Software for Struggling Writers: Considerations

7 02 2011

It’s pretty commonplace as an AT Specialist to get asked the question “I have a student that hates to write. What do you suggest?” Often times, teachers will automatically assume that students who are reluctant to write, or have motor issues, or can’t spell well, will benefit from speech-to-text solutions such as Dragon Dictate or Mac:Speech Dictate. That may be the case for some students, but it is not the case for all students.

When making a decision regarding Assistive Technology solutions for a student, I base my thinking around the SETT framework. Developed by Dr, Joy Zabala for use in collaborative decision-making processes, SETT means:
• What does the individual need to be able to do?
• What are the individual’s special needs as related to the task?
• What are the individual’s current abilities?
• What are the functional areas of concern?

• What are the structural and physical arrangements of the environment?
• What supports are available to both student and staff?
• What materials and equipment are currently available?
• What are the physical, instructional, and technological access issues?
• What are the attitudes and expectations of the staff and family?

• What specific tasks occur in the individual’s environment that enables progress toward mastery of IEP goals?
• What specific tasks are required for active involvement in the identified environments – such as communication and participation?

• Is it expected that the student will not be able to make reasonable progress toward educational goals without assistive technology devices and services?
• If yes, describe what a useful system of supports, devices, and services for the student would be like if there were such a system of TOOLS.
• Brainstorm specific Tools that could be included in a system that addresses student needs
• Select the most promising Tools for trials in natural environments
• Plan the specifics of the trial (expected changes, when/how tools will be used, cues, etc.)

With this in mind, there are many solutions out there that go beyond dictation software. Some of them are free on your Mac, or are Web-based. Some require purchasing software. We have some of these titles in house for specific programs.

*If you have a student that is better using his real voice to demonstrate understanding, or says “why do I have to write it when I can say it?”

Solution 1: Podcasting using Garage Band
Cost: Free

When opening Garage Band, Select the "podcast" picture.

The Mixing Panel of Garage Band. Select Male or Female voice.

Click on the Red Record Button at the bottom to start recording a student's voice

Once your student is done, go to the "Share" menu and select "Send Podcast to iTunes". You can then send this file via e-mail or use it in a multimedia presentation.

Podcasting is easy to do and is not just for writing. You can podcast when a student is reading to measure fluency in a similar fashion. You can speed up or slow down the track to demonstrate where you want the student to be as a reader.

Solution 2: Audio Recording in KidSpiration
Cost: Per machine installed on

KidSpiration is a visual thinking solution that allows students to use pictures as well as audio to record right within the program. This is best suited for students in grades K-3 who struggle with visualization, or need a visual plan when they are writing. There is a feature within KidSpiration that allows a user to record their voice as well!

Example of KidSpiration student-generated journal

Example of writing from the visual diagram above in KidSpiration

*If you have a student that struggles with spelling, finding the words, or slow with typing:

1. Google Scribe
Cost: Free
Google scribe is a free online word predictor. Scribe can be found by clicking here. You must be in a web browser (ie Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, or Google Chrome) in order to use it. Basically, as you type, a menu of word appear. Also, Google Scribe tries to pick up what a writer is trying to say next. For students that do not require auditory feedback, this is a great solution to use anywhere. Users then copy and paste what they’ve written in Scribe into a Word or Pages document.

Google Scribe-Free Word Predictor!

2. Don Johnston’s SOLO Literacy Suite
Cost: Per student or site license
We are fortunate in the RSU to have purchased a site license of Don Johnston’s SOLO Literacy Suite. SOLO is a powerful Literacy solution across the board for struggling readers and writers. Depending on what the student needs are, you can customize what part of SOLO you want your students to access. For this post, we’ll talk about the writing pieces.

There are 3 writing pieces. Write:Out Loud is basically a talking word processor. You can set the speech to activate a the letter, word, sentence, or paragraph level. This is great for students that need auditory feedback.

Write out Loud-Talking Word Processor/Dictionary/Bibliographer!

CO:Writer is word prediction software that goes beyond Google Scribe. It provides an auditory feedback piece, and can be laid over any program where you can type-including e-mail. Users can add vocabulary or customize the word prediction based on topics. CO:Writer not only tries to predict student writing, but student’s spelling patterns. The auditory feedback provided is great for students that struggle with spelling, and empowers students to be independent writers.

Co:Writer works on any text-imput program

Draft:Builder is a great tool for students that need to learn the process of writing. By using templates and graphic organizers, students can add the text into the template, and then send it to Write Out Loud where it helps to generate the piece of writing. Below is a sample template from Draft:Builder:

Compare and Contrast Template from Draft:Builder

*My student is strong verbally, and can get ideas out, but not quickly on paper.

MacSpeech Dictate

Dragon Dictate for Windows(and now Mac too)

This may be the case where Dragon or Mac:Speech Dictate (Now called Dragon for Mac) would be best. Dictation software runs anywhere from $99-200. There is considerable time in training a user’s voice to the computer. Generally, students with dysgraphia can benefit from this, as it takes away the laboriousness of writing and allows the ideas to come out naturally. Users without any articulation issues or with a strong speaking voice benefit from this. Also, users that can self-edit, and don’t mind being in a quiet environment away from others benefit from this type of solution.

When making considerations for writing solutions for your students, check these out. One size does not fit all, but when the right solution is met with the right user, it is extremely powerful.




One response

7 02 2011
Cheryl Oakes

GREAT POST!!! Thanks for sharing.
Cheryl Oakes