National Literacy Units – why scribes cannot be used and what alternatives have we?

The SQA states:

In relation to the National Literacy Units at all levels:

(i) exemption from demonstrating any of the four assessed skills of reading,  writing, listening or talking will not be a reasonable adjustment and (ii)  using human readers and scribes will not be reasonable adjustments where reading  and writing abilities are being explicitly assessed.

The rationale behind this is that the provision of a human reader and/or a human scribe would  undermine the fundamental assessment objectives for reading and writing and  would not secure that the National Units in Literacy provided a reliable  indication of the knowledge and skills of the candidate upon whom they are  conferred. It would not be possible to maintain public confidence in the  National Units in Literacy if learners are given  credit for ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ when that  process has been carried out by someone else.

In order to minimise the disadvantage faced by some disabled  learners in attaining the National Units in Literacy, the use of word  processors and other assistive technologies such as screen readers, spell  checkers or speech-recognition software would be acceptable as reasonable  adjustments.

I have been doing some testing with the in-built speech recognition on a Windows 7 Lenovo ThinkPad E530.  I used an Andrea USB Mono headset and from a test yesterday think the correct headset makes a huge difference.  Have a look at the short video clip here to see it working.  (slightly wobbly filming as was self-videoing)

It’s not perfect as I excitedly stated in the video clip but it’s good and could be something that could benefit many of our students.  Could this be a possibility for them to use instead of dictating to a scribe for the Literacy Unit assessment?

You can try it for yourself on a Windows 7 laptop or PC.  Click on the Start icon then type in ‘Speech Recognition’ in the Search box.  Work your way through the set up – I skipped the tutorial and so did no ‘training’ of my voice and still got very good results.

Let me know what you think!

ICT and Inclusion Day at CALL – June 14

 Coming to  Edinburgh in June 2012 ICT and Inclusion is Scotland’s leading annual exhibition with a focus on the use of ICT to support learners with additional suppport needs. This year’s roadshows are being held at CALL Scotland, University of Edinburgh, 14th June CALL Scotland and BRITE, the organisers of the event, have arranged for up to 25 of the UK’s leading suppliers of software and technology to support students with additional support needs to take part in the exhibition and to give a short presentation on their latest products. 

There will also be short presentations by staff from BRITE, CALL and local schools, colleges and services, illustrating the use of technology to support learning. Equipment and software on display may be of interest to adults with disabilities and the people who support them. It’s Free! The days are free to attend and run from 8.45  until 4 pm. Lunch is provided for people who book in advance.

 There will be a prize draw at the end of each day, with prizes including software, iPad apps and other worthwhile items. Make sure you stay until the end of the day to have a chance to win a prize!

Book online at 


ICT and Inclusion

I attended the ICT and Inclusion Day at the CALL Centre last week. It was an ideal opportunity to  see the latest hardware and software and hear practical, information-packed, short presentations on a wide range of topics all geared towards learners with additional support for learning needs. I was able to  meet and network with colleagues, make some interesting new contacts and chat with presenters and suppliers.


School and authorites are obliged under Disability and Equality legislation to consider how they can provide learning resources in accessible formats for pupils with disabilities. CALL Scotland have created a database of books currently available and provide training on how to adapt books.   Hodder Gibson are offering free digital copies of their resources subject to a print copy having been bought and also subject to very strict copyright terms and conditions.  Action:   I am keen to establish how we take this forward in East Lothian and ensure pupils can be provided with  books in an alternative formats when required.  Do we have a Print Disability Copyright Licence?

Workshop 2Age Appropriate ICT resources for older students with complex needs

Fil McIntyre from BRITE Centre reviewed some resources (keyboards, mice, switches) that are not highly coloured or involve gimmicky animals and therefore would suit older students.  The exception was for visually impaired students who often prefer bright colours and colour contrasts.  Action: Identifying software and reading material that is age and ability appropriate.

Workshop 3: Read and Write Gold 10 demo

This assistive software is designed to help those with dyslexia, literacy difficulties and English as a second language.  The PDF Aloud feature converts text to speech and the writing support tools allows users to study independently in an inclusive environment. We have a site licence for  high schools in East Lothian so it’s  installed on all computers but may be an underused resource.   Action:  Cost the upgrade to R & W Gold 10; arrange training sessions for SfL staff

Workshop 4:  Optelec – visually impaired hardware

We were shown a range of powerful hand held magnifiers and braille notetakers.  They were very similar to the Humanware products that have been bought for visually impaired and blind pupils in East Lothian.  Action: Share this information with Visually impaired service.

Workshop 5: iPods and iPads for Communication

A variety of communication apps have been created to enable pupils to communicate using voice output.  There are a number of downsides to consider… even top of the range AAC app Proloquo2go has no alternate access options (key guards, scanning) and the UK voice choices are not great. It would be ideal if you could install Heather and the Scottish male voice that is currently being developed.

 Photo Story and Communication passport apps allow photos, videos, audio and text into a book format. The iPad having a larger screen makes this more visually appealing and easier to read but the iPod touch for portability is ideal for other users.  Action: Continue to pursue issue of obtaining access to iTunes store on school network so I can get some devices out to pupils to try out these apps. The idea being these popular mainstream devices are cost effective communication aids and almost as importantly, are very cool!!

Free audio books for pupils with additional support needs

Calibre audio library provides a free service of books (downloadable MP3 or cassette format) for any pupil who has a disability which affects their reading (e.g. dyslexia).    Schools can find out more and apply for membership on the website  This is a fantastic resource that should not be missed!

A Final (I hope) comment on voice recognition software

I have spoken with representatives from both Enquire and the ASN Division of the Scottish Government Both are very clear that their role is not to give advice to parents on specific supports but to provide information about the Additional Support for Learning Act 2004. They were apologetic.

They defend themselves by saying that any specific enquiry is always greeted by a recommendation to parents that they contact their school.

The advert that appeared last week was written by the Government’s marketing department with reference to the Code of Practice which was agreed after consultation with professionals across Scotland. Here is Chapter 2, paragraph 13:

13. Examples of additional support provided from within education services to children and young people are the following:

  • a support for learning assistant supporting a child with an autistic spectrum disorder in a nursery
  • class teacher helping a child by following a behaviour management programme drawn up in consultation with a behaviour support teacher
  • tutorial support from a support for learning teacher to help with a reading difficulty
  • use of communication symbols by a child with autism
  • designated support staff working with Gypsy/Traveller children on their site to help them improve their literacy and numeracy skills
  • in-class support provided by an English as Additional Language ( EAL) teacher for a child whose first language is not English
  • a more able child at the later stages of primary school receiving support to access the secondary mathematics curriculum
  • use of voice recognition software by a child with dyslexia.

Yes, the contentious software is mentioned right at the very end. I am most curious to know which professionals working in the field of dyslexia in Scotland felt that this was the most commonly used and widely regarded example of good practice. (And, no, I didn’t contribute to the consultation about the draft Code so I must take some responsibility for the erroneous, or at least heavily biased,  information being purveyed by the government and Enquire. There’s a lesson there.).

In my rough and ready estimate, about 1% of 15 – 18 year olds may be enabled to express themselves more effectively with voice recognition software; while about, ooh, 90% of learners with literacy difficulties are already benefitting from using WordTalk – a free resource developed in Scotland, available to families at home at no cost and easy to use.

I was given an assurance that in future other more frequently deployed supports will be offered as examples, although the ‘Just Ask’ campaign is now drawing to a close.

While I appreciate the civil servant’s acknowledgement that the use of this example was ill-advised, this does not help us to support those parents who feel that we have let them down by not offering this software as a matter of course. It is natural that parents will want the very best provision for their children; that’s their job. But to set them up for almost inevitable disappointment, and create conflict where none need be, negates the whole notion of partnership and calls into question teachers’ knowledge and understanding of dyslexia and the plethora of provisions we already successfully make.

(A Piece of) Humble Pie

Voice Recognition software: a view

I was at a meeting yesterday with the parents of a 9 year old boy whose dyspraxia and dyslexia are so severe that he has immense difficulty expressing himself on paper or with a computer. He benefits from using mind mapping software to help planning and organisation and, while using a digital voice recorder quite efficiently, prefers to have a person to help him to order his thoughts and scribe his responses. He is exceptionally thoughtful, has a wide general knowledge and interest in many things and a very highly developed sense of his own strengths and difficulties.

In a personal project about dyslexia and dyspraxia he declares that

even if I could get the dyslexic and dyspraxic bits out of my DNA I wouldn’t as it makes me creative and who I am. I have learned lots of coping strategies aand have been given lots of help to get around the things I find tricky… I might invent something amazing when I’m older because I have great ideas.

His parents showed us the above video made by a 16 year old, Rhodri Buttrick, explaining how voice recognition software has enabled him to study. His story really seems extraordinary and it may be that this support will work for this particular pupil with his specific range of challenges and abilities and supports from home too.

The CALL Centre on voice recognition software

Speech recognition software has been presented as a panacea for pupils with writing difficulties, but the reality can be very different! While there are a few schools where speech recognition has been used with pupils with great success, there are many more where it has been tried and quickly abandoned.

The CALL Introducing Speech Recognition in Schools project aimed to investigate best practice in schools where speech recognition was being used successfully, and develop and evaluate training materials to help other schools get going with speech recognition. It was funded by the Scottish Executive Education Department.

The main outcome of the project was a Training Pack (comprising a book and a CD) for schools to use when introducing speech recognition in schools. Copies of the books and CD were sent, free of charge, to all secondary schools in Scotland in March 2003. The pack includes:

  • Guidance on identifying pupils who might benefit from speech recognition;
  • Technical hints and tips on installing and operating the systems;
  • 10 Lesson Plans, with exercises, for introducing speech recognition to pupils;
  • Advice on management of speech recognition systems in schools.

The Pack was evaluated by 40 secondary schools in Scotland from November 2000 to March 2002, and modified in response to comments from staff and students. We chose to focus on Support for Learning Departments in secondary schools, rather than special schools or units, because the largest potential group of students are those with specific learning difficulties in secondary education.

Training Packs

Below are links to these training packs:

Thanks to S O’Neill through the ASN Glow Group for this link.

Voice Recognition Software 2

I am still going on about the ‘Just Ask’ campaign about the suggestion that ‘a pupil with dyslexia may benefit from use of voice recognition software’.

As I wrote in my last post, I feel this is a most unhelpful statement, practically guaranteed to set parents in opposition to schools. Focusing on this one area that is, as  as I understand it, the least well regarded and least used support is staggering. There are so many supports we can and do offer to children with literacy difficulties in schools that to name this one, in my view erroneously, seems designed to cause friction between those parties who have the interests of the children most at heart: their parents/carers and their teachers.
The British Dyslexia Association has a very comprehensive summary of ICT supports for learners with dyslexia. It includes a useful list of focused questions to help audit diverse learning needs and map provision planning.

The paper summarises the supports that will be familiar to most of us who work in schools with learners with literacy difficulties.

At the very bottom of page 6 comes a reference to voice recognition software (look closely):

Offering alternatives to writing as key method of recording.

Dyslexic learners enjoy using alternative forms of recording [I loathe such blanket descriptions, but hey ho] and often use strengths in pictorial imagery in their learning. ICT can support this with the use of digital images and clip art, digital cameras, multimedia presentations and video cameras for example.

Recorded speech using tapes, minidisk or digital recorders offer low tech solutions.

Voice recognition software may be appropriate in some cases, especially at KS 3/4 where the demand for writing in all curriculum areas increases both in volume and difficulty.

I am awating a reply from Enquire Scotland as to their reasons for the inclusion of their misguided information. I am hoping that they can direct me to some research and/or practitioners who have found voice recognition software the most indispensable support for learners with dyslexia. I would be delighted to have my mind changed!

Why don’t you write too?

Voice recognition software


The ‘Just Ask’ campaign from the Scottish Government urges parents to ask for help for their children ‘to help them navigate their way through issues affecting them’: these issues include dyslexia.

The advert in the local paper declares: ‘Support can be provided in many different ways and is entirely individualised to the child. For example, a pupil with dyslexia may benefit from use of voice recognition software’.

Oh dear. While I am in compete agreement that young people with dyslexia need a ‘plan to ensure success’, to be so specific about such a very difficult area as speech to text software is going to cause all sorts of genuine problems for us in schools. I can hear the parents bashing my door down as I write.

I have not used voice recognition software myself nor have I seen it in action. There are mostly good reviews here  but none focus on its deployment in schools.

The only review I can find that specifically mentions voice recognition software and young people was last updated in December 2006. There may, of course, have been considerable changes for the better since then. I’d be grateful if anyone with knowledge and experience in this area would join the discussion.

 I have tried to summarise the major points in that review as far as they relate to enabling youngsters to circumvent the barrier of writing. The article does state that: ‘where spelling, handwriting and composing are major problems, then Speech Recognition can be hugely liberating and allow children to express their ideas on paper fluently for the first time in their lives’. Studies have shown that students with learning difficulties who use speech recognition:


  •  Use longer and richer words
  • Write more creatively
  • Organise work better
  • Complete more work
  • Improve reading
  • Improve spelling
  • and produce better hand-written work’.


‘A ‘normally clear speaker [and here they are referring to adult users], using a recent computer with a decent microphone and with a little experience should get very good recognition results and gain real productivity benefits’. (My emphasis).

However, there are also many caveats, summarized thus:

  • Motivation is a key component. It would be impossible for children to learn dictation at the same time as learning the basics of computing, of Windows and of word processing. This all adds up to considerable information overload and time implications. On the whole children don’t produce masses of written work, so are less likely to have the motivation to persevere with speech recognition. If it’s not used often the child will need to relearn it each time; and is likely to stop bothering.
  • Patience and accuracy are needed. Time training the software to recognise the voice is necessary. [And in young people, especially boys, the voice can change, requiring frequent up-dates]. Accuracy is hugely important. Each ‘mistake’ [or misinterpretation by the computer] made takes many times longer to correct compared with dictating a word correctly. [Children with ‘regional accents’ – i.e. accents from areas outside the south of England – are likely to find training the software to recognise their voices even more difficult]. Fluent speakers with a wide vocabulary are most successful at using speech recognition software. [Not all learners with dyslexia fall into this category].
  • Good, fast word retrieval, finding the words needed easily to express ideas, is essential. Multi-tasking – using the software whilst composing text – is also likely to be hard for many children with dyslexia. [Slow processing speed and poor automaticity are very common characteristics].
  • An understanding of word processing & punctuation is crucial. [No comment necessary].
  • A quiet, relatively private environment for confident dictation for training and using the software [is not always available in busy classrooms]. 
  • Proof reading is particularly difficult for dyslexic people. They are liable to have more difficulty finding and correcting an error than somebody who reads and spells well. Even the best dictation system, after you have spent a long time training it and working with it, will make recognition mistakes.
  • Ongoing support is essential and this has implications for training for those who work with the child. For somebody new to dictation there are a lot of things to get right: diction style, microphone adjustment and positioning, making corrections, punctuation and the voice commands. Modifications to speech style (pace, clarity, particularly of unstressed words, evenness of volume) make a big difference.

The review stresses that, while a helpful resource in many instances, Speech Recognition software ‘can still lead to frustration and a lack of success. The main reasons for this will be human, not technical’. However, there are inevitably technical issues that would need to be addressed if adoption of the software is to be effective:

  • [The microphone that comes with the software is universally derided]. A better microphone than that supplied in the box may make the difference between success and failure. In addition, it is absolutely critical to have the microphone properly adjusted, and the authors of the review suspect that this is the single most likely cause of frustration and failure at dictation.
  • It is generally the case that a laptop computer will be slower and noisier than a desktop machine of the same specification although both might be so slow as to be virtually unusable. It follows that it is all the more important (and, consequently all the more expensive) to have more than the minimum spec if you want a computer to perform well. It is safer to choose a machine that has been certified for use with speech recognition. [In an ideal world schools would up-date their hardware to demand but this is unfeasible].

This makes for depressing reading. We would all dearly love to find the miracle solution to the problem so beautifully described by one girl I know: ‘I can write 3 sentences, but speak 3 pages’. Alas, it seems that voice recognition software is not the panacea claimed in the adverts.

I feel that the ’Just Ask’ team has performed a severe disservice to schools and parents in promoting this as a ‘support’ so thoughtlessly.

(I was also somewhat bewildered by the case study of a boy with dyslexia on the Just Ask site. It stated, ‘Jamie was offered a place at a literacy unit’. Do any of these exist nowadays? What about the philosophy of Inclusion and Equality? I feel another post coming on.)