ATU308 – Banning the Pencil – Dyslexia and Assistive Technology with John Effinger


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Banning the Pencil – Dyslexia and Assistive Technology with John Effinger
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——-transcript follows ——


JOHN EFFINGER:  Hi, this is John Effinger and I’m a program coordinator for Missouri Assistive Technology, and this is your Assistance Technology Update.

WADE WINGLER:  Hi, this is Wade Wingler with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals crossroads in Indiana with your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up-to-date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Welcome to episode number 308 of assistive technology update. It’s scheduled to be released on April 21, 2017.

Today we are going to spend all of our time talking about banning the pencil. It’s all about a project in Missouri dealing with students with dyslexia. Our good friend John Effinger, who is a program coordinator at Missouri Assistive Technology, brings some interesting insight. I think you’ll like this chat today.

We hope you’ll check out our website at Give us a call on our listener line at 317-721-7124. Or send us a note on Twitter at INDATA Project.


Recently I’ve learned that Missouri is just one of several states that are getting ready to screen and support all of their students with dyslexia for assistive technology and technology in general. Regular guest and friend of the show John Effinger as someone who’s been working on the program in Missouri, and he has some interesting information that he is calling banning the pencil. First of all, welcome.

JOHN EFFINGE:  Thank you. It’s always a pleasure.

WADE WINGLER:  We are so glad that you’re back. For folks who might not have heard one of our previous interviews with you, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up being in your current role with Missouri assistive technology and what you do there.

JOHN EFFINGER:  I’m a speech pathologist by background. I’ve been involved in assistive technology or technology for 30 years, started in the schools. I worked with device manufacturers for probably 10 years and came to Missouri. I was shocked that Missouri had amazing funding and amazing technology resources that people could get access to. I came here and found a place I could geek out with tech. Here I am.

WADE WINGLER:  We are glad that you landed there because that’s how we got connected. I know that you are interested in the topic of dyslexia and assistive technology. I know some things are moving and shaking there in Missouri. I want to hear a little bit about what’s happening in Missouri and why you are personally interested in this topic.

JOHN EFFINGER:  This is kind of interesting. Missouri legislatively passed House Bill 2379 which in 2018 will require all schools to screen for dyslexia and provide support. It hasn’t been established what grades they will screen, and the support conversation is fairly broad because there is an element of therapeutic intervention where they are going to try to help kids who are identified as dyslexic early to remediate if humanly possible by putting them through a program yet to be determined. We’ve had a lot of testimony from a lot of different people about a lot of different programs. I did not realize the scope of which there are supporters out in the world.  Part B to that is going to be the classroom support that is provided in the way of technology. That’s probably the bigger conversation where I am fairly passionate about.

I am dyslexic myself. I really struggle with spelling primarily. It’s always been a challenge. Without technology I cannot do the current job. When I was asked to be on this task force to give insight about technology, nobody knew that I was dyslexic. I don’t even think my boss knew at the time. Going on this task force was a bit of an epiphany. I did not realize the scope.

WADE WINGLER:  That’s fascinating information. I know your perspective probably lets a lot of insight into what’s happening in Missouri. This is a different idea in the regular support you would expect for a student with dyslexia, right?

JOHN EFFINGER:  Yeah. It gets into this whole idea – when I first started, I was a little nervous about creating another label for kids. These are not IDEA kiddos; they are not necessarily 504. It’s creating a different category, not a disability category, but a difference category for kids who are struggling reader/writers and making sure that they are supported so they don’t continue to fail or are at risk for failure. The whole idea of labeling kids was a bit of a struggle for me until I listen to testimony and realized, well, it may be a liberal worth having because in order to do the support we are talking about, we need to start from there. Here we are.

WADE WINGLER:  That’s fascinating. You let me know before the interview today is one of our main roles is to do some education and support educators as it is rolled out. My understanding is your calling it “Ban the Pencil”, right?

JOHN EFFINGER:  When I give presentations – I’m doing another one on Friday. It once a week I’m doing technology support presentations. I tongue-in-cheek call it Ban the Pencil because there is so much educational convention around having kids write. I know personally and have watched kids who just struggle with using a pencil. If they are bad spellers, if they are bad at fine motor, it’s like when do we decide that that’s not the best course for writing. I’m a big fan, especially as this 2017, of giving it access to tools that are made available, whether it is universal design or whatever, that they can use in lieu of a pencil. I’m not suggesting that kids don’t learn to write. Of course the need to learn to write. But the minute we realize they are not a grade level in their pencil writing, that we should really look at alternatives.

That same goes with spelling. If I try to handwrite a memo today, there would probably be 10 to 15 spelling errors in a handwritten note. But if I type it into my computer, it auto corrects for me and life is beautiful. So I think we take for granted how easy off-the-shelf technology is and we should apply it more to kids.

WADE WINGLER:  That rings true to me. I’m in my 40s and have been using a computer for a long time. My wife likes to tease me how horrible my handwriting is. I say that because I don’t do it much. I entered school at a time when computers were becoming more and more ubiquitous. I’m in that boat. My handwriting is pretty bad and I don’t use it all that often.

JOHN EFFINGER:  We talk about how this is really a content conversation. Decoding words, I get it. I understand that remediation fix for that. Also getting content out of my head. At some point it gets to what’s the content that I’m getting access to and how I get that content out of my head in the easiest and quickest way. I honestly think technology is the tool, especially for kids who were dyslexic, to be able to do that and to decrease some of the negativity that goes with constantly writing and having stuff corrected. When you get into that pattern of always writing poorly, it doesn’t take long before you decide you are a horrible writer or reader.

WADE WINGLER:  Absolutely. Now that we’ve probably alienated most of our Occupational Therapy buddies. I’m going to use the worst pun in the world. I know you are spending a lot of time educating people about what the supports might look like, so here we go: take us to school!  Tell us some of the things that you are doing as you are reaching out to educators to help them increase their skill set to provide these kinds of supports?  What are you teaching them?

JOHN EFFINGER:  I think the big thing for me is it goes back to solving the problem that kids might have with what’s the issue. Let’s take reading. If I have a kid who is a struggling decoder and they are going through a remediation program. They are having something read to them by someone. That’s the first heads up. I’m a big fan of helping kids become independent and not require another human to do their reading for them. I love to give kids screen readers. They become easier. They are built into Chrome. I typically tell teams, pick your tool. It is Mac, PC, iPad, android?  What is it?  And then let’s go look at tools that will make it easier to accommodate that activity.

Screen readers and text readers have become kind of ubiquitous to the point that they are not really a consideration. They are just an addendum to doing that. It opens up this huge world to getting access to content. We talk a lot about that and what the players are. There is Don Johnston, text help, Kurzweil. They all have pluses and minuses. The idea is they are becoming more universal. Whatever I am in, whenever I am in it, I can access the tool for the reading part.

The writing part becomes more complicated because we break it into the active keyboarding. I’m not a big keyboarding guide. By that I mean touch typing. Give kids access to a QWERTY keyboard as early as possible because it’s like using a pencil. They have to use a QWERTY keyboard to write stuff. It takes time. If we introduce this early enough, kindergarten, whether it is a screen-based device or keyboard or whatever, and they learn over time to master that keyboard, it becomes automatic. One other thing I tell OT’s when I talk to them is, “Writing with a pencil is like painting with a paintbrush. Not all kids are going to be great painters.” Even though we go to art class, it still doesn’t make us a great painter. I can go on the web and I can create some amazing stuff visually just using a computer. Sometimes I just have to get people to get grounded into, it’s really simple, it’s not a big deal, let’s start using cool tools. That’s sort of the generic way to answer it. If you want to get specific, we can.

WADE WINGLER:  Let’s go through some of those tools that you are recommending, the ones you are finding get the most bang for the buck and the ones that are just plain cool. Let’s do some specific stuff.

JOHN EFFINGER:  The first hurdle people come into is this whole access to content, access to tech, usable tech. People are familiar with book share or learning ally which is the adult recorded books. There is a lot of controversy on what’s better. Is it synthesized?  Is that human recorded books?  What do I play that on?  What do I use that on?  I’m becoming less a fan of those sites only because I like to get kids up and running. Older kids especially. A nine dollar prismo app, I can scan the page of the book and have it read to me in my hand with an iPhone in less than 20 seconds. It will read that page to me out loud. This whole idea that you have two jump through these hoops and it’s expensive, it’s no longer true. I can use a nine dollar app. The term is optical character recognizing the text. I can pull that text and read it to me. Text help, Don Johnson has snap and read. I like snap and read because I like how it is embedded into browsers and websites and it is really great for young kids. They click on the icon, click on the page, and it is reading to them. Back in the day when we had locked PDFs, no one knew how to get access to them. Now they have a scan and read feature, all of these programs do card that will scan locked PDFs and have them read out loud immediately. I try to teach school to be creative about that idea. If you can get access to PDFs, you give kids access to everything, even if you have to create a PDF from scratch. More importantly, if we DIY it, do it yourself, I can teach kids to do that with iPads, iPhones, chrome books, you name it, super simple. That’s on the reading side and is the short answer. I do understand book share has a lot of materials available for people call but dyslexic kids are in this weird quagmire about where they fit. Book share will say they can qualify, but they don’t necessarily have access — let’s get technical — to all the NIMAC sourced materials where publishers send their stuff.

When you go through the significance of getting the materials ready for kids, simple tools are the best and work great. That’s the route I go.

WADE WINGLER:  Absolutely. What about the content generation side of things?

JOHN EFFINGER:  In generating content, my first thing and give kids access to keyboards, give them access to word prediction. Not all word prediction is created equal. I do a word prediction challenge. Lately I’ve been surprised that when I’m using a Microsoft surface Pro with their touchscreen tablet, their word prediction is pretty good at recognizing politically misspelled words. I’ve been surprised by that. I’ve been waiting for regular off-the-shelf technology to catch up to something that is designed for phonetically based spelling. If you spell F-I-S-I-C-X, it gives “physics” as a choice. Dyslexic kids have amazing visual memory and know the right word for physics so they can pick it. From a spelling perspective, that’s super awesome. I’ve been using grammarly a lot. Grammarly is free. You can get it as an app for chrome. I actually have it on my desktop of my Windows computer. You can either upload a document into it or type into it. It will give you basic grammar correction.

A funny story. I did a presentation a couple weeks ago. I had everybody in the office read my stuff and nobody found out that I misspelled a word, and it was kind of an inappropriate word the way it was written. When the text reader read it out loud, it sounded bad. Grammarly picked it up, thank god, and helped me. I love relying on tools like that so I don’t have to go ask people if this is how you spell a word.

WADE WINGLER:  That’s the assistive technology version of your friend not telling you you have spinach stuck in your teeth.

JOHN EFFINGER:  That’s exactly right. For me, if I can take the human equation out and rely solely on my own. Another thing people have been talking about, and I skipped this when we were talking about getting access to text, the C Pen OCR pen, I’ve been using that a lot. The old reading pens were horrid. You would scan a row of text and it would barely read it and it was horrible. The C Pen can translate a line of text in seconds and read it aloud. What’s really cool about it is you can scan rows of text and keep going, and it will continue to read. It’s not a real time reader — and we can save that conversation for later. It does immediately read text. They have four or five different kinds of pens that will also do definitions, things that kids struggle with when they’re looking for the right word.

The big thing that I talk about is dictation. I love to use dictation. I use dictation with Siri all the time. People don’t realize that Siri is not dictation on their phone. Siri is Siri. You have to activate dictation on an iPad or iPhone. But I use it for single words. A lot of people use it, turn it on cause a sentence, and have the device use it. I use it for words that I my struggle with. I still have a hard time with the word electricity. I will turn on dictation, say electricity, and the types it in perfectly. I can do that on a Mac, a PC. I’m not using it to dictate everything that I say but specific words that I might want correctly written on a page. I get a lot of schools who call me about Dragon. I love Dragon but I’m not so sure it’s the best tool for dyslexic kids, although the Dragon people are going to email and tell me I’m crazy. It allows you to dictate phrases and sentences. You can do the one word thing as well. My experience is that dyslexic kids also struggle with organization. When you give kids access to an open microphone and said tell me a story, it may not go out right away it’s meant to be. I’m not always a big Dragon fan. I do like it when you are in an environment that doesn’t have access to Wi-Fi. A lot of these really good tools require access to Wi-Fi.

I’m a big dictation guy. There is a new website is what about the other day called Speechify. It’s a guy who is in college who is dyslexic – and these guys are popping up every week. He has the ability to do speech to text as well. I think because every device ships with speech to text, we are going to see it used more for the simple stuff as well.

A weird thing that came out a couple of weeks ago – and I side on a listserv — is a screen overlay for the iPad called the tacscreen. That’s a tactile overlay that you can put on an iPad. It doesn’t function like people would think a braille or raised dots. It just gives you tactile orientation to the screen copy you can use it for sensory feedback if you are circling a letter or using the keyboard. It will give you the sensory feedback that some people need and crave.

WADE WINGLER:  You mentioned as we were chatting before about another reading pen you are excited about. What was that one?

JOHN EFFINGER:  I’m going to screw up the name so let me check it up really quick. It’s called These guys are out of Kansas and I’m rooting for them because we are in Missouri. They are coming up a real-time reading pen. It’s on a GoFundMe page. I hope they are going to release it soon. I think for all of us in the room, there should be this huge oh, wow, because there isn’t such a thing as a real-time reading anything. Basically as you scan across a line of text, it will read it to you real-time, which I think it’s almost too good to be true. I hope they are right because that’s an amazing invention.

WADE WINGLER:  That’s fascinating. There’s a ton of new stuff coming out and we are seeing a lot of new things. You are talking to a lot of educators. If you were to come across an educator that doesn’t have a ton of experience with dyslexia and assistive technology, what are the top three things you would want them to understand about technology and dyslexia?

JOHN EFFINGER:  The first is decoding. Using the device to decode the content. The second is making writing easier and helping with spelling. Schools have to resolve this spelling test thing. That’s the big thing. If you take the pencil out of the equation, can we get kid to write it differently. I think the third thing is listening and organization. We didn’t really touch on this. I’m a big Kham Academy guy. Kids need alternatives to the lecture format that they typically get in and educating model. The ability to relisten to a lesson auditorily is cool. I love the live scribe pens. Somebody told me they went out of production but I checked on it and they are still alive. They are making a new one that’s more Wi-Fi compatible. My dear friend audio note on an iPad records everything in the room. If you’re helping kids with auditory attention, decoding, writing, the possibilities are limitless.

WADE WINGLER:  I have two more questions and I think you will dig them. Where does UDL fit into this whole technology dyslexia thing, especially where things are changing in misery?

JOHN EFFINGER:  I think what levels the playing field for everybody is the idea of a universal design classroom. If I went into a classroom and I had access to audiobooks or I had access to text readers, if I had access to – not a keyboard and conventional computer that may be a tablet where I could do writing and could use word prediction. If I had access to adapted materials, accessible materials that were modified for nontraditional readers and writers, but the game changer. The benefit of it is they are talking 40 percent at fifth grade, kids are behind grade level at reading. 80 percent in prison illiteracy. We just give people these tools and see if they can find a way on their own. I’m a big fan of that. I do believe that kids, when you provide them tools, will show you the way. You don’t have to show them the way. They’ll show you how they benefit.

WADE WINGLER:  It’s great. One more question and I’m betraying our friends over on ATFAQ, our other podcast about assistive technology frequently asked questions. You been on that one, right?

JOHN EFFINGER:  Once or twice.

WADE WINGLER:  The last thing I do on that show that’s run by my friend Brian Norton is I do the wildcard question, where everybody on the panel does not have the benefit of knowing what this question is going to be. I throw this out of left field question at them. This is the question for next week’s ATFAQ. But I want to ask you the question, and if people want to hear are other folks answer, they have to listen to ATFAQ. Here’s a wildcard for next week. If money and brains and time were no barrier, you had all the money and brains and time in the world, what is the one critical assistive technology problem you would solve?  Not fix a disability, but fix a problem that has existed in the AT world for a long time.

JOHN EFFINGER:  That’s a really good question. What way fix?  It’s anything, right?

WADE WINGLER:  Any technical problem in AT.

JOHN EFFINGER:  What would I fix?  To stay within the scope of this conversation, I would redefine reading and writing and using technology. They will come a time when we are all going to ask ourselves, what is writing anyway?  If I can speak to a computer and it writes my words, is that writing?  I think I would make that tool such that I wouldn’t have to have a skill to get access to. Just push a button and it gives me access to the thing I want to do.

WADE WINGLER:  Or podcasts. We are out of time for the interview today, but if people want to learn more about what you’re doing in misery, if they want to reach out to you, is her contact information you would like to provide?

JOHN EFFINGER:  People can contact me at

WADE WINGLER:  John Effinger is a program coordinator at Missouri assistive technology, a friend of the show, a regular guest, and good buddy of mine. Thanks for being with us today.

JOHN EFFINGER:  My pleasure.

WADE WINGLER:  Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? Call our listener line at 317-721-7124, shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject, or check us out on Facebook. Looking for a transcript or show notes from today’s show? Head on over to Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the Accessibility Channel. Find more shows like this plus much more over at That was your Assistance Technology Update. I’m Wade Wingler with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana.

***Transcript provided by TJ Cortopassi.  For transcription requests and inquiries, contact***