When educators think of assistive technology, the first tools that come to mind tend to focus on language: screen readers, web readers, Braille devices. But what happens when learning materials consist more of numbers than of words? In other words: How do you provide assistive technology for math?

To answer this question, start by understanding assistive technology (AT) devices more generally. Here’s how the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act defines the term:

20 USC §1401. Definitions (1) (A) Assistive technology device
The term “assistive technology device” means 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 a child with a disability.

This definition works well for a law designed to grant equal access to learning for students with disabilities—but outside this legal context, we can also expand it to include all students. The fact is, accessibility tools benefit many learners, whether they have a registered accommodation or not.

Web readers convert on-screen text into spoken language, expanding the reach of your lesson materials. Contact ReadSpeaker to learn how our webReader can enhance learning in your math classroom.

A Broad Definition of Assistive Technology (for Math and Beyond)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the U.S. education system into long-term remote learning, many students have been struggling with screen fatigue and attention decay—with or without the diagnoses that U.S. law codifies as disabilities. Even without remote learning, it’s clear that customizable AT can benefit a broad swath of students. Consider the theory of multimodal/multisensory education, which holds that sharing content through multiple senses (sight, sound, touch) can enhance the learning process. Assistive technology presents the same material in multiple media, offering tactile or auditory expressions of text, for instance—while also providing necessary accommodations for learners with disabilities.

With that in mind, here’s a more expansive definition of assistive technology in the context of education:

Assistive Technology (noun)
Any device, digital tool, or object that removes barriers for learning.

According to this definition, examples of assistive technology in education include:

  • Tactile learning objects, like pattern blocks, models, and raised-line paper
  • Listening tools, like screen readers (which read most digital documents); web readers; (which read online content, but not navigation elements); and audio files like mp3s
  • Reading tools, like page masks (which isolate sections of text, either with a paper frame or a digital equivalent); highlighters (ink or digital); reading rulers (a note card or its digital equivalent, which focuses the reader on a single line at a time); and large-text materials or digital text enlargers
  • Braille devices, which translate on-screen text into Braille with refreshable displays
  • Alternative keyboards, such as one-handed units, keyguard-enhanced frames that stabilize hands, large-key models, and programmable keyboards that run sequences of steps with a single button
  • Speech-to-text programs, which transcribe a speaker’s words onto the computer screen

This list is far from complete; we include it just to illustrate the range of assistive technology that can remove barriers for learners—including in math classrooms.

Math Assistive Technology: Challenges and Solutions

While all the technologies listed above can help remove barriers to learning, an assistive device that’s ideal for the English classroom may not work for math education.

Listening tools typically use a technology called text to speech (TTS) to translate written language into an audible format—and not all TTS software recognizes mathematical symbols. Braille devices have a similar challenge; in math classes, Braille users need devices configured for Nemeth Code, a specialized system designed to communicate math and science symbols through touch.

The solution, of course, is to choose assistive technologies that are designed to handle integers and mathematical symbols. A company called Humanware makes a Braille tool that supports Nemeth Code. And the ReadSpeaker webReader TTS system natively supports math symbols, reading them out loud while providing a whole suite of digital focus tools. (It also integrates with all leading learning management systems, from Blackboard to Canvas to D2L—a must in an era of remote learning.)

ReadSpeaker’s TTS webReader focus tools

A sampling of the focus tools available through ReadSpeaker’s TTS webReader.

But TTS and Nemeth Code tools are just two of the many types of assistive technology devices for math, which range from everyday objects to high-tech digital systems.

Common Examples of Assistive Technology in Math

Here’s a brief list of the types of assistive technology that may benefit learners in the mathematics classroom, beyond the TTS and Braille devices introduced above:

  • Low-tech objects (sometimes called manipulatives), like abacuses, blocks, and geometric models.
  • Tactile graphics tools, like raised-line drawing boards, swell-touch paper, push-pins and boards for graphing, and even tin sheets imprinted with a stylus.
  • Calculators, including talking scientific calculators.
  • Language translation tools, for language learners who may need assistance with word problems.
  • Reader rulers, which isolate lines on the page (digitally or on paper), a simple type of assistive technology for students with learning disabilities and trouble focusing.
  • Websites, including online resources from textbook publishers, math e-learning sites like Khan Academy, and even YouTube (you’d be surprised how many useful videos are out there).
Assistive Technology (AT) in Math

The technologies we listed for general education may also find use in math education, provided they’re designed to support math symbols. Together, these lists add up to a lot of options for the math teacher setting up a new classroom—but when you throw remote learning into the equation, your options may be limited to digital assistive devices. Luckily, a comprehensive focus tool like ReadSpeaker’s webReader is ideal for combatting the pernicious effects of screen fatigue.

Using Web Readers in Online Math Education

There’s an old rule of thumb in K-12 education: Teachers should change up the student experience every 20 minutes. Today, that figure has been reduced to just 10 minutes—and as low as five to seven minutes in the early grades. Research tells us the traditional education wisdom is close to the mark; education nonprofit Edutopia recommends breaks for learners after 10 to 15 minutes in elementary school and just 30 minutes in middle and high schools.

The point is, students tend to learn best with brief bursts of concentration—and that’s all the more important in remote learning, where attention remains on a single, unmoving screen. Digital focus tools like webReader provide multiple ways to experience the same material, helping to combat wavering attention among students.

For instance:

  • The TTS feature in webReader offers multiple voices, both male and female, in English (as well as more than 50 other languages). Students who prefer to hear their math problems can do so with plenty of variety.
  • Students can also follow along with simultaneous highlighting, speed up or slow down the reading speed, and enable a text mode that converts web pages to plain text to reduce distractions.
  • A translation feature and dictionary are available on the same interface for quick help for second-language learners and students with low literacy.
  • A page mask function within webReader provides a focus window, perfect for zeroing in on one math problem at a time.

Online learning environments typically take place through a learning management system. ReadSpeaker’s webReader integrates seamlessly with a long list of these systems, including but not limited to the following list (click the link to learn more about how webReader provides accessibility and learning tools for each system):

Digital assistive technology for math, including web readers, also help learners stay focused in the live classroom. Thanks to video games and websites, students have come to expect multi-modal functionality from their screens, in the classroom or at home. They’re used to having an option to listen to written content, read spoken content, and personalize experiences with a great degree of control. ReadSpeaker’s webReader satisfies this need, removing barriers to learning along the way.

Sound helpful? Contact us to learn more about ReadSpeaker focus tools for your classroom.