Assistive Technology for Learning Difficulties: what it is and how to use it


If your child is struggling with reading and/or writing, your Raise the Bar psychologist may recommend you trial text-to-speech and/or speech-to-text technology.


Text-to-speech technology



Text-to-speech technology or an electronic reader is when a computer program reads text out loud for your child so they can listen while reading along. Both free and paid computer software is available (e.g. Balabolka; Natural Reader; Amazon Polly; Linguatec Voice Reader), with digital voices having become more realistic and with more accents being catered to, including the Australian accent. Smartphones and tablets such as iPads usually have in-built text-to-speech functions that can be enabled (e.g. see https://support.apple.com/en-au/guide/ipad/ipad9a247097/ipados for instruction on how to enable this function in an iPad). Text-to-speech scanners are also popular; these are electronic readers (often called ‘scanning pens’) that can be carried around in your pocket and used to scan any text that you want to listen to. The C-Pen is a commonly used text-to-speech scanner by dyslexic students, and can also be purchased by schools for classroom use (https://www.spectronics.com.au/product/c-pen-reader).


It is important to be aware that text-to-speech software is generally not able to read out handwritten text, and that to use a scanning pen in the classroom, a student will generally need to be comfortable using headphones while listening to text. Therefore you may need to devise some strategies with your child’s learning support staff or teachers, such as agreeing on a signal to ensure that your child knows when it is time to remove the headphones and attend to class instruction. Your child may also wish to have an answer prepared for their classmates if they are asked why they are needing to use this device, especially if they feel self-conscious and are prone to feeling embarrassed.


While your child may be allowed to use assistive technology during exams (e.g. when they have a dyslexia diagnosis), there may be specific regulations in relation to using a scanning pen. For example, a student may be accustomed to using a scanning pen with an in-built dictionary when doing homework at home, while they will need to use a scanning pen without access to this function for any school exams. Schools will usually be able to explain their processes to support your child in preparing for any exams with special provisions. Special provisions are adjustments made to the typical examination format in order to accommodate for a student’s specific learning needs and can include such things as being allowed to use assistive technology, being provided with additional time, or possibly being allowed to the sit the exam in a separate room.



Audiobooks can also be an important tool for any students wanting to improve their reading skills or struggling to access books purely through print. As audiobooks and electronic or physical copies of books do not always fully match, it may be useful to investigate whether a read-along function exists on any audiobooks your child may wish to use for school. Audible (https://www.audible.com.au/) is currently rolling out a ‘captions’ feature which will allow reading along and automatically highlight text that has been read out so that your child will see visual confirmation of how far along the reader is. Although reading along while listening to an audiobook is usually ideal, some students may choose to forego reading along when they must read multiple books for school. Doing so can be a good strategy when reading written text takes a disproportionate amount of time and the amount of homework would otherwise be overwhelming to your child.


Speech-to-text technology



Speech-to-text technology or dictation software is when your child dictates what they would like to write down, with computer software then translating their oral language into written text. Both free and paid software that can be accessed includes such programs as Google Voice, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Otter, and Speechmatics. Free dictation functions can often be easily turned on when your child is using a smartphone or tablet, and your child may already be using similar software when for example asking questions to programs such as Siri. While speech-to-text technology can be highly effective, especially for students struggling with handwriting or with expressing their ideas in writing, it also involves a considerable learning curve and generally requires committed practice.


Some frustrations that your child may experience when learning to use speech-to-text software are needing to formulate a clear sentence in their mind before dictating; needing to dictate punctuation out loud; and needing to correct the software when it mishears a word. Initially it may be easiest to allow your child to practice with ‘free association’ dictation, and to support your child in making corrections and adding punctuation to the text after they have gotten their initial ideas onto a document. Speech-to-text software often improves and adapts to your child’s way of speaking over time, meaning that incorrect transcription usually occurs less and less the more your child practices. Reassuring your child that speech-to-text gets easier over time and helping them persist will usually lead to substantial differences in their dictation capabilities within the first three months.


Use of speech-to-text software within classrooms comes with its own challenges, as dictating out loud during class is not usually practicable. Schools can have varying solutions to this issue, such as allowing a student to dictate in a separate room or a secluded corner of the classroom for any prolonged writing assignments and encouraging typing for short written responses during class. If your child has access to exam special provisions based on a diagnosis (such as a learning disability) and speech-to-text software or a scribe is an important part of this for them, it is likely that your child will be asked to sit the exam in a separate room. It will be important to discuss with your child what their preferences would be in these situations, as some children and adolescents can find the idea of being ‘singled out’ deeply uncomfortable, and will prefer to type at school whilst only using speech-to-text in the comfort of home.


If accommodations for your child’s writing difficulties include typing on a laptop or computer, they may benefit from learning to touch-type if they have not yet mastered this skill. It may be that touch-typing practice is offered through your child’s school, however there are also

many online resources and free programs that support the development of touch-typing skills, such as the Typing Club (https://www.typingclub.com/). Occupational therapists can additionally be a good support source for the development of typing skills.



Hopefully, this hand-out can support you and your child or adolescent with implementing the use of assistive technology. If you need any further guidance, do not hesitate to contact your psychologist or to consult with learning adjustment officers at your child’s school.


© 2020 This article was developed by Nindy Brouwers for Raise the Bar Psychology.