“Assistive technology allows students to listen to text books that they cannot read by traditional means. As the best schools are already aware, it gives independence, stops non-reading pupils falling inexorably behind and lessens reliance on teaching assistants. In addition, because pupils who use text-to-speech synthesis see and hear many more words, their literacy skills also improve.”
Michael Gove's original remark had been made in response to a BBC study of DfE statistics on literacy levels of pupils leaving primary school. He acknowledged, on the BBC's Today programme, that 9 per cent of boys were reaching secondary schools at 11 with a reading age of 7 or less.
BATA took the opportunity to remind the education secretary who, with his colleagues has deliberately and consistently downplayed the role of ICT in learning, that there is no excuse for leaving children at the mercy of literacy problems when assistive technology can help them.
'Technology can help overcome the Bart Simpson effect of taking children out of class'
A BATA press release says: "It is not enough to repeat at secondary school the literacy teaching which has so far failed, and which often entails students missing ordinary lessons. A changed approach must allow students to access the curriculum as they are learning, particularly if, as announced by the government, they will be staying in education until 19. Assistive technology can help overcome the Bart Simpson effect of taking children with difficulties out of class: 'Let me get this straight. We're behind the rest of our class and we're going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?'”
BATA ponts out that, since 1994, there has also been a good evidence base for using assistive technology, particularly text-to-speech, as part of the armory of tools used in primary schools to support literacy. It also believes that assistive technology should be an integral part of systematic synthetic phonics teaching for pupils who have any difficulties at all with learning to decode written words.
“Part of the Pupil Premium must be devoted to assistive technology”, says Ian Litterick, “as assistive technology offers terrific value for money in overcoming the disadvantages of those who are socially or digitally excluded.”
BATA chairman Martin Littler has also sent an open letter to Michael Gove (download here) pointing out the risk faced by children with significant special needs unless they have funds specifically allocated to them. He warns that their relative position is in clear danger of deteriorating as the majority improve, particularly when the children with special needs are in mainstream schooling and are competing for funds and resources within the school.
The British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) exists to promote the rights and interests of those needing assistive technology. Members include users, carers, professionals, charities, local authorities, schools, colleges, universities and companies.
Assistive technology, often based on ICT, helps to overcome disabilities or difficulties in everyday life. The most common assistive technology for those with reading impairments is text-to-speech synthesis (TTS), where the computer reads aloud from electronic text, so assisting with both decoding and comprehension. Priced from free upwards, TTS and other literacy support software offers a range of other tools to help with reading, writing, literacy learning and curriculum study.
The Accessible Resources Pilot had funding from the then DCSF to pilot the conversion of textbooks into accessible electronic formats in 2009/10 in a small number of schools. The Coalition Government has not yet announced how this is to be followed up.
BATA believes that textbooks should be available in electronic format as a matter of course. They are then automatically available to Reading Impaired children, whether visually impaired, dyslexic, having mobility problems or coming to English as a second language. Electronic books are increasingly needed by children with no reading difficulty at all who will be expecting to read on electronic devices.
In the USA publishers must make electronic texts of newly published textbooks available for the use of students with reading impairments under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 2004.
BATA council member Ian Litterick is the founder and executive chairman of iansyst Ltd an assistive technology vendor which has run the dyslexic.com website on technology tools for dyslexia since 1996. He is also a member of the British Dyslexia Association’s New Technologies Committee and a member of the committee of the Right to Read Campaign.