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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

Assistive technology in the classroom: ICT for students with literacy problems

Posted by Lisa Hill on May 31, 2009

I went to two sessions at the ICTEV Conference that explored software that enhances learning for kids with literacy problems, and was impressed.  More than that, I think that any education system that is serious about making provision for all students (and has jazzy little slogans like ‘every child, every opportunity’ ) ought to provide funding for every school to have access to this type of software.  It ought to be installed on every computer used by students, including in secondary schools.  Make it cheap, and make it mandatory.

These sessions were presented by Yvonne Lynch, Jo Evans, and Pat Minton from SPELD, and Mary Delahunty from St James PS,  (not the journalist Mary Delahunty!)

Of the programs I saw, I was most impressed by

TextHelp is an interface which works across many programs, with its own toolbar at the top of the monitor screen.

TextHelp toolbarThis program will

  • convert text to speech, reading aloud, for example, from a web search on Wikipedia;
  • check spelling, offering not only alternative spellings but also dictionary meanings of each alternative so that students choose the right one;
  • sort out homophone confusion;
  • predict words from even the most bizarre invented spelling;
  • and more.

The reason I think this program should be standard equipment in schools is not just because research shows that 20% of students anywhere everywhere have learning difficulties.  It’s also because here in Victoria we have a large Non English Speaking Background student population, for whom this program has huge potential.  When the student is using any MS Office program, TextHELP can intercede to help them with pronunciation, grammar, idiom and spelling.  It can help with study skills like summarising – and solve the plagiarism problem with the click of a mouse.  You have to see it at work to see the possibilities – it really is amazing.

I was lucky enough to win the door prize, which was a demo copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking. This is speech recognition software which is ideal for people with dyslexia and is a million times better than the version that comes with MS Word.  It has perfect spelling, and once it ‘learns’ your voice you can dictate email, spreadsheets and documents.  Although it doesn’t work for everyone with a speech disability, it can in some cases also learn to recognise their speech so it is sometimes a brilliant tool for people with physical disabilities.   What I really liked about it was that you can dictate a sentence, and then tell the computer to ‘scratch that’ – and it does!

This software also has possibilities for mainstream students (or adults).  Speech can be recorded on a digital voice recorder and then when you connect it to the PC, it automatically downloads and transcribes the recording.  I could take a DVR with me when I walk the dogs in the morning, dictate a chapter of The Great Australian Novel as I go round the block, and Dragon would transcribe it straight to text for me!  (I wonder what Dragon would make of the barking when we go past the big shaggy dog on the corner LOL).

I really do admire the software developers who create these wonderful tools that support kids with special needs!  Contact Jo at EdSoft for more information – and when you’ve checked out the programs, then contact

if you agree that these programs should be in every school.

2 Responses to “Assistive technology in the classroom: ICT for students with literacy problems”

  1. Technology in the schools is a must have. The decisions lies on the allocation of scarce resources to the completing priorities of the school budget. While I also like Dragon’s software, I am content training the built in version on XP. FREE is good. I have worked in the Technology and education space for the past 15 years and I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that software solutions should be focused on opensource. The total cost of ownership is low and it has become competitive with the commercial versions. A few examples are: Dim Dim (online web meetings and screen sharing), Skype (while not technically opensource – a great cost effective communications tool), Joomla for websites of almost all types, Openoffice for the replacement of MS products and GIMP for the replacing Photoshop. Many more examples are out there. For your consideration.

  2. Lisa Hill said

    Hi, (sorry, I don’t know your name)
    Yes, Open Source is good, and I use it myself (e.g. Open Office, IrfanView) but what you are raising here is that all-important issue: who *really* pays for it? Open Source is developed by keen and generous IT people and I love them for it, but they can only do it if they are earning an income somewhere else, to support themselves. It’s like the free music download issue: are top musicians going to invest their time and money recording tracks without payment? There’s a generation out there that expects to get stuff off the net for nothing, and never contribute to e.g. Wikipedia, Animoto, paying their blog host, or anything else. For some of these applications, e.g. Facebook, advertising provides the income, but what if ads are not appropriate, as for school blogs or wikis?
    A society that values all its members is willing to pay for the support of the vulnerable, and if it’s necessary to pay developers to develop stuff that meets the needs of people with disabilities, I think we should do it.

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