By Kamil Trzebiatowski (2012)
for the University of the West of Scotland
Nowadays, computers are frequently used in the classrooms in order to enhance students’ learning and make it multi-sensory. This report will look at how effective the information and communication technology (ICT) is in reducing one of the major difficulties that children with dyslexia experience: phonological deficits, and whether or not such technology can be used to improve the children’s spelling skills. It technology may be seen as a potential tool for helping learners with dyslexia, if used responsibly.
I will first provide the definition of dyslexia, following it with the discussion of advantages and weaknesses of employing ICT in class for learners with dyslexia. I will then review the research into the effectiveness of dyslexia-focused ICT software. I will conclude by arguing how to utilise ICT with learners with dyslexia for best results.
Dyslexia is a developmental condition that affects, as Reid and Fawcett state, short-term and long-term memory, processing information, organizational skills, using meta-cognitive strategies and phonological awareness (2005). They adopt the British Psychological Society definition of dyslexia, which states that dyslexia is characterised by slow development of fluency in reading and/or spelling at the “word level”. The condition may be persistent despite the provision of learning opportunities. (British Psychological Society, 2005, p.18). Mortimore and Dupree (2008) claim that of all the theories about the causes of dyslexia, the phonological deficit one has been the best established in the last thirty years. Phonological deficit manifests itself in “a difficulty when required to identify, sequence and reproduce sounds within a word” (Mortimore and Dupree, 2008, p.10) and represents a barrier to the successful acquisition of spelling skills as it is the phonological skills that allow children to grasp the link between written language and sounds that they hear in spoken language (Goulandris, 1994 in Ott, 2007). Children need to understand the rules governing written language, such as letter names, letter shapes as well as sounds and be able to decode them when reading and encode them when writing. This requires the knowledge and expertise of using synthetic phonics: breaking words down into separate sounds and linking them together to form whole words (Ott, 2007). Snowling (2000) provides an example of JM, a learner with dyslexia, with limited knowledge of single-letter sounds, struggling to read ‘nonwords’ and to distinguish between phonetically similar words. She concludes that JM’s slow development literacy development might stem from a phonological deficit. It follows Liberman and Shankweiler’s (1985, in Reid 1998) observations: poor spellers are weaker at phonological tasks.
Reid (1998) lists traditional teaching approaches to dyslexia including Alpha to Omega (learning the 44 phonemes in the English language) and Phonic Code Cracker (intensive phonic practice). Such approaches are likely to be successful in improving the children’s spelling skills as they target the phonological deficits that are said to influence spelling skills. However, with the development of technology in the recent years, teachers are not confined to solely traditional methods of intervention. Crivell (2001) describes ICT as a “lifeline” (p.218) for dyslexic pupils and suggests it helps them circumvent problems with reading, writing, organization and memory skills. This is supported by the view of my colleague Joanne (Support for Learning Principal Teacher [SFL PT], Greenbank High), who believes that pupils with dyslexia using ICT “can present their work better and have more time to check their answers and to think about the quality of their work.” Thomson (2008) also observes that word-processing removes the frustration accompanying handwriting, allowing pupils to focus on the content of their writing. Spellcheckers facilitate the writing process and the writing can be edited at any point.
There is a growing amount of computer software, effective in increasing literacy skills of pupils with dyslexia (Thomson, 2008). Such Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) software usually provides phonic drills, with some focusing on only one aspect of phonics, some covering a wider area (Mongtomery, 2007). Singleton (2009) sees CAL as essential to the development of literacy skills in children with dyslexia. Claiming that CAL is highly motivational, he provides an example of a motivational education game: phonics programme “Wordshark” where children use their manual dexterity to “catch a shark” before typing in a correct word that the computer subsequently says. This is supported by Stainthorp (1997) whose study revealed children’s enjoyment using the computer, which can thus be seen as a motivational tool. Equally so, my colleague Joanne also sees children enjoying using technology at school. Children benefit from instant computer speech feedback; not only are they said to improve word recognition and comprehension (Roth and Beck in Singleton, 2009), but computer feedback and encouragement can help to improve their confidence and minimize being publicly exposed as a failing student (Ott, 2007). Lannen (2001) states that the feeling of low self-esteem and frustration that people with dyslexia frequently experience may be eliminated by the introduction of IT to schools – since it is an interactive environment where the learners can instantly achieve and feel comfortable about their learning.
However, some have argued against the use of computers in the classrooms. Feder and Majnemer (2007) state that inability to handwrite well may be detrimental to self-esteem and be a barrier to spelling and story composition. Sulzenbruck et al. (2011) assume that more typing results in less handwriting and find in their research that computer typing may adversely affect not only handwriting but fine motor skills in general. It has also been suggested that children in the UK are slower at keyboarding than handwriting as they lack keyboarding fluency, thus too much effort is spent on pressing key rather than content production (Connelly, Gee and Walsh, 2007). Further, it has been argued that IT-based intervention in the classroom is effective only when targeted properly – leaving children on their own with computers will not work (Brooks 1999). However, according to Joanne (SFL PT, Greenbank High), children often have a better grasp of technology than adults and she does not believe children with dyslexia need additional staff to help them with their computer work.
There is a variety of software available for learners with dyslexia, designed to improve their spelling and targeting their phonological deficits. Torgerson and Elbourne (2002) conducted a thorough review of the research papers on the effectiveness of ICT for learners with learning disabilities and found that there is little to suggest that using software in the classroom to improve the teaching of spelling is beneficial, but they note that there is also no evidence that using ICT in the classroom to teach spelling is detrimental to children. In fact, despite Torgerson and Elbourne’s findings, a great deal of research suggests the positive influence of ICT on improving spelling in children with dyslexia. Kast et al. (2011) used computer-based German spelling programme called REF in their study and found that their dyslexic participants (8 to 12 years old) improved their learning performance by 154% and claim that phoneme-based improvements in the programme aided the children to attain better spelling skills. Van Daal (2000) also tested children who, for many years, had been struggling to attain good reading and spelling skills, and reports that with the help of the Dutch computer programme Leescircus, focusing strongly on phonological awareness, not only did they begin to spell more words correctly, but their motivation and behaviour improved in the process. He suggests that computers might have provided the children with more structure in their learning than regular handwriting-based instruction would have. Ecalle et al. (2008) administered computer-assisted instruction (software called Phonics Based Reading and Strategies for Older Students: phonics-based activities at letter, word, sentence and paragraph levels) to 26 French secondary school pupils with dyslexia. The training resulted in the dyslexic group achieving levels comparable with a group of normally achieving learners, leading the researchers to conclude that CAL can be successfully used to improve learning of children who experience reading and spelling difficulties. Finally, Evmenova et al. (2010) analysed the impact of three computer programs: Co:Writer, WordQ and WriteAssist (all featuring word prediction and speech feedback) on spelling skills of pupils with writing difficulties. The participants significantly improved their spelling skills using word prediction software as opposed to writing using a simple word processor. However, in Joanne’s (SFL PT, Greenbank High) opinion, CoWriter’s word prediction function is often unhelpful to pupils as they might not recognize the words suggested by the software.
The majority of research indicates positive correlation between employing computer software and improvement in spelling skills in children with dyslexia and reduction of their phonological deficits. Thus, dyslexia-friendly computer software is a powerful tool for dyslexia support in schools, strengthened by children’s motivation to work with computers. Pupils’ individual work with computers should be encouraged as it harnesses their good grasp of technology, boosts their self-esteem, attainment and increases their inclusion at school. It also provides phonological training to children with dyslexia whenever budgetary shortages prevent schools from doing so: it can be an individualised, one-to-one learning experience, with computers being non-judgmental. However, in order for this approach to be successful, teachers need to be dyslexia-trained and understand how to best support learners with dyslexia, have the ability to select the best available software for their pupils, and modify and differentiate it as required whenever possible. I advocate ensuring that the employment of software for learners with dyslexia is always an item in teachers’ annual professional targets.
However, the limitations of the software, such as word prediction issues and some pupils’ inexperience at typing, should also be acknowledged. ICT, therefore, should be seen as one in a myriad of ways of supporting pupils with dyslexia: resorting uncritically to one type of intervention, however effective, will not serve the individual needs of every student and would not agree with the principles of inclusive education.
Brooks, G. (1999) ‘What works for slow readers?’, Support for Learning, Vol. 14 (1), pp. 27-31
Connelly, V., Gee, D. and Walsh, E. (2007) ‘A comparison of keyboarded and handwritten compositions and the relationship with transcription speed’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 77 (1), pp. 479-492
Crivelli, V. (2001) ‘ICT Across the Curriculum’. In: Peer, L. and Reid, G. (eds.) Dyslexia – Successful Inclusion in the Secondary School. London: David Fulton Publishers. pp. 218-227
Ecalle, J., Magnan, A., Bouchafa, H. and Gombert, J.E. (2008) ‘Computer-based Training with Ortho-Phonological Units in Dyslexic Children: New Investigations’, Dyslexia, Vol. 15 (3), pp. 218-238
Elliot, D.J., Davidson, J.K. and Levin, J. (2007) Literature review of current approaches to the provision of education for children with dyslexia. Glasgow:SCRE. pp.1-3
Evmenova A.S., Graff, H.J., Jerome, M.K. and Behrmann M.M. (2010) ‘Word Prediction Programs with Phonetic Spelling Support: Performance Comparisons and Impact on Journal Writing for Students with Writing Difficulties’, Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, Vol. 25 (4), pp. 170-182
Feder, K. (2007) ‘Handwriting development, competency, and intervention’, Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, Vol. 49 (4), pp. 312-317
Kast, M., Baschera, G., Gross, M., Jäncke, L. and Meyer, M. (2011) ‘Computer-based learning of spelling skills in children with an without dyslexia’, Annals of Dyslexia, Vol. 61 (2), pp. 177-200
Lannen, C. (2001) ‘ICT Across the Curriculum’. In: Peer, L. and Reid, G. eds. Dyslexia – Successful Inclusion in the Secondary School. London: David Fulton Publishers. pp.228-229
Montgomery, D. (2007) Spelling, Handwriting and Dyslexia. London and New York: Routledge
Mortimore, T. and Dupree, J. (2008) Dyslexia-friendly practice in the secondary classroom. Exeter: Learning Matters Ltd.
Ott, P. (2007) Teaching Children with Dyslexia: A practical guide. London and New York: Routledge
Reid, G. (1998) Dyslexia: A Practitioner’s Handbook, 2nd ed. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons
Singleton, Ch. (2009) Intervention for dyslexia: A review of published evidence on the impact of specialist dyslexia teaching, pp.121-129. [online] Available at: <http://www.4d.org.nz/school/dyslexia_intervention_research.pdf> [Accessed 5 December 2011]
Snowling, M. (2000) Dyslexia. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd
Stainthorp, R. and Majnemer, A. (1997) ‘Learning to Spell: Handwriting Does Not Always Beat the Computer’, Dyslexia, Vol. 3 (4), pp. 229-234
Sülzenbrück, S., Hegele, M., Rinkenauer, G. and Heuer, H. (2011) ‘The Death of Handwriting: Secondary Effects of Frequent Computer Use on Basic Motor Skills’, Journal of Motor Behavior, Vol. 43 (3), pp. 247-251
Thomson, M. (2008) Supporting Students with Dyslexia in Secondary Schools. London and New York: Routledge
Torgerson, C.J. and Elbourne, D. (2002) ‘A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effectiveness of information and communication technology (ICT) on the teaching of spelling’, Journal of Research in Reading, Vol. 25 (2), pp. 129-143
Van Daal, V.H.P. and Reitsma, P. (2000) ‘Computer-assisted learning to read and spell: results from two pilot studies’, Journal of Research in Reading, Vol. 23 (2), pp. 181-193
Interview with Joanne, Support for Learning Principal Teacher, Greenbank High
Conducted on 17 December 2011
List of Questions:
1. Do you believe that ICT has an effect on the development of the language skills of students with dyslexia? Why / why not?
2. What areas are best developed? Is it spelling, writing, reading, auditory processing skills?
3. How successful do you think teaching through technology is in improving pupils’ spelling and phonological skills?
4. What kind of indications are there for pupils’ improvements in spelling / phonology (if any)?
5. Do you believe there might be a direct correlation between computer use in the classroom and increase in the pupils’ spelling and writing abilities? Is handwriting a better approach to writing?
6. Does the school use any phonic awareness software for pupils with dyslexia / low ability readers that you are aware of? Have certain departments targeted pupils with dyslexia to improve their reading / writing abilities?
7. What is the pupils’ attitude to computer-assisted lessons? Do they enjoy them? Do they look forward to computer lessons?
8. Why do you think pupils have this attitude?
9. Do you believe that pupils’ self-esteem might be on the increase due to the computer use? Why / why not?
10. How task-focused are pupils with dyslexia when working with computers as opposed to traditional lessons?
11. Do you feel that pupils would benefit from more staff to assist them in computer work?
12. How well do you feel the staff cater to pupils with dyslexia’s needs in terms of ICT?
13. Do you feel that curriculum and teachers’ schemes of work use technology to the best advantage of pupils with dyslexia?
14. Is there anything missing in terms of technology available to you at the school? What more would you like to see? What is not appropriate or not sufficient?
15. Are there any issues co-morbid with dyslexia that might make it difficult for pupils with dyslexia to access the ICT opportunities and slow down their spelling skills improvement? What are they?
 ICT in this essay is used to mean only computer software, word editors and websites, not portable technology.
 The interviewee’s name and name of their workplace have been altered for confidentiality purposes.