Most children enjoy using a computer, so they tend to be well disposed to technology suggestions. There is often a reluctance to produce written material on paper, when it has to be re-written after spelling errors are corrected and/or great efforts still produce unattractive handwriting. Using a computer removes much of the hassle of editing spellings and punctuation and the final printed product looks smart. For students who need more support, a talking word processor facilitates the writing process even more, as spoken prompts of errors come instantly and on-screen word banks provide access to a richer range of vocabulary.
Developing reading skills
Talking books, which use digitised speech to accompany story texts are very useful classroom resources. They enable poor readers to independently practice reading skills at text level, and develop confidence, fluency and comprehension. These programs allow the reader to click on individual words and hear these read aloud, enabling reading to continue and understanding to be maintained. Recommended programs include the Oxford Reading Tree Talking Stories.
If pupils have problems with phonic decoding then training programs such as Wordshark5, Talking Animated Alphabet, Nessy and Lexia can be used. In an evaluation of Wordshark in 403 schools by Singleton and Simmons (2001), teachers reported significant benefits to reading, spelling and confidence in using the program.
Some students become fast typists once they have regular access to a keyboard, but if there are spatial awareness or other dyspraxic difficulties, it is essential for the student to use a keyboard training program. All students will get going faster and become more comfortable about using a keyboard if they spend some intensive time mastering keyboard skills. This is an activity that should be undertaken for short, daily sessions, and so is ideal for doing at home or in lunchtime or homework club sessions. Useful computer programs for developing typing skills are:
- First Keys 3 – useful for students with low reading skills
- Kaz – a ‘quick-fix’ sentence approach which is effective for some
- Nessy Fingers – uses a game format and is suitable for students aged 7–12
Developing touch typing is purely a matter of practice – preferably daily – so there is little point in undertaking it unless the student is prepared to devote the necessary time. It is often a good idea to do this at home during a school holiday, and if more than one member of the family can be involved, so much the better. A reward system for achievement might be adopted.
Developing writing skills
A talking word processor is probably the single most effective support for writing. Use of a talking word processor is beneficial because it gives the pupil auditory feedback and encourages them to pay attention to the phonic components of words when writing. For example: Clicker 7, DocsPlus, SymWriter 2 and Texthelp Read & Write. A generic structured learning scheme such as AcceleRead, AcceleWrite can be used with any good talking word processor.
Many students with dyslexia have strong visualisation skills and are helped by the speech plus symbol word processing in SymWriter, where symbols and images can be seen below the text. Younger, less confident readers can have a symbol for every correctly spelt word; as their skills and confidence increase, the use of symbol support can be decreased, until it is only used to check the odd word. At any time, the symbols can be removed from the final printing, so it looks like any other piece of word-processed work.
Some dyspraxic students, who have ill-formed handwriting, lose many of their spelling errors once they see the words clearly displayed in word processed text. Others who have neat, clear handwriting may use excessive pressure, shown by marked indentations through several pages. Dyspraxic students can be liberated by using a word processor to create work more suited to their apparent ability.
AcceleRead, AcceleWrite is a structured teaching program which uses sentences related to a spelling pattern, in conjunction with a talking word processor. The student is required to type in the sentence from memory and use the speech in the word processor to help identify errors. This activity is undertaken, preferably daily, for a period of at least 20 sessions. This program has proved helpful in developing spelling, typing and reading skills, but especially in improving short- term memory and the ability to stay on task, including work away from the computer.
Computer spell checkers can be a mixed blessing for students with spelling difficulties, as the list of suggestions can be daunting, especially for students who also have reading difficulties. The algorithms are usually based on likely typing errors, rather than spelling errors, so these programs will rarely be helpful in dealing with phonic spelling errors (e.g. ‘city’ spelled ‘siti’; ‘elephant’ spelled ‘lyfunt’). Homophones (e.g. ‘there’ – ‘their’) are a major problem for many students (particularly those with dyslexia). Texthelp Read & Write and other similar talking word processors, are designed to deal with phonic spelling errors and homophones, and includes a talking dictionary and thesaurus.
When someone finds it hard to remember how to spell words, it is usually easier to recognise a specific word than recall its spelling. Specialised word processing software (such as Clicker 7, Co:Writer 6, Texthelp Read & Write) provide access to word banks and allow the words to be spoken before selection. This is a more positive approach to spelling than spell checking for a weak speller, as correctly spelt words will be seen more regularly, which helps the brain to remember them.
The best simple support for a poor speller is a word processor that provides speech feedback and an error indicator (highlighting or underlining) to indicate inappropriate spellings. However, especially as they get older, students with dyslexia may feel the need to try and improve their spelling skills. There are many titles of spelling software, which address spelling in different ways. In a school, it is a good idea to have several programs, partly to provide a variety of approaches to cater for different learning styles, but also to enable the pupil to tackle the tedious activity of learning spelling rules, in as many ways as possible.
Most spelling programs can be customised to cater for the word/phonic patterns that are being currently taught; all have some files that come with the programs and many have word lists from recognised teaching schemes like Alpha to Omega and THRASS. Regular, daily access to a customised spelling program (e.g. Wordshark5, Starspell) does build confidence and spelling skills. In an evaluation of Wordshark by Singleton and Simmons (2001) in 403 schools, teachers reported significant benefits to reading, spelling and confidence in using the program.
Most poor spellers can recognise more words than they can recall, so predictive typing can be much more helpful. Suitable programs include Texthelp Read&Write, Clicker7 and Co:Writer6. Choosing the first letter of the proposed word generates a list of possible words in the prediction window; if one of those words is the correct one, then that word can be selected; if not, typing in a second letter produces a new list of possibilities and so on; the more frequently a word is used, the more likely it is to come up in the first window. Where the prediction program has speech, the word can be heard before selection, there is an even greater chance of prediction succeeding.