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Scanning Pens or Scanning Apps?

by Allan Wilson

on Tue May 30, 2017

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Suppose that you have dyslexia, or a reading difficulty, and have been given some important information printed on a sheet of paper. It may be an exam paper, or information about your flight and accommodation details for the holiday that you have been looking forward to for months. What do you do? You could ask somebody to read it for you, but this is always so embarrassing... Maybe technology could help you, so that you don't have to rely on someone else?

Reading / scanning pens have been around for nearly 20 years and can be used to scan individual words or single lines of text and to read the text back using synthetic speech. Some of the early models, e.g. the WizCom Reading Pen are still available and can still be effective, but a new generation of device, most noticeably the C-Pen Reader has become available in the last couple of years. Both WizCom and C-Pen have versions of their devices specifically designed with dictionary definitions disabled for use in exams.

Wizcom Reading Pen, or C-Pen Reader?

Wizcom Exam PenC-Pen Reader

If you think that you could benefit from a scanning pen, which one should you buy? (You may be able to borrow one from CALL to try out - we have examples of both, but they are in high demand.) What are the features to consider?

Design

The Reading Pen is a rather 'chunky' device that can be awkward for small fingers to hold and manipulate - probably not suitable for early primary school. On the other hand, the C-Pen is significantly slimmer, and less than half the weight. The standard Reading Pen is the same shape as the orange Exam Pen illustrated above, but is dark grey in colour, making it a little more discreet, but the C-Pen is probably the better option for somebody concerned about being seen to be "different".

Neither device would score particularly for clarity of operation - you really need to need to consult the manual to find out which combination of arrows and cryptic symbols / abbreviations you need to use to access some of the functions on both devices.

Functionality

Both devices work well with fairly standard fonts up to a size of around 36 point where there is good contrast between the text and the background, but they struggle with the 'unusual' fonts and strongly coloured backgrounds found in many children's picture books and some magazines.

You need to start scanning around 0.5 - 1 cm to the left of the text that you are wanting to read, which is not intuitive, but an easy habit to adopt. If you are not getting good results, try adjusting your starting point, the angle of use, or the speed of scanning before you dismiss the device as "not working". Reading Pens usually come with a clear plastic training "skid" which helps the user start at the right place and hold the pen at the right angle, but this is easily lost! The Reading Pen runs on small wheels which help it to run smoothly as it is scanning, but the C-Pen can drag slightly on some paper making it harder to scan in a straight line.

The C-Pen is faster at scanning and reading back a line of text and has a significantly better voice than the Reading Pen.

Using Scanning Pens in an Educational Context - What the Research Says

There have been a few research papers on the use of scanning pens with a variety of learners over the past few years.

Higgins & Raskind (2005) carried out a comprehensive study involving trials of the Reading Pen with thirty participants with reading disabilities aged 10 - 18. Participants were provided with training over the course of two weeks, followed by a reading comprehension test carried out with or without the use of the Reading Pen. The results showed a significant improvement in comprehension scores among the learners who used the Reading Pen and pupils were enthusiastic about using the Pen.

Schmitt et al carried out a similar study involving only three students in a post-secondary setting. In this case, “use of a reading pen did not uniformly improve the comprehension of the post-secondary students. However, the student with the poorest reading skills benefitted the most.” It should be noted that in this study the students only received 15 minutes of training in the use of the Reading Pen.

Thurlow et al (2010) rated the performance of 76 pupils (from a mixture of mainstream and special settings), but only 11 pupils achieved higher reading scores with the Reading Pen, though 19 rated the pen as being "very helpful". The researchers concluded that "a subset of the students might benefit from its use", though they were unable to identify the characteristics that might indicate which pupils might benefit from the Reading Pen.

Johnson (2008) carried out a small scale trial of a Reading Pen with four pupils with reading difficulties, measuring reading accuracy and comprehension before and after the trial. All four achieved a higher score for reading accuracy, but only two achieved higher scores for comprehension; one had a significantly lower score, while the other showed a very small decrease.

The report by Garner Education Services provides early findings from ongoing research. Six English as an Additional Language students were given an opportunity to try a C-Pen Reader to assist their learning and were asked about their level of confidence with reading text with and without the C-Pen. All reported a significant increase in confidence of between 24% and 57%.

Although CALL has not carried out formal research in this area, we retain feedback on loans of equipment. Scanning pens have been returned from loan on 38 occasions since 2001, with feedback being provided in 22 cases. Of these, 41% planned to buy a scanning pen, 27% hoped to try something else, 14% were seeking further information, while the remaining 18% did not know what their future action would be. This feedback suggests that scanning pens certainly work for a number of pupils.

Cost

Scanning Pens are sometimes seen as quite expensive, but if it is something that a pupil really needs, cost should not be the deciding factor. The devices are available from different suppliers and prices can vary. Prices in the table below (May, 2017) all exclude VAT. Note that Amazon isn't the cheapest option!

Suppliers of Scanning Pens

Supplier C-Pen Reader C-Pen Exam Reader Reading Pen Exam Pen
Scanning Pens £190.00 £190.00 £170.00 £140.00
Iansyst £190.00 £190.00 £112.50 £104.16
Amazon £200.00 £200.00 £148.28 £157.50

What about Scanning Apps?

If you have an iPad / iPhone, or an Android-based smartphone / tablet, there are lots of apps available for scanning and reading printed text. Using a scanning app to take a picture will generally be faster if you have a few sentences of text and are reading for meaning / information, but if a pupil is at an early stage in reading and needs to focus on decoding individual words, then a scanning pen might be the better option.

If you want to use an app, there are a few general points to bear in mind:

  • Unless you have three hands (one to hold a book flat, one to hold your phone / tablet and one to take the picture, you may eventually need to get a stand for your device.
  • If your phone / tablet doesn't have a flash, you'll need to make sure you have good lighting. If you rely on overhead lighting, you may get a shadow from your device on the scanned image.
  • You may need to use more than one app, depending on your different needs.
  • Scanning apps, like scanning pens, don't work well with the unusual fonts often used in children's picture books, or with strong coloured backgrounds / images sometimes found in magazines.

A Selection of Scanning Apps

There are lots of document management apps for the iPad that scan documents and save them as PDF files, but in many cases (e.g. Adobe Acrobat, Genius) the files  they create are image files, no better for reading text than using the iPad camera to take a picture. If you want to be able to read text out loud, it must be 'selectable text' created using a process known as optical character recognition (OCR). Even this term is confusable as EverNote, for example, only produces 'searchable' text, not text that can be read back. Here are some apps that will produce text that you can read out:

Image from Claro ScanPen Reader, with spoken text highlighted in green.Claro ScanPen Reader (£6.99 iPad, £2.99 Android) is a brilliant app if you want to be able to take a picture of some text and have a device read the text back to you. It is fast, accurate and easy to use. Take a picture of some text, wait a fraction of a second (you should see the picture change slightly when it is ready), then run your finger down the text so that the text is highlighted in green and then listen to the text read out. (This isn't obvious!) ScanPen Reader is particularly useful for things like worksheets where you have a mixture of text and pictures and you want to see both together. The Android version currently crashes if you try to use it with a Scottish voice app. Unfortunately, it is not possible to save your scanned text from Claro ScanPen Reader.

KNScanned text in KNFB ReaderFB Reader (£99.99 iPad, free trial, then £94.99 Android) is another excellent app, as you would expect for that price! Designed for blind, or visually impaired users, point your device at a page of text and click the camera button to capture the text. Provided that a blind user can roughly align the camera with the text, KNFB Reader gives audio feedback to allow precise alignment. It then extracts text from an image and instantly begins to read it. Page formatting and any images on the page are lost. It works best at capturing a page of pure text, but is very good at extracting text from a page with a mixture of text and images. Unlike Claro ScanPen Reader, KNFB Reader can save scanned text so that you can retrieve it and read it again later. If you just need to save the text, think about KNFB Reader, or, if you also want to preserve formatting, Office Lens.

Office Lens (Free iPad and Android) lets the user take an image of text and then provides various destinations for extracting text from the image, including:

  • Word file - editable text and images will be transferred to a Word document.
  • OneNote - use the Copy Text option to extract text from the image and then Paste it into your document.
  • PDF - creates a PDF document with selectable text that can be spoken. This can be transferred to a PDF app, such as PDF Expert or ClaroPDF Pro for any annotation that might be required.
  • Immersive Reader - provides a simplified layout with only the text, which can be read out loud, with individual words highlighted as they are read. Text size and spacing can both be increased, and there's an option to repeat the last five words that were read.

Office Lens can take a few seconds to process images into text, so it is less 'instant' than Claro ScanPen Reader and KNFB Reader.

Possible destinations for image taken by Office Lens.Use Copy Text to extract text into One NoteImmersive Reader

TextGrabber (£4.99 iPad, £9.49 Android) - a little bit fiddly as text has to be cropped in the original image before it can be turned into digital text. It can be useful for people with English as an Additional Language as it can translate between a variety of languages. In the case of the iPad, text has to be read using the built-in 'Speak Selection' facility, but it will automatically choose the default voice for different languages.

Text has to be cropped from an image in TextGrabber.Automatic translation with TextGrabber

The four apps mentioned above cover most eventualities, but there are others that are popular and well-used in schools. Many teachers use SnapType as a cheap and cheerful tool for providing digital worksheets for pupils. It allows an existing paper worksheet to be scanned so that a pupil can type in their answers. A pupil with a visual impairment can magnify the text, but it doesn't provide OCR and therefore cannot easily give access to text-to-speech support. GoWorksheet is a powerful tool allowing a teacher to take a paper worksheet and turn it into an accessible, digital worksheet, but it is quite complicated to use.

Prizmo and CapturaTalk (both available for iOS and Android devices) are a couple of other apps worth considering. Prizmo is better than most at handling very complex text with lots of blocks of text and images, but is tricky to use. It has a translation facility, but voices have to be purchased. When I tried it, it read French with an English voice - very odd! CapturaTalk is a powerful app with a lot of useful features, including a talking web browser and a system for storing and speaking phrases that would allow it to be used as a text-based communication aid. It is quite complicated to use.

It is also worth considering some of the 'standard' scanning / OCR apps to see how well they can be used in an educational context. Scanbot Pro (iOS and Android) is particularly good, easy to use and with an attractive, modern appearance. Scanner Pro (iOS and Android) works very well on the iPad and is fast, with some steps automated. The Android version of Scanner Pro is less useful as it doesn't seem to produce text from an image.

Tags: scanning, reading pen, ipad, android

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