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Digital assistive and universal design tools for those with reading or writing disabilities

Colleagues,

This discussion focuses on digital assistive and universal design technologies for those with reading and writing disabilities. I have been interested in the topic for some time, but both the recent Defining Reading discussion on LINCS, in which some believe our definition of reading needs to be broadened to include getting meaning from text using technology, and this Wired article by writer Lisa Wood Shapiro, The End of Dyslexia, have prompted me to post the topic now.

In the article, Shapiro talks about her experiences as a writer who is also dyslexic and what has enabled her to have a writing career. The answer, in a word, is "technology." She has included a short video with the article that covers some of what she has written about, and that might be a good way of introducing her story to adult learners who may not be able to easily read her article. Including the video, incidentally, is a great example of universal design. I watched it after reading the article, and it reinforced what I had read and also gave me more visual information about the environments she had described in words. Someone else might watch it to get meaning they could not get by reading it in traditional ways. In an early part of the article she writes about her liberating experience with grammarly,  a free spell checking and grammar checking software that I am familiar with, but not in the way that dyslexic adults have used it.

I am interested, and I hope you are, too, in learning about other assistive or universal design technologies that have enabled adults with reading or writing disabilities to read and communicate in writing.

Please share examples of software you have used yourself as an adult learner or teacher of adults with reading or writing disabilities, that you believe have been helpful. If you read about these and have questions, ask them, and I hope whoever has posted information, or someone with Internet search skills and a little time, might answer your questions.

I am posting this to several LINCS groups because, if the discussion proceeds, it could be useful to others who are not working primarily with people who have reading and writing disabilities, but who may have some students who could benefit.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology group

 

Comments

Thomas Zurinskas's picture
Ten

A new study shows that for English reading learners any kind of phonics lessons is better than none. Phonetic awareness is critical. I claim that truespel phonetics is actually simpler and better than phonics.  Truespel is based on phonics but with only one spelling per sound.  It can be learned in an hour by literates with fluency in a few hours.  It's free with tutorials and converter at http://truespel.com  Phonetics isn't difficult anymore.  

Glenda Rose's picture
One hundred

Thanks for sharing this article.  Please note that the article is talking about children, not adults.  Phonics is not appropriate for low-level adult ESL.  The underlying principle is that students 1) have phonemic awareness in the target language (not true for most adult ELLs) and 2) have a vocabulary to associate the words with (not true of literacy level and low-beginning adult ELLs).

This is one of my pet peeves in adult education, by the way.  I see a lot of really good K-5 ESL teachers come to adult ESL and try to employ phonics with adult learners, which only frustrates the learners and fails to help them develop the ability to discriminate between sounds in English that may be allophones, or non-existent, in their native language.  

As far as Truespel, I don't really have an opinion.  I have my own system for helping learners start to identify sounds.  I typically use a simple version of IPA since that is what many of the international dictionaries (in print and online) use.  I think that is more useful since it is an internationally-agreed-upon system.

Thanks, 

Glenda

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Colleagues,

To clarify for those who read these posts in their email and not as part of a discussion thread on a LINCS community webpage, I believe the article you are referring to, Glenda, is the one cited by Thomas Zurinskas in his posted comment, not the article I cited in the original post. Thanks Thomas and Glenda for your posted comments.

Everyone, I am interested in learning about other assistive or universal design technologies that have enabled adults with reading or writing disabilities to read and communicate in writing. I am especially interested in text-to-speech software that enables adults to get meaning by auding digital text, or to improve their traditional reading skills, for example by being able to click on a word and hear its pronunciation or get a definition.

Please share examples that you believe have been helpful of software you have used as an adult learner, or as teacher of adults with reading or writing disabilities.

Thanks,

 

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology group

Leecy's picture
One hundred

David et al, I have a condition whose treatment requires  that I lose my voice for a few weeks in the year. Since I develop a great deal of curriculum for low-level readers, I often like to match sound clips to content. In order to do that when I am without a voice, I have used Natural Reader, an application that can be downloaded or used online. The free version has limited choices on male and female voices. The paid version, which I use, adds a number of additional voices both in US and UK accents. I can also determine how fast and how slow I want the text read. Sometimes I offer both choices. Yes, the voices are more mechanical than natural voices, but for grasping meaning, they do just fine. Of course, I have found that sometimes I have to "unspell" a word so that the reader will get the correct pronunciation, but it's worth the effort to edit!

If you want a sample of this app, you can access two units that I created many years ago using it: Handling Money and Culture Units. They are written at about the 4th-5th-grade reading level. By request, they targeted beginning readers in a Native American tribe in my area. BTW, although many adult Native Americans in more economically-challenge tribes speak English with a native English accent, their vocabulary often consists of very few words compared to other adult native speakers. Someone in this area claimed 600 words as their "repository."  NOTE: I distributed this particular  content in PDF files. If you click on the online version, the sounds won't open. You must download the file and open it offline for the sound clips to work. (I was experimenting with Acrobat at the time!)

I also use Voki, which allows you to create cartoon characters that talk. You can record the speech or have the application read it. You can then share the clips in many forms, including email.  For a couple of simple samples, check out "Marisela, an ESL Student," and "Voki for Reading and Writing Dog."

All to say that we don't often discuss the challenges faced by people who can't talk or talk well enough to be understood. We need to consider that speech is a preferred communication vehicle, which many people with disabilities can't enjoy!  Leecy

 

Denis Anson's picture
First

There are a number of groups of people who have difficulty with reading printed material.  There has been a discussion here about those with dyslexia. Another type of cognitive limitation leading to difficulty with reading is "specific learning disorder."  While there are now somewhat more specific definitions of specific learning disorder, the translation of them boils down to the person has difficulty with some specific aspect of learning, and we don't know why.

A second group who have difficulty with the printed word, of course, are people who are blind.  About 10% of the blind population can read Braille, which is a tactile alphabet (in grade 1), with a number of compactions and shortcuts (in grade 2).  Sighted people expect to see a person read Braille by moving a single fingertip along a line of raised dots. In fact, people who read Braille typically swipe all of their fingertips along the line, and sometimes swipe their entire palm over the page to read.  This has very little to do with normal reading, and depends on a different style of cognitive processing. There is evidence that the portion of the parietal lobe of the brain that sighted people use to assemble visual stimuli into coherent images of the world is coopted for Braille reading by the blind.  This is why it is generally felt that a sighted person may be able to read Braille visually, but will generally not be able to read by touch.

For those who are unable to perceive text (not necessarily not able to see it), the common solution is to use some form of "text to speech" accommodation. As with any accommodation, there are multiple factors in such applications.

For a blind reader, visual cuing is not important.  For both visual and non-visual readers, sounding like a person isn't important. What is important is reading speed. Sighted readers typically read in the range of 400 words per minute or more. If the user of text-to-speech is limited to the speed of human speech (typically 100 to 150 words per minute), they will only be able to read at 25-30% of the speed of their peers. While not as great a disability as not reading at all, this would remain a substantial barrier.  Fortunately, voice specialists have identified the parts of the sound of speech that convey meaning, and the parts that are simply filler. By reducing the filler, voices can be designed that do not sound human, but remain understandable (for trained readers) at very high speeds. I personally know several blind folks who read on the order of 1000 words per minute, with very high retention (equivalent to sighted speed readers).

These voices can be tied to various text-to-speech engines. There is a standard "Speech Application Programming Interface (SAPI)" for voices that allow them to accept input from a wide range of programs, so that the voice in your free reading program can be upgraded by adding SAPI voices.

Most modern operating systems have built-in text to speech capability for content. On the Mac, almost any content can be read aloud, or saved to a spoken track in iTunes for later reading. The Alex voice on the Mac is currently considered the gold standard for synthetic voices trying to sound like a human, which it does very well. But it is not a voice designed for high-speed reading. It is also much too bulky for portable devices. The Alex voice in macOS takes as much memory as all the rest of the OS, including the other reading voices.

Most students with learning disabilities learn better when provided with text-to-speed, but do even better with "dual modality" reading. In this form, text is read aloud, and the word being currently spoken is highlighted. Students report that this moving highlight makes learning much easier, though I haven't heard any explanation of this.

For readers who are blind, just having access to the content of a document is not enough. Such a person also needs access to the menus and other controls. These readers require a full "screen reader" such as JAWS or NVDA. Unlike the programs for learning disabled students, full screen readers typically offer high-speed reading.

For folks like Leecy, the issue is just the opposite. Leecy needs is not text-to-speech for personal learning, but for communication with others. This is known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). While this is another, very complex topic, Leecy might be interested in one of several projects doing "voice caching." When a person knows that they will be losing their voice for a period of time (or forever), voice caching allows them to store a vocabulary that they speak. When needed, these voice samples can be used in an AAC device to allow the continued generation of messages in their own voice, if not from their mouth at the time.

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Thanks, Denis, for this description of various kinds of reading and learning disabilities. You wrote, "Another type of cognitive limitation leading to difficulty with reading is 'specific learning disorder'. While there are now somewhat more specific definitions of specific learning disorder, the translation of them boils down to the person has difficulty with some specific aspect of learning, and we don't know why."  I have heard the term "specific reading disabilities," generally associated with dyslexia. Is this another name for these learning disorders, or are they different? Also, what specific reading disabilities are there besides dyslexia? Finally, are there useful technologies to help people with these specific reading disabilities to get meaning from text?

Thanks,

David J. Rosen

 

Denis Anson's picture
First

David,

The key part of the definition of specific learning disorders is "and we don't know why." Admittedly, we don't understand dyslexia that well, but when looked at along with the secondary components of the disorder, it is arguable that dyslexia is part of the autism spectrum disorder. it is not just inability to read, it also has components of interpersonal relations and sensory processing. These are not (at least not always) present in specific learning disorder.

It is likely that "specific reading disorder" is applied to that part of SLD that applies to learning. There are also math disorders, language disorders, and more. These are some type of kink in mental processing for which we have no idea of the cause. I had a college some years ago who lived with a specific spelling disorder.

There is some evidence that dyslexia is a particular processing error. In early child development, when children are presented with pictures, their eyes trace the outline of the picture and do to spend time on the interior. Only later do children scan internal details. There is evidence that people with dyslexia scan only the outline of words, so that words that have the same overall shape are essentially the same word. This would explain many of the letter reversals that are common with the condition. I have explained this theory to several people with dyslexia, who agreed that that was how they viewed words. Not definitive, but evidence.

There are some people who say that there is no such thing as dyslexia because, with intensive intervention, it can be cured. To me, that is like saying that there is no such thing as a broken leg, since with plaster casting, it can heal.

Humans have two forms of language. We have what appears to be a fairly innate spoken communication, and a learned written communication. The two forms of language are homologous, but not identical. Spoken language uses intonation, pacing, and inflection to convey additional meaning. Written language uses punctuation, type face, underlining and other forms of text decoration to convey meaning. When we read, we are translating between written and spoken language. With the various types of reading disability, this process of translating printed symbols to sounds goes awry somewhere along the way. If we understood this process more clearly, we'd likely find that the point where the translation goes awry would tell us about the nature of the reading disability. There was a study reported in Scientific American in the 70s where the researcher had children with and without dyslexia "memorize" two lists of words. One list was English words, the other was words in Hebrew. (No subject spoke or read Hebrew.). The result was that the on-dyslexic children remembered the English list much better than the dyslexic children, but both groups performed the same on the Hebrew (much lower than the English words for the non-dyslexic children.). These results seem to indicate that the issue in dyslexia is NOT visual processing, but assigning meaning to the symbols - the translation of written to spoken language. Since none of the children spoke Hebrew, none could perform this step with the Hebrew list, and the results were the same between the two groups.

Given this understanding, the interventions for reading disabilities are most commonly the use of text to speech applications that do the translation for the student. One of my favorites (not free) is WordQ from QuillSoft. This application prompts words (word prediction), defines homophones with spoken examples, and will read text with highlighting of the word being spoken. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am an unpaid ambassador for QuillSoft. This is a role I took because I like the program, but I have no financial interest.)

By the way, you are probably aware that people who are deaf typically have very poor reading skills. This is almost certainly because of the emphasis on the "sounds" of the letters, where are not available to the deaf student. It is likely that we have to find a different approach to teaching writing if we are to allow deaf students to learn to read fluently. We know that there is no issue with processing language, since they are able to communicate with ASL or some other form of sign language. It is possible that these same interventions would help students with reading disorders of other sorts as well.

Denis Anson, MS, OTR
Director of Research and Development
Assistive Technology Research Institute
College Misericordia

Michael Cruse's picture
One hundred

Hi, Denis -

Thanks for your post. I was struck by your comment that “it is arguable the dyselexia is part of the autism spectrum disorder”. I’ve never heard this before, and would be curious to read more about what those in the field are saying in support of this theory.  Can you point us in the direction of any of the research being done to support this claim?

Best,

Mike Cruse

Leecy's picture
One hundred

Denis, thanks for your fascinating exploration of how different conditions require different types of technology and approaches to meet reading needs.I really appreciate your description of "voice  catching."  I will be exploring the process using AAC devices with great interest! If you have specific links to share on that approach, I will be even more obliged! Leecy

Denise Swog's picture
First

I teach literacy adult education. My students range from 0.5 - 3.5 grade levels. Two of them are non readers. I am using Reading Horizon program. It teaches phonics,  phonetic rules, and decoding rules in a non-juvenile way. All my students have made gains in reading. I feel it helps fill the gaps in decoding words which make it harder for the adult reader to comprehend materials. If they cannot read the material fluently, they cannot comprehend. With the tools to "figure out" words as they read, they can retain the context meaning better.

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Thanks, Glenda, for your words of caution regarding phonics instruction and English learners. While for many years we had virtually no research on addressing the needs of adult language learners with no or limited formal schooling, the LESLLA (the acronym now refers to Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults) has been conducting research and holding annual meetings for many years, so our understanding of how to address the needs of this unique population is increasing. The link I've included above takes you to the teacher resource page on the website.

This is a side issue in this thread, but definitely a worthwhile conversation to have in the Reading and Writing group as well as the English Language Acquisition community on LINCS. I'll begin a thread there.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Jo Dixon's picture
Ten

I agree whole-heartedly that we should not uncritically apply phonics-based approaches used with children to the teaching of adult ESL learners. However, that needn't mean that phonics is never  appropriate for low-level adult ESL.  I had been meaning to reply to this for a few days but Susan Finn-Miller has beaten me to it and added a new thread on it elsewhere, so I might try to add something there when I have time :-)   

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

We'll look forward to hearing from you, Jo!

Cheers, Susan

Leecy's picture
One hundred

Jo, I've added a couple of responses in Teaching Phonics to Adult ELs discussion. I certainly agree that children and adults need different materials through which to acquire phonics or anything else, but in my experience, adult ELLs who don't read in their native languages will all benefit from phonics instruction in a balanced reading program, as I noted in that forum. "Different strokes for different folks," no doubt, as long as everyone is stoked! :)  I would love to hear the reasoning for opposing views by others. Leecy

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

David, Thank you for posting this utterly fascinating article. I have little knowledge about dyslexia and the brain, so it was so encouraging to learn that brain science in combination with innovative technologies has real solutions to this problem.

It would be great to hear from members who have struggled with dyslexia themselves as well as teachers who work with learners with this challenge.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP

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