Assistive Technology And Dyslexia Education Essay

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High school teachers often make the assumption that all of the students in their classroom can read and write at a certain level. Unfortunately, in today's world this assumption is quite often false. 15 - 20% of students suffer from dyslexia, some without even realizing it, which greatly affects their abilities to read and write. As educators it is important to realize that in today's educational setting a good portion of our students will have some sort of language related disability. This disability often leads to withdrawal or disruptive behavior. Our challenge is to meet the student where they are at and help them to achieve the highest level possible. The difficulty is finding a way to assist reading impaired students meet grade level expectations and improve their reading skills at the same time. Assistive technology is an effective way to achieve this goal.

Text readers are one of the assistive technologies that have proven highly affective with dyslexic learners. A text reader is a program that deciphers either computerized text or text scanned in from a printed page. It then uses a synthesized voice to read the text out loud for the student. Originally text readers were designed to assist the blind and others with impaired or limited vision. It was not long before people with dyslexia and other reading disabilities discovered the usefulness of text readers. The first text readers cost tens of thousands of dollars, today many may be obtained for free thanks to the internet.

Text readers today are available with a variety of features. Text readers may be a part of a word processing program, voice recognition software, or an entirely separate program of their own. Many of the free text readers are stripped down versions and often have no other feature than the ability to read text. The more sophisticated include the ability to scan text, highlight, note take, along with being able to write. Programs with these types of abilities tend to be more expensive with costs running to $1000 or more.

There are currently two general categories text readers may fall into. The first category is electronic text readers. These types of readers are limited in that they can only read content that is already in an electronic form. These readers are usually inexpensive and can read nearly any file on a computer. They are however limited and cannot read items which appear as a graphics file, for example Adobe Reader files. They also may not read any paper based text which has been scanned into the computer. Text readers are becoming increasingly more popular and are often found as part of a bundle when purchasing operating systems. Microsoft Windows includes Narrator and VoiceOver is included as part of the Apple Mac OS X. Separate commercial products are the most widely used types of screen readers. Some of the more popular of these are WordRead, NaturalReader, and JAWS.

The second category text readers fall into is Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. OCR software is designed to recognize the letters, words, and formatting of a scanned image. They then transform the scanned image into a text file. The resultant text file can then be edited by a word processor or read by standard text reader software. The advantage to OCR programs is that anything can become a readable image. This includes Adobe Reader files, as well as scanned in documents such as a newspaper, magazines, or textbooks. Some OCR software is able to interpret hand printed items with varying results. Hand printing is much more difficult to recognize than machine printed materials. Old or smudged documents are also difficult for OCR to decipher. Many OCR programs help students to improve their reading comprehension with tools that include highlighting, sticky notes, word lists, bookmarks and outlines. Often by using the same OCR program teachers can personalize their instructions to a particular student's needs and learning styles.

Optical Character Recognition is mainly available in three different forms. These are as stand alone consoles, computer software, and as portable devices. In a stand alone console the scanner and processor are combined into one unit. Software can be purchased commercially and loaded on any standard PC or Mac. Some of the more popular software programs are Kurzweil, Read & Write and Dolphin Computer Access products. Portable devices are one of the fastest growing areas of OCR development. Scanning pens are very popular with dyslexic students. Scanning pens allow students to drag a pen like object over text and have the pen read the text aloud for them. This is often done through a speaker system built into the device or through an output to headphones. Many scanning pens also allow information like references or quotes to be stored and later transferred to a computer. Most also have a built in dictionary and thesaurus. Higher quality models have a test mode which allows the dictionary and thesaurus to be blocked during testing situations.

Students dealing with dyslexia often have difficulty writing as well as reading. Assistive technology has made this task much easier for the student. Basic computer software programs such as word processing have made writing a less daunting task. Built in spelling and grammar checkers take some of the fear and confusion out of writing.

Many of the OCR software programs contain functions to help improve student writing. One of the best helps for dyslexic students is word anticipation or prediction. This type of program interprets what a student is typing and anticipates what words may come next. Often a word list is included somewhere on the computer screen. The student can select the word from the list and it will be automatically inserted. Most programs continually update the word list as each new letter of a word is typed. The programs also allow the addition of words to the dictionary by the student. Today most word prediction programs are available with the option of having the word list read out loud in a text to speech conversion program. Like all programs, word anticipation or prediction programs vary from product to product.

Word prediction programs may be a great advantage to students who have poor keyboarding skills. These types of programs cut down on the number of keystrokes necessary to write a paper. They may also be of help to students who have problems selecting the correct word for a given syntax. Some dyslexic students find word prediction programs difficult. Students who have problems with recognizing words will not find word prediction software helpful. This problem can be overcome by using a prediction program that incorporates text to speech with the word list. Another difficulty may be due to the fact that word lists can be distracting if too many options are given or they may seem condescending to a student who is comfortable with the keyboard.

Students with severe dyslexia find dictation and voice recognition programs to be their most useful writing tool. One of the most popular of these programs is Dragon NaturallySpeaking. These programs have students speak into a microphone, the speech is then captured and translated into text. This text can then be edited by the student. A play back option is available with most software. The play back allows students to review their work without having to struggle through reading it. Studies have shown that students using voice recognition programs develop an increased vocabulary, improve their reading and spelling, write more creatively and complete more work than they would have without the systems.

Schools may also wish to employ specialized keyboards to assist dyslexic students. This may be something as simple as different colors on the keys to fully programmable keyboards which are customized for each student. Many students also find a split keyboard easier to type with than the traditional style. Another easy fix for some dyslexic students is a simple change in keyboard size or the size of the lettering on the keys.

Schools can implement many different assistive technologies to help students achieve success. Any technology that allows students to hear the words will help them to focus on reading or writing these same words. These technologies can range from the relatively inexpensive changing of a keyboard to an entire software set specifically designed for use by dyslexic learners. It is important for educators to understand all they can about these technologies and to utilize them to help students achieve their highest potential.