Top ten assistive technology tools to support special education students in reading

Kindy Segovia

Kindy Segovia

by Kindy Segovia, OTR
Assistive Technology Coordinator, Kent Intermediate School District

Few would argue that reading is one of the most important learning skills. Reading is necessary for access to all other content areas, including math. Even in our growing digital world, reading is key to accessing increasingly large volumes of data and information.

Targeted skill areas are generally identified as phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. As students progress from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’, many struggle with frustration and risk failure. Barriers may involve:

  • poor foundation of background knowledge and understanding of embedded vocabulary
  • varied learning styles such as auditory and kinesthetic
  • lack of automaticity as text complexity increases, offers fewer contextual clues and is less predictable
  • lack of ability to read strategically, organize the content, make connections or judgments, understand language rules, find similarities, key vocabulary.
  • need for longer processing time.

Providing supports as assistive technology or as part of the school environment within the framework of Universal Design for Learning can be the bridge for student access. To guide the selection of reading supports, use the SETT framework, considering student, environment, task, and tools, which was conceived by Joy Zabala. It is also important to consider who is part of the student’s learning team, what tools are already available, and training needed for implementation.

Several free and low-cost tools have risen to the top of our “go to” list of reading supports. Here are our top 10 recommendations!

1. Low Tech Tools

Tools available at the student’s fingertips are a great starting point (all available from Onion Mountain Technology (

  • Highlighter Tape

    Highlighter Tape

    Highlighter Tape, multicolored and
    removable ($3.75)

  • EZC Reading Guides

    EZC Reading Guides

    EZC Reading Guides, which highlight individual lines of text ($2.00)

  • Erasable Highlighter

    Erasable Highlighter

    Erasable Highlighter, which allows flexible highlighting of critical information ($2.90)

  • Franklin Children's Talking Dictionary or Speller

    Franklin Children’s Talking Dictionary or Speller

    Franklin Children’s Talking Dictionary or Speller, which provides audio support for key words and definitions ($59.95)

2. Picture-Supported Text

The Pledge of Alliegance created with Boardmaker symbols

The Pledge of Alliegance created with Boardmaker symbols

Boardmaker (Mayer Johnson, Inc.,, $399) and Pixwriter (Suncastle Technology, LLC,, $99) software programs allow you to create your own text supplemented with pictures. Find existing materials using either of these programs through the Boardmaker Share site,, or – ‘Free Stuff’

Harcourt School Dictionary offers picture and audio support for vocabulary

Harcourt School Dictionary offers picture and audio support for vocabulary

Online resources offer free picture support, vocabulary or content. Harcourt Talking Dictionary provides pictures, audio and use of vocabulary in a sentence.

SymbolWorld provides picture supported text on many topics and current events

SymbolWorld provides picture supported text on many topics and current events

SymbolWorld, also free, provides picture supported text in the areas of current events, science, sports, functional tasks, etc.

Picto4Me allows creation of picture supports within Google Drive

Picto4Me allows creation of picture supports within Google Drive

Google now has a free application, Picto4Me, available in the online Chrome Web Store, which allows for creation of picture supports within Google Drive.

3. Text-to-Speech

Natural Reader is a free, downloadable text reader with a simple user toolbar

Natural Reader is a free, downloadable text reader with a simple user toolbar

Many free options are available for download or use online.

  • NaturalReader has a very user-friendly floating toolbar.
  • Read The Words has free and paid options, allowing you to quickly create audio files from text.

Text-to-speech (TTS) is also built in to many of our existing programs and operating systems.

  • Google Chrome has browser-based TTS extensions such as Select & Speak available in the Chrome Web Store.
  • Adobe Reader has a Read Aloud feature that reads most PDF documents
  • Microsoft Word and other Office products have TTS options
  • Windows and Macintosh have TTS built into their operating systems.

You can find information for these in the Help menus of each.

4. Wikipedia – Simple English

photo #10Choose “Simple English” from the language menu in the left column of a Wikipedia page. Simple English offers content with fewer words and simpler grammar than traditional content. This can be helpful for struggling readers or those with English as a second language. (

5. Free Audio Books

Audio BookSeveral online resources provide access to public domain audio books at no cost. These sites offer books read by volunteers:

  • Lit2Go texts can be read within your browser, while viewing the corresponding print.
  • Books Should Be Free allows for downloads or streaming of audio within a browser.

You can also utilize local volunteers to read aloud and create relevant audio books for your students. Older students can record for younger students, drama or honor society students can record audio books, poems and stories, parent or grandparent volunteers, etc.

6. Digital Fiction and Literature

Several free sites offer web-based access to fiction, poetry, short stories, etc. for all grade levels.

7. Digital Text Supporting Curriculum and Content

Several open-source sites allow for digital text with multimedia supports.

  • HippoCampus provides free multimedia content for secondary students, primarily in math, science and social studies.
  • CK-12 provides free learning content in a variety of formats supporting supporting STEM courses and topics, K-12.
  • Curriki is a website that curates content in a variety of disciplines, highlighting noteworthy teachers and content.

8. Bookshare

photo #14An accessible online library with over 170,000 titles, free to those with disabilities that prevent them from reading traditional print materials. Books can be downloaded and read aloud on a computer utilizing either of two free software options. This resource contains fiction, textbooks, periodicals and other text to support students in the curriculum. (

Bookshare is also available on a student’s iPad through their Read2Go app ($19.99 in iTunes) — a seamless way to download and hear books read aloud.

9. AnyBook Reader

The Anybook Reader from Franklin can make any book or print text talk

The Anybook Reader from Franklin can make any book or print text talk

Designed as an oversized “pen,” this reader uses a special optical reader, built into the tip, to read unique codes embedded in special stickers. Stickers are used to record your voice onto anything a student may need to hear. They can be adhered to books, flashcards, tests and quizzes, study materials, etc. Once a recorded sticker is placed, the student can use the AnyBook Reader to listen, making this a terrific mobile, customized auditory support option. (Franklin Electronic Publishers,, $59.99 – $99.99)

10. Livescribe Smartpen

Livescribe Smartpen

Livescribe Smartpen

This ingenious device is a ballpoint pen with an embedded computer and audio recorder. When used in conjunction with special digitized paper, it records what a student writes or draws and synchronizes it with the audio that has been recorded. The Smartpen can be used individually by students for note-taking, but educators are finding wonderful applications for creation of audio materials for students to support studying, reading and listening, test and quiz taking, and much more. (Livescribe, Inc.,, $99.95-$199.95).

Kindy Segovia, OTR, is currently the Assistive Technology Coordinator at Kent Intermediate School District, Grand Rapids, Mich. She has worked as an occupational therapist in both schools and pediatric rehabilitation for over 25 years. She has provided educational training for teachers, parents and administrators over the past 15 years with a focus on adapting curriculum, classroom accommodations, and integrating technology into instruction. She is also an adjunct professor at Grand Valley State University.

One Comment
  1. Simply amazing article! Thanks for the info, you made it easy to understand. I just filled out a form with an online software. It looked much better typed than hand-written. I used and it’s very easy to use.

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