19 September 2017
For many students with learning difficulties, the very idea of completing a written assignment can be overwhelming.  The challenges associated with researching and reading, developing ideas and conceptual knowledge, structuring written responses and producing written assignments free of spelling and grammatical errors can at times seem insurmountable.  For many older students, the use of assistive technology and computers has helped ease some of this burden, with many students utilising a variety of computer software programs and apps available across android and apple devices.
Some of the concerns raised by teachers, parents and students about the use of assistive technology include: the cost of purchasing multiple software titles; the need to switch from one application to another; and, the lack of integration between the applications recommended and those used by the school - such as Microsoft Office.  These concerns seem to have been responded to as Microsoft has been quite busy developing some new tools.  Earlier this year Microsoft released an update to their Office 365 apps with the aim of supporting diverse learners in reading, spelling and written expression.  A new feature now found in Microsoft Word as well as One Note (online version and desktop version) is a feature called Learning Tools. 

What are Learning Tools?

Learning tools are designed to support decoding, reading fluency, reading comprehension and writing skills by providing the user with additional user options.  These new features include:
  • Read aloud / Immersive Reading: - Microsoft now has inbuilt text to voice support and words are highlighted as they are read aloud so that the user can read along.
  • Text options: - enable users to increase the spacing between letters, between words and between lines.  Users can also change text size and background colour when in the reading panel.
  • Parts of Speech: - nouns, verbs and adjectives can automatically be colour-coded.
  • Syllables: - Text can be automatically displayed as syllable chunks to assist with decoding.
  • Improved spell check: - Users are now offered spelling choices with synonyms listed to assist with the selection of the correct word.  Spelling choices can also be read aloud to ensure that the correct word is chosen.
  • Improved Grammar Checker: -  Grammatical errors are now highlighted with two double blue lines.  The grammar checker will look for word choice errors, incorrect spacing and punctuation errors. Suggestions can be read aloud.
  •  Writing style checker: - this feature checks for consistency in writing style including, but not limited to, the use of complex words, contractions, cliché’s, informal language, jargon and wordiness.  Suggestions for improvement can be read aloud and will be highlighted with a dotted gold line.
To access learning tools, the student must have a current Office 365 subscription and may need to update his/her desktop application.

Are there any other tips or tricks?

In addition to these exciting new learning tools, Microsoft Office also allows add-ons to be installed into most applications including word, PowerPoint and excel.  The range of add-ons is still relatively small as this is a new area of development, however, there are several add-ons that are particularly useful for students.
  • Texthelp Study Skills: - Selects, highlights, and groups content together for review. (also available in Word for iPad)
  • Assignment Buddy: - helps students find information from the web and Office 365 inside Word & PowerPoint.  (Check with the school before using this add-on as the information gathered is from Wikipedia)
  • Collins Dictionary
  • MyScript Maths sample: - easily insert math equations and notations through handwriting recognition and mouse input.
texthelp.jpg         maths-input.jpg

What about other Microsoft apps?

Microsoft has also released two new apps that are particularly useful and most importantly, they are FREE!
  • Office Lens: - A portable document scanner that uses OCR to convert pictures to text. Students can take a photo of a document and export the text to Word, Powerpoint, Outlook or utilise the inbuilt immersive reader function and have the text read aloud.  This is of enormous value for those students who don’t have an electronic copy of a text or novel as each page can be quickly scanned, converted and read aloud.
  • Write ideas: - This app provides a series of templates that assist with creating a writing plan.  By selecting a document type (e.g. book review, descriptive essay, informative essay, personal letter, newspaper article, or short story) and answering a series of questions, users can export a writing frame directly into word to assist with the production of written work.  Custom templates can be added for additional text types.  Available for IOS devices only.

Additional Questions?

For additional information about Microsoft learning tools please visit:  https://support.office.com/en-ie/article/Learning-Tools-to-improve-reading-and-writing-skills-735fc6ea-21eb-401a-9293-4a481ef7e482
For information about Microsoft Add-ins please visit: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Get-an-Office-Add-in-for-Word-d8956c8b-4ae3-4b74-9288-2ee99128a6f1?ui=en-US&rs=en-US&ad=US
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