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THE ROLE OF COMPUTERS IN TEACHING EFL TO DYSLEXIC STUDENTS©

by Renee Wahl

June 1996
Computer technology has become a most ubiquitious technological influence on our lives in the last part of the 20th century. More and more uses of its unique features are found every day and it is not surprising that the field of education is also being strongly affected by this tool. It turns out that computer technology has various features that are important in the light of results of research into language learning difficulties in general and dyslexia in particular.

This paper will briefly discuss those features of computer technology which are relevant to the the symptoms of dyslexia and to remediation techniques for dyslexics. It will mention the results of some recent experimentation on the use of computers to remediate various language problems and will recommend some specific computer programs which should be taken into consideration when remediatiing dyslexic students.

Dyslexia is a syndrome of defective language learning ability. It is not within the scope of this paper to define or describe the syndrome, but most authorities agree that it can be characterized by some or all of the following primary and secondary symptoms:

Primary Symptoms

People suffering from dyslexia, depending on how severe their difficulties are and how long they have persisted without detection or remediation, develop secondary symptoms which can also contribute to their difficulties. These can be called secondary symptoms and include In order to see how computer technology can help overcome these problems, it is useful to break down these features into their more mundane parts.

Poor short term memory

Although this subject is still somewhat controversial, most researachers agree that some results of poor short term memory have a negative effect on language learning ability. Short term memory is overtaxed by decoding which has not become automatic. Thus, parts of words, phrases or sentences can be forgotten before they have been completely understood.

Poor short term memory can result in sequencing difficulty. If you have forgotten the items that were first, you cannot easily continue with a sequencing task. Therefore tasks like reading and writing and any kind of organizing task which involve several steps are difficult to complete. Any feature that improves short term memory or can break a task down into more easily digestible chunks might ameliorate this problem.

Although attention deficit does not necessarily always accompany dyslexia, it is often present to a greater or lesser degree. Due to physiological problems or just plain frustration or fatigue, coping with the reading/writing task requires greater amounts of energy and concentration from that dyslexic than from the normal individual. Anything that can rivit his/her attention might help overcome this problem.

Defective fine motor skills

Defective fine motor skills often accompany the syndrome of dyslexia and are thought to make reading or manipulating quantities of text difficult for the dyslexic. More obviously, writing becomes a laborious and energy-consuming job. A tool that would remove some of the difficulty of reading or producing text would greatly benefit the dyslexic.

Defective phonological or visual access and processing

Most authorities agree that in dyslexia there is a problem with the cognitive ability to link the shape and/or sound of alphabetical symbols with their semantic meaning as represented in memory. Thus, although a dyslexic might have perfect hearing and vision and be able to discriminate visual and auditory clues of a general nature and link them with their meaning e.g. distinguish between a fire engine siren and an ambulance siren, when this discriminaiton involves the sounds or symbols of language, the link is awkward or approximate.

Any technology which could help the dyslexic strengthen the symbol-sound-meaning link or offer a multisensory approach which would bypass or reinforce the defective feature would be effective in improving his ability to deal with language.

Anyone who has had some experience with computers should already have begun making the connection between what computers do best and the above points. It follows even more obviously that the seocndary features of dyslexia point even more strongly in the same direction. Let us now begin to organize our knowledge of computer technology features to fit this framework.

What computers do best to alleviate the secondary features of dyslexia are:

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It might be argued that conventional methods of teaching adapted by an enthusiastic, creative and industrious teacher could do the job as well if not better than a computer. This is certainly true. Indifferent use of the computer or any other tool in the hands of an unispiring teacher or on their own, without teacher mediation won't help. However, we would not expect the best of teachers to do their best without first class resources - books, colored markers, sharp scissors, etc., and the chance to use these creatively. Let's not forget that inspired and dedicated teachers are not easy to find, and certainly not enough of them are trained or available to deal with the large numbers of dyslexic students who need them. Not only can the computer do certain tasks more efficiently than a teacher, but it can be dedicated to the individual student and run by him at his pace, freeing the teacher for planning tasks and creation and tailoring of new material for several students.

To return to the primary features of dyslexia, there are features of computer aided language instruction that are ideally suited to solving problems of this kind.

Computer programming logic is based on the principle of breaking down a task into smaller, more manageable units. As a result, it should not be surprising that much of the educational material produced for computers deals with cognitive tools such as sequencing memory expansion techniques, etc. These programs are available and can be culled for material that is relevant to dyslexics. Specifically for language skills, there are many good programs available that drill spelling and/or spelling rules in novel, game-like and multimedia ways.These features can make the computer an excellent tool for remediating the problems of ADD and STM.

WORD PROCESSING PROGRAMS

With regard to fine motor skills, the use of word processors can take the drudgery out of dealing with texts in many ways:

CD ROM MULTIMEDIA TECHNOLOGY

CD ROMís allow computers to make use of sophisticated audio and video effects that were previously out of the range of personal computer memory capacity. A teacher would have to run a three-ring circus in order to compete with the attraction and fun of these programs. The following section of this paper will review a short list of specific programs, pointing out the features that make them useful in teaching dyslexics.

LIVING BOOKS

"Living Books" has become a generic name for a type of CD ROM program which consists of an interactive, multimedia, illustrated story. This type of software is available for various levels, starting with pre-kindergarten and going up to the classics for high school students. The living book consists of a story consisting of illustrated pages together with text. The pictures are just beautiful. The multimedia nature of the story consists of the ability to have the text read aloud while a cursor keeps your place in the text. The voices are suited to the level of the story and are quite clear, though care must be taken for second language and dyslexic students to choose stories whose narrators have minimal accents and who speak slowly. Another feature to watch for when choosing material for dyslexic students is that the text should be large and clear. Sound effects are also included and these often include narration or comments that do not appear in the text, though they are usually only a short phrase or sentence and represent natural language in context.

The interactivity of living books consists of the reader having full control of where he is in the story and what options he can choose (to be read to or to read himself, to have the text repeated any number of times), as well as the ability to choose almost any object in the picture (by means of the mouse), click on that object, and get an animated response. Higher level books have pictures that can be clicked on to get video clips (the speech in these clips has no accompanying text) related to the story, and also often include a dictionary which allows the reader to click on a word he doesnít understand, get an audio-pronunciation and an English definition. Some include games and activities, and for the very young, coloring-book features. The following list of titles and manufacturers is in ascending order of difficulty. Each title has typically 25-50 hours of activities and the cost is in the range of 120 Shekels.
Title  Publisher 
1 P.Bís Birthday Party  Dorling Kindersley 
2 Chadwick and the Sneaky Egg Thief  Guildsoft 
3 Just Grandma and Me  Broderbund 
4 The Tortoise and the Hare  Broderbund 
5 Artherís Birthday  Broderbund 
6 Arthurís Teacher Trouble  Broderbund 
7 Little Monster at School  Broderbund 
8 Harry and the Haunted House  Broderbund 
9 New Kid on the Block  Broderbund 
10 Kiyeko and the Lost Night  Ubisoft 
11 Aliceís Adventures in Wonderland  Europress 
12 Black Beauty  Sound Source Interactive 
13 Lassie  Sound Source Interactive 
14 The Secret Garden  Sound Source Interactive 

TEACHING SOFTWARE

There are many CDís on the market that set out to teach various reading related subjects. One recent release that teach how to form letters (both cursive and manuscript) their sounds and words containing these sounds as well as short texts and text based games to go with each letter is entitled Alphabet Soup, by Compact Books. This program was designed for very young children, but it so charming that I doubt that older children would mind using it.

Another useful program that tests (doesnít teach) spelling where words are read out loud is entitled Tell & Spell, by They Ltd. Neither of these programs includes any of the spelling rules, or explanations of spelling, and since they are on CD, you cannot choose the words you want to be tested on, nor can you add a spelling list of your own.

Several Israeli programs are excellent and include text that is simultaneously displayed in written form and narrated. They also allow the student to record himself reading or pronouncing words and phrases and then play back the recording to check himself. Titles are English Discoveries, by Edusoft, and Into Reading by the Center for Educational Technology (îè"ç). The major disadvantage of these programs is their expense, though they are well worth the investment if purchased and shared by a small group of interested parties.


MULTIMEDIA ENCYCLOPEDIAS & REFERENCE BOOKS

The encyclopedias and other resource materials available on CD are not suitable to dyslexics at early stages of remediation. They can, however, be invaluable in encouraging the dyslexics to read and use resource materials, once they have gotten through about 75% of the Hickey program.

Multimedia encyclopedias include music, sound effects, animations, graphics and video clips. What makes them useful for dyslexics is that they are very attractive and exciting. The more elementary levels include minimal text and the text is usually narrated as it appears on the screen. It is also accompanied by memory enhancing multimedia effects. Dyslexics will probably be willing to do the minimum reading involved in order to use this exciting technology. You may even get them to enjoy doing projects and improve their organizational skills through well-structured projects that require no hand-copying and revision of text. Everything can be done by cutting and pasting on the computer and printed out on a word-processor.

The following list is just a sampling of the better known titles. It is advisable to sit down and spend at least half an hour reviewing a program hands-on, in order to determine if it is suitable to a particular student. Look for high graphic to text content as well as high narration to text ratio. Clear, slow narration and an easy to maneuver through menu.
Title  Publisher 
1 The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia  World Books 
2 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia  Grolier Interactive 
3 Encarta  Microsoft 
4 Comptonís Interactive Encyclopedia  Comptons 
5 Ancient Lands 
6 Dangerous Creatures 

VOCABULARY ENRICHMENT

It is a well-known fact that any kind of reading will enrich vocabulary. Therefore, all the software mentioned so far will do the job admirably. However I cannot resist mentioning several programs which do a wonderful job of vocabulary enrichment either intentionally or incidental to other aims. An elementary, though excellent program called Letís Explore the Airport with Buzzy by Electronic Arts gives a thorough vocabulary on words related to all aspects of flight without being technical. In addition to its game features, it uses click and hear as well as text to define words. The print is large and the narration is slow and clear.

Adventure games at all levels starting from very elementary to very advanced provide the most effective and exciting incidental vocabulary enrichment possible. Most combine text with narration in the most natural way. The Carmen San Diego series does this for upper levels, and almost all the adventure games include text combined with narration messages throughout.
 

PRESENTATION PROGRAMS

The last category I would like to mention is a group of totally open programs as compared to the totally closed programs that were discussed so far. Open means that the program has a certain framework connected with its purpose (in this case presentation of slides or lecture aids) into which you, the teacher or the student add whatever content and effects you wish. For example, you can prepare slides for all the phonemes in the Hickey program, where the letters appear and are accompanied or followed by your voice pronouncing them. Graphics, animations, music, sound effects and even video can be added. Interactive buttons allow verbal explanations of anything that appears on the screen (pronunciation of difficult words, definitions or translations) and can even route the user to another slide. These programs are not expensive in terms of finances, but do require an investment of time to learn how to use them. However, the results are personalized learning material. Perhaps their greatest advantage is that the students learn the techniques much more easily than the teachers do, can prepare their own materials, and get tremendous satisfaction from impressing themselves, their teachers and other students with the results. One of the best known and most readily available of these programs is Power Point by Microsoft. It usually comes as part of the Microsoft Office package together with Windows and WORD. A more sophisticated presentation program is Astound by Gold Disk.

This short section has described only a tiny part of the wonderful computer learning and teaching aids that are available to help remediate dyslexia. I hope that readers of this paper will be "turned on" enough to the idea to go out and see for themselves what these programs can do.


© The above paper is the original work of the author and may not be copied, reproduced or otherwise used without the written consent of the author.

Copyright 1997 - ETNI
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