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A touch of progress

Sally McKeown reports on an innovative computer-based programme for dyslexics

Lynn says that it feels as if a light has been switched on in her head. Every Wednesday, she joins a touch-typing class with a difference at the Cheltenham campus of Gloscat, the Gloucestershire further education college. Its purpose is not to produce ace typists but to overcome some of the problems of dyslexia. Lynn has great problems with right and left: "At Keep Fit I'm the one always going the wrong way," she says.

A few weeks earlier, she had become aware of pressing the keys with her right hand and realised that up until then she had little awareness of that side of her body.

The scheme is called Computer Campus and uses a range of strategies to break the cycle of failure. By the end of the course, students have improved their spelling, reading, short-term memory, co-ordination and concentration.

Some tutors persist in the notion that students need to learn to spell and to write confidently before they are allowed to use a computer - but this view is thankfully on the decline now. Most of the best teaching methods for literacy rely on a multi-sensory approach and the computer can provide this.

There is considerable evidence that students learn finger patterns on the computer which reinforce correct spellings. They are looking and choosing, building up letter strings and words rather than worrying about the orientation of individual letters. In this way they are developing and practising skills while composing.

Perhaps the most useful feature of Computer Campus is that it enables adult students to revisit phonics without loss of face. For those students who have not managed to link sound and symbol in a reliable way, this is a chance to start from scratch while learning a new skill which may improve their chances of employment.

What makes Computer Campus different from other touch-typing schemes is that it is designed with the needs of dyslexics in mind. The structure and vocabulary is based on the Hornsby Alpha to Omega scheme, which has provided a breakthrough for many students with literacy problems. All the vowels are learned first so that the learner is typing real words from the beginning. There is no negative feedback and nothing incorrect appears on screen. Computer Campus has more than 600 short modules and some students manage 10 modules in a session.

The screen can be customised to suit individual preferences. Some students struggle to read black text on a white page. With Computer Campus they can change the colour of the screen, the text and the fonts. Ian has white text on a blue screen, while Lynn goes for a stunning combination of turquoise lettering on a pink background. This might not be to everyone's taste, but it works for her and enables her to work for longer and to follow the on-screen text without straining her eyes.

The programme is very visual. A bar on the left of the screen records typing speed; a bar across the top shows how far through the exercise the student has got and a bar on the right gives a percentage for accuracy. If the tutor wants more detailed feedback, she can consult the management system provided as part of the program. This records the module, speed and accuracy. As well as presenting it statistically, the tutor can opt to have it presented as a graph which makes it easier to spot trends.

The success of any computer-based learning depends on the tutor. Emma Clayson, who runs the course at Gloscat, is dyslexic herself and so is well aware of the problems faced by her students. She is very enthusiastic about Computer Campus.

"The guy who designed this software just has loads of common-sense," she says.

For her, the acid test of the program has been the students' reactions: "I have been delighted with the progress the students have made, They keep coming to classes because they can see the progress for themselves.

"Many of them now manage to do 10 or more modules during the class and yet they are not feeling pressurised. They see that they are mastering the computer but what really encourages them is the improvement in their spelling."

Computer Campus will train the teachers, conduct the initial lessons as part of training and install the software on a three-week trial period with six or more students on a pilot basis. This means that colleges can try before they buy. The first-year licence costs Pounds 250 plus a small charge per student.

* For further details, contactPhilip Alexandre, Computer Campus, PO Box 535, Bromley, Kent BR1 2YF Tel: 0181 464 1330Fax: 0181 313 9454.

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