iPads for writing, using voice activated technology!

Ruth Fairley is a Special Education Needs (SEN) teacher at The Lancaster School – an all boys secondary (age 11-16) school in Leicester. Ruth’s innovation project explores the use of iPad accessibility features and apps to support students with learning disabilities. The project enables her to develop her own skills, and represents a new approach to working with SEN learners in the school – who will be involved in evaluating and recommending approaches and tools. Here, Ruth introduces the project:

Many people find the physical act of writing to be difficult, demanding, and in some cases, painful.

Let’s face it, it can be quite a demanding task. Not only have you got to have an idea of what to write about, you have to get that idea clear in your head, organise it so that it makes sense and make sure you know the rules that accompany good sentence writing. All this, and you haven’t even got to the point where you have to put it down on paper. Think of the demands that this brings: you have to have the right writing equipment handy, an appropriate piece of paper and only then are you ready to commit these now sometimes forgotten thoughts to paper. Then you have to think about, punctuation, grammar and the actual physical handwriting itself. For many of our students this is too much and they simply give up, or panic. These are the students that many of us have in our classes every day. This is the reality of teaching.

I wanted a way to make this experience less daunting and more accessible to students who struggle to pull these many demands together to produce a coherent piece of work.

Firstly, I thought the answer would be laptops and students would be able to write their work down on laptops and get it printed off. Seems pretty straight forward! However, this does not work for some students particularly students who have motor control problems or issues with one of the many facets of dyslexia.

At Lancaster we were lucky to have the services of a touch typing teacher who was very good at looking at a variety of innovative ways of teaching our boys to touch type. However for some boys they just couldn’t speed up enough for this to be a viable option for them to use in class. Also having nearly every word you write come up with a red line under it indicating a spelling error can be very frustrating for intelligent boys who just want to be able to express themselves like everybody else could.

Having updated my smart phone to one with voice activated searches I began looking around for apps that would let our boys do the same for their work. A way to get their good ideas down on paper without all the accompanying difficulties. I discovered Dragon Speak, an app which would allow the boys to dictate their ideas and the program would translate this into a document, which could be used as the boy’s own work.

Initially I trialled this with my bottom set Year 7 English group and I had some astonishing results. In particular one boy who is severely dyslexic was previously working at a L2c for writing was able to secure a L3a for writing – which is much more in line with his cognitive ability.

I then was drawn to the DigiLit Leicester innovation programme and thought that this might be a way to enable a number of our boys to access this and to improve their work and their confidence in writing. My DigiLit bid was born!

My bid included funding for six iPads for which I would download ‘Dragon Dictation’ (an updated version of Dragon’s Speak). Six boys could take them to each lesson where they were expected to write, and use Dragon Dictation to record their ideas and later to print off and use in their books as their own work.

The project is limited to working with six boys – I wanted each boy involved to have across-the-curriculum access to an iPad, so there was no question of sharing.

I then had to make the decision about which boys I would choose. Ideally I wanted boys who found writing difficult and that this in some way impacted on their ability to achieve their potential – able boys who were dyslexic or had motor skills issues.

In order to identify these boys I looked at the school’s SEN register. I looked for boys who tended to underachieve in literacy based subjects but whose targets were quite high. I selected two boys with motor skills issues and four with diagnosed dyslexia.

In order to assess the impact of using mobile devices with speech recognition software in their lessons,  I did a number of things before issuing the iPads. Firstly I spoke to the boys’ English teachers to determine their current writing levels. I look at their behaviour management log and jotted down any negative behaviour points the boys had, and finally I asked the boys to complete a short questionnaire on their views about writing. I felt that all of the actions would give me an idea about where the boys were with regards to writing and I would be able to repeat this process at the end of the project to see if there was a measurable impact.

Moving into a new building (with a new ICT system) slowed things up as I was not able to get the iPads set up as quickly as I had hoped. It is now time to start. As they say in many good books, ‘More anon.’

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