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New John Muir Graphic Novel available in accessible digital format

By Paul Nisbet on Wednesday 16th April, 2014 at 4:58pm

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A new graphic novel based on the life of John Muir, the Scottish pioneering conservationist was launched by the Scottish Book Trust earlier this month. The novel is written by award-winning author Julia Bertagna and illustrated by Glasgow-based artist William Goldsmith, and free copies are being sent to every secondary school in Scotland for use by pupils in S1, S2 and S3.

So what about young people who can't read or access the free copies, I hear you ask? Well, the good news is that we have been working hard with the authors, the Book Trust, and the designers at Metaphrog to create an accessible digital version of the novel. 

This turned out to be quite tricky. Most graphic novels are PDF image files, and while you can zoom in and magnify the text, and turn pages and navigate on a computer or device, you can't  have the text read out by the computer. However, we wanted to have the option of text-to-speech because it can really help readers with dyslexia, visual impairment, hearing impairment or non-native English speakers. This meant that the novel had to have proper, selectable text, and so John and Sandra at Metaphrog created a special font to mimic William Goldsmith's handwriting, and then used this font to create a special accessible version of the novel. We also spent many hours working out the best way to get the text read out in the correct order by the free text reader in Adobe Reader, and John and Sandra went through every page checking and adjusting it. Lastly, they added bookmarks so that readers can see the table of contents and click to go to a particular section.

I'm pretty chuffed with the way it has turned out and grateful for the opportunity to work with the artists and authors and I think it is a good model for graphic novels in general. 

Apart from giving readers with print disabilities access to the book, it also fits with the general theme of conservation and sustainability, since no trees were harmed in the production of the digital copy.

You can download the novel from the Scottish Book Trust web site. (Make sure you get the accessible version and not the standard PDF which doesn't have readable text.) There are also teaching notes for use in different subjects across the curriculum.

You can read the novel on a computer or on an iPad or Android tablet, and I've written some quick guides: one for Windows, and another for iPad. To read it on a Windows or Mac, you just need the free Adobe Reader software which will probably be on your computer already. You can read the novel with the free Scottish voices.

For the iPad, we suggest reading the novel with ClaroPDF because it has good text-to-speech tools (including Fiona, a Scottish voice) and at 69p it's a steal. (Fiona costs £1.49 extra.)

If you have an Android tablet, try ezPDF Reader (£2.49) with the CereProc Scottish voices (£1.19 each).



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Dragon NaturallySpeaking on inexpensive laptops

By Paul Nisbet on Wednesday 2nd April, 2014 at 12:13pm

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Recently there has been renewed interest in the potential of speech recognition for learners with writing and literacy difficulties (partly as a result of the restriction on use of a scribe for assessing writing at National 3/4 Literacy). Dragon NaturallySpeaking is we think the best speech recognition software for Windows PC, and I was interested whether it would run on the relatively low powered Acer TravelNote laptop that is available from XMA through the Scottish Tablet and Notebook Procurement Scheme. (There are of course scores of lightweight laptops around but it's often easier and cheaper for schools and local authorities to buy machines through this national procurement scheme.)

So we did an experiment - I installed Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium 12 on the Acer and on my own Dell laptop, dictated into both at the same time, and tried to see if there was any time lag or lack of response between the two machines. The Acer has a Celeron 1.5Gz processor with 2 GB of RAM, while the Dell has an i5 2.5 GHz processor and 4 GB RAM, so the Dell should be noticeably faster. Both machines were running Windows 7. I didn't bother to train Dragon to my voice, and the accuracy was pretty good 'out of the box'.  I looked like an even bigger prat than usual by wearing two identical headsets (Andrea NC181VM USB)... 

In fact, for basic dictation, we couldn't see much difference between the two. The Acer seemed slightly slower to load programs and Dragon said that the natural language processing facility wouldn't work because of the lack of RAM and processor speed, but apart from that it was fine. (The natural language commands let you give commands to Word in simpler English (e.g.. 'Turn on bold') but not having them is not a huge disadvantage because you can still usually use the more formal commands (e.g.. 'Set Font Bold')  for most tasks.)

The Acer costs £216; Dragon Naturally Speaking Premium Education is £99; so for £315 schools can get a lightweight laptop running a good speech recognition system. (You would probably need MS Office which your local authority would install, and we strongly recommend a USB headset like the Andrea at around £30 but the total cost still seems pretty good value.)

Alternatively, for about the same price you can get an iPad Air and try the free built-in Siri speech recognition - you do need an internet connection but we think it's just as good as Dragon and it seems more forgiving of strong accents and also very simple to use.





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How to raise Literacy Attainment at National 3 and 4

By Paul Nisbet on Monday 3rd March, 2014 at 5:08pm

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Literacy is a mandatory Unit for all learners at National 3 and 4 and assessment covers the skills of reading, writing, talking and listening. Where reading is being explicitly assessed, the use of human reader is not permitted, and similarly, where writing is being assessed, a scribe cannot be used. Many learners with additional support needs have difficulties with reading or accessing text, and with writing and recording, and so to enable these learnerws to achieve the literacy standards, ICT and assistive technology can be used in the literacy assessment.

For example, a learner with a visual impairment might read the assessment text on screen with magnification; while a learner with dyslexia could use text-to-speech to read the text and a spellchecker or word predictor for the writing assessment. There is more information on how on our web pages on using ICT for literacy assessment.

We know that many learners with additional support needs or disabilities have difficulty with reading or writing and so some learners will not be able to achieve the literacy standards at National 3 and 4 without support.

However, research and experience tells us that assistive technologies can help learners with, for example, dyslexia or literacy difficulties to read and understand text at a higher level than they can manage when reading unsupported, and that supportive writing tools can enable learners to produce longer and more accurate pieces of work.

Therefore, by providing ICT (and by teaching learners how to use it), schools should be able to raise their overall levels of literacy attainment at National 3 and 4. By using ICT, learners who might not achieve the standard will be able to do so: conversely, if you don’t get your ICT and assistive technology organised, your school’s attainment levels at National 3 and 4 will almost certainly be lower than they would be if you made good effective use of ICT.

Here’s a very good example from Peter Graham at Denny High School. Peter was presenting at one of our recent courses and described a 6th year pupil with severe reading difficulties who is now using a netbook with text-to-speech software (Ivona MiniReader) to great effect. Peter thought it would be interesting to compare her reading ability with and without the text-to-speech and so carried out an assessment using the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability.

Reading by herself, the pupil scored 6 years 2 months for accuracy and 6 years 9 months for comprehension. With MiniReader, her comprehension score was over 13 years (measuring accuracy is not appropriate with text-to-speech).

Without ICT, this learner would almost certainly fail the reading assessment at National 3 or 4; with ICT, she would almost certainly pass it.

By using ICT, more learners in your school will achieve the literacy standard and you will raise your overall attainment (not to mention giving the young people a massively important life skill and a means of reading and accessing the curriculum independently).


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Further clarification that MiniReader CAN be installed on school computers

By Paul Nisbet on Friday 7th February, 2014 at 5:34pm

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Text-to-speech is one of the most useful accessibility tools for learners with and also without literacy or access difficulties. Pupils with dyslexia or reading difficulties can use text-to-speech to access digital text; pupils with English as a second language, or with language or learning difficulties can use text-to-speech to aid their understanding; learners with visual impairment who have difficulty seeing the text can use it to read faster and with greater comfort; and ALL learners, with or without additional support needs, can benefit from using text-to-speech to proof read and improve their work.

In our view, text-to-speech is an accessibility essential and all school computers should have a text-to-speech reader available, along with the free Scottish computer voices.

There are a many text-to-speech programs available, but if you need a free, simple program for windows, take a look at Ivona MiniReader. I introduced MiniReader in a previous blog and on our MiniReader web page:and the purpose of this blog is to reassure local authority and school staff that it is legal to install MiniReader on school computers.

On 12 November 2012, I asked Ivona whether MiniReader could be installed on all the computers in a school and was told that:

"Of course you can use MiniReader at schools. I hope that it will be good promotion for our other products like IVONA Voices and IVONA Reader."

On 16 September 2013, following some questions from local authority technical staff, I emailed Ivona to ask:

"Can you confirm again that it is acceptable for your free MiniReader software to be installed on school computers in Scotland?"

to which Ivona responded:

"Minireader is free so it can be installed on school PC's."

And on 7th January 2014, a colleague in a local authority asked Ivona to clarify whether they could use the MiniReader with the school's own computer voices. Ivona said:

"Our Minireader is for free. You can download this product by clicking "Free download" on"

I hope that this provides clarification and reassurance! Let's get on with reading.....


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National 5 Specimen papers with answer boxes are now available

By Paul Nisbet on Monday 6th January, 2014 at 4:03pm

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The SQA Question Paper team have added 'answer boxes' to the National 5 specimen papers and these can be downloaded from the SQA Digital Question Paper pages. Feedback from students is that it is much easier to type in answers directly on the paper, than to use a separate digital answer booklet. Papers in question-and-answer format that have answer boxes include for example Biology Section 2, Computing Science, Drama, French Reading, Gaelic Reading, Music, Physics and Philosophy.

Papers that are not in question-and-answer format (such as English and History) do not have answer boxes, and learners either hand-write their answers into a paper answer booklet, or use use digital versions of answer booklets which can be downloaded in PDF and also Word format.

The papers and answer booklets can be freely downloaded by teachers, parents and learners for revision and practice. 

To find out more about how to use Digital Question Papers visit the CALL Digital Assessment web site and refer to SQA's Digital Question papers Guidance pages.


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Word prediction is confirmed as a reasonable adjustment for assessing writing in National Literacy

By Paul Nisbet on Monday 9th December, 2013 at 7:00pm

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SQA have confirmed that word prediction software is a reasonable adjustment for learners with disabilities for the writing assessment of Literacy at National 3 or 4. 

Word predictors analyse text as it is typed on the computer, and try to ‘predict’ the words that the learner is most likely to want, from a dictionary or lexicon of words. The writer types or selects a letter and the program offers a list of the most common words beginning with that letter. If the required word is on the list, the writer selects it with mouse, keyboard or other access tool. If the word is not on the list, the learner types the next letter and a different choice of words is offered.

There are many word prediction programs available, such as Co:Writer, ClaroRead, LetMeType, Penfriend, Read and Write Gold and Write:Online. Some Scottish local authorities have authority-wide licences for some of these programs.

Word prediction can reduce the number of keystrokes needed to type by up to 50% and so learners with physical disabilities use them to reduce effort and to increase endurance and therefore the amount that can be written in one session.

Word prediction can also help learners with even quite severe spelling difficulties because the writer only needs to type the first few letters of the word and then select it from the list of words offered. Most of the predictors can cope with letter reversals (e.g. b/d) or phonetic spelling errors and still offer a valid list of words. Learners with reading difficulties can usually point or click on the words in the prediction lists and have them read out by the computer, to make sure the correct word is selected.  

Some literacy skills are necessary to be successful with word prediction. The writer must be able to decide what they want to say, type a reasonable approximation to the first few letters of the word and then recognise and select the word in the list. Some writers cannot get the first letters right at all; others may miss the word when it is offered in the list or choose a different one by mistake. Some pupils also find that shifting attention between the text, the keyboard and the predicted list interrupts their flow of thought and slows them down. (If this is this case, it can be helpful to use an on-screen keyboard so that the writer maintains focus on the screen.)

Research and experience shows that word prediction can be very effective method of support, particularly for learners with more significant literacy difficulties for whom spellcheckers are not sufficient. 

Word prediction in assessment of literacyat National 3 and 4

SQA regard word prediction as a reasonable adjustment, but staff should ensure that the software is not providing inappropriate levels of support. For example, the predictor should:

  • only offer single words or paired words in the context of the writing topic (e.g. ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex’;
  • not offer whole phrases or sentences;
  • not be programmed such that the learner can simply hit one key to regurgitate an entire text.

For the avoidance of doubt, SQA have confirmed that the following facilities can be used where available:

  • phonetic prediction (e.g. Co:writer’s FlexSpell);
  • ‘next word prediction’, where the software offers a list of words immediately after the last one typed;
  • topic dictionaries matched to the writing task.

This information is provided for guidance: it is the responsibility of the teacher to assess whether a learner has achieved the standard for writing in literacy, and so staff should use their professional skills and judgement to ensure that the support provided is appropriate.

Find out more about how ICT can be used in assessment of writing on our web page.


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Using networked computers in examinations

By Paul Nisbet on Monday 2nd December, 2013 at 12:31pm

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Staff often ask whether to use standalone or networked computers in exams, and so we have written a quick guide (below) and also available for download.

Exam Profiles for Digital Question Papers

In an exam you can either use standalone computers, or you can use machines attached to your school network. The best way to run digital exams is to use networked computers and for your technicians to set up ‘exam profiles' on the machines.

The Exam Profiles should:

  • prevent access to internet, USB memory sticks, Bluetooth and any folders or files on the school network or computer – to prevent cheating;
  • have the software required for the exam (usually Adobe Reader and Microsoft Word, plus text-to-speech software);
  • give access to an ‘exam folder’ on the network.

Each Exam Profile – Exam1, Exam2 etc. – has a network folder with the same name, with read and write access for the pupils.

Prior to the exam, staff should create a planning table which matches the pupils against the computers and the Exam Profiles - e.g. Joe Brown will be on computer 1 with Exam Profile 1; Jane Smith on computer 2 with Exam Profile 2; and so on.

On the day of the exam, the SfL teacher or technician, in the presence of the invigilator, puts the CD into their own networked computer and copies the papers from the CD to the network folders for each pupil.

Spellcheck on/off

SQA provide two versions of the Digital Question Paper on the CD: one with the spellchecker enabled (e.g. ‘Int_2_Geography_Spellchcheckon’), and the other with spellchecker turned off (e.g. ‘Int_2_Geography_Spellchcheckoff’). Make sure you copy the correct papers to the correct network folders for each pupil – for example, you might designate Computers 1 to 3 for candidates who are not using the spellchecker, and Computers 4 and 5 for learners who do have permission to use the spellchecker.

Digital Answer Booklets

If Digital Answer Booklets are required for the exam, they should be downloaded in advance from the SQA web site at and then copied to the Exam Profile network folders.

Data Booklets

If required, PDF versions of Data Booklets for sciences and Technological Studies should also be downloaded from the same SQA site and copied to the network folders.

Paper copies

SQA provide paper copies of the examination for all the candidates that are using Digital Papers:  learners can use both at any time during the examination.

On the day

Pupils sit down at the computers and are told the computer and the Exam Profile they are to use. They log on to Exam1, or Exam2 etc and they can see the correct paper sitting for them in the network folder. They open it, work on it, and save it frequently as they go through it. (Staff should also ensure that the Adobe Reader ‘auto-save’ is turned on.)

At the end of the exam candidates print their paper and/or answer booklets out on a networked printer (preferably in the room next door to give easy access and to avoid disturbing candidates in the exam room). The candidate should have an opportunity to check over the paper (within the overall time allowed) and if necessary amend and re-print answers before the paper is given to the invigilator.


Using networked computers with profiles and folders in this way gives security and is MUCH easier and faster for staff than using standalone computers. If you use standalone machines you will run round sticking the CD into each computer in turn, and then at the end of the exam, run round copying the completed papers off to a USB stick to get them printed. This takes a lot more time and is generally less reliable and more prone to error and high blood pressure than using networked computers with Exam Profiles.


Further guidance is available from SQA ( and CALL Scotland ( 


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Use of ICT in Assessment of Writing for National 3/4 Literacy

By Paul Nisbet on Monday 2nd December, 2013 at 10:33am

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We have added some notes on using ICT to support learners with additional support needs in National 3 and 4 assessment of writing. As you probably know, human scribes are not regarded as a reasonable adjustment when assessing writing for National 3 and 4 Literacy qualifications, but learners can use ICT. 

The writing assessment at National 3 involves writing at least 80 words on a topic that is being covered in class; National 4 requires 300 words. The assessment is not 'an exam' - it is carried out in class as part of teaching and learning. It is not time-limited and learners can use dictionaries, word banks, mind-maps and other tools to support their writing.

All learners can use (and are encouraged to use) ICT for writing and this includes spellcheckers and autocorrect tools that are bult in to the word processor or device. Pupils with additional needs can also use more specialist access devices and software.

You can read the guidance here and also download the booklet as a PDF.

The booklet on assessing writing complements the notes on using ICT in the assessment of reading already available.


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iPad Apps for Dyslexia

By Allan Wilson on Wednesday 6th November, 2013 at 3:42pm

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Wheel of iPad Apps for Learners with DyslexiaWe have produced a 'Wheel' of iPad Apps for Dyslexia / Reading and Writing Difficulties as a visual aid and reminder for some of the many apps that are available to support learners with dyslexia. It is designed to be used as an A3 poster, but the electronic PDF version is also useful as it links directly to the various apps that we have included.

It is impossible to include every app that can be useful for learners with dyslexia so we have only included a small representative group for each category. We are happy to take suggestions for other apps that could be included in later versions of the Wheel and will give them our consideration. Many apps can be useful in more than one category, but we have chosen to use just one particularly representative category for these apps, in order to make space available to include other apps.

This ‘wheel of apps’ for dyslexia is inspired by previous visual representations of apps:

These can all be found on the Apps4Stages web site.

iPad Dyslexia Toolkit for Teaching and Learning

iPad Apps for Dyslexia / Reading and Writing Difficulties leads in to a new book that CALL will be publishing early in the New Year. iPad Dyslexia Toolkit for Teaching and Learning will provide detailed descriptions of apps that can be useful for learners with dyslexia, along with hints, tips and suggested strategies for using them.


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ICT Accessibility Essentials and Checklist

By Paul Nisbet on Monday 14th October, 2013 at 12:52pm

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Earlier this year we were asked by colleagues in ICTSLS (ICT for Support for Learning in Scotland - staff with specific responsibility for ICT and ASN across Scotland) to produce some simple recommendations about basic accessibility software that one would expect to find on computers in schools. We created two information sheets: ICT Accessibility Essentials, and an ICT Accessibility Checklist. The Essentials leaflet (see below) lists what we think should be made available on school computers in order to make them accessible for learners with disabilities; the Checklist is a simple audit tool.

The leaflets were shared with ICTSLS and they seemed helpful when the assistive technology specialists in local authorities were discussing and planning with technical staff what should be installed and made available on school computers.

Given the recent and on-going discussion regarding text-to-speech and other software for learners with disabilties, we thought we would share the leaflets more widely.

ICT Accessibility Essentials


All school computers should have:

An Accessibility Profile should have:

  • All of the above.
  • Access to Control Panels (particularly Display, Ease of Access, Keyboard, Mouse & Speech Recognition) so that designated staff can easily and quickly adjust settings for individual pupils, e.g. change default voices and speeds, alter mouse speed and pointers, adjust keyboard settings, change display font sizes and colours, and adjust other accessibility options.
  • Right click enabled.
  • Facility for staff to easily install accessibility software such as:

Education Scotland sell BoardMaker, Co:Writer, Penfriend and Microsoft Office at discounted prices for Scottish schools. Tel. 0141 282 5000. 


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Use of ICT in assessment - an exemplar from Denny High School

By Paul Nisbet on Thursday 10th October, 2013 at 6:06pm

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Serendipitously, there are some new assessment exemplars focusing on learners with additional support needs on the National Assessment Resource and the exemplar from Denny High School is relevant to the current discussion regarding appropriate support for learners in assessment of literacy at National 3 and 4. (You will need a Glow login to access the NAR and read the report.) 

To quote from the introduction:

"In this quality-marked exemplar, the learning support base in Denny High School demonstrates an innovative approach to preparing learners for the changes to the new National Qualifications which prohibit the use of a human reader / scribe. By using Ivona minireader software learners are equipped with the skills to access information quickly and independently. This exemplar demonstrates a proactive approach to overcoming barriers to assessment of English and Literacy faced by learners with additional support needs."

(Ivona MiniReader is a free general-purpose text-to-speech program that can read from Word files, PDF, the internet, etc ect).

The report is an interesting read because it describes a systematic process for introducing text-to-speech (TTS) technology to staff, learners and parents. There were 45 S1/2 learners involved in the trial and they and the staff seemed to be enthusiastic about the technology and how it can help them access the curriculum more independently and successfully.    

Another interesting observation is that most of the learners said they were using text-to-speech to support both reading and writing - by reading back their own writing, pupils are more able to identify mistakes and correct their work. 


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Use of ICT to assess reading in National 3 and 4 Literacy Units

By Paul Nisbet on Thursday 10th October, 2013 at 12:54pm

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Under Section 96 of the Equality Act, SQA has responsibility to decide what is and is not a ‘reasonable adjustment’ for assessment in the new National Qualifications.

From August 2013, SQA have decided that human readers are not to be regarded as a reasonable adjustment when learners are required to show evidence of their reading skills in SQA National Literacy Units (see

However, the use of ICT is allowed:

“In order to minimise the disadvantage faced by some disabled learners in attaining the National Units in Literacy, the use of word processors and other assistive technologies such as screen readers, spell checkers or speech-recognition software would be acceptable as reasonable adjustments.” (Specification 3 - Literacy Units

Teachers, parents and learners have been asking us how learners can use ICT in assessments and so we have put together a brief guide to the use of ICT in assessment of reading.

We are also writing a guide on the use of ICT in assessment of writing, which we will be make available in a later blog and on our web site, so look back soon.

If you have any comments or suggestions on the guide please get in touch!


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eBooks from public libraries

By Paul Nisbet on Tuesday 8th October, 2013 at 4:40pm

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Frank Shaw from South Lanarkshire emailed to say that the South Lanarkshire library service now have an eBook and digital audiobook lending facility. To find out more, visit their web site

I took the opportunity to search and update our Books from Libraries page on the Books for All web site, and most of the council library services in Scotland now offer an eBook lending service where you can download and read eBooks (and sometimes audiobooks) on your computer, iPad, tablet, mobile phone etc.

The majority of the services seem to be using Overdrive, The OverDrive books are EPUB format which you can read on PC, Mac, iOS, Android, smart phones etc.

On a computer you read the books with Adobe Digital Editions (ADE). ADE is becoming more accessible in that with the latest version 2.0, the text can now be read using a few text-to-speech tools, and the font size can be increased to about 24 point, but there is only one font and limited colour options. Visit the Quick Guides page to download a guide on ADE.

For iOS, Android and eBook readers or smart phones, you read ebooks and listen to audiobooks using the OverDrive Media Console app.

RNIB also offer useful infornation on the accessibility of different types of eBooks.


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Reasonable adjustment or taught dependency? Reader/scribes and ICT in National assessment of Literacy

By Paul Nisbet on Wednesday 11th September, 2013 at 12:15pm

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As of August 2013, SQA clarified what is and is not a 'reasonable adjustment'  for learners with disabilities in assessments, and it seems that this has caused a bit of disquiet in some areas of Scottish education.

From speaking to practitioners, I believe that there is a general misunderstanding of the policy and so in this blog I will lay out the situation as I understand it. I'll be writing with some more detailed suggestions and comments over the next few weeks, but for now I want to make some initial observations.

(Disclaimer: we work with SQA as consultants advising on the the use of ICT by learners with additional support needs, but the views expressed here and elsewhere on our web sites and publications are entirely independent. You might also say that we have a vested interest in promoting the use of ICT in assessments. You'd be wrong though. The only interest we have is enabling learners with disabilities in Scotland to have every opportunity to access education and fulfil their potential.)

The policy that seems to be causing most comment concerns the use of readers and scribes in assessment of literacy. SQA say that:

“In relation to the National Literacy Units at all levels: (i) exemption from demonstrating any of the four assessed skills of reading, writing, listening or talking will not be a reasonable adjustment and (ii) using human readers and scribes will not be reasonable adjustments where reading and writing abilities are being explicitly assessed.” (Section 96(7) Equality Act 2010: Specifications on Reasonable Adjustments in National Qualifications in Scotland.

The first thing to point out is that the restriction on reader/scribes only applies to National Literacy Units (and Modern Languages or Gaelic (Learners)) where reading and/or writing are being explicitly assessed. Reader/scribes can be used in all other subjects.

SQA also state that:

“In order to minimise the disadvantage faced by some disabled learners in attaining the National Units in Literacy, the use of word processors and other assistive technologies such as screen readers, spell checkers or speech-recognition software would be acceptable as reasonable adjustments.” (Specification 3 - Literacy Units.

So essentially, the policy is that learners can use ICT but can not use readers or scribes for assessment tasks in National 3, 4, 5 Literacy Units. Is this reasonable? I believe that it is.

Human vs computer readers

In my opinion, a computer reader provides a satisfactory and effective alternative to a human reader. I also believe that the use of a computer reader provides a more consistent and ultimately fairer method of support for learners. I do not believe that pupils with disabilities are disadvantaged by the SQA policy.

With the free Scottish voices, the consistence, intelligibility and quality of the computer speech is excellent. Literacy assessment tasks are likely to be created using a word processor such as Microsoft Word (the exemplars from SQA are all Word files), and there are many free programs (including the Speak facility built in to Word 2007/2010) such as WordTalk, MiniReader, Natural Reader etc etc that can be used to read from Word, in addition to commercial products such as ClaroRead, Read and Write Gold, Penfriend, Co:Writer, etc etc.

Now it's possible that some pupils with complex disabilities might not be able to use the technology – e.g. a pupil with very severe physical disability and significant visual impairment might struggle to control the technology  - but it can be done if the school takes the trouble to organise the reading text and questions in an accessible format.

I think the experience and support offered by computer readers is comparable to human readers, but the computer of course offers the huge advantage of being independent and by teaching learners how to use the technology, it gives learners a useful life skill. Teaching them to rely on a reader doesn't.

Scribing vs writing with ICT

The actual assessment task at National 3 is to:

“3    Write simple, technically accurate texts by:

3.1    Selecting and using appropriate language

3.2    Organising writing appropriately

3.3    Using appropriate spelling, punctuation and grammar”  

(Unit Assessment Support: H23W 73 Literacy (National 3): Package 1: Unit-by-Unit approach, p. 21)

To pass the assessment, the learner has to:

  • "decide who will read your article and use words to suit them;
  • give facts, information and advice;
  • make the article clear and easy to follow (think about things like headings, the order of information, using lists or bullet points);
  • use spelling and punctuation and sentences that make sense.
  • write at least 80 words."

All learners are permitted to use ICT (including a spellchecker) for this writing task. The assessment is not time-limited and is generally expected to be done in class as part of day to day teaching and learning. Learners with disabilities can also use more specialist assistive technologies to generate their 80 words.

I do not believe that restricting the use of scribes for a assessment that is specifically intended to assess a learner’s ability to generate text independently is unreasonable. There will be some learners who will not be able to pass the assessment - for example pupils with severe learning difficulties or complex needs, but they would not be able to tackle the assessment with a scribe either.

So is  a pupil with dyslexia, say, disadvantaged by not being able to use a scribe? I say not. Is it fair that SQA are encouraging use of ICT instead? Absolutely.

I think that the widespread use of scribes for young people in secondary schools actively damages learners. There's a risk of developing 'learned helplessness' and it should be avoided. Teaching learners to rely on human scribes isn't helpful - as I said in a previous blog, it's not successful, not confident, not responsible, not effective and not what schools should be doing. Teaching learners to write independently by whatever means - whether by handwriting, or with ICT, is surely a priority for Scottish education.

Are we really saying that there are significant numbers of young people in the middle of their secondary education who are incapable of writing 80 words independently, by hand or using ICT? If so, there is something seriously amiss with Scottish education. If so, we need to know about it, and one way we'll find out it by assessing learner's writing independently and not disguising lack of ability or effective teaching by using scribes.


I've heard some staff saying that lack of computers or cost of software is a problem, but I really don’t think this is an acceptable argument in 2013. We really need to be teaching young people to use ICT and local authorities and schools must accept that and make adequate provision. As far as the specialist assistive software is concerned, the text reading tools and voices are free, as I said; spellcheckers are built in to standard word processors, and even the more specialist commercial writing support tools are a lot less expensive than paying for scribes.  (I'll look at these tools in a later blog.)

"Reliant on readers", "stuck with scribes", or "independent with ICT"? Let's go for the latter.


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Good Fonts for Dyslexia

By Allan Wilson on Wednesday 4th September, 2013 at 10:15am

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People often make assertions about the 'best' font to use to make it easier for people with dyslexia to read text, but this has been done without making use of any real research into the subject. For example, the British Dyslexia Association generally recommends the Arial font, while admitting that "We do not know whether any researchers have tested reading speed, accuracy or comprehension with different typefaces."

Now Spanish researchers have published1 the results of a study, comparing 12 fonts, using eye-tracking software to measure reading time and 'fixation uration (a measure of readability). They also asked the research participants about their personal preferences.

Their main conclusions are that:

  • Font types have a significant impact on readability of people with dyslexia
  • Good fonts for people with dyslexia are Helvetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana and Computer Modern Unicode, taking into consideration reading, performance and subjective preferences. On the contrary, Arial Italic should be avoided since it decreases readability.
  • Sans serif, roman and monospaced font types increased the reading performance of participants, while italic fonts did the opposite.

The Open Dyslexia font produced recently specifically for people with dyslexia scored well for reading speed, but was the least popular in meeting personal preferences.

The research supports our view that rather than assuming that a single font (usually Arial) can meet the needs of all people with dyslexia, it is important to make people aware of different fonts and, where possible, let them choose the font they want. (Arial may actually be a bad choice if italics are included as they are particularly hard to read.)

1Rello, Luz & Baeza-Yates, Ricardo (2013) Good Fonts for Dyslexia, ASSETS 2013, Bellevue, Washington USA


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