Transforming students’ literacy and study skills through the use of assistive software

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Assistive software has a major role to play in developing students’ literacy and study skills. 

Its potential is widely recognised and UK students with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or dyspraxia are now able to apply for help with obtaining this software through the Disabled Students Allowance, available to those studying at higher education level. As well as providing the software programs recommended in their needs assessment report students receive initial training on the new software.

Assistive software comprises a wide range of programs including text to speech, voice recognition, mind-mapping and specialist spellchecking and sophisticated auto-correction.  Text to speech applications such as TextHelp Gold and Claro Read Plus can provide support not just with reading speed and fluency but also with proofreading, thus developing students’ independence.  It’s much easier to spot errors such as missing words, overlong or incomplete sentences or unnecessary repetition by getting the software to read text out loud. Students with additional issues such as visual stress or scotopic sensitivity benefit from being able to tint the screen to their preferred colour when reading and having a ruler on screen helps them overcome problems with tracking print as they read.   

As a study skills tutor working with undergraduate students with specific learning difficulties I ensure that students are using the full functionality of their assistive software and always integrate technological solutions into my one to one sessions.  Why would a student use paper and pen for mind-mapping when planning an essay, when they have access to programs such as Inspiration or MindView? Using mind-mapping applications removes the constraints of using paper and allows the student to use features such as undo and zoom as they create their visual plans. Once the planning stage is complete the student can export both text and images directly into either the word processor or presentation software, removing the need for time consuming retyping.

I encourage the students I work with to make maximum use of their  laptop or desktop system as an organisational device, allowing them to store and retrieve information more efficiently. Using keyword searches reduces the amount of paper based material they are working with. For some students this is a major change in the way they work but it quickly generates benefits. For those students who have access to audio or video recordings of lectures they are able to organise these using a program such as Audio Notetaker, enabling them to create their own archives of research material and to import files in different formats such as PDFs, Powerpoint slides and images. 

Assistive software programs are not cheap and as a result many students with specific learning difficulties studying at school and college have not had access to this support. However the exciting news is that several leading software companies in this field have recently combined to offer Assistive Technology Scholarships targeted at anyone who is not eligible for either Disabled Students Allowance or Access to Work.  These scholarships include not just software licenses for programs such as Global Autocorrect, TextHelp Gold, MindView, Global Autocorrect and Learning Labs, but also free training to help users explore the full functionality of the programs.

If you are not eligible for either DSA or Access to Work, visit the Assistive Technology Scholarship website or email

"I highly recommend applying for this amazing opportunity"

Angela Bell, Freelance Study Needs Assessor for Cambridge Access Centre

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