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Learning Barriers and Assistive Technology

As our awareness of the benefits of Assistive Technology has grown over the past two decades, so too has the range of options available to individuals and education providers. It is now easy and affordable to access AT for both Apple and Microsoft desktop and laptop computers as well as for IOS and Android smart phones and tablets.

Accessibility options such as reading text aloud and accepting voice to transcribe text, are also now accessibility options on most mainstream devices. This has dramatically reduced the need to purchase stand-alone AT software solutions.

A general overview of a range of specific learning disabilities and the capabilities of easy to access Assistive Technologies that can alleviate learning barriers within the education environment is provided on the following pages.

Listening and Speaking

  • Auditory processing difficulties can impact on a person’s ability to hear subtle differences in sounds. Not hearing subtle differences can then impact how a person pronounces the sounds they hear. This has a roll on effect to how a student recalls the sounds for spelling words.
  • Poor working memory can impact a person’s ability to hold on to a train of thought or to retain several verbal instructions.
  • Receptive language difficulties affect the ability to understand every bit of spoken language and also impacts on how a person can organise their thoughts and communicate these thoughts to others.
  • Language based difficulties that impact speech can also result in a person experiencing difficulty in expressing ideas, finding the right words and learning new terminology.

Assistive Technology to Assist Listening and Speaking Difficulties

Students who have difficulty hearing what has been said will benefit from opportunity to re listen to the material any time, any-where.

  • Ask lectures to wear lapel microphones to record lecture material
  • Upload the lecture audio to the student learning system as an MP4 file
  • Use FM listening systems in lecture theatres to reduce background noise. The lecturer wears a microphone that broadcasts to speakers around the room or to a personal receiver worn by the student.
  • Provide alternate options for oral tasks for students for students who have difficulty hearing sounds in spoken language and who experience stress with speaking in front of groups.
  • Teach students to use voice recording on their presentations to develop the presentation with audio and eliminate the need for them to physically present in front of the group.

Reading and Comprehension

  • Reading disability is characterised by difficulties with accurate and / or fluent word recognition. This impacts reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension.
  • For students with difficulties in reading the task is often laborious and time consuming with only some of the read information retained.
  • Some students can also appear to read with little difficulty but do not understand or recall what they have read due to the energy required to focus on the processes involved in the task of reading and deficits they have in their working memory.

Assistive Technology to Assist Reading, and Comprehension: Text to Speech

Text to speech software can read text within Word, PDF, Emails, Text files, e-readers and the web, aloud. Students report that using text readers has enhanced their own word recognition (reading) skills. This combination of seeing and hearing to learn is called multimodal reading.

  • Teach students how to use text readers and show how to set text readers to highlight and speak letters, words and/or whole sentences.  
  • Teach students how to use text to speech functionality on their computer or device to:
    • Have academic resources read to them
    • Research
    • Edit their own work, to hear back what they have typed and to listen for spelling or grammar errors, sentence structure, punctuation (prosody) and            

Writing and Spelling

  • People with SpLD can experience difficulties retrieving information from short or long term memory to organise information in preparation for writing. They will also have difficulties getting words they want to share onto paper by either handwriting or typing them.
  • Difficulties in orthographic coding also impacts a person’s ability to store unfamiliar words in working memory, this impacts ability to recall particular words to spell and write.
  • Dysgraphia (difficulties with writing) can impact shape discrimination, organising words on a page (left to right), copying notes from a presentation, writing coherently, proper use of grammar, including all points intended in notes, mixing up tense.
  • Poor phonemic awareness (letter sound relationships) and decoding skills will impact spelling. Students with poor phonemic awareness have difficulty associating speech sounds with letters or groups of letters and may also have working memory difficulties where they are unable to store and retrieve whole words.

Assistive Technology to Assist Writing and Spelling: Speech to Text (Dictation / Speech Recognition)

Teach students about Speech to Text options in mainstream and assistive technology solutions. Key features of Speech to Text include:

  • The student can dictate to the device and the device will record the student’s words in text format.
  • Students can use mobile devices at any time to dictate words to text and forward the text via email to use in their academic task.
  • Students can dictate specific words to check spelling of words.
  • Speech to text AT can vastly reduce the time students with specific learning disabilities require to construct written tasks.
  • Students report that by using speech to text they can:
    • generate longer (word count) and higher quality written work than they did prior to use of the AT.
    • Students also report a remedial function of speech to text explaining that their phonemic awareness (letter sound association) is enhanced through seeing letters appear on the screen as they are spoken.


Deficits in the executive functioning system of the brain can result in difficulties with planning, being organised, strategising, managing time and space and paying attention to details. For students this can effect:

  • Connecting new material to prior knowledge
  • Identifying and ignoring extraneous information
  • Identifying main ideas and supporting details
  • Drawing inferences within the literature
  • Students can also struggle to break down tasks and plan out (strategise) how to attack a particular assessment task. They will struggle to set priorities, make a plan and work systematically through the set tasks.
  • A lack of ability to organise academic tasks and resources can also result in lost information, overdue assessments, late library returns and a general sense of feeling overwhelmed.

Assistive Technology to Assist with Organisation: Graphic Organisers

Research has shown that graphic organisers enhance immediate factual recall and are effective because of their computational efficiency that minimises stress on working memory.

  • Teach students about graphic organisers.
  • Include in this section tools that will assist students to visualise and construct ideas, identify relationships between concepts, organize problems and solutions, compare and contrast ideas, enhance comprehension, sequence information and show cause and effect. These include construct mapping (mind mapping), semantic mapping (linking meaning between words or phrases) and other visual learning processes such as flow charts that highlight steps within a process.
  • Also include graphic organisers that will assist with organisation of self and tasks within the academic environment. These include digital or visual prompts such as organisers, sticky notes, online alerts, charts and diaries.

Mathematical Reasoning and Calculations

  • Dyscalculia (also referred to as Learning Disability in Mathematics) is a specific learning disability that makes it very difficult to make sense of numbers and concepts.
  • Students do not develop an intuitive understanding of how numbers work and can experience difficulties with mathematical calculations and mathematical problem solving.
  • Difficulties experienced can also impact ability to count, understanding size and number and number relationships.
  • A specific learning disability that impacts memory can also impact mathematics by impacting ability to retrieve (remember) basic arithmetic and to recall the steps required in word problems.

Assistive Technology to Assist with Mathematical Reasoning and Calculations.

There are a number of digital strategies that students with specific learning disabilities in the area of mathematical reasoning and calculations can utilise. It is important to consider the links between specific difficulties, for example a student who has difficulty with the written problems in mathematics will benefit from use of a text reader. Students who have difficulty organising numbers on paper may benefit from digital maths sheets. There are also a range of electronic math processing software programs as well as hand held devices such as talking calculators and rulers.