Dr. Terence W. Cavanaugh

University of North Florida, College of Education and Human Services

Jacksonville, FL




Assistive Technology for ESOL Education

What is assistive technology (AT)?
...any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.
[20 U.S.C. Chapter 33, Section 1401 (250)]

Adapting Materials

Whenever you as a teacher are using materials that were not specifically made for the ESOL student you may need to consider what adaptations or accommodations you need to do with the material to make it more accessible.

      Decide what students need to learn from the text and other sources

      Concrete first, then abstract

      Relate to students' experiences

      Use visual representations: maps, charts, timelines, outline, etc.

      Reduce non-essential details

      Simplify vocabulary (but keep key concepts and technical terms)

      Check word choice and sentence order

It is also often very easy to repurpose material to make it applicable to your teaching situation.  The concept of repurposing is to take material that was created for one purpose and make it applicable to a new purpose.  For instance many entertainment videos contain a wealth of good information and can be adapted for the classroom.  The concept of taking a movie that was created for entertainment and making it into a tool for education is repurposing. A DVD may have up to nine audio tracks in different languages and up to seventeen subtitle tracks which can be used in target language acquisition.

AT may be classified as high, middle or low tech. A high technology device usually requires electronics or microchips to perform some function, while low technologies usually do not require a power source. An example of the application of AT could range from having a computer read a book (high tech) to printing out the material in a larger font or the student using a magnifying glass (low tech) to read the required material.

There exists the need for teachers to meld these two areas: Assistive Technology and ESOL. Teachers of ESOL students or in ESOL classrooms can apply assistive technology strategies, knowledge and skills to effectively integrate the technology to improve the achievement of their students. The use of assistive and educational technologies can be an effective method to meet the unique educational challenges of limited English proficient students, assisting them to effectively communicate with others while developing primary target language skills.

ESOL students often are facing not only challenges of learning a new language, but also assimilating into a new culture and learning subject matter in a new language. For these students technology is a tool that has the potential to not only assist them in meeting content standards, but also as a pathway to employment and further education. Along with levels of the technology, there are levels of how the necessary AT item will be applied in the school situation which are: personally, developmentally, or instructionally necessary (Judd-Wall, 1999). Personally necessary items are AT devices that are used by an individual that enable a learner to more effectively interact with his/her school environment. Developmentally necessary devices help with an educational need based on some developmental delay, which ideally would be improved or overcome, eliminating the need for the assistive technology item in an individuals future, such as a translating dictionary. Lastly, instructionally necessary devices are ones that modify the instructional process at a course, grade level or situation. Progressing from individually to instructionally necessary, the materials used are much more likely to be shared among various students. Not only can assistive and educational technology provide tools for the language development and content area learning of ESOL students, but technology in ESOL classrooms can also begin to close the digital divide for these students.

AT has the ability to increase student independence while at the same time advancing academic standing, as it can also allow increased participation in classroom activities by students with many forms of special needs, letting them have equal access to their school environment. Talk with your special education teachers and see what is available within your school and system. Many devices, materials, and tools are already there waiting for you to ask to use them.


Mechanics of Writing

      Adapted paper (e.g. raised line, highlighted lines)

      Portable word processor


      Pencil/pen with adaptive grip



      Changes in text size, spacing, color, background color

      Use of pictures with text (e.g. Picture It, Writing with Symbols)

      Talking electronic device/ software to pronounce challenging words (e.g. Franklin Bookman, American Heritage Dictionary)

      Scanner with OCR and talking word processor

      Electronic books



      Abacus/ Math Line

      Calculator /calculator with print out

      Talking calculator

      On screen calculator

      Software with cueing for math computation (may use adapted input methods)

      Software for manipulation of objects

      Tactile/voice output measuring devices (e.g. clock, ruler)



      Print or picture schedule

      Low tech aids to find materials (i.e., index tabs, color coded folders)

      Highlight text (e.g. markers, highlight tape, ruler, etc.)

      Voice output reminders for assignments, steps of task, etc.

      Software for organization of ideas and studying (e.g. ClarisWorks, Inspiration, Outline, Power Point, HyperStudio etc.)

      Recorded material (books on tape, taped lectures with number coded index, etc.)



Possible Deficits

Possible Technology Solutions

Difficulty completing tasks on time 

Computer software programs that promote organization of work:

Outline with shapes and colors

Color printer

Read at lower than potential level

Computer software programs that promote reading abilities:

Slow reading rate

Talking and large print word processors

Inaccurate comprehension

Scanner with optical character recognition (OCR) system

Poor retention

Speech synthesizers

Incomplete mastery of phonics

Screen enlargement

Multisensory reading program with customized text size, background and foreground colors, and voice characteristics

Talking dictionary to define and pronounce unfamiliar words

Poor tracking skills (skip words, lose place, miss lines)

Color monitor/change foreground and background color

Write at lower than potential level:

Computer software programs that promote writing abilities:

Problems with organization, development   of ideas and transition words

Color monitor/ability to change background and foreground colors

Difficulty communicating meaning

Talking and large print word processors

Poor sentence structure

Outline with shapes and colors

Graphics in place of words

Frequent spelling errors

Spell check

Word prediction programs

Incorrect grammar

Grammar check software

Problems with concentration

Distraction reducing measures:

Table top dividers

Difficulty following directions

Provide written or printed directions

Poor ability to speak with fluency and/or to understand others

Computer software programs that promote verbal communication:

Difficulty understanding oral language

Scanner with optical character recognition (OCR) system

Poor vocabulary and word recall

Speech synthesizers

Difficulty with pronouncing multisyllabic words

Talking and large print word processors

Talking dictionary to define and pronounce unfamiliar words