Category Archives: software


I am honoured …


I am delighted to receive Texthelp’s Dyslexia Champion Award for 2013. The award recognises, ‘someone that goes beyond the call of duty to help people with dyslexia and promote awareness.’ It is the first time my work in the field of dyslexia has been recognised.

I taught for many years at Coventry Technology College and for five years ran the BEN Unit, a large basic skills unit with over 500 learners, so I came across plenty of people of all ages with dyslexia and soon came to realise two things. First they were mostly really clever because they often hid their problems from family and employers and managed to cope with all the written text that life throws at you. Secondly that dyslexia was much more than a spelling problem or even a reading and writing problem.

I have written 5 books about dyslexia, including How to Help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child published by Crimson Publishing which looks to bridge the gap between home and schools. Right now I am finishing off a series of conversation cards for Fink  called Dealing with Dyslexia at Home and Dealing with Dyslexia at School

When I worked at Becta the government agency for ICT I came to realise that technology could help people overcome the problems associated with dyslexia including literacy, short term memory and organisational issues.

Technology can help people be more independent. It ensures that their text is legible (not always the case with handwriting), can easily be edited and looks professional. But technology now is so much more than just the word processing software of a few years ago. Now it can read text, provide a picture dictionary, change the colour of text, help learners with study tools and fulfil many more functions.

TextHelp is one of the world’s leaders in the field of dyslexia software. They are in the vanguard of developers who make software easy to use for people who struggle with reading and writing. They don’t make ‘special’ software. They create tools which open up the web and standard software to everyone.

TextHelp are experts in ICT and dyslexia and I am honoured that they have recognised my contribution to the field.

Will cheap be cheerful for those who need communication aids?

The impact of iPads and Androids on the world of AAC was the big theme for the Communication Matters annual conference at the University of Leeds last week.

Communication aids which can play back pre-recorded speech or generate synthetic speech have revolutionised the lives of many of the 300,000 children and adults in the UK who will need Augmentative and Alternative Communication at some point in their lives.

ipad aacMany people who need AAC have severe and permanent physical disabilities from birth as a result of conditions such as cerebral palsy. Others have degenerative conditions which leave them unable to speak.

It is a disgrace that in a wealthy country such as Great Britain children and adults are being left without the power of speech simply to save money.

One solution is to find cheaper alternatives to the specialist aids. In recent times, companies have started to develop apps which will work with iPhones, iPads, Androids and other tablet devices.

Good news you might think.  The trouble is that the users need support, training for themselves and their carers, robust devices which will bounce off pavements and ongoing research and development to make the next generation of communication aids the best that they can be. Buying a tablet online and downloading an app does not even begin to address these problems.

Catherine Harris, Chair of Communication Matters, summed up the dilemma saying: “It is an exciting time for the sector. Developments in adapting technology have increased the range of options for people and the growth of access methods, such as eye gaze, provide people with alternative ways to use their equipment. However, these developments need underpinning by comprehensive assessment, funding of equipment and longer term support services if they are going to be really effective.’

Making a little bit of money go a very, very long way

It’s My Money Week and I have been hounding the good people at pfeg, the UK’s leading finance education charity for some case studies. From September financial literacy is going to be a compulsory element of the National Curriculum- and about time too.

I have talked to three schools which are all creating innovative projects for young people who are out of mainstream education and it is heartening to see how committed teachers are to developing money sense in the next generation.

The trouble is that so many of the resources schools have do not accord with life in the UK today. Budgeting and savings advice are all very well but they depend upon you having money to start with.

For those families trying to find their way through the maze of benefits there are no easy answers. If you are subject to the bedroom tax do you:
1 Move house and incur all those moving costs?
2 Stay put and lose 14% from your benefits?
3 Get a payday loan to tide you over and get a takeaway to cheer yourself up as you won’t be going out?

Pfeg and Money Saving Experts are doing an amazing job but it is an uphill struggle. Look at what Oxfam said last week:

‘Food banks are reporting that most of those accessing their services are low income families in crisis, many of which are working households. 62% of children in poverty are living in families where at least one parent has a job, indicating that wages are too low and that current Minimum Wage legislation is not adequate to lift people out of poverty through work.’

Walking the Breadline The scandal of food poverty in 21st-century Britain

FREE Science unit for every UK school

Tell your friends. Sunflower is offering a FREE science pack to every single secondary school in the UK. Click here to register your school

Back before Christmas I had a very nice breakfast in Canary Wharf. It is not the sort of thing I usually do. In fact it was the only time I have breakfasted there but I was meeting Elizabeth Kelly, Director of Schools Operations. We were there to talk about the new science curriculum and the units they were producing for Sunflower for Science

Sunflower has animations for DNA, Natural Selection, Electromagnetic Spectrum, Chemical Reactions and Heat Transfer modules which many teachers enjoyed at Bett his year.

Obviously I was interested in the special needs angle but in fact Sunflower’s materials are differentiated so they cover everyone from young people struggling with basic concepts in science to those who are on the gifted and talented register and are aiming for University or a career in the sciences.

Atoms and ions, bonding, diffusion and the periodic table are just a few of the units for chemistry and many pupils will enjoy following the story of the carbs, fat and protein in a pizza. Every programme comes with worksheets activities, quizzes and sample lessons.

‘One of the key features of Sunflower Science,’ Elizabeth told me, ‘is to make sure that teachers can deliver modules in scientific subjects outside their own specialism.’

Schools can buy one module at a time, ideal for those on a tight budget, but why not start with your freebie?

Shout Out for Voices

I have always loathed the voices on speech synthesis. I know disabled kids who think it is a laugh to sound like a Dalek but I think it’s sad and particularly depressing for adults who might have all their materials for a degree course read out in a robotic voice. But voices are getting better and I have two good news stories

First JISC TechDis commissioned CereProc to create Jack and Jess, two new high-quality voices that can be used with text-to-speech tools. The big story is TechDis has managed to obtain a wonderful licensing agreement so that all staff and learners in publicly funded post-16 education in England should be eligible to download the voices free of charge.

That means that if you are studying in Adult & Community Learning; Further Education; Higher Education; Offender Learning; Sixth Form Colleges; Specialist Colleges; UK Online Centres; Voluntary Sector; and Work-based Learning you won’t pay a penny. Ask at your education centre or college now.

Alistair McNaught, Senior Adviser at JISC TechDis is excited about the prospect of real voices for the estimated 4.5 learners out there who could benefit. ‘Now hundreds of thousands of print impaired learners have a decent voice to listen to while they are studying and won’t be embarrassed if they want to access talking materials while they are out walking or doing household chores. The stigma about using such software tools vanishes. This will have a massive impact on their productivity and confidence.’
Click here for more information

Voices for children
It’s not just adult voices which are improving. Rosie and Harry were shortlisted for the BETT ICT Special Educational Needs Solutions 2013. 74,000 children and teens in England cannot speak for themselves and need a voice for their assistive technology. Rosie and Harry are the first English voices for children. Acapela Group and AssistiveWare best known for former BETT winner Proloquo2Go have pioneered the development of these voices which in time will become available in other products too.

Harry sounds pretty normal but Rosie is definitely Home Counties which means girls will sound more like Hermione from Harry Potter than Lisa Simpson. More news here.

Anna Reeves, National AAC Coordinator for England
Anna Reeves, National AAC Coordinator for England

Anna Reeves, National AAC Coordinator for England said, ‘These new voices will further transform the lives of children who cannot speak and the lives of those around them. It may be the very first time that families hear their own children speak with a child’s voice – you can’t put a price on that.’

Caroline Wright, BESA and the House of Lords

Caroline Wright of BESA
Caroline Wright of BESA

Tonight I am meeting Caroline Wright face to face. I interviewed her for Merlin John Online 
We have emailed and talked on the phone so much that I feel as if I know her quite well but in fact we met just once – very briefly – at the farewell do for Ray Barker.

Caroline is not the new Ray. Nor is she a replacement. One thing I have learnt is that as the new director at BESA Caroline will put her own stamp on the organisation. She has a formidable pedigree with extensive overseas experience which will be of great benefit to the UK software community but she also has great charm

Most importantly she has a very clear set of values: ‘Education matters and is always likely to be featured in the first few pages of a newspaper because it is relevant to most of the population. We have all had an education and we nearly all know someone who is having one now. The role as a director at BESA ticks every box for me. I love education and this job lets me be part of a team and puts me back at the heart of strategy and delivery.’

Tonught I shall enjoy being BESA’s guest at their annual House of Lords reception.

Sing Up helps children find their voice

Stephen Robinson is a music trained teacher who works at Green Park Special School in Wolverhampton. It is an all age special school for pupils aged 3-19 with severe learning difficulties, profound and multiple learning difficulties and those with autistic spectrum conditions. Here, and in his previous post at Beaufort School in Birmingham, he has used music extensively, as a means of developing communication skills, of adding an extra dimension to curriculum topics and also as a subject in its own right.


Stephen first saw Sing Up in a magazine and went online to see if it was as good as it looked. Sing Up is an online resource which has a song bank with over 500 songs cross referenced to curriculum targets and different theme. There is lots of help for teachers too including training and personalised support. The initial good impressions were reinforced when he attended a day organised by Sound Futures organisation. These training days feature classroom practitioners and artists who have been involved in projects with pupils who have a range of special needs.


Sing Up is a really flexible and versatile tool. It is online so teachers can use it anywhere that they have Internet access: in class, the hall, clubs, at home. There are plenty of different backing tracks which can be useful if a teacher is not especially musical or if there are no facilities for making music.


In theory, any school could put together a bank of music resources. Stephen thinks this would be a false economy as it would be a very time-consuming process and the end result would not be as comprehensive. Sing Up has been designed by music specialists and introduces pupils to different rhythms and tempos and the musical culture of different countries.


It is an ideal resource for special schools. There are suggestions for classroom activities and videos of songs with demonstrations of Makaton signs which teachers can copy. There are lesson plans as well as grids for communication aids so pupils who need assistive technology can join in too. The variety of information on the site means that staff can make sure they have suitable content for pupils with a wide range of needs.


When Stephen was working at Beaufort School he ran a club called Everybody Sings. This was an inclusive club. Some pupils would sign, others would sing; some would use percussion instruments, others would join in via assistive technology. The important thing was that children could all make music together in a way that worked for them.


Some pupils with communication difficulties come into their own if they are given a microphone. It seems to unlock their ability to vocalise and helps them to verbalise. Reuben had limited verbal skills. He went through a phase as an elective mute but an African call and response song unlocked his speech so that he began to say different words and sing in the right pitch. Soon he was trying to express ideas in increasingly developed sentences.


Children with communication aids can join in and become the leader. They can record a line or use a communication device with a switch and speech output to deliver key lyrics. Stephen recalled an occasion when a large group of children were singing A sailor went to sea, sea, sea in assembly. The children with communication aids were responsible for the refrain and really enjoyed their moment of power as they made the others wait for the See See See!








Ray Barker retires from BESA

Last night was the end of an era for the British educational software industry as Ray Barker, director of BESA, retired.

Ray worked as a teacher, a multimedia publisher and ran an Education Action Zone before joining BESA. He was chair of judges for the BETT awards and was a regular commentator on changes in government legislation which affected the purchasing power of schools.

There are many ‘experts’ in the educational software industry but Ray really knew his stuff. He was a great networker, very pragmatic and found ways of making things work, often against the odds. He was a good friend to the special needs community. He had a particular interest in literacy and was keen to see a division of spoils which gave everyone a more equal chance. He was a very talented political animal and will be much missed. His successor at BESA is Caroline Wright who has a wealth of experience in government departments as well as in the public and private sector.

At his farewell do at the City of London Club, many representatives from the press, software companies, schools and key educational organisations turned out to wish him well.

Pictured here from left to right are are Ann Crick, Sal McKeown, John Crick (Crick software), Ray Barker, Mick Archer (former editor of Special Children magazine), John Galloway (journalist and adviser in Tower Hamlets), Carol Allen (special needs adviser for North Tyneside) and Amanda Peck from Mayer Johnson software

Texthelp’s award winning software helps the Fire Brigade

I am just back from a week in Boston and Chicago. I was amazed at the number of fire engines I saw and wondered if we were about to have a second Great Fire of Chicago but Jimmy, the 77 year old taxi driver and self-appointed guide to the city, told me that in the USA fire engines don’t just put out fires, they often act as paramedics too.

When I thought about it , the same thing is happening here. If ambulances are busy in rural areas, often a fire engine will be dispatched and they have always cleaned up after road traffic accidents.

So I was very interested to discover that Texthelp, a company well known for its Read and Write Gold software, is working with the Fire Brigade Union (FBU). Texthelp has long been used in schools, especially secondary schools, and has proved its worth with young people who have problems with reading, writing and the research necessary for compiling projects and revision for exams. But why the FBU?

The answer is that they are now subject to the strictures of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA . They used to be exempt, along with police and prison officers and people who work on board ships, aircraft or hovercraft.

These days firefighters need a lot of training to keep up to date with new procedures. They have to be experts in fire fighting techniques, hazardous chemicals, first aid, dealing with trauma and using breathing apparatus correctly. Modern firefighters also needs IT skills for the administration they have to do such as logging incidents and writing reports.

Trevor Shanahan of the FBU was aware that a number of fire fighters were anxious about their literacy levels and would welcome some help . He had heard about Read&Write GOLD through other unions and invited the company to show what they could offer.

Read&Write GOLD is now used both on the service’s computers and on home computers too. It works with common programs such as Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, and Adobe Reader. It will read text out loud so firefighters can upload training materials and listen to them instead of straining to read them and only get half the message. It is very versatile and is ideal for users with dyslexia as all the settings can be tweaked. Among other functions, Texthelp has an inbuilt dictionary, word prediction and a homophone checker for those common similar sounding words.

Now when I give way to a fire engine, I am much more aware of the hours of behind the scenes training and admin which keep fire fighters on the road. Thanks to Texthelp, those with dyslexia are now a little more confident and competent and that has to be good news for all of us.

Meet me at the TES Special Needs Midlands 2012 Show

This takes place at the NEC on Friday 29 and Saturday 30 June. I am running a session 12.30 -1.30 on the
Saturday called Helping pupils with dyscalculia engage with the numberness of numbers. It will cover the early signs of dyscalculia and how to assessfor the condition. It will present different techniques and guidance for teaching basic numeracy.

Later in the day at 3.30 I will be running Using computer games in the primary inclusive classroom  with Donna Burton Wilcock, internationally renowned expert on games and CEO of the very successful Immersive Education. We will be looking at the new demand for gaming in the classroom and how games making can help pupils develop self-reliance, problem solving and critical thinking skills. View and book  seminars here

But enough about me. What else will you see? I hope to go to Carol Allen’s session Supporting visual learners in the inclusive classroom on  Friday at 11pm, looking at how to create an inclusive environment using digital media and visual resources and How we created a 21st century special school on Friday at 2pm run by Maxine Pittaway, head teacher of award-winning special school St Christopher’s in Wrexham.

My three ‘not to be missed’ exhibitors are:

ActiVise Software This looks interesting and very timely as we enter exam season. It is a learning and revision software resource for learners of any age and ability studying any subject. The software consists of a framework of six interactive games which can be populated with personalised content.

Texthelp ( ) help will be demonstrating Fluency Tutor which I have seen demonstrated online. It is designed to assess and improve pupils’ reading and comprehension levels and I wrote about it for Special Children magazine in my article on Reading Aloud.

Dore is a Programme ( offered by a company in Stratford upon Avon. It assesses and addresses problems which affect co-ordination, eye tracking and attention span and makes these underlyingskills become more automatic so that children can concentrate better and learn more effectively. Up till now it has only been available for home use but at the show they will be showing schools how they can use their Programme in schools.