How Microsoft OneNote and Immersive Reader promote independence and accessibility for students with autism

It all started last October. I was well into my first year of teaching second, third and fourth grade in a self-contained classroom for students with autism. My focus was to equip students with the social, academic and emotional skills needed to be members of their community. I was implementing eight behavior plans, three reading interventions, two math interventions, and was responsible for eight Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). It was a lot.

When I received an email that said my district was transitioning to the Microsoft Education suite, I wasn’t thrilled. In my mind, the Microsoft products were just another tool that would not meet the changing needs of the autistic students I taught.

I went to a Microsoft training, but still questioned how these products would meet the needs of my students. We only had three computers in my classroom, and my students were still learning how to type. How were they going to navigate complex programs like OneNote, PowerPoint, and Sway? How was I going to fit in the time to teach my students to use technology when they had more pressing social and academic needs? I decided I wasn’t going to implement the products.

Technology as a tool, not a barrier

Fast forward a few weeks and my class was working on a writing assignment. The goal of the assignment was simple—use visuals and adapted writing strategies, state an opinion, and support it with at least three reasons using complete sentences. I had graphic organizers, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) pieces, adapted lined paper, and a plan.

The first time I used OneNote with the student who started the technology takeover in my classroom.

The first time I used OneNote with the student who started the technology takeover in my classroom.

My students wrote two drafts with one-on-one support and explicit modeling, but one student was struggling. This student had a difficult time expressing his thoughts verbally, let alone on paper. He’d written two sentences in one week. It was difficult for me to figure out how to help him.

Then I thought of the Microsoft products that had been shared with me. It couldn’t hurt to try out OneNote with this student. So I put a computer in front of him and was blown away.

Without any prompting, he started typing. Not random letters, not a few simple words. He was able to write full, grammatically correct sentences. I couldn’t believe it.

Seven months later, he’s made strides that are nothing short of incredible. His reading has increased nine levels. He’s gone from doing single-digit addition to multiplication. He’s playing at recess, talking to his peers, and smiling from ear to ear.

None of that would have been possible without the tools that Microsoft put into my classroom.

Here’s how OneNote and Immersive Reader help my students find success and give them access to the world around them.

Increasing independence in reading

OneNote and Microsoft Learning Tools – like the picture dictionary and Immersive Reader – help my students read independently. They experience difficulty decoding words using traditional phonics strategies because English isn’t a consistent language. Microsoft Learning Tools provides my students with appropriate supports that can be increased or decreased to meet their needs.

For example, I have a student who benefits from visual prompts to read because he has difficulties applying decoding strategies on his own. I turned on his picture dictionary in Immersive Reader and taught him how to use it as a decoding strategy. During guided reading or independent reading, he is able to use the picture dictionary as a decoding tool, increasing his independence and access to the material.

If a student needs fewer prompts, I turn the picture dictionary off and teach my students how to use Immersive Reader when they are stuck on a tricky word.

Forms can include accessibility supports such as pictures, answer choices, and read aloud features.

Forms can include accessibility supports such as pictures, answer choices, and read aloud features.

After practicing technology decoding strategies in guided reading, we focus on comprehension. After multiple readings of a text, students answer questions using Forms in OneNote. I create a form unique to students’ needs and IEP goals, with the option to use them later with another student. These forms include pictures, answer choices, fill-in-the-blank statements – the possibilities are endless.

When students answer the questions, I immediately get the data in an Excel sheet that I can use to plan future instruction, update progress notes, and write IEP goals. Forms decreases the time I spend planning questions, increases my data collection, and creates a sustainable and economic way to test comprehension (no more copies!).


An example of a differentiated writing prompt that includes numbers to prompt the student to write the sentences in order.

An example of a differentiated writing prompt that includes numbers to prompt the student to write the sentences in order.

OneNote provides a way for me to differentiate writing materials to help my students be more successful. OneNote is not just an add-on or finishing tool my students use to type their final draft. I use OneNote to create personalized graphic organizers so my students can access writing independently. I highlight text, provide sentence stems, or write questions that promote independence for my students. For my pre-readers, these supports help because Immersive Reader reads them the supports.

Making a differentiated writing prompt in OneNote takes two minutes, saving me time and resources (like ink and paper) and can be the difference between a student having access or struggling with the assignment.


An example of a visual schedule in OneNote that increases self-regulation and independence.

An example of a visual schedule in OneNote that increases self-regulation and independence.

OneNote promotes self-regulation in my classroom when we use it to display visual schedules that help students transition to different parts of the room independently. My students use the “to do” feature in OneNote to check off centers as they transition, and they reset their to do list at the end of the day. In addition to promoting self-regulation, this is teaching a crucial life skill that my students need—how to make a list and cross off completed items.

Parent communication

One of the best things about OneNote is the parent link share. I use this feature to show parents exactly what their kids are doing in the classroom. This link provides parents view-only access to their child’s notebook, and they can see everything they are reading in guided reading, notes from science, and any notes I leave in the parent communication tab.

This keeps parents up to date, involves them in their child’s learning, and provides an instant answer to the “What should I be working on at home?” question. It’s easy for parents to navigate, and even easier for them to help their child at home.

Technology in the real world

Microsoft OneNote and Immersive Reader give my students tools to be successful in the classroom, in the community, and in college and career. Regardless of their reading level, they can access books, newspaper articles, news updates, and job applications with Immersive Reader. OneNote provides them the platform to self-regulate and organize their daily schedules, assignments, and calendars.

Remember that student who began this technology transformation in my classroom? He is now my go-to technology expert when other students have questions or difficulties using Microsoft technologies. With the help of my principal, my classroom is now one-to-one with technology.

Our school’s first  Skype a Scientist  session that promoted inclusion between my class and a general education fourth grade class.

Our school’s first Skype a Scientist session that promoted inclusion between my class and a general education fourth grade class.

Students are able to use the Microsoft products in personalized ways that meet their needs. I am now a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert who is passionate about using technology to promote accessibility and inclusion for students with disabilities. My school is on our way to becoming a Microsoft Showcase school and is a more inclusive school as Microsoft Learning Tools allows all students to work side-by-side, regardless of ability. Thanks to Microsoft, my students’ lives are better because they have access to 21st Century tools that will help them navigate the world.

This blog was first published on October 3, 2018 on the Microsoft Education Blog.

Teacher Resource: Fall Interactive Work Binder

Fall is my favorite time of year. I love everything about it—the cooler weather, the changing leaves, the pumpkin spice lattes. To get in the spirit (because it’s still 80 degrees and humid in D.C.), I made a Fall Interactive Work Binder! This resource includes over 100 pages of interactive adapted pages with more than 35 tasks.


This work binder is low-prep, developmentally appropriate, and aligned to the Verbal Behavior and Milestones Placement Program (VB-MAPP). VB-MAPP is an affordable assessment I use to plan instruction using developmental milestones. VB-MAPP milestones include tact (labeling), mand (requesting), visual perception/match to sample (sorting/matching), and writing.

I designed this binder with the student and teacher in mind! You can use this resource to teach basic skills during Discrete Trial Training or use it in an independent work center to promote independence and reinforce learned skills. This resource can be used with students of all ages!

Here are my five favorite ways to use the Fall Work Binder:

  • Use the errorless matching or identical matching to practice tacting and manding skills. Hold all the matching pieces and prompt students to request the pieces using the specific fall vocabulary.

  • Place three pages in a work binder to use in an independent center or when students are waiting to work 1:1 with an adult.

  • Use the two-step and three-step pattern pages during whole group math time! Put the pages up on the Smartboard and model what comes next.

  • Put the tracing and copying pages into sheet protectors and write with a dry erase markers. The dry erase markers are much easier to erase on sheet protectors instead of lamination.

  • And the best for last. Print, laminate, three-hole punch, velcro, and go!

Get your students into the fall spirit with the Fall Interactive Work Binder today!

Time vs. money: How teachers can maximize both

There’s two things I know for sure: teachers don’t get paid much, and their time is precious. When you need content for your students, how do you decide when to put in the effort to make the resource or when you should buy a ready-to-go resource.

Prioritizing time

For me, time is more valuable than money. I can make more money, but I can’t make more time. That’s why I absolutely love Teachers Pay Teachers. A lot of teachers struggle to put a tangible number on the value of their time. That’s something that my husband helped me with last year.

I asked him if I could buy a four dollar product on TpT. He asked me how long it would take me to make it. A couple of hours, probably. Then he asked me how much I got paid per hour. A lot more than than four bucks! It was a no brainer. Buy the product and put my time into more important things, like writing Individualized Education Plans, and creating behavior plans.

But it’s not just for the benefit of my time that I buy products. I have limitations—we all do. I love creating resources for my students, but my knowledge and creativity is limited to my training, experience, and need. Other teachers are so creative! If there is another teacher who created a resource that fits my need, I buy it. Leaning on others in the teaching community like this makes better teachers and better students.

Prioritizing money

Although I put a high value on my time, I don’t always buy resources. Sometimes I make products because my students need something that hasn’t been created yet! Other times I want to make my own for the fun of it. I love the process of creating, implementing and sharing resources I make because I get to grow as a professional and help other teachers. I opened up my Teachers Pay Teachers store, The Sped Creative, to do just that.

If you put a higher value on your money and like creating resources, you should consider opening up a store too. You're not spending money on your teaching resources, and you could actually turn a profit on them—more money to take to Lakeshore!

If you want to keep your classroom costs low, another great way to get things you need is Donors Choose. I wrote about how you can get projects for your classroom funded—anything from tissues to iPads.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what’s more important. I chose to spend a few bucks a month buying products so that I can spend more time doing the other things that I enjoy. Like I said, I can’t make more time, so I want to use the time I have the best that I can.

DonorsChoose: How to get your project funded

I love using board games to teach essential skills like turn taking, communication, requesting, and teamwork. Going into my first year of teaching, I knew I needed board games like Zingo! and Guess Who?, but my district couldn’t provide these items. I couldn’t afford to buy the games either, so I turned to DonorsChoose to help me get the supplies my students needed to develop their social and communication skills.

DonorsChoose is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping public school teachers get the resources they need.

You can request anything from pencils to art supplies to iPads. Over the past year, I have had one DonorsChoose project funded each month for the resources that my students need. Here are some tips and tricks for getting your DonorsChoose projects funded.

Quantify the impact of your project.

Imagine yourself as the donor. What would make you want to donate to your project? Quantify the impact of your project and be as specific as possible. For example, if your project is requesting iPads, state the explicit purpose of the iPads.

My students need three iPads to use during our English Language Arts centers. Students will use the iPads to access blended learning programs such as iReady Reading and Lexia Core 5, an individualized reading program that has a proven record of 65% of high-risk students gaining two or more grade levels of reading skills.

When you quantify the impact of your project, donors are more likely to give because they can see the impact their donation will have, they trust that you will follow through with your project goals, and they know that the products you’re requesting are essential to the success of your students.

Break down large projects into little projects.

This advice is from one of my colleagues who has had 40 DonorsChoose projects funded and is a DonorsChoose ambassador. If you have a large need, break it up into smaller, more specific needs.

For example, if you want storage options for your classroom, posting a lot of smaller projects increases your chances of getting it funded. Break up the storage options into library storage to promote student responsibility (all of the book bins!), independent center storage to increase student productivity in an organized space, and technology charging storage for all of those iPads you just got.

DonorsChoose only allows you to post projects that you have enough points for, so be sure to stay within the limits of your points. I like to keep my projects around $400 and when I do this, I almost always get it funded by a generous, anonymous donor when there is $75-$100 left to fund.

Donors like to know that they’re contributing to a project that will be funded and executed. Get those donations by making your projects small, specific and cost-effective.

Post about your project on Facebook.

DonorsChoose has an automatic post-to-Facebook feature, and it’s your best friend when you have a project. It posts updates when your project goes live, who donates, and how much money is left to be funded. Turn on this feature and all of your friends will consistently see your project and how it will benefit your students, increasing the likelihood of being funded.

I’ve found that this feature is most helpful in reaching out to potential donors who I don’t regularly talk to — for example, an old friend’s mom has supported multiple projects.  

In addition to the automatic post feature, periodically post about your excitement and anticipation for your project on Facebook! Share personal experiences about your students’ need for the supplies and how they will use them. This will draw people into your project.

Look for match offers.

The Clorox Company helped fund my first DonorsChoose project by matching every donation to projects focused on the health, well-being, and safety. Match offers help increase the likelihood of your project being funded and motivate donors because their money goes double the distance!

DonorsChoose works closely with partners all the time, like Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to double donations to your projects. The list is constantly being updated and varies based on the state in which you live and the available partnerships.

Check the list every other week so you can stay on top of available match offers that will help get your projects funded.

Send out awesome thank you notes, pictures, and impact letters.

You get repeat donors based on the quality of your thank you notes, pictures, and impact letters. DonorsChoose requires that you submit these things in order to receive points for future projects. When your notes and pictures are high-quality, your donors are more likely to remember you and want to support your students again.

When making thank you notes:

  • Make sure the notes are from your students in their words, not yours. Work with your students to help them express what the supplies mean to them and how they like to use them.

  • If your students have difficulties with handwriting, consider typing the notes, using stickers or stamps, or using adapted pieces like the ones found here.

  • Include artwork or student drawings that show your students using items from your project! Donors love seeing student artwork and that your students understand that a donor gave them those materials.

  • Vary your notes – don’t use the same cards or medium (like markers) again and again.

When taking photos:

  • Ensure that the students in your photos have the required DonorsChoose photo release permission slip.

  • Make sure they are high-quality and include the resources that you received from your project.

  • Show how happy your students are with the materials – from the unboxing to using the resources.