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We describe our experience at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology, Toronto, using WordQ software to assist learning impaired students with reading and writing.
The College Vocational Program (CVP), at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology, Toronto, facilitates the development of social, academic and vocational skills of learning impaired secondary school graduates. Students participate in a variety of courses designed to develop these skills. Development of strong self-esteem and self-advocacy skills is stressed. The program includes ongoing assessment of skill development and individual counseling. Individual plans and strategies are developed with the goal of overcoming the numerous barriers that such students may encounter. Our main goal upon completion of the program is for students to have developed the skills necessary to cope effectively and successfully in the community and the work environment.
Technology is employed as an integrating principle or support to the entire academic and work-related goals of the program and the student. Students make use of both high and low tech technologies to help them achieve their goals. On an individual basis students are evaluated for writing or learning aids such as AlphaSmarts, tape recorders, electronic and paper organizers, calculators, FM systems, and adaptive hardware and software such as WordQ(tm) Writing Aid Software.
Students attend a computer class for 4 class periods, 6 hours in total per week, for a total of 25 weeks of academic instruction. The classes are an adaptation of the Microcomputer Applications course, a required course for all students attending the college. In addition, the writing portion of the third semester English class takes place in the computer lab with students employing the skills that they have learned in the first two semesters.
Students are taught to use the Internet (Netscape, Internet Explorer), have active email accounts, and produce a personal web page (for work-related, self-promotional purposes). They also learn basic computer applications. Skills are emphasized such as "cut and paste," thesaurus functions, auto-correct, spell and grammar check, use of wizards, and templates to prepare documents relevant to employment such as resumes, covering letters, and references. They also receive instruction on how to use software dictionaries to assist with reading comprehension and writing. Simulation programs allow students to explore job skills involving data entry and cash registers/making change.
The use of WordQ software is an integral part of the computer lab. The remainder of this paper discusses our experience with this software.
WordQ writing aid software is a writing tool for people of all ages and levels of writing ability, including those who have learning difficulties, or who are learning English as a second language. It is used along with standard Windows word processors and other applications. State-of-the-art word prediction suggests words for the student to use and text-to-speech feedback provides helpful cues.
WordQ continuously presents a list of correctly spelled words as the student types. When students see the word they want to use, they can choose it with a single keystroke or with the mouse. They can also display a word with its different word endings. Each word can be read aloud to help with choosing a word.
WordQ software continually adapts itself and improves its performance with use to ensure words are suggested that the student regularly uses and understands, thus reducing confusion. Students can also create and use groups of words called topics, e.g., sports, where these words are more likely to be suggested.
WordQ software combines visual and speech feedback to provide cues to help the student make choices and to self-detect mistakes. The feedback allows students to use their general language sense and auditory skills to catch errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation that might otherwise go unrecognized. Letter echo confirms typing a character. Word echo helps detect spelling errors and confirms selection of a predicted word. Sentence echo helps students hear the word flow in a sentence to decide whether the right words and punctuation are used. A special text-reading mode helps with proofreading. Text can be highlighted and spoken word-by-word within Microsoft Word, WordPad, Notepad, or Outlook.
Along with our students, we were an integral part of the WordQ software development, working closely with the developers at Bloorview MacMillan Children's Centre, Toronto, providing design requirements and ongoing feedback. WordQ software is described more fully at http://www.wordq.com.
Beginning the second week of school students are instructed in the use of WordQ software. Each student is assigned a computer so that they may develop a personal dictionary of words that they use.
Each day we present a topic of general interest and have the students write on that topic in a Journal file. Teachers circulate as students write providing encouragement, support, and technical assistance. We emphasize that we are not looking for the next great novel, but that we want them to express themselves and practice using the WordQ software. Requests for spelling assistance are met with "Have you used your WordQ?" This Journal activity takes up no more than 10 - 12 minutes of each class.
While technology alone cannot eliminate writing and reading difficulties of students it can enhance their performance. MacArthur (1999) states that technological tools can make writing easier as well as more motivating for students with LD. Unfortunately, many students who might benefit from the use of technologies to assist their literacy levels are uninformed. We frequently encounter the response from students, "Where has this program been all my life?" Some seem to be embarrassed to use such technology saying, "I don't need any help." These comments often come from fast typists who are extremely poor spellers and are auditory learners. Some students expect technologies to be a cure-all for their difficulties. A spell checker, in a word processing program for example, will not eliminate spelling errors. In fact, students with LD only correct about one-half of their errors when using such devices. (MacArthur, 1996).
These students also approach many writing tasks with fear and
loathing. Regina Richards (1999) lists the following issues that
students report with writing:
- They have a hard time getting started and feel overwhelmed by the task.
- They need to concentrate to form letters: it is not an automatic process.
- They struggle to organize and use mechanics of writing.
- They are slow and inefficient in retrieving the right word(s) to express an idea.
- They struggle to develop their ideas fluently (poor ideation).
- They struggle to keep track of their thoughts while also getting them down on paper.
- They feel that the process of writing on paper is slow and tedious.
- They feel that the paper never turns out the way they want.
- They realize that the paper is still sloppy even though substantial time and effort were spent.
- They are dysgraphic, which causes multiple struggles at the basic processing levels.
- They are dyslexic, which causes very poor spelling and interferes with automatic use of writing mechanics.
If technology, such as WordQ, can overcome half of these difficulties or aid in decreasing the stress felt by students when asked to write, then these programs should be employed. The use of WordQ software provides students with the tools so as to be able for the first time to participate in tasks, such as email, chat, and gathering information from the Internet. The activities of producing a website, communicating via email and producing their own documents for employment-related activities also bolsters self-esteem. WordQ software provides assistance in performing searches on the Internet and allows students to quickly read a large volume of information via Job Sites that might take them days to research using traditional newspapers or job flyers.
It must be emphasized that many of these students do not read or write unless required to do so. They do not communicate with other persons using the written word. It is not hyperbole or exaggeration to say that WordQ software opens up new worlds to them. They are able to access the news and information that we take for granted from Internet newspapers, discussion groups, and various sites. They can select and have information read back to them. They can email family and friends or write documents confident that they have chosen correct words (through the auditory feedback function), spelled them correctly and sometimes are inspired to use words that they might have known but were afraid to attempt without this non-judgmental assistance.
We measure the reading comprehension of our students using the Canadian Adult Achievement Test on entrance and at 4 months after they have finished the academic portion of the Program. In the past year, we found an increase in reading comprehension of (on average) one-and-one-half grade levels.
MacArthur, C. (1999). Overcoming barriers to writing: Computer
support for basic writing skills. Reading & Writing
Quarterly, 15, 169-192.
MacArthur, C. (1996). Using technology to enhance the writing performance of students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29, 344-354.
Richards, R.G. (1999) Understanding Why Students Avoid Writing. Educational Therapist.
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