Technology, Literacy, and Bilingualism in Special Education

The guest expert of this CIDDL Research and Practice Brief is Dr. Sara Jozwik. Dr. Jozwik is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her work centers on literacy and curriculum development, with research interests in bilingual education and special education. She focuses on literacy development for emergent bilingual students with disabilities (SWDs) and preparing teachers with the necessary skills to meet the needs of SWDs from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

The problem highlighted in this brief

Students with disabilities benefit from assistive technology (AT) tools as they have been shown to increase independence, self-worth, motivation, and productivity (Edyburn et al., 2005). Tools such as speech-to-text, text prediction, and screen readers can be used to impact literacy development in students with disabilities. However, limited research exists on how these tools impact students with disabilities from diverse backgrounds that already have foundational skills with technology (Jozwik & Mustian, 2020).  

Why does this topic matter to teacher preparation?

In a recent study, Drs. Jozwik, Cuenca-Carlino, and Gardiner-Walsh (2020) surveyed pre- and in-service teachers’ perceptions on their competence levels teaching emergent bilingual students and found that the majority of educators rated themselves as “beginning'' with regard to their ability to effectively meet their unique needs. This research points to a need to better prepare pre-service teachers for using effective strategies and tools to support students’ literacy development in teacher preparation programs. In this brief, CIDDL invites Dr. Jozwik to discuss AT to support literacy development for bilingual students.

About This Brief

The brief first provides rationale for using AT and its potential impact for SWDs who are also English Language Learners (ELLs). As a researcher focusing on convergence of these topics, Dr. Jozwik discusses the ways in which she has explored the effectiveness of AT with her target population. Moreover, she makes recommendations for teacher preparation programs, future research, and tools that practitioners and higher education faculty can use with their students or teacher candidates.

Research and Practice Context

Previous research showed that many educators, including pre-service teachers, experienced challenges serving diverse learners, including SWDs who are ELLs (Rowan et al., 2021). Some challenges stemmed from insufficient preparation of educators for implementing evidence-based practices and identifying effective tools to address unique needs of diverse learners (Jozwik et al., 2020). Building upon their survey study, Jozwik and colleagues (2020) suggested the need for teacher preparation programs to decompartmentalize to better support educators in developing competencies for teaching SWDs from linguistically diverse backgrounds

Preparing both special and general education teachers across disciplines for effective and innovative use of AT will likely increase opportunities for them to identify AT solutions to address learner needs when entering the profession (Park et al., 2021). This, in turn, will enhance access to support for SWDs who are also ELLs in developing literacy skills across contexts. The importance of print-rich environments in developing the literacy skills of all learners has been well-documented (e.g., Bennett et al., 2017; Love et al., 2007; Stone et al., 2017); however, research on the intersection of AT and literacy skills is still developing. As highlighted in a past CIDDL Research and Practice Brief with Dr. Dave Edyburn, limited research has assessed the effectiveness of AT, even though there is increased access to AT devices in the classroom (Klein, 2021). The potential for AT to support literacy development for SWD who are also ELLs, yet with limited research, points to the need to further investigate how to prepare educators for developing knowledge and skills at the intersection of implementing AT, developing literacy, and understanding bilingualism. 

The following are key insights shared by Dr. Jozwik on this research. The interview focused on five questions about using various educational technologies, with a focus on AT, to promote literacy for SWDs from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds and how they can be leveraged in teacher preparation as well as recommendations for teacher educators to incorporate these ideas.

Q1: What issues are you trying to address through your work with literacy, writing, and technology?

Dr. Jozwik and colleagues used tools such as Google Read & Write (Jozwik et al., 2020; Jozwik & Mustian, 2020), interactive story maps (Jozwik & Mustian, 2020), and Dragon Naturally Speaking (Jozwik et al., 2020) as AT-supported interventions with SWD from linguistically diverse backgrounds. In addition, Dr. Jozwik and Rice (2020) investigated how authors of young adult literature portray children with disabilities and recommended ways to use educational technology to support all learners, such as using audiobooks to support those with print disabilities and using Flipgrid to support reading comprehension.

Dr. Jozwik: I want to perpetuate equitable outcomes for all students by focusing on the use of instructional practices that are effective, that reflect a commitment to the right to read, and that foster a love of literacy within and across languages.

Q2: Can you walk us through how technology and literacy work together to support students with disabilities and share how you integrate technologies to support literacy development into your teacher preparation program?

Dr. Jozwik shared how ThingLink was used to create interactive books. ThingLink allows users to add hotspots to pages to add narration in multiple languages and signs. Several other suggestions were made during the interview with regard to how to support technology and literacy integration in teacher preparation programs. Examples of these included having ample opportunities for field work so that our pre-service teachers are constantly immersed in the technology. Student teachers use the technology themselves in courses, work with faculty to find funding for more K-12 students to access the technology, and in a stand-alone technology course.

Dr. Jozwik: What I think matters most here is the context in which the membership to a literate environment is supported by technology applications available to everyone in the room and, within this context, this literate environment, supported by technology, we can see change and development happen over time. It's kind of beautiful and powerful.

Q3: How can we better prepare educators for using these technologies in the field? What else should teacher preparation programs consider moving forward?

Dr. Jozwik suggested creating an inventory of background experiences so that faculty know the competencies with which pre-service teachers are entering their classrooms. Having this activity allows her and her colleagues to not make assumptions about what her adult learners do and do not know.

Dr. Jozwik: ​​So I think being very concerted about how we understand who our learners are, where they come to us, and then design a pathway where they can interact and build that competence over time. And I do hear often that when teacher candidates struggle, they say that they turn to their own K-12 learners who often are a couple steps ahead of them. So it's nice to have that, you know, cycle and connection in classrooms.

Q4: What implications do you see for future research, and what are some questions we might be asking?

Dr. Jozwik really honed in on the social/ emotional and executive functioning needs of students, especially the needs to enhance agency, problem-solving, and self-regulation.  One specific example includes her research and practices in implementing Instructional practices within the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD). The SRSD model (Harris & Graham, 1996) is evidenced-based practice for developing writing skills for SWD (Self-Regulated Strategy Development, n.d.). Dr. Jozwik and colleagues have explored the effectiveness of SRSD practices for SWDs who are bilingual (Cuenca-Carlino et al., 2018; Jozwik & Cuenca-Carlino, 2020; Jozwik et al., 2020). They combine the SRSD strategies with AT, such as Google Read and Write, to research if a functional relationship exists between technology and literacy.

Dr. Jozwik: I think the direction to go is like I've seen technology really do a lot to support literate environments and develop work reading comprehension thinking to develop written expression, but to layer self-regulation supports on top of that and to ensure that students have the competencies and they have the agency to call like this is what I'm going to do today, this is what I can accomplish, this is what I need...

Q5: Are there any specific technologies you would suggest?

In addition, she talked about using NearPod with her higher education students. It made the hybrid and “hi-flex” learning environment more interactive and helped her, as the instructor, facilitate the learning across in-person and remote learners. Other suggestions she made included the app “Novel Effect”, which adds music and sound effects to read-alouds. Another app she mentioned was EduCreations, which is an interactive whiteboard and screen recording tool.  She recommended using it as a way to bring permanent products to IEP meetings or to use for data analysis.

Dr. Jozwik: I've used ThingLink … you could pick a page [from a text], capture a picture of that page, and then add voice, adding more than one language or adding signs to make the communication multimodal, so I think ThingLink is a useful way to bring text to life, but the way that it's used and integrated should be natural within the literacy events that happen.


In the interview, Dr. Jozwik provided resources and technology tools for teacher preparation programs starting with AT and SWD who are ELLs.

Educreations: This is an interactive whiteboard and screen recording tool;

Novel Effect: A tool that adds music and sound effects to read aloud;

ThingLink: This resource makes images interactive and is a great way to promote literacy.


References are listed in the PDF copy of the brief.

Suggested Citation

Goldman, S. & the CIDDL Team. (2022). Technology, literacy, and bilingualism in special education. The Center for Innovation, Design, and Digital Learning.