Special ICT needs

Technology is opening up the classroom to SEN pupils
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The Independent Online

Selling technology to teachers of children with special educational needs (SEN) is preaching to the converted - quite simply, computers can open doors to learning that, in another era, would have been locked.

Selling technology to teachers of children with special educational needs (SEN) is preaching to the converted - quite simply, computers can open doors to learning that, in another era, would have been locked.

"Special needs children now feel part of a class - they can contribute and don't feel so isolated," says Angie McGlashen, a former special needs teacher and product developer at Promethean. Dyslexic and visually impaired children are particularly well catered for with an array of new products or upgrades. The best products for children with dyslexia and autism embrace a multi-sensory approach - "See it, say it, hear it, write it."

"The future is looking fantastic," says Victoria Crivelli, vice-chair of the British Dyslexia Association's computer committee, and senior teacher for ICT and resources in Worcestershire support services, "but I would advise schools that you don't necessarily need state-of-the-art products - it's better to use one or two pieces really well."

A computer with speech support is one of the most useful products a school can use, says Crivelli. "Computers are endlessly patient - to hear something like a talking book spoken back to you as many times as you like is great for pupils who need literacy support or have short-term memory problems." Many word processing packages speak back text and offer on-screen word banks, from the simple to the more complex. Clicker 5, the latest version of the writing and creativity tool, is widely used and admired.

Widgit software has been collaborating with Warwickshire school authorities to create communication friendly environments in primary schools using Widgit's learning resources such as Writing With Symbols and Communicate In Print. "Children respond very positively," says SEN teacher Louise Wood. "They can have poor self-esteem if they think they are failing - they realise quickly [ Symbols] can help them read."

Sophisticated predictive text software also features highly in SEN. Far more intelligent than mobile phone text messaging, it anticipates what the user is trying to write, offers on screen selections and can correct phonetic spelling - so sercle becomes circle. Some offer a speech option.

Planning software which allows pupils to write concept-maps is particularly useful for children who find it easier to think visually. Recommended software speaks to children, offers an array of attractive symbols and colours and can be converted into linear text at the press of a button.

Literacy software is a crowded market, with many excellent games that are motivating and fun. Wordshark by White Space is universally admired for its entertaining games using sound, graphics and text to reinforce word recognition and spelling.

Smaller, low-tech tools are particularly useful if ICT suites are separate from the main classrooms. Hand-held spell checkers which can interpret words as they sound, a pen which can scan text and read it out and portable word processors, some with speech functions, are handy gadgets - and the Alpha Smart range is popular.

SEN software for interactive whiteboards is in development. "If pupils have a poor attention span, you can focus on specific areas - they are very visual," says McGlashen at Promethean, who is developing whiteboard-compatible flip charts. With chunky icons, and voting tools which allow pupils to communicate their thoughts, whiteboards are excellent for assessment and discussions, story telling and much more.

Joysticks, switches and alternatives to standard computer controls are made by Inclusive Technology and other manufacturers, and help those with motor skills difficulties to control computers. In Lets go to the seaside, Inclusive offers a delightful interactive story which children respond to using simple decision-making switches.

If there is a gap in the market, it falls between the gaining of hand-eye coordination and arriving at literacy and numeracy, says Dr Jane Seale, a specialist in SEN technology at Southampton University. "Once you've got the cognitive skills, you need something more before you are well on the path to reading and writing," she says.

In a crowded market, teachers would do well to remember advice of experts. "Good software isn't rocket science," says Seale. "But the educational principles behind simple technology are very powerful. Buying the product is just the start of it - you need continuing support to get the best from it."

Suppliers: iANSYST (01223 420101; www.dyslexic.com); REM (01458 254700; www.r-e-m.co.uk/bda)

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