Gerald Haigh looks at the latest technology for special needs - and finds talking buttons and animated friends
A good special needs teacher will find endless ways of using the new gizmo from REM to delight and spur on their pupils. VoiSec is a button-shaped voice recorder, 42mm in diameter, which can record and play back up to a minute of speech, with good sound quality. Voisec's website, http:voisec.sepagesvoisec.html has pages of ideas on ways for people with dyslexia, visual impairment or memory problems to use it.
Another inventive piece of software is Harcourt's Rapid Reading Assistant.
Interest, pleasure and motivation are reflected on the face of Jake, who is seen using it in a video clip on their website (www.myprimary.co.uk). The program follows the child as he or she reads a story on the screen, and offers a prompt if needed. It will also read the story aloud, or read back the child's version. It's ingenious: exactly the right level of non-threatening support, and a level of patience that the very busy teacher or teaching assistant might, at times, find difficult.
With broadband settling into schools, we're seeing more good online resources from established software suppliers. The latest offering from Sherston is Skill Builders Online, claimed by the company as "One of the first special needs websites to offer interactive content with access from switch devices".
The lively, interesting menu of activities covers six topics, including clothes and food, and focuses on a set of six basic areas of skill such as observation, matching and listening. There is a lot of choice, and teachers should find it valuable both for whole-class whiteboard teaching and for group or individual activities, perhaps with the teaching assistant. It's flexible enough to cover the whole age range from early years up to early secondary, where it could be used for learning support.
Think About! from Semerc is also cleverly written to appeal to a wide age range. This introduces, on CD-Rom (the software is switch-enabled), Jasmine and Harry, two well-drawn animated characters. They appear in a range of settings without dialogue, such as gardening, the library, camping, and the supermarket. A number of activities follow, including the chance for pupils to record their own dialogue. There is also a photocopiable workbook for activities away from the computer. Teachers can use this in all sorts of ways, across a range of abilities and ages. It could be used with children learning English, too. The current offering is Think About! 1, with a second CD to follow.
If there's one piece of primary school software that everybody knows, it's the phenomenally successful and wonderfully inclusive Clicker talking word processor from Crick Software, now up to Clicker 5. Order Clicker 5 by December 31 to beat additional user price rises. Also, schools still using Clicker 4 can save more than pound;60 on a 30-user upgrade to Clicker 5 until December 15: see www.cricksoft.com for details.
New in January as a stand-alone or integrated with Clicker 5, is Clicker Paint, a response to teachers' requests for children to be able to put their own pictures into their Clicker stories. It's switch-enabled for children with physical or learning difficulties, and it works at any level.
You could start a story such as Goldilocks, for example, for younger children, or a space fantasy for older ones, by getting the children to draw the characters and talk about them, then choose words and move in the pictures. Then there are all the possibilities for illustrating sequences of events in science or design and technology. This product provides an excellent, non-threatening way of easing children into literacy through their drawings.
Finally, to balance the cheap and cheerful VoiSec, here's a device that's a fine example of how it's sometimes necessary to spend (pound;2,450 in this case) in pursuit of genuine inclusion. Optelec's ClearNote+ is a magnifying video camera that plugs into a laptop's USB port. It will "look" at a book on the desk, or swivel to "see" the whiteboard (or, indeed, the blackboard) then back again without having to be refocused, putting a crisp magnified image on the computer screen. There are controls for contrast, brightness, colour and level of magnification, and images can be stored for studying later. It ensures that a student with low vision can sit in a normal place in class, joining in the lesson.
Other websites worth looking at if you are looking for SEN software or devices: BlackCat Software, www.blackcatsoftware.com; Widgit Software, www.widgit.com; and excellent SEN supplier Don Johnston, www.Donjohnston.co.uk
REM. From pound;24. www.r-e-m.co.uk
Rapid Reading Assistant software
Harcourt. School licences start at pound;235 (pound;450 with books).
Skill Builders Online
Sherston. pound;99.95- pound;199.95 a year, depending on size of school.
1 CD-Rom Semerc. pound;64 single user; pound;369 full site licence.
Clicker Paint software
Crick Software. pound;49 single user; pound;399 for a 30-user bundle.
ClearNote+ video camera
Optelec. pound;2,450. www.optelec.co.uk