Top of the class, with Sally: A new program developed by an ingenious parent offers help to dyslexic pupils, says Mike Gerrard

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WHEN he was nine years old, Nicholas Lipman was bottom of his class and struggling so badly that his parents removed him and paid for private tuition. When he returned to school one term later, he was top of the class. He went on to pass four O-levels and three A-levels and gained a place at Bristol University to read mechanical engineering. Evidently Nicholas had not been lacking in intelligence, as had been assumed; his problem was dyslexia.

At that time his father, Max, was establishing his own computer company and says he was lucky to be able to afford private tuition for his son. 'It cost me a fortune, but it was worth it,' he says. 'During the time that Nicholas was at home, though, I was able to observe the teaching methods used and realised that many of them could be implemented equally well on the computer: training the movement of the eyes, getting the hand-eye co-ordination right, and, most of all, repeating things over and over again to build up speed and accuracy.'

The result of Mr Lipman's observations is Dyspell, a program aimed at helping people overcome the problems of dyslexia, published recently by Lipman's own company, Sally Systems.

Mr Lipman says: 'Children who have dyslexia can easily become delinquents. They're told at school that they're stupid, they become the butt of everything; other children make fun of them because they have trouble reading. If you can't read, then the assumption is, of course, that you're stupid, whereas, in fact, it is nothing to do with intelligence at all, as I think the example of someone like Nicholas shows.'

Dyspell works through a series of exercises - presented attractively as games - which begin by teaching the child to recognise the basic shapes of letters before building towards the spelling of complete words.

'There are two underlying ideas,' Mr Lipman says. 'One is that you simply have to get the eyes to move in the right way, and the second involves dealing with hand-eye co-ordination. Then you have to find ways of going over things again and again, hopefully so that it doesn't become boring to the user. That's why we regard our exercises as games.

'Most of the work is done using the mouse - it's very important that you can transfer the visual image from the screen into a physical act by moving the hand. This means that it's successfully gone through the whole motor process, instead of getting stuck somewhere along the way. The eye has recognised the shape of the letter, the brain has processed the information, and the hand has reacted in the correct manner.'

Dyspell is only available on the Commodore Amiga computer, a surprising choice because the machine is better known as a games computer. A more obvious choice might have been the IBM-PC or the Acorn Archimedes, to get the program into schools.

'It was only in 1987 that I started looking into ways of making available to other people what I'd discovered myself about dyslexia,' Mr Lipman says. 'By then I thought that desktop computers had come down to an affordable price. Friends and colleagues thought the obvious machine to go for was the IBM-PC, but I looked around and saw that if I wanted to get the same quality of graphics and sound from the MS-DOS machine that I could get from the Amiga, I would have to add a board to the PC which itself cost more than an Amiga.'

Of the other option, the Archimedes, just emerging at the time, Mr Lipman says: 'The programming language we wanted to use on the Amiga wasn't available for the Archimedes, and, finally, there was the question of price.'

Mr Lipman preferred a system that was affordable to parents at home as well as schools. Dyspell still doesn't come cheap, and at pounds 411 (including VAT) costs more than the Amiga itself. The price reflects the five years spent developing the program, which fills 13 floppy disks and requires a hard disk on which to run. It is, however, available on rental terms. And it is a small price to pay to take someone from bottom of the class to a place at university.

Sally Systems Ltd (0628 24626).