How can technology assist dyslexic learners?

The recent death of AA Gill called to the national attention the positive attributes of dyslexics. An acclaimed writer, Gill used to dictate his copy over the phone or draw out his stories to identify and back-fill the characters involved. His recent passing reminded us all that dyslexics, as any person, can be amazing contributors to society, negating the victimisation of dyslexics which sometimes can go unchallenged.

If AA Gill was fond of his Dictaphone, what other technology are dyslexics using to improve their quality of life, creativity, and independence? In a recent interview I conducted with Dr Kate Saunders, CEO of The British Dyslexia Association, we talked about the various experiences of dyslexics, coping tools and strategies and the relevance for teachers, employers and students.

10% of the population are estimated to be dyslexic. That means that for every ten of your colleagues, or ten of your students, or ten of your relatives or friends, on average, 1 has dyslexia. In the work place, the law stipulates that you must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate the needs of dyslexics. That might mean managing overloading environments such as open plan offices, adjusting intranets or screens so that they are less stimulating, allowing for longer time periods for organisation or kicking off a dyslexia mentoring scheme within your place of work. But what is being done before work, in schools, colleges, and Universities to move the national dialogue to one which celebrates neuro-diversity at the earliest moment?

‘If they can’t learn the way you teach, can you teach the way they learn’? 

- Dr Kate Saunders, CEO, The British Dyslexia Association

Dr Saunders was lucky enough to meet AA Gill who she credits with moving the dial in this manner. She highlights the resilience, loyalty, creativity and tangential problem solving of dyslexics as some of the many positive attributes they can bring to a team. Yet, within schools she highlighted the lack of obligatory specific teacher training for students with dyslexia (even though 10% of all students or staff will be affected). Generally, dyslexic learners will have greater difficulty with the following: time management and prioritisation, visual overstimulation, handwriting, working memory, strings of symbols and letters. These aspects can be managed by teachers placing greater emphasis on rules, pattern, logic, movement and multi sensory learning. But whilst the Department for Education are helping to fund extra teacher training resources for teachers through the BDA (available here, with more coming at the end of January 2017) Dr Saunders stressed the lack of funding available for special educational needs teachers to make dyslexia assessments early on, something which the BDA are currently campaigning for more of.

In the meantime, the BDA continue to seek new technologies which can assist learners. Like many technology tools, the best are simple and come from user-centred (and requested) design. Dr Saunders talks about a simple trick which users a ruler to draw a yellow line above the usual handwriting tram lines. Whilst dyslexics traditionally struggle to keep handwriting straight within the ‘official’ lines the use of alternate colour and height assists them to do so. Apply this to the digital world and ‘voila’ you have the same idea but across Microsoft Word’s 750 million users worldwide, increasing accessibility and usability. Other technology tools Dr Saunders notes are syllabification tools which break words down into more manageable chunks, highlighter tools for nouns and verbs, dulled screens, adapted UX which is less ‘busy’, photographing information to assist with working memory, recording using Dictaphones to stop over-stress caused by trying to retain minutes in meetings as well as listen in real time, speech to text, and much more.

In order to better understand the learner implications of such results, the BDA are currently working on a pilot at Knowl Hill School in the UK. The pilot works with Microsoft Education learner tools across a ten-week timeline to measure outcomes and identify possible positive results, for example improved reading times. The results will be revealed at Bett 2017.

‘A big part is personalization. In the US, on average you will see four levels of reading in one class. How does a teacher scale or personalize thirty things? Technology can help scale beyond what one person can do.’  

- Mike Tholfsen, Microsoft Education

Microsoft’s Mike Tholfsen, a product designer and engineer, who works across OneNote, ClassroomNote and Learning Tools came into designing for specifically dyslexic learning tools after his team won the annual Microsoft Hackathon in 2015. Tholfsen quotes backing from as high up as Satya Nadella, with learner tools fitting in with the Microsoft mission ‘to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more’ and Tholfsen keen to not leave the 10% behind in classrooms of 35-40+. I asked Tholfsen what the greatest request on the shopping list was for next revisions of Microsoft learner tools. The answer? Break words down in even more ways, personalise colours and backgrounds, and offer the service in more languages.

Watch this space.

The relationship between dyslexia and technology continues to be one of potentially huge benefit, negotiating superfluous stimulation for stimulation’s sake versus real personal benefit - both individually, as a method to reach out to young dyslexics, and through the sharing of resources.

If you are interested in finding out more on this subject. Please feel free to listen to Dr Kate Saunders and Mike Tholfsen of Microsoft Education talking about ‘Dyslexia and Technology’ on The Edtech Podcast.

Finally, if you are interested in assisting the BDA to reach more young people to support the BDA mission through volunteering or other means and have ideas on how technology might help in this matter, please contact helpline@bdadyslexia.org.uk.

Credit: Sophie Bailey, Founder: The Edtech Podcast / Tangential Brain