Chapter 7 – Assistive Technology for Reading Introduction 1 Using the sett process 7 Decision Making Guide 8 sett process 9 Reading Continuum 14 Reading Continuum

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Chapter 7 – Assistive Technology for Reading

Introduction 1

Using the SETT Process 7

Decision Making Guide 8

SETT Process 9

Reading Continuum 14

Reading Continuum Expanded 15

Student-specific Reading Solutions 35

Nonverbal Reading Approach 37

Adapted Phonemic Assessment 39

Other Alternative Assessments 39

Response to Intervention (RtI) 40

References and Resources 41

Assistive Technology for Reading

Judi Cumley


There are students who struggle with reading every day. They may be students who have an identified disability in reading or are “unidentified” struggling readers. We also know that students who have language learning disabilities often struggle with making meaningful connections with printed text, as do students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) and students with cognitive disabilities. Some students with physical impairments, visual and hearing impairments, and AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) users often have difficulty accessing the text. This chapter will outline some of the research that impacts students who struggle with the reading process, National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standards (NIMAS) definitions, requirements, definitions and restrictions will be addressed. Factors about the student, environment and tasks that should be considered when contemplating assistive technologies and strategies will be explored. Finally, we will examine some of the tools from low- to high-tech that can support struggling readers.

This chapter is not intended to educate professional staff in appropriate reading instruction. If you are interested in knowing more about how children learn to read, McGee and Richgels book, Literacy’s beginnings: Supporting young readers and writers and Put reading first: The research building blocks for teaching children to read by Adler provide a good analysis of reading development. Free copies of the Adler publication are available from their website . A good resource for teaching reading to students with disabilities is Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four-blocks ® Way by Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver.

Students with Print Disabilities

For many students with disabilities, the limitations of print raises barriers to access, and therefore to learning. Following the passage of the IDEA in 1997 and more recent reauthorizations, it has become essential that all students have access to the general curriculum, and thus to print materials. Some students cannot see the words or images on a page, cannot hold a book or turn its pages, cannot decode the text or comprehend the sentence structure. Students may experience different challenges, and may require different supports to obtain meaning from books. For each of them however, there is a common barrier - the centuries-old fixed format of the printed book. Many students with disabilities presently do not have access to the printed material they need. There are several reasons for that. In some cases, the problem is technical - schools may not have the technology they need to properly provide accessible versions to students, even if they had such versions. In other cases, the problem is lack of knowledge - many teachers and schools do not understand the issue of access or the potential solutions that are available (“NIMAS at CAST: About NIMAS”, 2006).

Educators usually select technology for two reasons. They select programs that remediate specific skills through individualized and/or repetitive practice or they select programs that compensate for a student’s disability. Deciding when to provide remedial supports and when to provide assistive technology accommodations is critical when designing a student’s instructional plan. As many reading researchers have suggested, the focus in the early grades is on learning to read, and the focus in the intermediate and upper grades becomes reading to learn. Some of the research shows that using technology for compensatory intervention actually also provides remedial benefits (Silver-Pacuilla, H., Ruedel K. & Mistrett, S. p. 8). While assistive technology by definition is not instructional, sometimes the support that assistive technology provides enables the student to further develop his or her skills.


There is an abundance of books and research about how children learn to read and the typical progression of most students. McGee and Richgels (2000) say that children’s literacy learning is developmental, but not in the sense of proceeding in an irreversible, step-by-step progress. No child’s literacy development exactly matches those of another child. Furthermore, an individual child’s literacy behaviors vary in sophistication depending on the task and situation. Although the age may vary with each student as they acquire literacy skills, research tells us that students with cognitive disabilities follow the same developmental progression as “typical readers”. Additionally adolescent aged or older students with cognitive disabilities continue to develop literacy skills long after “traditional reading instruction” usually stops (Katims, 2001; Erickson, 2007). When Katims looked at reading instruction for students with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities, he discovered that although many students engaged meaningfully with print, the special education reading instruction they received focused primarily on word identification with little instruction on engagement with connected text (Katims, 2001). Karen Erickson says that in order to build comprehension when reading, instruction must have emphasis on both automatic word identification and phonics or decoding skills. The combination of the two is required for reading success. Successful readers must be able to effortlessly recognize most words they encounter and have the skills to figure out unfamiliar words. Comprehension is adversely affected when instruction emphasizes only one skill. When readers do not have the skills to figure out unfamiliar words, they are forced to skip or guess words (often based on the initial letter with no regard for sentence context). When readers are taught to stop and sound out or consciously think about every word they encounter, they are expending cognitive resources that would otherwise be devoted to comprehension (Erickson, K. 2003).

Teachers who use the Four-Blocks® method of literacy instruction by Pat Cunningham (1991) can modify the activities for students with disabilities. The original Four-Blocks framework was developed to adjust to individual differences in the classroom and teaches students not only how to decode unfamiliar words but also builds comprehension, writing skills and independent reading. The basic premise is that each day is devoted to four different approaches to teaching all students to read. Incorporating Guided Reading, Self Selected Reading, Writing and Working with Words on a daily basis enables students to interact with print meaningfully. Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver further addressed the specific accommodations of the Four-Blocks framework for students with disabilities, using assistive technology when appropriate (2007).

Although teachers have been using technology to support students’ reading for a relatively short time period, research is reporting that it improves student’s reading fluency, comprehension, speed and vocabulary. When students use text-to-speech technology, their writing quality and length of writing projects increase. Older students report better editing when using text-to-speech than when reading for editing purposes on their own. Ann Orr and Lorena Parks summarize this research in Educator’s Ezine (2007).


What is NIMAS?

NIMAS is the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard that is part of IDEA- 2004 20 U.S.C. 1474 (e)(3)(A). NIMAS files are text files from publishers that can be converted to a standard or specialized format. Files and documents we traditionally see and use (word processing doc, pdf, html, etc.) are not accessible to all users. But those files can be changed into an accessible document or format depending on the student’s needs. NIMAS is a file format that is accessible and flexible and can be converted to:

  • RTF (Rich Text Format) for text-to-speech and large print alternatives

  • HTML (Hyper-Text Markup Language) for large print and text-to-speech that can include audio, text and video

  • BRF (Digital Braille) for common Braille devices or Braille printers

  • DSY (Digital Audio-based Information System) digital talking book standard.

Goal of NIMAS

The goal of NIMAS is to ensure the development of high quality and consistent text source files in order to create specialized formats for students with print disabilities. State and Local Education Agencies (SEAs and LEAs) must ensure that students who are blind, visually impaired or those with other print disabilities receive instructional materials in a timely manner. Each state is required to adopt NIMAS or provide an assurance that students will have appropriate instructional materials in a timely fashion. The state of Wisconsin has adopted NIMAS. NIMAS files will be "housed" in a national repository, the NIMAC - National Instructional Materials Accessibility Center - 20 U.S.C. 1474 (e).

School District Responsibilities

School districts must send their Department of Public Instruction (DPI) an assurance form stating that district students who are blind, visually impaired or those with other print disabilities, will receive their materials in the appropriate format and in a timely manner. Wisconsin DPI strongly recommends school districts coordinate with NIMAC (a national repository for NIMAS source files).

How will it work?

How will this work? When schools districts who coordinate with NIMAC, purchase core materials or textbooks for elementary or secondary schools, they must request that the publisher send a NIMAS source file to the NIMAC. It should be noted that the mandate is not to the publisher, but rather to the SEAs and LEAs. It also only relates to those printed core materials published after July 19, 2006. When the school district requires an alternate form of the text for a specific student with a documented print disability, they must contact one of the state authorized entities that can download files from the NIMAC database. The authorized entity will convert the source file into a useable format as requested by the school. Some of the authorized entities are already sources of alternative text such as Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RBFD), American Printing House for the Blind (APH), or state schools that support students with visual impairments. Anyone can search the NIMAC for files, but only authorized agencies can download files from the NIMAC.

Alternate files from publishers

School districts may be able to purchase a CD version of textbooks directly from the publisher in a n attemptto provide accessible versions for students with print disabilities. While this is encouraged, care must be taken to make sure these versions will actually work for the students. CDs can be “locked” so that it is difficult or impossible for a screen or text reader to “read” them, or an audio file created from them. Some may not contain full text versions or only outline key points in a text. Requesting NIMAS-compliant digital copies in the original PO can help. Don’t assume that just because a publisher provides a CD, it will be accessible. Remember that NIMAS is not retroactive and will not apply to core materials purchased prior to July 19, 2006. School districts can also purchase NIMAS files directly from the publisher.

In Wisconsin, Stanford Taylor (December, 2007) from the Department of Public Instruction recommends the following language be included on purchase orders of new text:

By agreeing to deliver the materials marked with “NIMAS” on this contract or purchase order, on or before ___/___/___, the publisher agrees to prepare and submit files meeting NIMAS requirements to the NIMAC at the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) located in Louisville, Kentucky. Should the vendor be a distributor of the materials and not the publisher, the distributor agrees to immediately notify the publisher of its obligation to submit NIMAS file sets of the purchased products to the NIMAC. The files will be used for the production of accessible formats as permitted under the law for students who are blind or have other print disabilities (Section 1). (Retrieved 6/2/08 from

Copyright Issues

Whenever a school uses an alternative version of copyrighted text with a student, we need to be certain that it is a legal copy of the text. The Chaffee Amendment is the law most frequently referenced when providing alternate versions of text to be used with students with print disabilities.

The Chaffee Amendment:

  • Allows authorized entities to reproduce or distribute copies of phonorecords of previously published non-dramatic works in specialized formats for use with individuals who are blind or other persons with disabilities.

  • specialized formats refers to Braille, audio

  • or digital text which is exclusively for use with individuals who are blind or other persons with disabilities.

There is no new language or clarification regarding which students qualify as having print disabilities. Current language states that students whose reading disability is physically based are eligible to receive NIMAS files. By definition of the Copyright Act of 1931 as Amended, student with “print disabilities” are those who have been certified by a competent authority as unable to read printed materials because of:

  • Blindness

  • Visual Impairment

  • Physical Limitations

  • An Organic Dysfunction

  • Students who qualify as a student with a disability under IDEA 2004

In all instances, the student who will be using the NIMAS files must be one who qualifies under IDEA 2004 and have an IEP that reflects the student’s print impairment. For more information on NIMAS, NIMAC or copyright, please go to the CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) website at Wisconsin schools can go to and view the information listed under National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC) and Accessibility Standard (NIMAS).

While it is legal and ethical to provide adapted text for those students who meet the eligibility under current definitions, it is illegal to make copies of those same materials for other students even if a student could benefit from the alternative format. Those materials are the copyright holder’s property and should be paid for when used. It behooves all of us to request accessible digital files from the publishers when purchasing their textbooks. Those publisher-produced files can be used legally with any student.

When a team is deciding whether accessible instructional materials are necessary for a student, they should consider these key questions

  • Does the STUDENT need instructional materials in specialized formats to access the curriculum and receive a free, appropriate, public education?

  • In which ENVIRONMENTS will specialized materials be used?

  • For which TASKS will the student require materials in which specialized format?

  • What TOOLS will the student and others need?

(Marfilius, S. 2008)

Using the SETT process and Decision Making Guide
It is intended that you use this as a guide. The Decision Making Guide follows the SETT (Student, Environment, Task, and Tool) format with a subcategory of Sensory Considerations included with Student and Environment. Additional categories include:

  • Narrowing the Focus to help identify a specific task in order to select appropriate assistive technologies

  • Implementation Plan to assign trials, dates, responsibilities and data collection

  • Follow-Up Plan to set a date for the team to reconvene and review the student’s progress

Again, this is intended as a guide; during the actual assessment process, each topic should be written in large print where everyone can see (i.e., on a flip chart or board). Information should then be transferred to paper for distribution, filing, and future reference. For more information about using the SETT process, please refer to Chapter 1 of this manual.

The questions posed in the guide are not intended to be all inclusive but rather to prompt the team to consider as many factors as possible in order to identify and ultimately try appropriate assistive technology tools and strategies for their students.

WATI Assistive Technology Decision Making Guide
Area of Concern: Reading
Problem Identification

Student’s Abilities/Difficulties

Environmental Considerations


What are the student’s abilities & difficulties related to reading?

  • Review Section 6 WATI Student Information Guide (Chapter 1, page33)

  • Physical considerations

  • Communication considerations

  • Visual considerations

  • Background knowledge and/or receptive language

  • Comprehension of text-read or listened to

  • Phonemic awareness

  • Sight vocabulary

  • Other concerns

What environmental considerations impact the student’s reading?

  • Reading requirements for different settings

  • Student’s distance from text

  • Reading group size

  • Visual clutter on page

  • Lighting

  • Computer operating system

  • Current or past AT used

  • Other concerns

What reading task(s) do you want the student to do?


  • Standard Curriculum

  • Modified Curriculum

  • Community print

  • Worksheets

  • Tests

  • Recreational

  • Computer

Sensory Considerations

Narrowing the Focus

What sensory challenges does the student have that impacts Reading? (i.e., visual, auditory, tactile)

Identify specific

reading task(s)

for solution generation

Solution Generation

Tools & Strategies

Solution Selection

Tools & Strategies

Implementation Plan

Brainstorming only-

no decisions yet
Review the Reading Continuum

Use a Feature Match Process to discuss and select idea(s) from

Solution Generation

AT Trials/Services Needed:

  • Formulate reading objectives to determine effectiveness of trial

  • Training needed

  • Date

  • Length

  • Person(s) Responsible

Follow-Up Plan

Who & When

Set specific date now.

Important: It is intended that you use this as a guide. Each topic should be written in large print where everyone can see them (i.e. on a flip chart or board). Information should then be transferred to paper for distribution, filing, and future reference.

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