Key Digital Skills for Young People with SEND

By Catherine Elliott. Posted

© The Raspberry Pi Foundation. Creating an inclusive classroom: Approaches to supporting learners with SEND in computing

Catherine Elliott shares the importance of teaching key digital and digital literacy skills, and looks at how you can build them with your students

Computing curricula generally cover a wide range of skills, concepts, and knowledge, and much of the focus is often on creative projects, programming, and abstract computer science concepts. There is a strong argument, however, for ensuring that the basic skills are taught well in the first instance, with a particular benefit for young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Basic digital skills are any skills that are required to access and use a computer effectively. The concept of ‘digital natives’ has been widely discredited, but many teachers believe that young people just ‘get’ computers and can use them with ease, as they are more confident users. However, although children may be experts at swiping and accessing content on certain devices, such as tablets, they often lack keyboard and mouse skills, and the understanding of the basics of an operating system.

Basic digital literacy is equally important. The skills and knowledge required to communicate effectively and use current and emerging technologies are essential if students are to remain safe and act appropriately online. Young people with additional learning needs and disabilities can be among the most vulnerable in terms of online risks and behaviours.

Why is developing fluency in basic digital skills and literacy important?

  1. It reduces cognitive load Cognitive load relates to the number of items a person can hold in their working memory. For many younger pupils and students with SEND, basic skills such as logging on and opening files are not practised enough to be moved to long-term memory, and therefore rely on working memory to be completed. This results in the frustrating position of a child spending much of a lesson simply accessing a computer and finding work. Once these actions become fluent, they can concentrate on the content of the lesson more effectively.

  2. It increases confidence in using technology Once learners become fluent in using the computer in basic ways, their confidence will develop. This will help to increase motivation in lessons and contribute to a feeling of achievement.

  3. It enables learners to use assistive technologies effectively and make simple modifications to content to support learning Mainstream applications and devices now have a greater amount of assistive technology built in — for example, Immersive Reader in Office 365, Voice Typing in Google Docs, and Speak Screen on the iPad. If young people can be taught how to use these options independently as part of computing lessons, it will help them to become more effective in their learning. Similarly, highlighting how to increase the size of text or change the background colour in documents will allow learners to modify digital documents to be more accessible.

  4. Digital skills open up greater opportunities for employment There are few jobs where digital skills are not required, and even the application process generally requires some element of using technology. For students not taking an IT or computer science qualification, schools need to consider how to teach key employability skills, such as sending emails and searching for information online. A functional skills qualification in IT would benefit some learners with SEND greatly in preparing them for their next steps in education or employment. 

  5. It helps students use technology safely and responsibly Young people need to be taught about the risks of online technologies, how to act appropriately online, and where to go for help with safely accessing key services and the same opportunities for entertainment, shopping, and learning as their peers.

How can we teach key skills effectively?

  • Develop fluency through routine. For example, pupils open and save work from the same folder each lesson, and have a routine for logging on when they enter the ICT suite or access a laptop. Share these routines with other teachers these learners work with.

  • Provide support materials for learners for habitual actions — create a set of simple instructions for each step, with image support. For example, log on, open an application, save work, and take a photo on the iPad.

  • Provide lots of opportunities for repetition to consolidate learning — time spent repeating an action multiple times or practising keyboard and mouse skills is worthwhile for helping key skills to become fluent early on in the year. Consider how to combine this with other meaningful tasks in the classroom, or to assist with other learning goals (for example, typing practice to support spelling).

  • Teach learners how to use assistive technologies built into the mainstream tools that are available at school or at home through a learning platform. There are a number of tools to allow students to dictate rather than type, have text read to them, or to add subtitles to videos. Where possible, share these with parents to use at home.

  • Show students how to adapt digital content to make it more accessible. A great benefit of the past year has been that we have been able to provide lesson content for students to access in their own time, to revisit and consolidate their learning. If this is in an editable format (e.g. Word, PowerPoint, or Google Docs), learners can change the background colour, increase the font size, choose a more readable typeface, and increase line spacing to make it more readable. If you are providing videos to watch, enable the use of closed captions.

  • Model safe and responsible use of technology in the classroom, and make your actions explicit through commentary and discussion.

  • When teaching digital literacy and online safety, make sure you discuss risks and behaviour in a number of different situations and contexts, as some young people with SEND struggle to generalise their knowledge. Issues also need explaining explicitly for those students who can’t infer risk from subtle cues.

Computing often doesn’t receive enough space on the curriculum. However, an investment of time and effort in developing key digital and digital literacy skills early on in a child’s computing journey will pay dividends later in increased confidence, fluency, and access to learning for all of your students.

Assistive technology in mainstream applications

  • Support weaker readers with the Immersive Reader tool, built into Office 365 products and the Edge browser, and as an extension in Chrome

  • Enable Speak Selection in the Accessibility settings on the iPad to enable students to listen to any selected text

  • Try the Voice Typing option in the Tools toolbar in Google Docs to allow learners to convert speech to text; there is also a dictation function via the keyboard on iPad and Android tablets, and in Microsoft Word online


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