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Software Helps Students Improve by Suggesting the Right Word

Quillsoft’s WordQ and SpeakQ programs provide special help for students with learning disabilities.

WHEN STUDENTS AT ROCKLAND DISTIRICT High School in Ontario, Canada, get stuck looking for the right word during a writing assignment, they get help from their computer, which suggests the word they need based on the context of the sentence.

“It releases their writing,” says Steve McLean, the school’s principal, who explained that the writing prompts are provided by a program called WordQ.

"It helps with pronunciation, with meaning and with recognizing homonyms like there and their."

Distributed by Quillsoft Ltd., of Toronto, WordQ works with most word processing programs. In addition to providing students with contextually appropriate word suggestions, it also provides spoken feedback to help writers find their mistakes. Companion software called SpeakQ is a speech recognition and text-to-speech program that allows students to write by speaking and edit their work by hearing their writing read back to them.

While WordQ and SpeakQ can help all students develop writing and vocabulary skills, McLean said the programs are particularly helpful for students with learning disabilities. “Many children with learning disabilities have above-average intelligence but are unable to communicate well, especially through writing,” he said. “Th ese are kids with great ideas who just can’t write them down. For them, the writing process is painful and frustrating. WordQ and SpeakQ solve that problem for them.”

The two programs were researched and developed by educators and learning professionals at Bloorview Kids Rehab, an internationally recognized children’s rehabilitation hospital in Toronto. The developers knew that students with impaired or developing language skills are often held back by their failure to recognize the words they wish to use. WordQ and SpeakQ were developed to help in word fi nding, word fl uency, sentence structure and word prediction.

The two programs were implemented last year by the Upper Canada District School Board, which includes Rockland District High School. The assistive software is accessible to all 32,000 students in the district, and is used by students starting in first grade.

“We were looking at a variety of speech recognition programs,” said McLean, who served on the committee that ultimately selected WordQ and SpeakQ. “Many of the programs, including the leading speech recognition software, were too difficult for students to use, especially students with learning disabilities, because they weren’t developed for students. With WordQ and SpeakQ, you don’t even need to be able to read in order to get started with the programs.”

Conventional speech recognition systems are designed primarily as a productivity tool for persons who have no trouble writing and dictating, or as an alternative hands-free access tool for persons with physical disabilities. WordQ/SpeakQ, on the other hand, is for those who can type but who have trouble writing and reading in the first place. They can benefit from a combination of word prediction, speech output and speech input to generate text when stuck with spelling and word forms, identifying errors, proofreading and editing.

“The program’s predictive ability is highly accurate,” McLean said. “It helps with pronunciation, with meaning and with recognizing homonyms like there and their.”

At Rockland District High School, WordQ is customized by teachers who add subject-specific vocabulary words so that students working on a science or history assignment, for example, can get contextually appropriate cues to help them select the correct word regarding the topic they are studying.

Although WordQ and SpeakQ are just now in their second full year of use at Rockland District High School, McLean said he can foresee a time soon when the two programs will be a part of every class.

“The success is going to come when your everyday teacher in the classroom is building opportunities into their curriculum and allowances for kids who need to use that software to do that, and to be able to use it in class on a daily basis,” he said.

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