Voices from within

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
It's going to be a great year for dyslexia, judging by what's on show at BETT 97, the educational technology show.

There are new PC versions of old favourites such as An Eye for Spelling from LDA and Co:Writer the predictive word processor from Don Johnston. SEMERC is as prolific as ever and is launching a PC version of Pages as well as a series of CD-Roms to support the Wellington Square Reading Scheme. These will include pictures, wordbanks and activities to support word recognition and sequencing.

I am particularly glad to see the revival of the SPA programs Wordgames. These brilliant inexpensive programs are a godsend to literacy tutors. No more making word hunts by using the tab key and then finding at the end that you've got a spelling mistake in the fifth line. Just type in the words and let the computer do the rest.

It will even produce a range of puzzles for the same group of words at different levels of difficulty. You can start with simple puzzles where all the words are inserted horizontally or you can create fiendish grids where words appear diagonally and backwards so the learner really has to focus on every single letter. Now you can make wordhunts and crosswords on any subject to reinforce common letter strings, spelling rules or to teach key vocabulary for vocational subjects.

Another popular product, Wordshark by White Space, is now available on CD-Rom. It is based on the Alpha to Omega teaching system for dyslexics which gives a thorough grounding in the use of phonics and the development of spelling skills. It has 26 games and contains over 1,500 words.

The best features are the recorded speech and the facility to put in additional word lists to reflect learners' needs. The support booklet is also helpful and well thought out. However, before much longer White Space will have to pay serious attention to screen design as the graphics are reminiscent of the early days of BBC PCs. Home PC users are growing accustomed to more sophisticated software design.

There is increasing pressure on schools to assess poor readers for dyslexia. CoPS 1 can be used by teachers to identify children with dyslexia or learning difficulties. Once staff are trained, it only takes an hour to administer the tests. In January, Chris Singleton and his team at Hull will be launching the CoPS Baseline Assessment, which can be used to assess the capabilities of all children when they enter school and identify those at risk of failure so that they can be helped before they become disaffected.

I have just seen a software program which could well be a future award winner. Called Mastering Memory, it is refreshingly different. It doesn't assess the user and it isn't a game. Based on the work of Buzan and Feuerstein, it teaches people a range of strategies to improve their auditory and visual memory. The software, produced by the Communication and Learning Skills Centre, will be used with children with dyslexia and students who suffer memory loss as the result of head injuries.

Many companies are developing products to support students with poor literacy skills. OMNI 3000 is an advanced reading system for adults with learning disabilities. This works rather like the Kurzweil system for blind people, It scans in print material and then reads it aloud. The learner listens as the words are highlighted.

Voice recognition software is the really big news this year. We knew it was coming but it was expensive and unreliable so we could afford to ignore it. Two new products being launched at BETT 97 that could be set to change our thinking. Keystone Professional has speech recognition, voice output and comes with a number of dictionaries, ranging from a primary school dictionary with a few thousand words to a full professional vocabulary of more than 150,000, which should cover most of what you want to say in a lifetime. You can speak your mind and then hear it read back, word by word or sentence by sentence. It will also read out text from disc or CD-Rom, which means that many dyslexic and blind users can have access to the same information as the rest of us.

IBM is launching Simply Speaking for Windows 95. The manufacturers claim that it offers "eyes-free and hands-free dictation at 70-100 words per minute" and is 90 to 95 per cent accurate. It also can learn up to 27,000 new words such as family names or specialist vocabulary.

There is also exciting news for deaf learners. Sign Now! from Microbooks is a CD-Rom to teach British Sign Language. It is a bilingual toolso you can find a sign by typing in or clicking on a word, which is useful for English speakers, or by selecting a handshape which means that BSL signers can track down the English words they need. It contains more than 3,500 standard signs, regional variations, high quality video and a facility to enlarge the signing frame.

Some special schools are now teaching French to all pupils, including those with severe learning difficulties. Widgit's French Symbol Set will be useful not just for pupils with reading problems or cognitive difficulties but for any child who has trouble linking word to meaning. Some common French words prove to be very elusive and symbols help to distinguish between voir and vouloir.

It is also possible to add your own symbols. If you are interested in the use of symbols in adult education, get a copy of a new pack Getting Started with Symbols produced by Sally Paveley at the Advisory Unit: Computers in Education.

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