Technology can be a huge boost for adults and kids who struggle with writing. A keyboard, for example, can help people who have trouble using a pen or pencil. Assistive technology (AT) tools like this can make the physical act of writing easier. AT can also help with spelling and grammar, and with organizing and expressing thoughts in writing.
To understand the options, here’s a guide to AT tools for writing, and where to find them.
Types of Assistive Technology Tools for Writing
There’s a wide range of AT tools for writing. Here are some of the most helpful ones.
Handwriting tools can help people who have trouble with motor skills. For example, a pencil grip makes it easier to hold a pencil properly. A slant board raises the writing surface to give more leverage for handwriting. And lined or graph paper can help with writing in straight lines.
Keyboards and touchscreens can also help people who struggle with handwriting. Keyboards and touchscreens let you input letters and words through typing or touching the screen, rather than by using a pen or pencil.
Dictation (speech-to-text) allows you to write by using your voice. As you speak, the words appear on the screen. Keep in mind that to use dictation, you have to be able to speak clearly. You also need to learn verbal commands for things like punctuation. Some dictation software can also be used to convert audio recordings into digital text.
Word prediction suggests correct spellings of words after only a few letters are typed. Word prediction sometimes uses “word banks” (commonly used words in a topic area) to help writers come up with words and complete their sentences. Keep in mind that unlike dictation, word prediction requires using a keyboard.
Spell-check and grammar check are available on most word processors. Some AT tools for writing take spell-check and grammar check to the next level by checking for incorrect words that sound alike or that don’t make sense in context.
Text-to-speech (TTS) is typically thought of as a reading tool. But TTS can also help with writing. That’s because it can read aloud what’s written, so you can check for mistakes. Some TTS tools can also read words aloud as they’re typed.
Graphic organizers are visual tools that help break down ideas and projects into smaller parts. You can use these tools to brainstorm and plan what you want to write. Graphic organizers come in many forms, from mind maps to diagrams to flow charts. They can be digital or pen and paper.
Dictionaries and thesauri (print or digital) let you define a word or find the right one. There are different types of dictionaries and thesauri, too. For example, a picture dictionary uses images to define words.
Where to Get Assistive Technology for Writing
Many writing tools are “low-tech.” This is especially true of handwriting tools. You can find pencil grips and graph paper, for instance, in most school supply stores. The school may also offer these tools.
When you’re selecting a handwriting tool, an occupational therapist can give helpful advice. They can tell you which tools are the best fit, and they have access to a bigger selection of tools than a typical store. They can also talk you through the options for keyboarding or touchscreens. Special education teachers may be able to help you choose AT tools, too.
As with other AT, tools for writing are being used more and more on computer platforms:
Desktop and laptop computers: Computers often have built-in AT tools, like TTS and dictation. You can also download software for writing to add more AT tools.
Mobile devices (like tablets and smartphones): Mobile devices also have built-in AT. You can add more writing tools to mobile devices with apps.
Chromebooks (and Chrome browsers on any device): These have built-in AT options, too. You can add Chrome apps and extensions for more ways to help with writing.
Desktops and laptops, as well as Chrome, usually use keyboards for typing, but many computers now have touchscreens. And while the main way to use a mobile device is with a touchscreen, people who prefer typing can use an external keyboard.
Get a checklist of questions to ask about AT tools. And hear from a student who uses dictation technology for college essays.