Technology for learners with literacy difficulties is used widely in higher education, but not yet in schools. A survey of students eligible for assistive technology funding at Southampton University, for example, found that only a small proportion had used it previously (Draffan et al., 2014). Yet assistive technology products and services can provide useful support for children and young people who have literacy difficulties, helping them to develop independence, so it is worth reflecting on the ways in which they may be used effectively, why they are not yet widely used in schools and how to overcome barriers to their use.
Understanding assistive technology
For young people with literacy difficulties, the three most common assistive technologies (AT) are:
- Text to speech (TTS) – this will help a student who cannot decode.
- Speech to text or predictive text – this will allow talk to be typed or type to be predicted once a student has typed the first few letters. A student who struggles with writing and spelling could use this technology.
- Concept Mapping – this can help sequencing and planning for those students who struggle with organising and getting their thoughts into a coherent, linear style of writing.
Text to speech technology and literacy
Several research studies have shown how TTS can help those with reading difficulties access text. Reading can be less tiring and stressful when using AT, which can double or triple the time that students could sustain reading (Elkind , 1998). As the amount of readers for GCSEs show, roughly 10% of Year 11 students do not become fully fluent readers. They may have the capacity to master the high-level content taught in secondary school, but cannot access this via the written word independently without reading skills such as decoding, fluency and comprehension (Boyle et al., 2003).
TTS and other assistive technologies can remove these barriers and allow learners with literacy difficulties to access subject knowledge at the same rate as their peers. Audio textbooks appear to be an effective tool for increasing content knowledge (Boyle et al, 2003) and Balajthy (Balajthy , 2005) argued that as texts become more difficult, oral reading of the information may allow an understanding of texts that silent reading would not. This has been acknowledged in English Language GCSE — TTS can be used to read the comprehension passages of the paper whereas a human reader cannot, as the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) recognise that a computerised voice is purely a decoding mechanism which does not help comprehension, whereas a human voice, with intonation and prosody, may well advantage a learner over their peers.
Elkind (1998) found that students with reading difficulties read more slowly and less fluently than their peers at school and at work, often needing to proceed slowly, re-read passages, and interrupt their reading frequently to take breaks. This could also mean that they read less and, with less practice, had fewer opportunities to improve. A dependency culture can also exist in secondary schools, where students use others to read course material for them; Elkind argued that for a certain type of learner, TTS would engender independence (Elkind 1998, p. 2):
“Many people with poor reading skills have a relatively good ability to handle spoken language. They can process speech at normal or even fast rates, their receptive vocabulary is good, and their comprehension of oral language is excellent. For this group, computer reading can be of great help.”
There can be a reluctance to use AT in schools due to a belief that learners will begin relying on technology to the detriment of learning to read and write independently. It may instead be the case that, as Elkind describes, it actually improves functional reading and other literacy skills, as learners can use it as a step towards independence that can later be taken away.
It is worth noting that the quality of the assistive technology used matters – for example, one feature which is thought to make TTS more effective is bimodal TTS (Draffan et al., 2015), where words are highlighted at the same time as the synthetic voice reads them out loud. Not all TTS software does this, but it can make a substantial difference to comprehension. Munro (Munro , 2013) describes it as being the equivalent to running one’s finger along the text.
One of the perennial problems with assistive technology is that the technology can end up in the cupboard collecting dust. The reasons for this are many and highlighted well in the DART project, set up by the now defunct Jisc TechDis (the disability branch of JISC) to improve AT practice. The project noted that one passionate person in an organisation made a difference, and also concluded that training for staff was vital and that small things, such as the equipment needing to be charged and cleaned, were pivotal in the success of AT being used in education. Recommendations included the deployment of roaming profiles, software being managed centrally and, to ensure communication and efficiency, a named person in IT working with a named AT person, with regular meetings set up (Doyle and Slaughter , 2018).
Making assistive technology easy to use is therefore important. It needs to suit the individual, they need to be trained and supported, and the structure in the school needs to be able to cope with the software. Without a good infrastructure, life can be made so difficult that the students (and often supporting staff) will give up. For example, if a student is using an iPad, but can’t print from it and instead uses a convoluted system of saving it on the server and then accessing a desktop to enable printing, the process becomes so inefficient that using the technology is no longer desirable. These barriers need to be removed if students with literacy difficulties are to trust that using assistive technology will help rather than hinder them.
Priorities for schools
The following descriptors of a school in which assistive technology is embedded may provide a useful starting point for schools who wish to develop its use:
- All staff are trained in inclusive practices in the classroom (including digital solutions for SEND)
- The school makes assistive technology ubiquitous in schools, promoting its use for SEND learners
- There are dedicated staff who train students and teaching staff to ensure it is embedded and used appropriately in schools
- The IT department is fully on board and proactive in finding solutions for students with SEND
- Students with SEND are encouraged to use technology to support their learning and as they develop their skills, become mentors for others
- By encouraging use for all, assistive technology is seen as commonplace in school rather than unusual, so there is no stigma attached for learners who use the technology to enable them to access the curriculum and record their knowledge.
’Assistive technology’ or just ‘technology’?
Every major operating system now has inclusive technology built-in, such as Read Aloud in Microsoft Word or Windows speech recognition. It is worth being aware that a learner with a print disability as defined by the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA), which includes anyone with a visual impairment or dyslexia, has a right to free, electronic copies of any textbook a school owns. These books can be downloaded onto a student profile and then TTS can be used to read it out loud. All a school needs to use this service is to register with RNIB BookShare and have a CLA licence.
Assistive technology, then, is becoming just ‘technology’, which is accessible to all. Assistive technology bridges gaps and more importantly, takes advantage of a learner’s strengths without making it unfair to others. It really does ‘level the playing field’. TTS can help students to access the curriculum independently and record their knowledge, promoting self-sufficiency rather than a dependency on adult support.
In the spirit of assistive technology, this article has been:
- planned by using concept mapping software called ‘Inspiration’
- partly written using ‘Word Dictate’ and a proximity (doesn’t pick up nearby noise) headset
- proofread using ReadAloud in Word.