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Computers have made learning easier for children with dyslexia and dyspraxia, reports Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

If ever computers have proven their worth, it's in the teaching of children with special educational needs. The technology opens up new opportunities for the children to communicate and realise their potential, bolstering at the same time their confidence and self-esteem. "Many of these children have failed at traditional forms of learning where the emphasis has been on written communication," says David Ware, information and communications technology (ICT) co-ordinator at Little Heath School in Essex, which takes children with special educational needs from the ages of 11 to 16. "Now they can communicate their ideas in different ways: they can do animation, create videos, compose music and record their own voice. We don't ignore the writing but ICT is a tool that enables them to communicate in a way they haven't been able to before."

If ever computers have proven their worth, it's in the teaching of children with special educational needs. The technology opens up new opportunities for the children to communicate and realise their potential, bolstering at the same time their confidence and self-esteem. "Many of these children have failed at traditional forms of learning where the emphasis has been on written communication," says David Ware, information and communications technology (ICT) co-ordinator at Little Heath School in Essex, which takes children with special educational needs from the ages of 11 to 16. "Now they can communicate their ideas in different ways: they can do animation, create videos, compose music and record their own voice. We don't ignore the writing but ICT is a tool that enables them to communicate in a way they haven't been able to before."

The benefits are plain to see on the classroom walls, says Ware. "I'm constantly amazed at the amount of quality work some of our children are producing," says Ware. "It doesn't look like the work of children who have learning difficulties."

Younger children respond equally well to the opportunities opened up by ICT.

"They take to the technology amazingly quickly," says Jackie Murray of Fairley House School in central London, which takes children with specific learning difficulties (dyslexia and dyspraxia) between the ages of 6 and 11. "Six-year-olds just seem to know what to click on."

ICT is embedded in daily classroom life at Fairley House, where by the age of eight, children are usually touch-typing on their own laptops. "It's a very significant benefit to their work in the classroom, says Murray of the touch-typing programme. "It improves their self-esteem and confidence and means they can go home and do something mum and dad can't."

The laptops are used for word processing, spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations. "It means they can produce work that looks nice, they can spellcheck and move the text around to help structure their thinking," says Murray.

There are a wide range of computer packages available to help children boost literacy and language-structuring skills. TextHelp's Read & Write or Don Johnston Special Needs' Write:OutLoud packages, for example, work with existing Windows word-processing packages. The software provides speech feedback and word prediction plus a phonetic spellchecker. The programme highlights and reads out the typed text, allowing children to identify misplaced or misused words.

"It seems to improve reading skills over time," says Abigail James of www.dyslexic.com, a specialist software supplier. "It's multi-sensory - you are hearing it and seeing it at the same time - which really helps to reinforce the learning."

Another popular product is Cricksoft's Clicker, a talking word processor which includes a large picture library that children can click on to insert words into their text while Wordbar, also produced by Cricksoft, sits at the bottom of the screen with a grid of useful words and phrases that can be quickly introduced into a text.

"It provides scaffolding for the children's writing," explains Lina Howarth of Cricksoft. "It means they can produce structured work and improves the accuracy of what they are writing."

Nick Rees, who runs Fairley House Upper School for children between the ages of 11 and 14, says ICT can bypass some of the more fundamental hurdles that can hold children with SLDs back.

"A lot of the pupils have problems with black and white, but because we use projectors, we can put a colour backdrop on the whiteboard, maybe light green or mauve, which makes it easier on the eye for them," says Rees. "And a lot of them rely on visual stimulus, so it makes a big difference if instead of just talking to them about what happens when a volcano explodes, you can download a video clip from the Internet."

Chris Stevens, head of inclusion at the Government's ICT in education agency Becta, says the technology has the power to transform lives that would otherwise be blighted by frustration. Yet the technology needs to be incorporated into a well-planned education framework, if it is to make a difference. "Some schools are really very good but others under-utilise the technology," says Stevens. "It's like having a Rolls Royce and driving it like a Mini."

Useful websites:

www.littleheath.essex.sch.uk

www.fairleyhouse.org.uk

www.fhus.org.uk

www.becta.org.uk

www.dyslexic.com

www.cricksoft.com/uk

www.donjohnston.co.uk

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