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purple arrow (1137 bytes)The Laptop Computer: A Bridge to Literacy for Students with Learning Disabilities

REFERENCE: Iseman, S. C. (1993). The Laptop Computer: A Bridge to Literacy for Students with Learning Disabilities. Closing The Gap 12 (3), 10-11, 22.

Description of Article:

CONTEXT: The author describes the development of the Chelsea (MD) School Laptop Computer Program for learning disabled students, including its theoretical underpinnings, its planning and implementation, and problems encountered. Having described the dilemma of the student with learning disabilities, she proposes that the computer, when introduced early and used consistently, is a "transferable strategy" (Gertner, 1983) which opens new vistas to these students. The process and experience of becoming literate is positively affected: reading printed text is easier, letter formation and spelling are no longer issues, the end product looks good and the student experiences success.

The Chelsea School, in Silver Spring, Maryland, serves 100 K-12 students with learning disabilities. Viewing the computer as a strategy for reading and writing and with potential as a strategy for transition, the school embarked on a project to provide personal computers to its students for use at school and home. In December 1991, funds were provided to implement and evaluate the program in one self-contained class of seven students aged 10-11. If successful, the students would retain their laptops for the duration of their schooling at Chelsea and the program would be expanded on a yearly basis. Eight Toshiba 1000 laptops were purchased ($400 per unit), the additional computer serving as a back-up if repairs were required or as a loaner for staff development.

PRACTICE: Teachers received initial orientation to the program and computer, and within a short time were sharing specific software and methods of integrating the computer into the curriculum. Student training involved an introduction to word processing and was accomplished faster than expected: after a few weeks all students were using the computers independently. Use of the computer at home required parent training, which was achieved successfully and enthusiastically via a hands-on workshop and minimal investment in software and equipment.


The author notes significant progress in the students' reading and, in particular, of the quantity and quality of writing. Reading fluency improved and students "who had previously labored to write two sentences, produced anywhere from half to an entire page with the same amount of time, writing longer sentences, using more mature vocabulary and sentence structure. They quickly learned to use the spell check, dictionary and thesaurus. Written products reveal greater length, clarity and organization (p. 11)." Lengthy projects, including social studies and book reports, were facilitated. Unexpected benefits included:

As a result of the pilot study, the next phase of the project (September 1992) was implemented, which involved obtaining more computers via grants and the purchase of numerous factory refurbished units. All of the middle school students became involved in the program. Unexpected logistical problems, such as increased responsibility for the laptop in a departmentalized situation, were encountered with the promotion of students to middle school, but staff provided solutions. Also, through an unexpected enthusiastic parent donation, a second lower school class of nine to ten year olds were included. Although a younger population than originally planned for, they quickly used to learn the new laptops. Total experiences reinforced the belief that it is best initially to introduce the computer "to young children in self-contained classes where they can receive intensive instruction and acquire computer-using habits as naturally as pencil-using habits (p. 11)."

The third phase of the program (1993-94) entails fourteen students in the middle school entering 9th grade and some lower school students entering middle school, all equipped with laptops. The youngest class will acquire new computers as older students move on. Expectations are that all students with learning disabilities in grades 3-12 will carry laptops within two years. Additional outcomes were noted:

Plans for the future include:

Contact Info:  The Chelsea School, 711 Pershing Drive, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Telephone: (301) 585-1430. Language arts teacher: Gretchen Kuhn; Curriculum coordinator: Renee Karlin.

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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. 

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