Students with special needs are often underestimated because they perform poorly on the teacher created or commercially created class worksheets and tests. Something as simple as using common accommodations and assistive technology can improve the presentation of the content, increase a student's ability to express his knowledge, and improve the accuracy of classroom tests. The below items and list included with this article provide some ideas for educators and parents to make activity and assessment worksheets more accessible to students. (To view the app list, click on the green "View List" button to the left or "View List" link at the end of this article). This article primarily focuses upon apps for iPads but the interventions and accommodations can apply to all devices.
Common Accommodations: The following items are common interventions for students with special learning needs and teachers should consider using them when creating worksheets to enhance the accessibility for all students:
- Non-serif fonts (e.g. Comic Sans, Futura, Arial, AvantGarde) because they are often easier to read than serif fonts (e.g. Times Roman).
- Clear high contrast worksheets (that have not been faded from repeated duplication) as faded letters and numbers can be difficult to read.
- Fewer number of problems or text on a page. In an attempt to reduce paper usage, teachers may try to fit numerous problems on a page but many times students with learning or visual disabilities will end up making avoidable mistakes if they do not have enough space to "think" or write. Children with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy will also need more space to write because they do not have the same fine motor skills that neurotypical students have.
- A model of the task and other information at the top of the worksheet to provide students with a visual model. Providing the information (e.g. word banks, examples, etc.) at the top instead of the side of a worksheet will help the student see the information while writing and make sure information is visible to "lefties" whose hands may cover information provided on the left of a page.
- Color coding as necessary to help students learn which step to do first (e.g. green is the first step, yellow second, red is the last step).
- More space between the lines to helps students avoid line confusion (for example, avoid college ruled notebook paper).
- Graph paper to help students correctly space or line up their letters or numbers. Note: If duplicating graph paper, make sure the lines are not too dark because the dark lines may create visual clutter that can delay processing of the important content for students with visual issues. To test for visual comfort, hold up the worksheet and squint. If the secondary content (such as graph lines) stands out as much as the primary content (the equation), the paper needs to be lightened so that the primary content stands out the most.
- Input Fields and/or lines that students can write on instead of a blank space to help students organize their work better. (See #6 in the list for an example of how to reduce the physical writing task of a student by providing visual fields/lines for the student to write on to organize math work).
- Assistive technology to maximize the student's access to curriculum.
Teacher Created Worksheets: Staff and parents should speak to the student’s teacher(s) before the start of the year to find out if any teacher created worksheets will be used and, if so, which program(s) will be used. Whichever programs are used by the teacher should be downloaded (or subscribed to) on the student’s ipad or other device so that the teacher can send the student the worksheet and the student can work with the document on their iPad or laptop. The document can be sent directly to the student, made available via Google Drive (formerly Google Docs), provided through a download link or delivered through other simple methods.
Allowing the student to work on the document in the same program the teacher used will enable the student to use the device’s accessibility features (e.g. text-to-speech), make formatting changes as needed to make the sheet more user friendly (e.g. change the font size and/or style to make text easier to read, change the line spacing to help with visual tracking, etc.), and use the document with apps that allow the student to verbally record his/her response (see list accompanying this article for more details).
Note: If a worksheet is created in a word processing program (e.g. Word or Pages), the use of lines for students to write their answers on can create problems because if a student tries to type an answer on or by the line, the line will move causing other content on the page to move as well. Consider having the document converted to a .pdf format and then use an app that uses "layers" so that the original document is preserved and the student's content can be written or typed on top of the document (e.g. Acrobat Pro, etc.).
If teacher worksheets will be used during the school year, the staff and parents should make sure that the student’s accommodations state that the teacher will provide the document directly to the student via email, Google drive or other option. Consider requesting the documents a day ahead of time so that the measures needed to “set up” the document for the student’s use can be done ahead of time to ready the document for work in class. Make sure the IEP or Section 504 plan (if applicable) lists who will be responsible for making the document “classroom ready” so that expectations are clear and that the staff and parents working directly with the student have a "cheat sheet" that tells them which app to use for specified activities so that the team is working collaboratively and consistently with the student. Consistency will help the student learn how to use the apps himself and eventually foster more independence in their use of assistive technology.
Commercially created worksheets: Classes frequently use workbooks and commercial worksheets that do not by design use larger fonts or other common accommodations (e.g. more white space, less problems on a page, etc.) and can be difficult for some students to read and complete. Many times, staff will simply make an enlarged copy of a sheet in an attempt to help the student. Unfortunately, an enlarged copy can actually make the worksheet more difficult to read because enlargement can reduce the clarity of the letters, make the graphics blurry or pixelated, and create more visual distractions. Instead of printing enlarged copies, staff should consider using assistive technology to scan or import the document into a computer device so that the student can work directly on a clear copy of the document and use tools in apps or programs to write or type directly onto the document or record verbal responses. Documents imported onto a device also enable the student to alter the brightness to provide a higher contrast to help with reading. (Click on the link for the list below for a summary of some of the supports currently available).
Assistive Technology: The list provided with this article provides numerous examples of features and apps that can be used to help improve the presentation of content, increase the student's ability to respond, and help provide more accurate data in terms of what the student can actually do. Remember, the IDEA requires that assistive technology devices and services be used to "maximize" a student's access to curriculum. 20 U.S.C. § 1400(c)(5)(H). Apps can now be used to facilitate learning as well to create internet accessible classes and courses (e.g. "iTunes U) to empower students at school and at home! (Please be sure to share this article with students and others who may need some ideas on how to make worksheets accessible!)