Written by Sandy Russo - Teacher, Software Advisor

Every day hundreds of Apps are created for the iPad and Android tablets, and every day I have teachers, specialists and parents asking me which apps SPELD SA recommends for students with learning difficulties.

My answer is not straightforward as there are many considerations to take into account if the educational needs of students with learning difficulties are going to be strengthened by assistive technologies, software programs or apps.

My first question focuses on the technology already available to the student e.g., tablet, iPad, laptop or computer.

1. If they haven’t bought anything yet, I tend to explore whether a laptop, notepad or a notebook would serve the student better than apps on a tablet. Below are some of my reasons:

  • Assistive technology created for laptops (both PC and Mac) tends to be of better quality than that created as apps for tablets and iPads.
  • Assistive technology for computers allows more control within the options of the program. For example, you can personalize the features based on each student’s learning needs.
  • Assistive technology created for a computer can be used in any active text box within most software programs, emails, over the internet and other applications. If a student uses assistive technology consistently they will gain lots of practice and become an expert. Example: If a student uses the word prediction assistive technology, WordQ 3 on a computer, they can apply the technology over all the applications they use on their computer.
  • An app is generally a program that is used in seclusion on your tablet or iPad. If you want text you created in one app moved to a different application, you have to copy the text, open a new program and paste it into the new app. For example, if you use the word prediction app, iWordq, you can only use the prediction features within the app.
  • While the iPad (iOS 5 and above) have assistive features in their general settings, they are dependent on the student having good fine motor skills.
  • The main goal is for the student to become an expert in the technology programs that work best for them.

NOTE: It takes around 300 to 400 hours of practice to master a skill and 10,000 hours to become an expert.  Students with specific learning difficulties tend to need even more time, and activities with lots of repetition, to master new skills. Therefore, if we want students to have skills that will help them succeed in further education and later get a job, it is best that we provide them with one program that will work over everything they are likely to use.

2. If the answer is that the school has given every student an iPad, or there is an expectation that they will get one, or you have already purchased one, don’t despair, I am not saying that iPads don’t have a place.

The rest of this article will look at some of the assistive features that people may not be aware of on their iPad, supply a rubric you can use when choosing the right app, and point out a few websites you can use to guide you to goal-specific apps for students with special needs.


For those using the latest iOS5 (or above) operating system for iPhones, iPads and iPods, try the Speak Selection tool in the accessibility area. The pathway is Settings/General/Accessibility/Speak Selection. Once this feature is turned on, the iPad can speak text on most applications that allow you to copy text e.g. information within web pages and in iBooks. Make sure you slow down the speed of the text-to-speech, as it speaks very quickly. To do this slide the turtle to the left.

Once speech selection is turned on

  1. hold your finger on the text you want read
  2. adjust the active copy box if necessary by dragging out the edges of the highlighted area
  3. you will then have a choice of Copy or Speak
  4. tap speak to hear the text

While you are in the accessibility area of the general settings tab, you can explore the other accessibility options available. I never use the voice over feature as it changes the way a student navigates the iPad and can be tricky to turn off.

Web Browser

K9 web protection browser is a free app that you can use to block all inappropriate materials that may show up in other browsers. Once you have downloaded and installed K9 you will see directions of what to do next as you open the app. You will need to go to Settings/General/Restrictions/Enable Restrictions/ apply a 4 digit password/ turn off Safari and then explore the other options in the restricted area. Teach students which app has now become their web browser as they will no longer be able to see Safari.

KISS - Keep it simple stupid

While this may seem daunting, the KISS principle provides a good rule of thumb. Less is more, and less is definitely more manageable if a student is going to get the most benefit from the introduction of any app. For some, the following two features, Text-to-speech and K9 web protection browser, combined with a few other apps may be all you need at the start. 

Teaching the use of four apps is a good way to start. Later, you can extend your rule to four as the maximum for any subject, and save those apps in subject folders.

To move apps into folders:

  1. hold your finger on an app until all the apps start to shake
  2. drag an app on top of another app of the same subject
  3. rename the folder to make it easier to find
  4. once you have finished organising your apps, click on the home button
App Rubric

Before purchasing an app, it is important to decide the learning outcome. You can have a million apps that only half teach something, and it only takes 10 x 99-cent apps to lose $10 that would have been better spent on something else.

Applying a rubric like the one below to apps you think might be suitable, will help you determine if they meet the needs of the student/s and school.

This is a draft rubric for reviewing apps for the iPad.  Adapted from http://edudemic.com/2011/11/app-review-rubric/  Not all items will apply to all learning areas.

Overview of the App



App Title:


App Publisher/Developer:




Link to App Store:


Curriculum Compliance


Is it relevant to the Australian National Standards framework?


What is the expected learning outcome?





  1. Is navigation easy? For example, index, contents, menus, clear icons

Yes/ No

  1. Is on-screen help and/or tutorial available?

Yes/ No

  1. Does it have multiple ability levels?

Yes/ No

  1. Does it respond to errors? For example, incorrect spelling.

Is the response helpful to the learner?


Yes/ No

Yes/ No

  1. Are there audio/video options with controls?

Yes/ No

  1. Can selected material be tagged, copied, pasted, saved, and printed?

Yes/ No

  1. Does it keep a history of the user's work over a period of time?

Yes/ No

  1. Are there features that address special needs?

physical, aural, visual, ESL

  1. What support materials are included?

online resources, booklet, lesson plans, student worksheets



  1. Does the material accommodate the diverse ways in which students learn? e.g. multimodal, text-to-speech, voice input, include visuals.

Yes/ No

  1. Is it developmentally and age appropriate?

Yes/ No

  1. Does it provide an opportunity to increase students' understanding?

Yes/ No

  1. Does it provide an opportunity for higher order thinking?

Yes/ No

  1. Does it provide an opportunity for engagement and interaction?

Yes/ No

  1. Does it provide and opportunity for collaborative practice and sharing of ideas?

Yes/ No

  1. Does it promote creativity and imagination?

Yes/ No

  1. Does it provide an opportunity for problem solving?

Yes/ No

  1. Does it provide feedback and assessment?

Yes/ No


How Do You Keep An Eye Out For Apps?

With 750,000+ apps in the iTunes store and most of us time poor, it is wise to ask someone who works daily with students, who have special needs, for some input. However, we are often biased to our favourites. Below are some sources of reliable information.

  • SPELD SA Blog: http://speldsa.wordpress.com/. Here we have critiqued a few apps that can be used for different goals. There is also a range of free assistive technologies that you can explore for students’ computers.
  • Spectronics Online/Blog: http://www.spectronicsinoz.com/online/ A comprehensive look at apps that can be used to support special education.
  • Apps 4 children with special needs: http://a4cwsn.com/recent-videos/  looks at a range of apps for special education settings with descriptions of each app.
  • AppShopper: http://appshopper.com/ I use AppShopper so I can buy the apps that I want when they are available on special. If you sign up to the website and create a wishlist, they will email you when items change price.
  • Spelfabet: http://www.spelfabet.com.au/2012/11/free-early-literacy-ipad-apps/ This site has explored and filtered apps that are consistent with best practice in early literacy teaching, i.e. synthetic phonics.

In conclusion, remember that it is not the app that will help a student succeed. A well made app can provide a sequential development of skills, but it is the explicit teaching provided by a supportive parent or teacher that will enable a student to transfer the skills learnt into school and everyday life.

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