Talking Mats screenshotThere are lots of ways to start communication. 'Talking Mats' is a good one, says Sal McKeown 
Last week at Communication Matters, the annual conference for augmentative and alternative communication, I saw Talking Mats, a really simple but effective intervention which has just gone digital. Originally it was a textured mat – hence the name – but it is now available as a free App for iOS and Android devices.

At the top of the on-screen mat there is a scale which represents good to indifferent to bad. Users have a pile of images, symbols or words relevant to the topic. As with the old-style Fuzzy Felt (yes, it's still around), they move the pictures or words so they are in an appropriate place on the scale. Now they have a visual reference for discussion. Talking Mats is a great way of introducing a topic and eliciting views without interrogating the learner, and this is especially good in those situations where too much eye contact would be off putting.

Independent learners and students need digital friends like 'Read&Write Gold', says Sal McKeown
Texthelp studentsCome the autumn thousands of students will be bereft. For years they have relied on the support of teachers, parents and a close knit group of friends for ideas and advice, for proof-reading services and maybe to test them as they revise.

Higher education can be a very lonely experience. Instead of being in a familiar class of 30, a new student may well be in a group of more than 100 strangers. It is easy to become demoralised when assignments pile up and there's no one to help them structure their answers, nag them about deadlines or cheer them on. Unless there is an alternative.

BATA chair Mark McClusker hails ICT's official exam debut, and the push for inclusion for World Book Day
ExamGood news for students with special educational needs (SEN) that use literacy software in the classroom! A recent change in the regulations by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), means that literacy software can now be used in exams to support students with reading difficulties such as dyslexia. These tools can level the playing field with non-dyslexic candidates and it is vital that schools – and students – are aware that this change has been made and that support is available to them.

This is a welcome development and stems from the Coalition Government’s determination to make exams harder by phasing out coursework and modular learning in favour of traditional end-of-year exams which come into effect in 2015.

As the blocks come off technology in exams, Sal McKeown reckons Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 is ready

Dragon NaturallySpeakinI was a very early adopter of voice recognition. I used it for the first time some 15 years ago to help a student whose dissertation had disappeared from her hard disc. I dictated 3,000 words from a tatty print-out and I could not believe how accurate it was.

I was a convert and demoed it to various groups around the country. I have to say that it worked better in my kitchen than in exhibition halls or training suites and I never achieved that same level of accuracy in public that I enjoyed at home. Having just tried the latest version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, published by Nuance, I suspect it has become more robust and will travel better.

Shadow minister warns of SEN 'race to bottom' and BBC expert calls for accessibility for all new technology
Sharon Hodgson, Nadia ClarkeThe potential gains held out to learners with special educational needs in the Government's Green Paper could be dashed by failure to tighten legislation, warned shadow schools and families minister Sharon Hodgson MP at the annual meeting of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) last week.

And the BBC’s disability correspondent Peter White amplified that warning, saying that benefits gained by people with special needs were always vulnerable without strong safeguards. It was now time, he added, for fresh legislation to ensure that all new technologies are designed with SEN and inclusion in mind.