Three APPS to Support Students with Special Needs

Helping All Kids Grapple with Grade-Level Content

I had the best time with teachers the last few days, curriculum-mapping away.  It’s what curriculum directors live for: discussions of vertical and horizontal alignment.  However, about halfway through the second day, I could tell that I had “lost” two teachers, more specifically, two intervention specialists.  Attempting to bring them into the conversation, we had a bit of a heart-to-heart, and this phrase came out: “My kids can’t do these standards.”

My heart broke with this sentence.  Of course, part of it is that students with special education needs are still not always seen as part of the all in “all” of our kids, but at the same time, it was clear that these teachers needed some strategies to help work with their students. Although I knew that in the short time I had to work with these educators, I would not be able to solve all, I did know that they were capable and that they could use APPS to help students acquire our college- and career-ready standards.

As we worked together, I shared with one of the teachers my version of the acronym APPS for technology integration within the classroom: how will an application help students Acquire meaningful content standards; how will an application help students Progress through meaningful feedback; how will an application measure Proficiency of student learning, and how will an application Support the student in learning content.  You can find more examples of this in my other blog posts on Aligned. Here’s an example.

The following are three APPS that I shared with the teacher I was working with, and that I believe you too can use to help redefine your classroom and facilitate higher-order learning activities that encourage self-directed learning and ongoing assessment for our students with special needs as well as their classmates.


One of the concerns with some special needs students is that they can’t read the complex text that is required of them at grade level. Research has consistently proven that we need to make sure kids get exposure and regular practice with grade-level text. Simply giving students texts that are not at their Lexile level is problematic, so what can teachers do to ensure access to complex texts for all readers??  Try one of these free Google tools! Take an on-grade-level text, maybe from Newsela. Download the free TextTeaser Google Chrome extension (it’s available for other browsers as well—just do a quick web search).  TextTeaser summarizes the content from a webpage as a list of sentences or in paragraph form. What’s really great is that you adjust the output using a slider to give different detail levels of the passage or article.  An intervention specialist can work in a small group or one-on-one, helping the students make sense of the larger passage. The summary can be used to preview the text or as a refresher to allow students to access the content, main ideas, and vocabulary so that they can participate in those rich, on-grade-level conversations An alternative to TextTeaser is SMMRY, a tool that performs basically the same task.


Desmos is the second of the APPS I’d recommend.  Often, students with special needs who are struggling in math need some type of visual to represent mathematical relationships.  When this isn’t provided, these students will shut down and become frustrated.  To be frank, many of us need those visuals.  In addition to providing just such a visual, Desmos harnesses the social nature of online interactions into meaningful math inquiry.  For example, by using the Function Carnival tool, students are given the freedom to experiment with functions and are given direct feedback that allows them to revise their thinking and improve their mathematical practices AND practice perseverance as they iterate and work their way to the correct solution. Lastly, and most powerfully, this tool gives teachers the ability to randomly pair students with electronic devices, allowing students to create questions and challenges for each other based on aligned content. This can help students with special needs as it provides a model for mathematical thinking. Check it out at  In Ohio, at least, this is a crucial tool to which students need to be exposed, since this is the same calculator interface we will be using on our State Achievement Tests.


The last of my recommended APPS is really one that can be used in all disciplines, and isn’t limited to math or ELA.  As students progress into higher and higher grade levels or as content gets more and more challenging, it is essential to help students see the relationships between ideas. Often, students with special needs, who have difficulty with organizing information, need support in keeping ideas and these relationships straight. Ideament is a great application that allows you to draw a diagram—a mini map, concept map, flow chart, etc.—and convert it to a text outline, and vice versa.  This is a great way to help students with special needs organize information for something that they need to write. It can also be used to in relationship to the text itself.  For example, copying and pasting a portion of text into a Word document will allow the software to create a diagram of the text to help students organize this text and make sense of the relationships amongst ideas, perhaps say, in a science text. Students also have the option of manipulating these diagrams to reorganize them in ways that are uniquely suited for how they learn  to process the information.  Although it is appropriate for all students, adults can benefit from it as well. I used it when I started writing this blog!

While these APPS don’t solve everything, they do transform classrooms into areas of grade-level learning for all students.  Through the use of APPS, I know that you will discover additional ways to help support all students.  I encourage you to respond to this blog or e-mail us to tell us how you’re using them.  I’d love to learn more, too!


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About the Author: Dr. Bryan R. Drost is the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the ESC of Summit County. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish Education from Hiram College, a Master’s of Education in Educational Foundations with an emphasis in Standards-Based instruction, as well as a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in assessment from Kent State University. He is the chairperson for the Ohio Foreign Language Association Technology Integration Committee, an Ohio Department of Edution Network of Regional Leader, a member of ODE’s Fairness and Test Use Committee, a national supervisor for edTPA, part of NCME’s Standards and Test Use Committee, and one of Ohio’s Core Advocates. He has presented throughout the state and country on various topics related to instructional shifts, assessment, world language pedagogy, and technology integration. In his spare time, Bryan enjoys biking, cooking, and playing the piano. His greatest joy is teaching others to improve instruction for kids.