Digital scanning pens are now allowed by exam boards for students who need them. Teacher Jonathan Boyle looks at the C-Pen

The C-Pen Exam Reader is a totally portable, pocket-sized device that reads text out aloud with an English almost-human digital voice. When I learned that electronic reading pens had been allowed by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) for use in exams I began to take note.

On scrutinising the section ‘Adjustments for candidates with disabilities and learning difficulties’ it was clear to see that this was something different and now legitimately allows students who do not qualify for a reader to have access to an electronic device that reads questions. Clearly this had to be evaluated for our students.

I recall the simple examination wall warnings of old, and the list of proscriptions. Now of course, the poster reads rather differently, including a number of electronic devices reflecting the electronic age in which we live. And it reflects the progress we have made in supporting students who have issues with literacy and want to enjoy the benefits of assistive technologies.

Surely, this C-Pen Exam Reader can’t be allowed? Yes it can be and it is officially allowed by JCQ. I managed to get hold of two different versions. The first was the C-Pen Reader, proudly displaying a high-gloss white plastic finish and easy-to-hold form.

After switching on, there was a delay of around 10 seconds before it was ready to use, but a C-Pen logo and a motion graphic let me know that something was happening. A menu prompt asked me if I wanted to use the Text Reader or other features including the Dictionary, Scan to File, Recorder or Settings. I used the centrally placed white jog dial to select the Text Reader and I was ready for action.

A flashing cursor soon blinked away at me,  and that meant ‘action’! I had seen this in use at the Bett Show, so I tried to drag over some text from the manual (not having read it). A bright LED, reminiscent of Dr Who’s Sonic Screwdriver, illuminated the text. The text appeared rapidly on the display and a generated voice was convincing enough and she even had a trace of personality.

Flawless with numbers and text

I learned enough over time to satisty myself that it was flawless with numbers and text – as long as they were printed of course. Moving from a right hand to a left hand was equally commendable on a settings change with the screen reversing to help things along.

Let us remember who this is aimed at – learners of all ages who can hold a pen and would like to hear the words they see written on a page. This helps with understanding the context of a word on a line or to read a single word.

This then is a clear winner. The blue text is bright and high contrast against a black background, although some may feel that it could be a little small for some students. With recording facilities for voice and a scan-to-file function for those tricky sentences or words, this a fantastic piece of technology.

Including a dictionary too is clever, although I did find this more difficult to use. The translation into Spanish was a bit much for me to get to grips with (it also supports French, German and Italian). If you are an able reader, the dictionary is best read by yourself as the read-back includes all kinds of Collins notes that are included and confused me.

It kind of defeats the point if the best use of the dictionary in English or Spanish relies on you having to read it back as most learners might not have the skill required to use it. However, it is there and if learners are getting more confident, then you never know what they might be able to achieve with the technology.

C-Pen Exam ReaderThe C-Pen Reader cannot be taken into an examination because of its wealth of exam-busting malpractice attributes, but its bright orange sibling, the C-Pen Exam Reader can accompany children who are identified by the school. Its colour is most distinctive and is reminiscent – to older readers at least – of the orange Austin Allegro, Vanden Plas, but much better made!

Identical in form to the C-Pen Reader, the C-Pen Exam Reader is an electronically stripped-down version that reads the words it scans back to students to support them with accessing the language used in an examination. This is where I consider students now being enabled to sit an exam on a more level playing field, having not been able to secure a scribe or additional time.

It is a golden opportunity that I could not afford to miss personally and bought a class pack for my own school. It is rare to do a review and then go out and buy the products. There are a few things to be aware of though.

I think you need to factor in some over-ear headphones as the idea of sharing ear buds is not satisfactory, unless they are just going to be used by the one student. Second, even with many hours charge for each device, a class pack will need careful management to make sure that they don’t run out of battery charge just as an exam starts.

They are certainly robust enough, so the only other factor is counting them all out and counting them all back in again. Measuring the impact will be a little more challenging, but in a world of uncertainties in examinations, this little electronic pen is going to provide important facilities for those with literacy challenges who need them most in a situation where they would otherwise have little or no support.

At our school, Madeley Academy, students have taken to the pen with a very short lead time. Learning how to benefit from the pen takes an intuitive 10  to 15 seconds, so we are not talking about a training session prior to use (although it would be wise to give students the chance to handle and have a go before taking an exam).

Getting enough for the students is paramount as you don’t want to be found out when you get to the last one so we bought a box set and a spare one, taking us to a healthy 11 in number. One tiny hint before I go. We found within about half an hour that we needed a USB charging hub. So cost this in too so that you can keep them all topped up in very close proximity to whoever looks after them.

I am happy to oblige and support this opportunity as it might just make the difference for students' life chances everywhere — and not just in school, at home too (photo below).

Ratings (out of 5) for both pens
Fitness for purpose 5
Ease of use 4
Features 4
Quality 5
Value for money 4

C-Pen Exam Reader (and C-Pen Reader)
The C-Pen Exam Reader is a stripped-down version of of the C-Pen Reader (pens £190 each ex VAT with class sets of 10 at £1,805 with 10 cases, headphones and USB cables in attache case) – free 30-day trial available). It features a  264x64 OLED display, optical character recognition engine, high-quality text-to-speech voice, built-in speaker plus 3.5mm earphone jack, rechargeable Li-Ion battery (micro-USB charging port).
The 30 day free trials are only available to schools, colleges and universities – request on website
Scanning Pens Ltd, Broomhayes Farm, Inmarsh Lane, Seend, Wiltshire, SN12 6RX, UKE 
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7976 4910 
Fax: +44 (0)20 7976 4911

Jonathan BoyleJonathan Boyle is deputy headteacher at Madeley Academy, Telford. He has developed his own school evaluation software, called Pastoral Auditor, which costs £100 for a 12-month licence.

C-Pen at home

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