Supporting writing

Getting notes down on paper

Once a good collection of information or material is available it may help to brainstorm ideas with a graphical planning program, e.g. Inspiration. In this application ideas are held within shapes or alongside pictures and the lines link the shapes although these can also have notes on them. The material can be switched between linear text mode and graphical mode. This type of brainstorming is usually called mind mapping or concept mapping using concept webs or spider diagrams. There are also programs used for paper-based mind mapping, e.g. MindManager and MindGenius. Here the ideas are held on the branches that emanate from a main idea and each branch reduces in size but can have pictures or different colours.

Starthink (formerly known as Thinksheet) works on the principle of sorting ideas onto cards and being able to shuffle them into a suitable order much as one can do with post-it notes on a board. This program has its own dictionary and database of words and all the programs have spelling checkers and the ability to export the graphical maps or linear versions of the ideas into a word processing package. Some people may find it just as easy to use the card-like slide views in PowerPoint, a presentational program within Microsoft Office, as these come with some very useful templates and the slides can be shuffled around in the same way as the post-it notes. Most office suites, whether on a PC, a Macintosh or UNIX machines, have presentational tools that can be used in this way.

Outliners are also available in many word processing programs such as Word, where each main point is made by hitting the return button, followed by using the tab button, so forming a hierarchy of ideas. This is a more linear way of working but may suit those who like to feel organised from the beginning and do not appreciate the muddle that can sometimes ensue from excessive mind mapping. Forming sentences and making further notes with references may be easier in a program like DraftBuilder, in which the whole process is more controlled, with hierarchical mind-mapping and templates for different writing styles, Plus a talking Franklin spellchecker.

Speech recognition

Making short notes and keeping track of ideas can be undertaken with ease by dictation because the sentence structures do not have to be so formal or the writing as concise as would normally be required in academic assignments. It is possible to gather notes by reading into a personal digital dictating machine such as an Olympus or minidisk recorder, which then allows the user to take the file and have it transcribed into a speech recognition system such as Dragon Naturally Speaking and IBM ViaVoice.20 These systems work on PCs and Via Voice will also work on an Apple Mac. These types of software also allow the user to dictate into most textbased programs or into their own text windows. It is essential that training is undertaken and time is spent really ensuring that the initial attempts at using the programs are well supported. Over-correction can cause problems and constant hesitating whilst training can make the whole process a very frustrating business. When implementing speech recognition software always allow for a few weeks of practise to gain proficiency. The reason most people fail to use this software on an ongoing basis is due to unrealistic expectations. Recent versions of the software are much improved and recognition rates, when used with clear speech, good microphones and high-powered machines with plenty of Random Access Memory (RAM) are usually very successful. Text-to-speech software works well in combination with speech-to-text software where sections of dictated text are read back to help with corrections.

Iansyst has a web page that compares the various speech recognition software packages http://www.dyslexic.com/. The Ace Centre in Oxford have also provided up dates for a very useful book on Voice Recognition Technology in Education – Factors for Success by Donegan (2000) [http://ace-centre.hostinguk.com/]. However, if a user finds it hard to frame his thoughts coherently in conversation and is not able to use amanuensis (a scribe) when under pressure such as in exam conditions, then it may be worth practising dictation with a tape recorder before expending large amounts of time using speech recognition software. The user needs to be able to frame complete sentences without pausing to make the most of the continuous speech recognition packages. This can be quite tiring when writing 2,500-word essay so it is often best to be prepared to use the keyboard in conjunction with the software.

20 Some people use the term ‘voice recognition’ as interchangeable with ‘speech recognition’. The latter has been used here, as voice recognition tends to encompass products that recognise speech patterns as a means of identification in a security setting, rather than converting the speech patterns into a text command by typing what is said or opening a document, etc.

Other strategies for writing support

Most office software packages have resources to help with the design of templates and there are usually ways of automating text as in AutoText in Microsoft Word. This function can provide a user with a personal database of words that are often misspelled or phrases that are most commonly used with access by a single keystroke. There are also abbreviation programs that allow a few letters to represent a series of words as in AutoCorrect or a section in Read and Write or Abbreviate! Care should be taken not to use well-known shortcuts of commonly used initials as it is infuriating when the abbreviate file produces complete words and these go unnoticed.

Prediction

Word prediction and phrase prediction programs can help those with slow typing speeds as they produce possible choices as the user types, however it means that the screen must be watched and it can be hard to choose the correct word from a long list. These can be used with text-tospeech, which is very helpful, and Read and Write or Type and Talk for Mac, Prototype and Aurora have a floating window with a choice of words that can be increased or decreased in number to suit the user. In addition, the window in Soothsayer can be made to follow the cursor. CoWriter works within its own window but there is easy access to the word processing package. This is also the case in WordBar and most other on-screen programs that include databases of predetermined or user defined phrases and words.

Proofing and spell checking

As an adult, failure to spell accurately may affect the whole writing process and stultify the creative instincts that most people have when wishing to exchange ideas on paper. It is important to realise that spelling is a very small part of the whole process of written communication and spell checkers do not necessarily help all users.

Having assembled the text and formatted the document, proof reading and checking spelling may not always be the easiest of tasks, although most programs will have provided the writer with a clue as to how many errors were being made along the way. In fact, many will provide bleeps and squiggly lines which halt the typist mid-flow and this can be very disconcerting.

Generic spelling checkers incorporated in word processing packages have improved from the days when they only picked up Qwerty keyboard type mistakes to recognising some grammatical errors such as missed capital letters, duplicated words and even the odd homophone.

There are several different types of spellcheckers from the Franklin handheld dictionary/thesauri and Read and Write that have already been mentioned to software that comes free for certain Windows programs such as a spell checker for Outlook Express (http://www.geocities.com/vampirefo/ . Handheld spellcheckers vary in size and are available with a variety of dictionaries including Collins. Some have thesaurus, dictionary and homophone facilities. The more expensive versions have speech and larger screens with bigger keys. The hand held spell checker tends to operate on phonic errors rather than typing errors, which are the most frequent errors picked up by a computer spell checker. The Franklin Bookman series have extra cards that can be added at any time to expand the repertoire of the basic model and these include translation dictionary models.

Homophones

Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings, e.g. would, wood; pain, pane; mayor, mare. Many dyslexic people have enormous problems in distinguishing these, so it is advisable to have a homophone checker in addition to ordinary spell checking. Most prediction programs provide homophone checking with speech. However, SoundsWrite is a neat little database program that is simple to use with a very easy facility to add new words. It pops up whenever a word in the database appears and reminds the user of the meaning but does not have text-to-speech. Keystone is a spellchecker, text to speech program that includes a homophone checker designed specifically to work alongside Dragon Naturally Speaking. It echoes the words as dictation takes place and offers the user reading support whilst training the speech recognition software and when working in Microsoft Word.

Improving handwritten work

If there is no option but to handwrite a piece of text and legibility is an issue, designers have produced pens with a wide variety of different grips. These range from wide soft touch versions, such as those available is stationery stores with rubber surrounds near the pen tip, to pens that cause the writer to develop a different grip technique such as the EzGrip Ergonomic Pen. Individual pencil grips also come in varying shapes and sizes and can often help writing style as can the position of the paper, which can be changed by using a writing slope.

Blocking out sections of the page or screen can also help writing and reading skills. On paper this can be achieved with rulers and frames, on the computer using columns and various page layouts can help. If the reason for having to resort to handwriting is because the computer at home is a desktop, there are portable keyboards, which are cheaper than laptops and can be used for note taking, after which the text is downloaded to the computer via a cable or infrared link, e.g. Calcuscribe and AlphaSmart. The Laser PC6 also has a text-to-speech facility.