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Voice-driven computers help dyslexics to read

Teenage dyslexics doomed to a life of academic frustration and troubled career prospects have found salvation in the latest generation of voice-activated computers.

A sample of 14-year-olds have registered seemingly amazing improvements in reading and spelling tests under experiments carried out in the West Country.

Using computers which print words straight from speech, they gained an average of more than a year's reading progress in 10 hours' work.

Some pupils scored 25 per cent better marks in their written work as they found themselves liberated from their often illegible handwriting.

The findings will be seized on by local education authorities and parents alike. Local authorities in particular are keen to avoid the vast expense of private boarding schools specialising in dyslexia which can cost local taxpayers Pounds 15,000 a year.

The research, conducted by a team from Devon County Council, used IBM computer programs costing only Pounds 40.

"This is very much an experimental piece of work, but we have had enormous shifts in the quality and quantity of pupils' written work," said Martin Miles, from the county's psychological service.

After an average of 10 hours spent on the computer, the eight pupils were registering average gains of 13 months on a standardised reading test; 15 per cent on a standardised dictation task; and four months on the Schonell spelling test.

There were also slight gains in the pupils' handwriting.

Before the trial, the teenagers' written sentences were infantile. Subsequently they wrote with some sophistication using complex narrative structures as well as adult vocabulary.

Easy-to-spell words like "big" were replaced with "gigantic", "massive" or "enormous" - the words they used in actual speech.

This is not the first time Mr Miles has attracted public attention with experiments in computer-aided literacy.

Back in 1993, he found that younger dyslexics made giant leaps forward thanks to earlier computers that turned keyboard letters into electronic speech - overcoming short-term memory problems.

The Devon team's report on the latest work says the students "have been able to increase their output in areas of both creative writing and curriculum-based work.

"The end products after varying amounts of editing have been error-free pieces of work with a noticeable depth of content."

Mr Miles said the pupils were intelligent people whose natural ability was inhibited by dyslexia. Despite their adult conversation, their reading age was many years behind while their writing could be childish and often illegible.

Martin Miles can be contacted on: 01392 276348.

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