Optical Scanners To Help Disabled Middle Schoolers Achieve Academic Success

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Students at Eastmont Middle School in Sandy, UT, will soon have a new technology tool to use when learning to read. Known as ReadingPens, the optical scanners translate the written word into spoken sentences, thus improving the chance that disabled students will learn the material being presented.

The brainchild of special education team leader Jennifer Heaney and school principal Jan Sterzer, the initiative is being funded through a $1,674 grant from Qwest Foundation, which awards grants that generate high-impact and measurable results through community-based programs in the area of preK-12 education.

"Our principal is proactive about locating funding for various school projects," said Heaney. "When Qwest announced that it was going to be awarding technology grants, Ms. Sterzer put out a memo in all of our mailboxes, urging us to apply for them."

When making grant awards, the foundation considers programs that use technology to improve preK-12 public school instruction, promote innovative models to strengthen preK-12 public school education, improve the skills and leadership of educators and parents, and promote innovative early childhood education programs. Qwest's average grant size ranges from $5,000 to $10,000.

With the grant, Eastmont Middle School has purchased five of the optical scanners that Heaney was waiting receipt of at press time. The ReadingPens, manufactured by WizCom Technologies of Westford, MA , are expected to help disabled students with reading impairments, such as dyslexia, understand science and social studies textbooks. The pens couldn't come at a better time, according to Heaney, who said the school's special education currently has a couple of "non-readers" who are struggling with their work.

"It is becoming quite an ordeal just to get them to pass a mainstream class," said Heaney. "They're having exceptional difficulty with the textbooks." As a solution, the school district suggested "textbooks on CD," which can be accessed via a CD player and headphones. The challenge, said Heaney, is finding where those textbooks correlate with the information on the CD, particularly for students who can't read in the first place.

"How would they even know where it matches up?" asked Heaney.

An additional problem occurs when students are essentially "isolated" from the rest of the class in order to put on the headphones and listen to the text, rather than simply reading it like everyone else.

"Most of them aren't willing to be singled out from their peers like that," said Heaney, who, after leafing through a catalog of special-education products, landed on a much better idea: handheld devices shaped like a pen, and with a tip that scans over words and sentences. The pen then reads the text to the user via a pair of earbud headphones. The devices are small and, as such, don't attract much attention. "You can use them fairly unnoticed," said Heaney.

The pens work with any printed text, recognize 500,000 words, and are equipped with a dictionary and thesaurus. They help students improve vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, and comprehension and even come with an English to Spanish translation mode. Priced at about $300 each, the pens will be placed in the school's science and social studies classroom for use by disabled students.

"It doesn't matter if they're reading a textbook, a magazine, or a novel," said Heaney. "They can use the pen to scan and read the text and hopefully understand it better than they would if they were simply using a book or even a book on CD."

Heaney, who has been studying up recently on how students with dyslexia learn, said the optical scanners will go a long way in helping their users know how letters--and blends of letters--sound. "They'll be able to scan the pen across a word, and hear how it should sound," said Heaney. "Their brains will remember how it sounds, and the next time they see that word they'll be able to sound it out correctly."

Armed with that kind of independent learning power, dyslexic students at Eastmont Middle School should soon be able to do without teachers leaning over their shoulders during reading sessions. "Our students will be able to read the material at their own pace and not have to feel like they're being babied," said Heaney. "That alone should help overcome the stigma that's attached to reading disabilities and alleviate the stress associated with reading a grade-level book."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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