Educators who struggle to accommodate the needs of children with certain language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, are finding that new “continuous” speech-recognition technology may provide a solution.

Unlike older voice-recognition (VR) software, programs such as NaturallySpeaking by Dragon Systems and ViaVoice from IBM allow kids to talk at normal speed, without having to put pauses between each word.

Once they say the words aloud, the program “hears” them and types their message for them on the computer.

VR software has been available commercially for about seven years, but until recently it was not ideally suited to the classroom environment, said Susan Barton, a consultant on dyslexia and developer of the Barton Reading and Spelling System.

Older technologies that required students to speak in a slow and stilted manner and precisely enunciate each word were extremely difficult for learning-disabled kids to use.

“Many kids who are dyslexic also have attention-deficit disorder, so it can be really hard to teach them to slow down and say one word at a time,” said Barton.

The primary reason for using VR software as a tool for dyslexic students has to do with the nature of the learning disability itself.

“People with dyslexia usually have excellent verbal skills, but they have extreme difficulty getting their thoughts onto paper in a legible form,” said Barton. “Not only do they have terrible spelling, but they almost always have ‘dysgraphia’—extreme difficulty with the act of handwriting.”

Not only is the handwriting of a dyslexic child extremely messy, but the act of handwriting can be slow, painful, and tedious.

Typing can be difficult for dyslexics, too.

“People with dyslexia face a significant challenge when it comes to memorizing, and they will always be confused about left versus right,” said Barton. “That’s why learning to touch-type is difficult. To be a good typist, you have to memorize which keys are pressed with the left hand and which with the right hand.”

According to advocates of VR software for dyslexics, the newer software provides a way to bypass those weak areas.

“You can easily get your thoughts onto paper without handwriting, typing, or worrying about correct spelling,” Barton said.

Experts agree that typing, writing, and spelling are all basic skills that students should master, whether they have dyslexia or not. Preferably, Barton said, learning-disabled students should receive corrective training while using assistive technology, like VR.

“There are two ways to approach a child with disabilities—accommodation and remediation,” she said. “Ideally, a child will have both going on at the same time.”

Because it can take two or three years to get a dyslexic child’s reading, writing, and spelling up to grade level, VR is a way to ensure that kids aren’t loosing that time.

Research has even shown that using VR technology might be more than an assistive technology—it might actually improve certain reading skills in dyslexics.

Dr. Marshall Raskind and Dr. Eleanor Higgens are learning-disability researchers at the Frostig Center in Pasadena, Calif. In a series of studies of children ages 9 to 18 with diagnosed learning disabilities, they found that children who use VR software to write for a total of 10.5 hours improved significantly in word recognition, word decoding, comprehension, and spelling.

“What appears to be responsible for those gains were improvements in phonological awareness,” said Raskind. “Users say a word and then the word appears on the screen. That’s basically a linking of the way the word sounds with the way the word looks.”

But Raskind is quick to add that speech-recognition technology is not a panacea.

“It does not work for everyone,” he said. “We need to continue research, and there need to be mechanisms for disseminating that research outside of professional journals.”

The Gow School in South Wales, N.Y., is for children with dyslexia and learning disabilities. Students there have been using Dragon System’s DragonSpeak software for several years, primarily for doing their homework and writing reports.

The school’s director, Jeffery Sweet, explained that the disruptive nature of the technology (it requires students to speak out loud) makes it inappropriate for an in-class setting. The Gow School made the technology available to students during study hall, in the school’s technology lab.

So far, experts say mainstream public schools have been slow to adopt VR technology for their special-needs students.

“People have to ask for it. I give seminars to parents constantly, and they say, ‘My child has an individualized education plan and the school will buy us whatever we want,’ and they just don’t know what to ask for,” said Barton.

The push for VR technology has to come from either mainstream education teachers or parents, she said.

“In public schools, the resource specialists are so overworked and overwhelmed that they can’t keep up with all the latest technology in all the different fields. Technology like this will make the resource specialist’s life so much easier, so I think they’ll jump at it, but they are surrounded by demands,” she added.

The cost is not prohibitive for schools, especially because the software could be funded through government subsidies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). According to Barton, one $100 copy of NaturallySpeaking serves 25 students.

“This has not been adopted in a big way [by schools], and I hope it is in the future,” she said. “It’s not just dyslexic students who could benefit. The program—originally written for quadriplegics—could also help visually impaired or blind students.”

Continuous voice-recognition software does not require that teachers take a lot of training, but it does take a small amount of training for students to use it, explained Barton.

“Some technologies require teachers to go to classes for hours and hours, but this is really pretty simple,” she said. “I find that normally I just have to demonstrate it [to educators] and show them what it does.”

One point of difficulty for dyslexic students: The software has to ‘learn’ to recognize each user’s voice before the software will operate properly. Software programs normally require first-time users to read a passage from a book aloud, so the program can analyze the user’s inflection and pronunciation.

“The problem is that many dyslexic students can’t read very well, so they need to be prompted by a parent or teacher,” said Barton. Normally setting the program up would only take 45 minutes, but with dyslexic students it could take up to four hours.

“But boy, is it worth it,” said Barton. “[The software] allows these kids to be independent, and that is so important.”

“I think [the use of] speech recognition has grown and will continue to grow,” said Raskind. “And this has become so affordable. I’ve seen this technology go from thousands of dollars to under a hundred.”

Most VR software packages currently on the market require a relatively high-end Windows-based PC with a standard soundboard and microphone.

Links:

Bright Solutions for Dyslexia
http://www.dys-add.com

Dragon Systems Inc.
http://www.dragonsys.com

IBM Voice Systems
http://www-4.ibm.com/software/speech

The Gow School
http://www.gow.org

The Frostig Center
http://www.frostig.org