Of the learning challenges facing students with dyslexia, reading difficulties are amongst the most prominent. It is believed around 10% of the population have the condition which usually sees suffers struggling to process information whether written or spoken, which can hamper their natural ability to share and document their creative ideas, knowledge and enthusiasm for a subject. This could potentially have an adverse educational and psychological effect on this group and possibly negatively impact their engagement with education. Encouragingly though, through dedicated study and research, great advances have been made in understanding dyslexia, how it affects individuals and what needs to be done to provide support for them from an early age.
Removing the communication barriers
For many students with dyslexia, the presence of PCs in classrooms provides an opportunity for assistive products to be deployed to support them. Assistive aids - like document readers, screen readers and speech recognition technology - enable students to enjoy all of the information sharing, communication and publishing capabilities offered by today’s PCs, laptops and other connected devices, creating a much more equal learning environment. Now, thanks to these developments, students can more easily capture and share their knowledge and ideas alongside with other students.
Bringing learning to life
One product that’s remarkable for its transformative assistive qualities is speech recognition software. Although speech recognition on PCs is not a new concept, its accuracy and ease of use has improved dramatically in the last few years, enabling quicker and easier user adoption. Speech recognition has become ubiquitous outside the classroom and can be found in products as diverse as Smartphones, Smart TVs, in cars and in healthcare applications and is a core feature in the growing number of digital assistants. For many years, though, people from all walks of life have used desktop speech solutions like Nuance’s Communications’ Dragon for the PC or Mac – which celebrates its 20th birthday this year - to be more productive, save time and capture their ideas at the speed of thought at work. Now, this technology is within easy reach of every classroom.
Running almost concurrent with the development leaps that have been made to speech recognition software, are the improvements that have been made to the average PC. Not only are they more powerful than before, but advances in processors and memory means they are better specified to allow users to effortlessly exploit speech recognition’s considerable performance. Today, that performance is characterised by accuracy rates of 99% and the ability to transcribe at up to 160 words per minute. Converting thoughts into words and capturing them on screen is now easier and quicker than ever before.
Speech recognition’s trump card for all users – whether they are affected by dyslexia or not – is its ease of use. Talking to a PC or Mac is for many far easier – and a more fluid and natural process – than typing and using the keyboard and mouse. For many students, with or without assistive needs, the keyboard is a barrier that inhibits thoughts and ideas – which would flow eloquently when spoken – from being documented. They often end up lost through the process of typing. By removing the barrier, frustration is quickly turned into accomplishment and students can focus on their thoughts and get them on paper simply by speaking. Less time spent typing leaves more time for research, learning about a subject or solving a problem.
Some desktop speech recognition solutions have been developed to work seamlessly with Microsoft Office applications, so in addition to creating home or coursework in Word, students can prepare presentations in PowerPoint, use Excel to help with tasks that involve budgeting or tracking activities and even use Outlook to write and send emails. Some also work with Gmail and Hotmail, to ensure that it’s easy for students to stay in touch and connected with their friends when they’re away from school. Of course, with the internet so central to education, today searches can also be conducted using speech via popular web browsers, including Windows Internet Explorer.
Correction made simple
Perhaps one of the most valuable functions that speech recognition offers users with dyslexia in particular, is that it can read text aloud. This makes it far easier for students to identify errors and correct their work quickly, to ensure that they’re submitting work for review that’s free from the spelling or grammar errors that used to detract from the quality of their written work in the past. Even web content can be read aloud, making online learning and knowledge gathering simpler and more rewarding.
Dragon - changing lives, winning awards
Across Europe, speech recognition’s transformative abilities have been recognised by specialist bodies. Dee Caunt, Chief Executive of The Dyslexia Association, states, “The Dyslexia Association regularly demonstrates and recommends speech recognition products to its clients. Our dyslexia specialist workplace assessors and tutors are also certified and work with individuals to help them develop strategies to overcome the difficulties that dyslexia can cause. It is one of the software solutions we regularly and happily recommend for our clients, as we see what a difference it can make to an individual’s efficiency, productivity and most importantly to their self-esteem.”
Perhaps the most compelling case for using speech recognition comes from users with dyslexia, like Oscar Robinson, who struggled with writing and reading during his time at school. It wasn’t until he went to university that he discovered he had dyslexia. Prior to university, Oscar thought he had a weakness with written subjects such as English, history and geography, and concentrated on the sciences. Within months of his time at the University of Leeds, where he studied new media design, Oscar was conscious that he was feeling the pressure of mounting essays, as he explains. "At university I really noticed how much I struggled and after speaking with one of my lecturers I decided to take the test for dyslexia. He suggested that I should do it just to see if I could get some extra help from the university. I took the test and it came back saying I had dyslexia. I don't think I was shocked because I had always suspected but I was relieved that I would possibly get some help."
Like many students, Oscar was given resources to help cope with his dyslexia under the Disabled Students Allowance. He was given a laptop, a Dictaphone and Nuance’s Dragon desktop speech recognition software, to help him all the way through university. It turned out to be a blessing: "I could never keep up with taking notes so the Dictaphone allowed me to keep up and listen back later.
"The Dragon software on my computer uses speech recognition to take down notes for me or whatever I wanted to write down. Previously, I struggled to get my words down on paper but I have always found I am perfectly capable when saying it out loud. Dragon finally allowed me to say everything I wanted to say and capture it without my dyslexia getting in the way."
Today, Oscar is still using Dragon provided by his university today in his career as a project coordinator at the Berkeley Group. He added: “Dragon helps me in meetings. Instead of taking notes, I know everything I want to include will be in any written work because of Dragon,” he said.
Oscar’s powerful testimonial does not stand alone; for two decades, Dragon has helped close the digital divide for scores of people with dyslexia, ensuring they have an equal opportunity to succeed both in education, and, later on in life.
by Alistair Robbie, from Nuance Communications,