The sound of literacy

6th January 1995 at 00:00
WRITE:OUTLOUD, Talking word processor for Apple Macintosh, Pounds 78 inc (5-pack Pounds, 246), Co:Writer Predictive word processor for Apple Macintosh, Pounds 209 (5-pack Pounds 705), Don Johnston, 1 Broadbent Road, Watersheddings, Oldham OL1 4HU.

Ever since the results of the Somerset Talking PenDown project became known, there has been enormous interest in the potential of computers that speak. For many years people accepted that workers with sight impairments would benefit from hearing what they had written, but this specialist application did not really excite the majority of teachers. But once we discovered that speech could have a major impact on the writing of learners with low literacy, specialist applications began to enter the mainstream.

Write: OutLoud is an award-winning talking word processor from Don Johnston software for special needs. It is used extensively by people with communication difficulties so that they can talk to others. To this end, it offers a range of voices so that you don't have to put up with all your carefully thought out ideas being delivered in robot-speak. You can select male, female, adult voices or children's voices.

Speech has enormous potential for other users, however. As part of the National Council for Educational Technology's research on using information technology with dyslexic adults, researchers discovered that speech could help dyslexics write more accurately.

Speech can help where the learner has simply typed in the wrong word, for example: "The diner was served at 8 o'clock." Since diner is correctly spelt, it would not be picked up by a spell checker but the writer can hear that it is wrong. Students hear what they have written and this helps them to identify mistakes. This makes them more independent learners. Sound is useful for those who confuse the letters b and d, since they will often hear the difference when the word is read out.

Writes: OutLoud has a companion product, Co:Writer, which is a very powerful, easy-to-use predictive word processor. Predictive word processors were originally designed for physically-disabled users.

When you type the first letter, the program suggests a selection of words or phrases that it predicts you may want to write. These are based on the letter you have just typed and an analysis of what you have written already. If the word you want is not listed, type the next letter. The pop-up window will display new words, based on the letters you have provided. Items that you use frequently move to the top of the list.

Jean is studying politics A-level. Co:Writer has learnt the words she needs, so that when she types the letter p, politics, politicians, political, public and privatisation all appear. Imagine how long it would take to type all these words.

Co:Writer is an outstanding example of a predictive word processor, because it is really intelligent. All predictive word processors give you a list of words, but sometimes the choices are very bizarre. Co:Writer has more than 40, 000 words in the main dictionary and these can be adapted by adding prefixes or suffixes, or new words can be added to the dictionary. Co:Writer understands many grammar rules, such as verb tense, word relationships and subject-verb agreement. It makes sensible suggestions because it understands English syntax. This might not seem important, but if you type in the word "he" and have six choices of a word to follow, the word "am" should not be on the list.

One local education authority is planning to use its 1,000 copies in every single school in the authority, with customised libraries to fit in with different curriculum topics. It looks as if other authorities may soon follow suit.

Don Johnston - stand SN19, NCET - stands 640, 628.

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