected as early as first grade that he may have had some of the same issues as my sister but it didn't show with our testing locally. We struggled and saved and went to Atlanta Speech for my son. Voila! Yes — he had some learning disabilities. (We call them learning differences in our house.) We followed the same process as my Mom did — he's been back on the Honor Roll since the end of fourth grade and is now doing very well in fifth.

What is in common with all of these and how does it relate to new technology?

1 – Each of these students were tested early and effectively.
2 – An action plan was created where the teacher, parents, and learning lab (where our students go for one on one assistance) determined who would do what item.
3 – The child was talked to by the parent during which time they were talked with openly (don't keep kids in the dark). They were told:
a – You are mentally capable of handling the material in class
b – You learn differently and I will teach you how you learn.
c – You will have to work harder to make the same grades as others.
d – We will help you. You are not alone. We have a plan.
e – It is your job to do your part. (You can't push someone up a ladder.)
f – I love you and am here to help you be your best.
4 – The plans were followed, evolved, changed and used throughout their lives even through college.

In the case of my sister and son, one more thing was done that was vital:
5- They were given a way to ask for help that was unobtrusive and didn't call attention to them.

Highlighter for Help!

For my son, it was the highlighter. We selected a highlighter that wasn't used in the class — red. He had it in is desk bag. When he needed help and didn't understand the directions he took the highlighter out of his desk bag and put it on his desk. That was his secret cue to the teacher, “I'm lost and clueless, I need help. Don't fuss at me for not doing anything — I'm lost!” It made all the difference!

New Technology – The Laptop!

Here is the exciting part about all of this and where new technology comes in. Let me tell you first what we're doing with my son.

My son has difficulty copying from the board. He also has issues with spelling and punctuation where he has a processing sort of “overload.” If he's writing a history paper, for example, he doesn't even see that he's misspelling words or forgetting punctuation. Atlanta Speech recommended a laptop for him to take notes. It took us two years to save and to get his keyboarding up to snuff. (I taught his whole fifth grade class keyboarding and he's up to 40 wpm.)

Since Christmas, he now uses a laptop and takes his notes in Microsoft One Note . He had already gone up in grades last semester, however, last week his lowest grade was an 88 — the rest were 90's+. When typing paragraphs, he types everything in One Note and then exports it to word. (File–> Send To –> Microsoft Word for Office.) He saves it on his memory key and prints it on the teacher's computer. (We're working on a wifi setup, but until then this is the best we can do.) I adore One Note — I can blog on that later if there's interest.

The teacher has been very willing. He doesn't use the laptop for math (he uses graph paper) or spelling tests. We decided that we were going to tough it out there and when he's focused on just one task – spelling – he can usually do pretty well.

Why did the laptop improve his grades?

I sat down with my son and asked him what the difference was. He basically told me it was a couple of things:

  • He doesn't have to struggle with a lot of notebooks.
  • His notes are no longer full of errors and mistakes and he can read his notes.
  • When he is writing he can focus on what he is writing and not get mad at himself because he can't read it and it is full of mistakes.
  • He can focus on studying and getting his work done because the things that “drive him crazy about himself” are under control.

Is that fair to the other kids?

My Mom explains it like this. (She has taught school for 20+ years.) A child with a learning disability is walking around school with one leg. All the other kids are walking to class on two legs. The LD child has their backpack on and they are hopping — on their one leg. Can they get to class? Yes. But it takes longer. It is more difficult. It is frustrating. They feel slow and different. When an effective accommodation is made, Mom says it is like giving them a prosthetic leg. Does it work better than a real leg? No! But it levels the playing field. It makes it fair! It gives the child hope!

In my opinion, a laptop just levels the playing field — if it is recommended as part of the accommodation for that child's diagnosed learning disability.

If a child is supposed to be in the front of the room — they belong in the front! End of story! Put them there. (Of course in some classrooms all of them belong in the front — that's an unfortunate state of events.) For me, I have two or three in each class which require that accommodation and I make it without anyone knowing.

Let me tell you what happened this week with one of my auditory learners.

I have a student I teach who I suspect has some undiagnosed issues with reading. He is a straight auditory learner, however, and knows it. (We test all sixth graders and give them their learning style and teach them how they learn.) He was learning his Hamlet “To Be or Not To Be” speech and struggling. He came to me and asked if he could record it into Audacity. I showed him how and he read it. I showed him how to convert it to an MP3 and he e-mailed it to himself. Later that afternoon when he arrived home, he downloaded it into Itunes and then put it in his iPod. He spent the evening driving, walking, eating, and even going to sleep listening to Hamlet's famous speech on his iPod. He learned the speech beautifully.

In my opinion, auditory learners need an MP3 player. With Librivox and other sources of auditory text — this is the boon they've been waiting for!

Look. Say. Do.

Many of the students with LD have been told to use the Look – Say – Do method of learning.

Look. Say. Do. Using Wikis
Wikis fit this beautifully and I've found my ADHD kids are some of the best at it.

Look — The students are looking in their textbook and on the Internet for information related to their topic. They are reading it.
Say — Meanwhile, they are discussing the topic often in a very animated fashion with their partner to make sure they aren't posting the same thing and to discuss where it fits.
Do — Then, they are summarizing the new information they have found and putting into their wiki.
Look – They reread the wiki to ask themselves where the “holes” in their information lie.
Say – They talk about it with their partner.
Do – They search for more information and add it to the wiki and it continues.


Look. Say. Do. Using Podcasts
Podcasting fits this well, and is especially wonderful for my precious but few auditory learners.

Look – Students look for information on their topic.
Say – Students discuss the most important parts with their partner.
Do – Students write their script.
Look – Students reread the script and ask themselves where the “holes” in their information lie.
Say – They talk about it with their partner.
Do/Say – They record their podcast.
(Listen — they listen to it — share it with their friends!)

Wikis and podcasting fit together wonderfully, particularly if you can pair an auditory and visual learner on a team. I've found the auditory learner will usually gravitate to the podcast and the visual will gravitate to the wiki. They make excellent teammates.

Laptops. Wikis. Podcasting.

These are tools to help all students. They can level the playing field for those with LD and give them renewed hope.

I'm passionate about helping all children learn — not just the “superstar” that is going to be the superstar whether they had ever met me or not.

It is with the children who are frustrated, defeated, and down that I build my legacy that I made a difference. Call me simplistic. Criticize me. It is in helping these children turn the corner that I become a teacher!

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Kaj May 29, 2006 - 6:40 pm

Hello Cool cat,

Great story you wrote. I’m from the netherlands and teach children with ADHD and PDD. I’m looking around a lot how the use of computers can help these children to learn. Because I believe the can be a great value for our education.
Best regards, Kaj

Teresa June 14, 2006 - 6:54 pm

Hi, Vicki!
Congrats on a fabulous read! I just couldn’t stop.
Thanks for all the great ideas to help LD students and for the two very touching stories about your sister and son.
I’m an EFL teacher in the greater Lisbon area (Portugal) and a fan of blogs and podcasting with my students.

Cheryl Oakes November 1, 2006 - 2:48 am

Hi Teresa and Vicki!,
Teresa I knew it was you before I got to Portugal! Vicki you wrote so eloquently about students learning differently. Yes it is imperative that we use technology to level the playing field. The new buzz word in education is differentiation. I like this since it relates to all students, not just the Special Education, the Gifted, the minorities, but all. If we teachers consider what it is like to be an adult learner, I wonder if we see any differences from a classroom full of young people. We all desire to learn new things in an engaging and safe way.

Anonymous November 21, 2006 - 3:15 am

Hey Cool Cat, I am currently taking a technology class for k-12 education. I really liked your blog. In our class, we have discussed a lot the importance of technology especially for those students who have learning disabilities. I agree that schools and teachers should take advantage of the technology that is out there. It is important for those students to have extra accomadations, and as you have shown, students with learning disabilities can reach their potential with the right resources. There are so many resources such as podcasts, educational videos to supplement lesson plans, laptops etc to help these students. As you have said, every child learns differently and by using technology, I feel teachers can better reach the learning differences of their students.
Jessica (ed. 205)

Chassidy April 17, 2007 - 2:49 pm

Hi Cool Cat,

The article that you wrote is very enlightening. I have a set of twin daughters, one of which has been diagnosed to have a learning disability. She is very intelligent! When she was younger it just seemed that she was not talking much because her sister always took over conversations and was more social. The school system in which we lived was hesitant to test her for a learning disability in kindergarten and the first grade because they thought that she would grow out of it (since her sister didn’t show signs of the same issue). The school tried to retain her in the 1st and 2nd grades. She went to Sylvan learning center and they didn’t see anything either. It was not until we were going to move to another school district that they actually tested her… and found that her verbal IQ was low — 90. Anyway to make a long story short, I was very excited to read your story it put some things into perspective for me. I know that she is smart, but since she had been compared to her twin sister so much others didn’t realize her potential. Your article was definitely in the right place at the right time for me :)

Vicki A. Davis April 17, 2007 - 6:12 pm

Keep plugging, it is difficult and never ending but the hours of reading to them and accommodating and encouraging and helping will pay big dividends for you and your family. And use your insight to encourage others. It is not about being better than the other kids — it is about being your own best and feeling good about yourself!

ldtchr May 6, 2007 - 3:34 am

Lovin’ it! I am a teacher of awesome students who happen to have learning disabilities and I just started using wikispaces and am checking out blogging…anything I can do to find ways to even things out for them. I am glad to see others out there too – you truly are a Cool Cat!!

Katie May 19, 2007 - 7:10 pm

Hello Cool Cat,
I am currently studying to become a special education teacher and your blog has some really great ideas that I look forward to using in my future classrooms. Using MP3 Players with students who learn better by hearing information can make a huge difference in how successful they are and it would be great if schools could have free access to audio versions of textbooks and literature. I also had never thought about all of the ways that a laptop can help a student with learning differences, like your son, it not only has helped raise his grades and understanding, but also his confidence, which is a huge thing. Integrating technology and using things like wikispaces can allow students with disabilities to blend in extremely well. If students with learning disabilities could be exposed to these helpful technology resources early than it would be much easier for the student to feel more like a regular student. I feel that teachers have a big role to play in making all students feel like they are part of the class and I think that you have given great insight for teachers to use! Thank you!

love2teach June 22, 2007 - 8:52 pm

Great article! I am a 4th grade teacher and the sister of 2 brothers who are ADD and dyslexic. My mother was very proactive in all of our lives and she did everything in her power to get my brothers what they needed to succeed in school; however, at that time there was not a lot of help available. I have to say that I think that the key to success for the kids that struggle in school is early and continual proactivity by parents. In your article it was evident that both you and your mom were very proactive parents and that is what led to the success of your children. I find that by the 4th grade many students know that they are stupid, not becuase anyone has told them but because everything is so hard for thme. When I watch them work I no longer see them making an effort mainly because they KNOW they can not do it so why try. Now I have to convince them of what I KNOW to be true and that is they are perfectly capable of doing well in school we just have to work together to find the tools that they need to succeed. Sadly before I can begin to make much of a difference I have to change their entire way of looking at themselves.

Vicki A. Davis June 22, 2007 - 10:02 pm

I love all of the comments and impassioned people that know first hand the struggles and nuances of loving and helping those who have a learning disability (which I like to call a learning difference) — it is so important to understand that we are not all the same! And it is important to have passionate, involved people who serve as advocates and encouragers. Yes, often it is self perception that is the toughest to overcome.

Emily Rose March 24, 2008 - 8:38 pm

Try Interactivate at
Interactivate is free, online courseware for exploration in science and mathematics. It is comprised of activities, lessons, and discussions. Interactivate offers students and teachers an unparalleled opportunity to investigate mathematical ideas through hands on experimentation. Interactivate contains one- hundred and ten interactive modeling and visualization activities in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, probability, and data analysis activities. The instructors’ section includes lessons and instructions for teachers, as well as information on state standards. The Assessment’s Page provides speedy entrance to Interactivate activities which students can use to assess their abilities on a variety of topics.

mary anna June 14, 2008 - 10:23 pm

Could you elaborate more on how your child finds One Note useful? I have a 9-year-old with learning disabilities and his school has suggested they might be able to provide him with a laptop. More information about One Note — and other ways in which a laptop could be helpful to him — would be great.

debrennersmith August 6, 2008 - 7:03 am

I am VERY interested in buying One Note for my son. I am also interested in buying a laptop very soon. Advice is needed for One Note. He is a senior. We will not buy a Mac. We will buy a PC. Money is not an issue. We will invest in this. Usually we buy the second from the top. My husband is into computers

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