library banner

Collection: Early Childhood

purple arrowComputer Environments for Assessing the Strengths of Children with Special Needs

REFERENCE: Knafo, B. (1994). Computer Environments for Assessing the Strengths of Children with Special Needs. The Computing Teacher, 21 (8), 50-51, 55.

PRODUCTS: Exploratory Play, Muppet Learning Keys, Picture Sentence Key, Sentence Key, Pip, HyperCard

Description of article:

The author presents three vignettes to illustrate how the computer provides an alternative environment for assessing the capabilities of young children with language disorders. While the computer is frequently used as an early intervention tool, Knafo found it also offers the opportunity to gain insights into what these children know and how they learn. Their manipulations with appropriate software frequently reveal strengths, abilities and learning styles.

: Joseph, for example, a four-year old classified with profound mental retardation, did not speak, use gestures, sign language or simple communication boards, and gave no indication of understanding cause-effect relationships. Using Exploratory Play (PEAL), a language simulation program, and the Muppet Keyboard, an adapted keyboard with an overlay containing labeled pictures of toys and simple actions, Joseph made unexpected progress. At his fourth computer session he surprised his teacher, who had never hear him utter a word, by saying "car" during a structured computer play situation. This understanding and ability to functionally use cause-effect relationships only became apparent when Joseph began using the computer.

In another example, William, a five-year-old with autism, revealed he knew more than evidenced while using traditional media when he used Picture Sentence Key and Sentence Key, sentence structuring software for children with autism and other language disorders. Although motivated and interested in using the computer, initially he could not move beyond the repetitious typing of words when using a word processor with synthesized voice output. It was difficult to assess what language rules he had internalized and what decoding skills he had available. Using Picture Sentence Key, he was asked to construct a sentence using Mayer-Johnson picture symbols. Motivated by built-in reinforcers, he mastered the motor training component within minutes, and quickly and confidently moved the mouse to select words to construct meaningful sentences. When he moved on to Sentence Key, in which word choices are not accompanied by pictures clues, he immediately clicked on the appropriate words to form meaningful sentences, consistently choosing the correct verb and object forms. It became apparent that, in addition to possessing strong visual memory and decoding skills, William was reading with meaning.

Four-year-old Martin, a social child and enthusiastic learner, was also diagnosed as having autistic-like behavior. His echolalia, whereby he repeated rather than responded to the spoken word, made it difficult to assess his receptive and expressive language skills. Martin used Pip, an early reading skills builder program designed in HyperCard, to type in action words to make Pip, a moveable character, perform the designated action. Initially he typed in new words introduced to him on index cards. After using the cards two or three times, he was able to incorporate these words into his oral and written vocabularies and then generalize their use to new situations. He was motivated by the open-endedness and inherent encouragement of the program, and enjoyed being in control of his learning.


The author explains that the computer can appear as an artificial environment compared to three-dimensional materials that invite hands-on exploration. However, if developmentally appropriate, open-ended software designed to stimulate and support communication is used, the computer can be transformed into an early childhood environment that encourages exploration, risk-taking, and discovery learning. It can facilitate the awareness, confidence, and control necessary for children to initiate communication and reveal abilities not previously apparent. She notes that using the computer to tap into strengths and abilities rather than focusing on assumed deficits may be a radical but eye-opening departure in the use of technology. With this realization, the professional must reexamine traditional roles and be ready to view themselves as both observers who hold back the impulse to intervene and control, and facilitators providing support and guidance. The author encourages the use of the computer as one piece in the assessment puzzle, as an tool which reveals aspects of children's strengths which help in understanding and responding to their needs. The author concludes by noting that "the challenge facing special educators is to integrate this information, often inconsistent with other measures of standard assessment, into appropriate educational goals and curriculum (p. 55)."

CONTACT(S): Betsy A. Knafo, Computer Learning Specialist, 581 16th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215.

[Eary Childhood Table of Contents]

[ Home | Library | Videos | Tour | Spotlight | Workshops | Links ]

This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

ŠEducation Development Center, Inc.