Simon Kitchen BSc (Hons) , MSc
Dolphin Computer Access Ltd.
It's the age old problem, you've got some vision or print impaired children in your classroom, they're falling behind and you're not 100% sure what to do about it. Maybe this is as good as it gets? Each year group throws up its share of poor readers, right? Well maybe not!
In this article, Simon Kitchen from Dolphin reviews the findings of the Accessible Resource Pilot Project, a pilot directed at finding the ingredients for an accessible classroom, in which all children, particularly those with literacy issues, can reach their full potential.
I have to say what I loved this afternoon was watching the students, the faces, the sheer excitement that they have about having something they can use. J & L are two of our most severe Dyslexic students. Both are statemented and find it really hard to access material and have done so throughout their whole time here. J just said "I can read this" and it was wonderful. To find a child who really does experience difficulty across the curriculum to find something that allows success is great." (Teacher)
There are many students in schools up and down the country who have difficulties with reading and writing. This includes students with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, low literacy levels, students learning English as an additional language or students with a visual impairment. These students are often very bright individuals, but fail to realise their full potential in school simply because the curriculum is not accessible to them. What's more, difficulties with accessing the curriculum can manifest in different ways, sometimes having a marked impact on students' social and behavioural wellbeing as well as their education. However, the UK Department for Education recently commissioned a research project which proves that this does not need to be the case.
The issues surrounding the accessibility of reading materials for visually impaired and dyslexic readers have been well documented. These issues have lead to campaigns for a central repository of accessible reading materials, in particular through RNIB's Books Expansion project and campaign groups including AltFormat.org. Over time, all this hard work has paid off. In December 2008, the government invited tenders for a project to investigate whether the availability of curriculum materials in an electronic form could benefit learners with print-related disabilities.
Off the back of the invitation, Dolphin Computer Access Ltd. led a consortium which delivered this tender; the Accessible Resources Pilot Project. The aim of the project was to test a practical model for offering accessible resources and assistive technology in schools.
To create accessible learning materials, the project converted 132 Key Stage 3 textbooks into a structured Microsoft Word format (operating within the terms of the Copyright Licensing Agency's VI Licence), to help facilitate easy reading.
The project, which ran throughout the 2009/2010 academic year, included 40 pupils (20 visually impaired pupils and 20 dyslexic pupils) aged 11-14 in 9 different schools in the north of England. All pupils were provided with a laptop which included assistive technology to help the students read their curriculum materials.
The project workflow was simple. Students were provided with the accessible Microsoft Word versions of their curriculum materials. These included both textbooks and worksheet. Students then chose to read the files in their preferred way. This was either by reading the Microsoft Word documents using their laptop (with assistive technology), or converting the Microsoft Word documents into a different format, such as large print, MP3 audio, DAISY talking book or Braille. The approach was extremely pupil-centric and allowed students to be accommodated into the classroom easily; each student was provided with the tools and skills to independently learn the way that suited them best.
All staff and pupils were trained in using the software by the project. This included training on how to create accessible learning materials from scratch, and how to use technology to support reading and writing. All pupils taking part were evaluated and observed by their teachers and the project team throughout the duration of the project.
The project was completed at the end of the 2009/2010 academic year, and the findings provide an extremely compelling argument to provide accessible learning materials and assistive technologies in schools. As a direct result of the project, teachers reported that:
His [student's] reading age has gone up 2 years in the course of the project; the technology has allowed him to access text he would not normally access. All he really needed was the ability to change the background colours and text and he is now an independent worker."
The findings clearly demonstrate that very simple changes to the accessibility of curriculum materials and the provision of technology to read them really can make the world of difference to students with dyslexia.
One of the things we've found with the project, or with dyslexia group that we work with, is that we're quite good at identifying their particular needs, but we're less good actually providing the resources to actually meet those needs ... It has helped raise awareness for teachers and awareness of the difficulties that some of the youngsters have with writing and the acceptance that an alternative medium of recording is perfectly acceptable and may actually be better."
As you can imagine, making a school accessible is not something that happens overnight. However, the project has also helped to identify a number of critical success factors to smooth the process along and ensure that the approach works. Here is a brief summary of some of the key insights which were reported to the Department for Education by the Dolphin led team:
Finding and creating accessible curriculum materials is one thing. However, if mechanisms aren't in place to make these materials available to students, then the project will have minimal impact. During the project, schools which had electronic systems (e.g. Virtual Learning Environments) in place to deliver accessible materials straight to students had more success.
Schools taking part in the project were provided with training and support. This included training for both pupils and for teachers. However, even with structured training offered throughout the project, the recommendation from the project was to provide even more. Critically, this training and support needed to be available on-demand at a time to suit in order to help embed best practices into everyday activities in the school.
In each school, a "champion" was needed to drive the changes through. In practice, this could be anyone within a school; the Head Teacher, SENCO, a teacher or even a teaching assistant. During the project, the schools were supervised by an inclusion advisor who played a critical role in ensuring the project was implemented. What was important is that this champion was person who has the passion and enthusiasm to work with staff and students keep the project moving and generate buy-in from senior members of staff.
One of the noticeable outcomes of the project was an increased engagement of students with dyslexia. None of the students felt stigmatised or isolated by using a laptop in class instead of using a traditional textbook. On the contrary, students enjoyed personalising their laptop to suit them.
Finally, student engagement was notably at its highest in cases where students had been allowed to take their laptops home with them. This was demonstrated through improved homework completion levels from these students.
The messages from this project are very clear. Do visually and print impaired pupils benefit from accessing materials electronically? Definitely yes! Should more materials be made available? Definitely yes! Should the access technologies be provided? Definitely yes! So come on everyone, you now need to make it 'business as usual' in our schools."
(Jim Russell, Project Manager, Accessible Resources Pilot Project)
The success of the Accessible Resources Pilot Project makes a very clear case for providing accessible curriculum materials and assistive technology in schools throughout the UK. However, the project is just the beginning in a movement towards an accessible national curriculum. Off the back of the project, the government awarded funding to RNIB and Dyslexia Action to convert educational texts into an accessible format as part of the Load2Learn initiative (see Dyslexia Action's website for more information).
As shown in the project, combining these accessible learning materials with simple technology to assist with reading and writing can have a massive impact on students' achievement and allow them to reach their full potential. This is an extremely exciting time for anyone interested in the education of students with dyslexia.
More information about the project, including the full project report for download, is available at www.YourDolphin.com/MyAccessibleSchool.
Meet Simon Kitchen