John Galloway checks out a truly inclusive literacy tool for all – 'DocsPlus' from Crick Software
Sometimes a replacement for a well-known software title seems to be not much more than tweaking existing functions and changing the packaging.
Not so with Crick Software. Following on from the radical upgrade that gave us a new, improved primary toolkit, Clicker 7, the company has now replaced its product for secondary school students, WriteOnline, with an even more impressive DocsPlus.
Anyone can use it
The basic interface is a stripped-down word processor, trimmed of all the stuff school students (and, to be honest, many of the rest of us too) will never use. It is this starting point that makes it so inclusive: anyone can use it, whether they have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or not. But if they do find getting their ideas down challenging there are a host of ways in which support can be given.
For a start there is a WorkSpace function to brainstorm ideas which can then beused to 'scaffold' the writing, or can be dropped in to the document as an image. Then there are tools such as text-to-speech to read text back to writers, so you know whether what you have put on screen makes sense, word prediction to reduce the need to shift your focus and think about word-finding and spelling, and 'word grids' of key vocabulary, or to provide a writing frame. You can also add voice notes, verbal reminders of what you might want to put. There's even a talking spellchecker and a mind-mapping tool.
The ability to change the colour scheme and font are there, for those who might have particular sensitivities, along with controls for switches and eye-gaze. This latter in particular is aided by the inclusion of the award-winning 'SuperKeys', a means by which targeted areas of the keyboard expand to improve accuracy.
Much of this is familiar from Clicker 7, which should help with secondary transfer as pupils moving up will find familiarity in the tools available to them. However, they can also get feedback, with teachers adding notes into key points of their texts, and there are the analysis tools. These include a version tracker, a record of anything pasted in to the document, and a list of corrected spellings. All helpful when assessing work. And of course teachers can use the program to create curriculum materials for their learners.
Teacher support aspect helpful for parents too
The teacher aspect of the software is also important for parents, as a home licence allows the program to be used on two machines. This allows parents to support their children, helping them to engage with the program and to build up aspects like word grids.
One development that puts it clearly in the secondary realm is the possibility to use it as a tool to support access arrangements in exams, with exam papers and texts opened and read in DocsPlus (it can handle just about any document format) and features either "enabled" or "locked down" to help those who might find the texts difficult to read.
DocsPlus' ability to open PDF worksheets and exam papers and read them to the student means that if students qualify for a reader in exams they can have exam PDFs read out to them by DocsPlus. The exam paper can then sit at the bottom of a student's computer screen alongside his or her own work document. This is a big step forward and means that the question paper is always available in front of a student while writing. (Bear in mind that exam use is only available for those learners who use this kind of technology for their normal school work — a good idea if they don't already.)
Overall it is just what you would expect from Crick, a very inclusive, well thought out resource with the flexibility to provide valuable support for students with a diverse range of learning needs. The other thing you expect from Crick is fresh ideas with every new product. They never disappoint.
John Galloway is an expert in the use of technology to support teaching, learning and communication for children and young people with SEND. He is also a successful author. His latest book, Learning with Mobile and Handheld Technologies, co-authored with Merlin John and Maureen McTaggart, won the Book of the Year category in the Innovation and Technology Awards, 2016.