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Assistive Technology - Meeting a literacy challenge



Action Research: Meeting a literacy challenge in learning support

Name Of initiators : Jo McFarlane, Dave Winter, Mark Webb, Keryn Bindon


The Learning Support Department has identified a number of children who have been diagnosed with various Learning Disabilities such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, low intelligence, Aspergers etc. For most of these children their understanding of what is happening in the classroom is not impeded however they are unable to access the written information or produce the written tasks required by the curriculum. These children find it difficult to learn in one or more of the following ways: 

  • their reading ability doesn't allow them to read at their chronological age and so they have difficulty accessing reading material used in their classrooms;
  • they lack the ability to spell many basic words that are needed to present their ideas in a written format;
  • they find the physical task of writing difficult due to fine motor problems or a neurological block that makes writing not fluent.

To assess what assistive technologies are available to help students with difficulty reading writing or both. To develop a specification to provide parents, teachers and learners with decision making material.

  1. These children need assistive technology support to allow them to be able to read the written material and support to be able to produce written tasks fairly independently as required in their classrooms.
  2. These programmes need to be able to function via the Toshiba Notebooks that the school is using with the senior school however other laptops would be able to be purchased individually if required.
  3. Ideally the programmes should operate independently of the school network so that they would have access to them at home allowing them to use the programmes with their homework.

 Research Questions: 

  • What do the students/teachers see as the barriers to success in reading and writing?
  • What do the students/teachers see as ways to overcome these barriers?
  • How do different technologies support students with literacy difficulties in the classroom?
  • Is their any evidence that having these technologies has improved reading and writing for these students?

How are we going to find out What is happening at present?

Teacher practise data: Interview teachers about what they think and look at the literacy achievements and challenges of the students.

What do you see as some of the barriers to success in reading and writing for the Learning Support children in your class?

Teacher 1 

Reluctant writers get caught up on spelling and untidiness of work. It takes too long to get their ideas down and they tend to give up easily. They are much slower than the rest of the class and have difficulty moving along at the same pace.Poor readers have difficulty following whole class instructions in all curriculum areas.Hard to find a lot of motivating readers at their level which interests them.Low self esteem.
Teacher 2
Self belief in their own abilityComparing themselves to others in classThe physical act of writingWorrying about spelling and writing conventionsInformation to read is too difficult for them to readNot wanting to been seen as dumb

Teacher 3
That they do not have Dragon speak available to them whenever they need it within the classroom environment. It would be great to have one stand alone pc that could be loaded with learning tools of specific assistance for students with specific needs. 
What do you think are ways to overcome these barriers to success in reading and writing in the classroom?


Teacher 1I have been doing a lot of reading activities on computers which is more stimulating and instructions are often spoken as well as being in written form.More of this.Read daily to somebody to build up fluency and understandingwrite directly on to a computer programme and be able to spell check and print off
Teacher 2
Using computers to write with Valuing their writing by ensuring that they get a chance to read work, get work published, mentioning work to othersBuddying up with othersAllowing children to present work in oral format.
Teacher 3
As above those that require to use this for reading or writing could have special programmes loaded into this stand alone to use in the literacy timetable but also they could use this when writing in their own time. Particularly at Year 8 this type of independence would be a step in their preparation for High School. 

What supports do you already out in place to support these children to have success in the classroom?
Teacher 1
Access to a set of laptopsTutors to take toe by toe and work with slower children,( would be good if they were trained in some areas- questioning, decoding skills, writing and spelling ideas).withdrawal of individual children for extra help in reading and writinginteractive whiteboard
Teacher 2
Verbal encouragementSharing time in lessonWrite some parts for children as they dictate work to meNo emphasis on spelling while writingAlways read instructions and go over sheets etc with children before start workShort sessions of working.
Teacher 3
These students go out to Mark to work on Dragon speak and to work on their writing, along with their reading and literacy generally. We have teacher aids come into the classroom to assist the students to work one on one to keep with the rest of the class or work on their own individual programmes. 

How could other technology assist you and these children to achieve success in reading and writing?

Teacher 1
More stimulation, this is already apparent quicker.
Build up their ICT skills 

Teacher 2
Am looking at using more oral techniques to publish children's work this term Writing / editing programmes that spell words for childrenUse computers more for drafting work.

Teacher 3
A permanent pc loaded with specific learning systems to assist them.

In an ideal world what would you see as being useful to enable these children to have success?

Teacher 1
Their own laptop if it was able to be monitored effectively. Smaller classes in these core areas, like we do for maths.

Teacher 2
One on one computersTraining in programmes to use / support when learning these programmes.
Teacher 3
A stand alone computer, headphones to use for reading books online, dragon speak loaded into the computer or other devices that would assist them with their writing/reading/spellcity etc. 

Student voice and data: Clear descriptions of what they see as helpful in terms of technology and what the major literacy challenges for them mean. Student interviews are to be videoed for reference.

Supporting Literacy Student Voice from Media team on Vimeo.



Collect Probe Reading Data on the children to establish a base line reading level to see if using a programme like Natural Reader enhances their reading mileage and therefore impacts on their independent reading behaviour.

Collect writing samples on the children included in the study to show independent writing abilities. Analyse both surface and deep features using Writing Exemplars. After using Word Q, Ginger and Dragon Speak for an extended period of time, collect writing samples from children using the technology to analyse differences in deep and surface features, according to writing exemplers, to see if the child is able to produce a better quality of writing using this technology. Also collect an independent writing sample, without the use of technology, to see if using technolgy has improved their own writing skills.

Annecdotal Teacher data 

Research: Collated Internet research. Work with St Andrews Middle school looking at their technologies review.

Approaches via Internet communication with people specialising in assistive technology

Piloting and trials : Establishment of Rubric of assessment criteria for effectiveness of software and then a measurement against this rubric of trialled software. Put assessment into rubric using Google forms

Link to initial assessment of a variety of Assistive Technologies


first pilots will be assessed by students

Teacher Reflection on Dragon Naturally Speaking

To what degree is the students ability to use Dragon impacting on the quality of the writing?  If the students are not using it to it’s full potential - the sample of Dragon writing may not be truly representative of what can be achieved with this tool.  Mark Webb (who trained the students using Dragon) feels that it is not yet being used to it’s potential 

Dragon Speaking was introduced as an assistive technology at the beginning of 2011 to five students in Year 7 who all have dyslexia but in differing degrees of severity. One of the problems with having dyslexia is having difficulties with letter/sound relationships. Children not only have difficulty in decoding but also in writing and reading. A Speech to text recognition programme would seemingly overcome this. Dragon Speak is excellent for this but it is only as good as changing speech into text. The pupils still have to organize their thoughts and dyslexic children would still need assistance with this. In addition a lot of practise is needed with DragonSpeak so that it gets used to the user’s speech patterns, rythms, intonation and so on. If used daily the programme gets better and better at this. The pupils need a lot more daily practice with DragonSpeak in order for it to work as it should.

Secondly, the pupils need to use Dragon Speak with programmes like Inspiration so that they order their thoughts before proceeding onto the actual writing task. Once again this needs lots of practice.

Thirdly, DragonSpeak has a Read Back and Read Me component so that if you struggle with decoding this will assist you. This component is not being used as much as it should be. The classroom teachers are running wonderful programmes with writing activities that are varied and interesting but in hindsight I ought to have worked longer with the pupils at the beginning of the year in introducing them to Dragonspeak. Some of the problems they are experiencing I did not foresee. I believe that DragonSpeak is still a good solution for the problems these children are experiencing and I am going to persevere with it. I think at the end of Year 8 I would have a more accurate picture of whether DragonSpeak was being successfully used as an assistive technology.


  • Jo Wilson


    This is an informative reflective summary highlighting the possibilities and capabilities of assistive technology.  Really enjoyed the video clip - makes us realise what difference this makes to student engagement.

    I wonder if you could provide a link or additional brief explanation to some of the terms the teachers discussed eg. Toe by Toe, Dragon speak.

  • Tessa Gray

    Hi Dave this is a very informative summary and your perspective might also interest others who are having conversations @ Can the iPad reach children that other tech can't reach? Like Jo says, there's a lot to learn in there about terminologies and technologies and what they actually do. 

    Assitive Technology Broadens its range is an interesting post. I didn't realise assistive technologies made up $30.5 billion of a growing industry. Like your Google doc breakdown of the assistive technologies, they also have a link to an online Tech Matrix which allows educators to search for assistive technology tools by specific content areas.

    Thanks again for sharing your progress and successes. No doubt this an area that interests many others as well.

  • Dave Winter

    Thanks Tessa the link to the ipad conversation will come in handy. There is a real need for these types of intuitive interfaces and engaging technologies if we are going to meet the learning needs of all our students. A preferred future will enable students intrinsically with out the need for "unatural" add-ons. Students who need to be given a written voice should have available this them through their spoken word and students who need to access information with out the barrier of decoding the abstract symbols that make up written langauge should be able to have the technology read to them. I also see the more collaborative learning emerging as a big help;  where contibutions can vary according to strength in certain domains.