A group of students at Bruce Trail Public School in Milton are finding their voices through the use of a popular touch screen tablet device, and staff members say the results are impressive.
Functional Communication Program (FCP) students have been using iPads for two years now as part of their daily learning activities. Teacher Erin Peters says she wanted to find ways for FCP students to communicate even more effectively and she thought the use of iPads – with their easy touch screen and free apps – would be a worthwhile venture.
Many FCP students find it difficult to communicate through everyday language and tablet devices like iPads have given them an opportunity to express their thoughts and learn effectively, Peters explains. They have become very engaged, she says, in learning a number of tasks such as how to spell and identify shapes and colours.
What iPads have done, she says, is help students better
focus on the task at hand. Since introducing the touch screen devices to the FCP class, students have demonstrated improved attention span, skill acquisition and engagement.
“iPads have been an invaluable tool for the students in the Functional Communication Program,” Peters says. “The FCP class consists of six students with autism spectrum disorder and developmental delays. Students range in abilities from completely nonverbal to minimally verbal. It is important to note the use of iPads in the FCP classroom has gone through a carefully thought-out planning and implementation process.”
“The purpose of this class is to help students to develop a system of communication. iPads have helped students communicate with those around them in ways they hadn’t before,” Peters says. “They have completely transformed how our classroom functions and how we teach our students.”
Peters says the core elements of the program include circle time, where students gather together as a whole; teacher time, where students receive one-on-one instruction; and independent work.
“At circle time, we listen to stories and music on the iPad. The animated stories we watch engage the students’ interest. Students take turns with literacy apps that target identifying letters and words, while numeracy apps help with counting and basic arithmetic. In these group settings, students learn to manipulate the iPad screen, take a turn and wait for their turn. Their motivation for participation is increased greatly as a result of their strong preference for the iPad itself.”
iPads have even helped FCP students learn to play with traditional toys and social interaction techniques with each other. For example, students can access apps that teach them how to build block towers through a series of pictures. Eventually, some master the understanding of how to play with the toy and continue playing on their own. Students also use an application to ask peers to play, request items needed for a game, and ask questions using the iPad.
On this particular day, a student is using the application, Harold and the Purple Crayon. This app requires the student to listen to each page and use a finger to colour the pages.
“Before we had the iPads in the FCP class, the time we spent as a whole class at circle time was a lot shorter since the students became disengaged with longer stories or songs. Using the iPad has allowed us to expand students’ attention, increase engagement and expose them to significantly more literacy and numeracy activities.”
Peters says teachers closely monitor the effectiveness of iPad apps to ensure students are able to complete the lesson. For example, since apps don’t have a clear beginning and end, some students use timers to create beginnings and endings of tasks so they can keep track of how many questions they need to complete.
In addition, the school looks at what it calls "time on task" – the amount of time a student needs to complete an assignment. Teachers find the amount of time on task has increased for students, providing greater opportunities for completed verbal and written work.
“Although iPads can provide a new way to teach skills, we must always consider what good teaching strategies are for our students,” Peters says.
Bruce Trail Public School Vice-principal Joe Toth says what has made the use of iPads even more rewarding is the warm response from parents. He says parents like the portability and flexibility of the devices and they have improved student engagement and students’ willingness to read and produce written work. Some parents like the benefits of the devices so much they have purchased their own for home.
“iPads enhance a students’ ability to interact with information. Students can even take a photo of work they have created through brainstorming with other students, and insert it into their school notes or email it to themselves as a PDF document.”
The results have been so well received, Peters and Rebecca Lee, Speech-Language Pathologist, are presenting at the Bridges to Learn Assistive Technology conference at the University of Toronto in May.