writing process

Spaghetti or pasta?

Nicholas Carr wrote a brilliant post on a small part of Apple’s demonstration of the Apple Watch and iOS 8 that seems to have gone under the radar: Speak, algorithm.

It’s about a new technology coming in iOS 8 called QuickType, which is a highly contextualized predictive text engine. I think it’s going to be fantastic although will no doubt lead to collections of funny bloopers like autocorrect has.

Now you can write entire sentences with a few taps. Because as you type, you’ll see choices of words or phrases you’d probably type next, based on your past conversations and writing style. iOS 8 takes into account the casual style you might use in Messages and the more formal language you probably use in Mail. It also adjusts based on the person you’re communicating with, because your choice of words is likely more laid back with your spouse than with your boss. Your conversation data is kept only on your device, so it’s always private.

Spaghetti or pasta?

In the old days of hand written and typewriter written letters, a misspelling was a much more serious issue than it is today. Even early, crude electronic editing changed that forever by separating composition from printing.

Imagine you’re writing a note about what you had for dinner last night and what you had was spaghetti. If you choked on the spelling pre-electronic editing you might have substituted “pasta” as an easier-to-spell alternative. The mistake intolerance of pen and ink or a typewriter was creating a filter on your vocabulary.

A spoken vocabulary is almost always larger than a written one at least partially because of this: you use the word “spaghetti” in speech but less so in writing because you’re not quite sure how to spell it. When this happens numerous times in a single piece of writing you might wonder if the finished piece of writing is really what you wanted to say.

Because of my problems with writing I did a lot of thinking and writing about this during the early days of computing: How Computers Change the Writing Process for People with Learning Disabilities.

Tools affect language

When you couple this “vocabulary filter” with informal email, texting, or posting to Twitter things get interesting. It isn’t just that writing is getting shorter (for various reasons, including a sort of world-wide ADD that has coined the term “long read”), it’s that we’re doing these things faster and because of this, possibly in a less considered way.

Then there’s printing, cursive, touch typing and “thumbing” and the affect each has on sentence length and complexity. No doubt how we use our hands to encode language is having an effect on the complexity of our written language.

Many of us old folks believe that this speed issue (the fact that things seem to be moving faster) is generational: younger people can handle it better because they were born into it and those of us born in the stone age are struggling to keep up. There’s certainly an element of that, but I also think many people fully engaged in the “new” aren’t as fully engaged as they think they are. Granted, reading a message about what a friend had for lunch doesn’t need much engagement, but that message is now mixed up with lots of other message about important stuff.

In short: I’m concerned with the effect technology is having on our collective ability to deeply consider things we read and write. This is different from cable news pundits reducing complex issues to knee-jerk extremes although no doubt they are connected. This is a lot of small technological filters turning “spaghetti” into “pasta” and we’re going along with it because it seems like a natural evolution.

The Future

The more I dictate on my various devices the better I get at it and dictation certainly end-runs many of these filtering issues. I’m going to dictate this word: Spaghetti (perfect).

Of course, language itself is a filter: maybe some day Apple will get it’s “haptic” or “taptic” act together and really channel the brain sans-language. Not sure the sensors on the Apple Watch will cut it, one might need a new set of earbuds to get closer to the brain, or a special hoodie.

QuickThink is right around the corner. God help us. What goes on in my head, unfiltered, is not a pretty thing.

Maine laptop in schools program ten years later

Would a Laptop for Every Student Help? In Maine It Certainly Did

One of the many reasons Angus King and others in Maine chose Macs was the more mature “universal access” features on Macs. What Maine did with laptops remains one of the best implementations of computers in schools to date.

Given that writing is a large component of what these laptops are used for and a high percentage of students learn to touch type, iPads probably won’t be folded into the mix any time soon.

How Computers Change the Writing Process for People with Learning Disabilities

© 1996 Richard Wanderman

Note: This article was written for the launch of LD Online and first appeared there.

I’m a successful adult with a learning disability (dyslexia); part of the reason for my success is that I use computers to organize and express my ideas. In this article I focus on writing because it’s the part of computing that has had the biggest impact on me. In fact, if I didn’t write with a computer I wouldn’t be able to share this article with you because I wouldn’t be able to record, work with, and share my ideas and I wouldn’t know from personal experience how doing these things with a computer changes the writing process for people like me.

People with learning disabilities like dyslexia don’t do enough writing to learn from their own experience with writing. I never did. When we do write with pen and paper, it’s so difficult that we do it awkwardly, if at all, and we don’t enjoy it. So we avoid it and of course, don’t improve from lack of practice.

Without a computer, composing and printing are wed. This means that there is no temporal or mechanical separation between recording ideas, working with them to get them right, and printing to save and share them. The recording process is permanent (wed to the printing process), which means there is no possibility for change.

One of the many effects this has is that it puts too much pressure on writers to have the entire thought they are trying to express in their heads, (clearly and in the correct order) and as they go to record it, they must get it right the first time. I don’t perform well under pressure, and this kind of pressure killed my writing performance. So I never practiced writing, I avoided it.

Practice is important. If I could have gotten enough practice writing with a pen and paper my writing could have improved. But I didn’t and it didn’t. For me, it took the elimination of dysgraphia through the keyboard, the ability to make changes in my writing, and being able to easily proofread my writing on screen and in print to get me to do enough writing to get some of the positive effects of practice.

The other important aspect of writing that people with writing problems have a hard time experiencing pre-computer is using writing as an extension of memory. When you write, you are moving ideas from your head into or onto a medium that allows you to see them any time you like. Plus, they will remain there, stored, forever.

The problem with pen and paper as a medium for moving ideas from one’s head to paper is many fold: handwriting might not be fast or clear enough; the transfer of ideas has to have decent fidelity the first time because the recording process is permanent, and once recorded there is no possibility of change.

Computers allow this recording process (moving from head to whatever medium) to happen more quickly, relieving the pressure to have a decent short term memory. Also, storing information digitally makes the information malleable for later editing and manipulation as your ideas change. And, lastly, using the computer as a digital extension of your memory makes it easier to find things when you want them (providing you set up a decent filing system, which few people actually do).

How Computers Change the Writing Process

  1. Computers make it easier to get ideas recorded outside of your head
  2. Computers make it easier to edit, change, and work with ideas
  3. Computers make it easier to publish or share ideas.

Recording Information
Keyboarding, even hunting and pecking, eliminates the hand-encoding process that many dyslexics and all dysgraphics find so hard. Being able to make perfectly formed letters by hitting a key is a lot easier than struggling to write by hand.

Touch typing, when mastered, can be a great help for many people with learning disabilities. Encoding via kinesthesia vs. by pen or even by hunting and pecking (finding a letter by recognizing its shape, etc.) is a great way to end-run the spelling pattern memorization problem. When you touch type, you’re remembering not the spelling of a word, but a kinesthetic sequence. My spelling has improved tremendously as I’ve written more and as my touch typing has improved. I still don’t know much about spelling rules and I don’t know anything about the rules of grammar but I do know a lot about spelling patterns from looking at words, and sentence patterns from looking at sentences.

I realize as I write this that the QWERTY letter arrangement on standard keyboards is meant to slow people down (an old standard that persisted even though there was technological improvement that made it useless) but to me that’s not important. The keyboard allows for a different way of encoding language, whatever the key arrangement is.

And there are other ways to get information into computers. One might think of these ways as augmenting the standard keyboarding process:

  • Different keyboard arrangements and sizes: Dvorak, large membrane keyboards, one-handed keyboards (chording);
  • Abbreviation expansion software which allows a user to record a word or phrase and then have the computer type it by only remembering and typing a short abbreviation (rw = Richard Wanderman);
  • Word prediction software which augments both spelling and syntax by predicting ahead to help a user make choices, find words, and complete sentences;
  • Speech to text where the user speaks into a microphone and specialized software translates that speech into text that is displayed on the screen.

With all of these augmentative tools one still has to think and compose and edit and make choices, but these tools can make the recording of ideas possible where it might not be otherwise. The important point is to get your ideas recorded so you can remember them, work with them, and share them.

Editing and Changing Things
Once the writing is in the computer it is being held or “remembered” electronically (instead of in ink on paper) so change is possible. If the only tools we had to change our writing were a movable cursor and delete key, we’d be content and would be able to do much of what we do now. Just being able to change things without a rewrite frees us from worry about making mistakes.

With the ability to change things comes:

  • No emphasis on spelling during composition
  • Less emphasis on getting the ideas in the right order the first time
  • More emphasis on content
  • More emphasis on recording ideas, even in crude form
  • Expanded vocabulary (before computers, dyslexic writers would rarely take a chance on words they used in their spoken vocabulary but didn’t know how to spell because they couldn’t fix mistakes easily)

This last effect is subtle but an important aspect of writing with a computer. Being able to concentrate on what you are trying to say rather than struggling to get the spelling right, or worse, choosing only words you know how to spell, is where the emphasis ought to be and what electronic editing allows.

For example, I might know quite a bit about a subject and be able to talk about it clearly, using all of the appropriate vocabulary, but when it comes to writing about the same subject, if I can’t spell the same words I used in talking about it, I can’t share in writing the full complexity of my thinking and knowledge.

Finally, with ease of editing and less fear of mistakes comes less fear of writing and so, more writing. With more writing comes more skill (just from practice, not from direct instruction) and with more skill comes more writing.

Basic text editing with any computer/word processor allows:

  • Deleting letters, words, phrases
  • Inserting letters, words, phrases
  • Moving letters, words, phrases
  • Copying letters, words, phrases

These basic electronic capabilities are enough to make computers the greatest tools ever for people with writing problems because they allow for easy change. Again, no more pressure to get it right or have it complete.

But of course, there are more tools that we can use on our writing once it’s stored in a computer:

Search and replace is the ability to find something and replace it with something else. I could search for all instances of “I done it” and replace that phrase with “I did it”.

Spelling checkers are pieces of software, usually built into word processors, that compare each of your words to a long list of words spelled correctly (hopefully) and then, offer suggestions for correct spellings. If these tools did nothing more than proof our writing and flag problem words they would be worthwhile, but of course, they do a lot more. One does have to be able to discriminate the correct suggestion when it is made.

Synthetic speech is turning the text on the screen into sound by way of a piece of software that does its best to exercise rules of phonics and pronunciation. Just being able to hear your writing read aloud is enough (never mind that the speech synthesizer sounds robotic and screws up some phonemes) to allow some writers to hear problems in their syntax or even spelling where they might not be able to see them.

Color-coding text is a great way for people with reading problems to do the electronic equivalent of using a Hi Liter on their writing. I’m color coding certain phrases in this article to make it easier for me to edit them later.

Structured writing tools like outliners and semantic web programs allow us to work more easily with ideas that aren’t fully developed. Another word for these kinds of tools is brainstorming tools.

These tools don’t change the fact that we have to proofread, decide what it is we are trying to say, and say it clearly, but they change the process of working with ideas and allow us to concentrate on the quality of the expression of our ideas instead of the limitations of the tools we have to express them.

Another category I’m not going to cover in this article is reference materials. One could do a number of articles just on reference materials for writing: electronic dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias, and more. In short, making these tools which existed first in book form electronic changes them in the same way that the keyboard changes the pen. And, because of these essential changes they get used more and with more use comes more learning and ease.

Printing and Other Forms of Sharing
The final part of the writing process changed by computers is sharing the writing with others; publishing it. In the age of the internet and e-mail, print (toner or ink) on paper is becoming less important. But whether the final output is toner on paper or HTML on the web, being able to easily control the way it looks without having to slave over handwriting and re-handwriting is an important change in this part of the writing process.

Just knowing that I won’t have to hand-letter this article takes a huge weight off of my shoulders in writing it. As a matter of fact I’m not going to print it at all; I’m sending it to WETA via e-mail which means that all they’ll get is raw text. It will be up to them to format it for the web (add HTML tags, etc.). This has allowed me to concentrate on what I want to say, not on how it looks.

But when I want to concentrate on how it looks I can. And the reason for that is that I don’t have to manually cut and paste, I don’t have to set type, and I can experiment with typefaces and formats to my heart’s content and print in each of them without having to commit to any.

Even the output of the least expensive old dot matrix printer is easier to read than handwriting. Now we have ink jet and laser printers that make writing look like it came from a professional printing house. And this is a double-edge idea: the quality of the ideas does not necessarily go up as the clarity of type improves. You can publish a boring, poorly written newsletter that looks great visually.

Tools Are Only One Part of the Solution
All of these effects together; change in the input process, change in the editing process, and change in the output process make writing much more accessible to students and adults with learning disabilities. The challenge now is convincing schools to rework their curriculums to reflect this change.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time traveling and talking with numerous school systems. Amazingly, few really “get it” and are using that knowledge to rework their core curricula. Many are using computers only for the delivery of content, drill and practice, or final editing and printing of writing.

The part of computing that hooked me was being able to explore my own ideas in a way that allowed me to know that my ideas were worth exploring, and being able to share them in a way so that others might think so too.

Questions and Answers About Technology and Dyslexia

© 1994-1995 Richard Wanderman

Author’s Note These pieces first appeared in the Fall, 1994 and Fall 1995 issues of Perspectives, published by the International Dyslexia Association.

Overview
I am a successful dyslexic adult and part of the reason for my success is the fact that I use computers and other tools to organize my life and express my ideas. I am extremely opinionated. My strong feelings come from personal experience and the experience of thousands of people who I have helped get started with computers. The fact that I recommend certain computers, software, and other tools does not mean that they are endorsed by The International Dyslexia Society.

Question
We are interested in investing in computer equipment for our ten year old dyslexic child. We are looking at a scanner to enlarge print, and also to be able to have the material read back to him. We are also trying to make a decision on what choices of computer hardware and software would be available. It would be both user friendly and have software to aid dyslexic skill building and/or for regular academic reinforcement. Where can I get information on these specific concerns?

The Computer
When you’re making a decision about what kind of personal computer to buy these days there are really two choices: DOS or Windows machines (IBMs or compatibles) or Macintoshes. People who use Windows will disagree with this, but, in my opinion and in the opinion of thousands of other dyslexic computer users, the Macintosh is the easiest, most consistent, best integrated, and most enjoyable machine to use. In my experience, more dyslexic people (kids and adults) use the Macintosh than any other kind of machine. With a Macintosh, the machine falls into the background faster than with a Windows-based machine. This is important because you don’t want to spend your time learning about the computer; you want to spend your time using the computer as a tool for exploring content or making your own content.

Once you decide between Windows and Macintosh then you have to decide between desktop machine and portable/notebook. For doing the things a ten year old is going to do with computers, a desktop machine will be better. In the Macintosh world all desktop machines are now color machines and many models can be bought with CD ROM drives built in (CD ROMs are a medium for distributing software, usually with lots of images and sound).

For a high school or college student I might recommend a portable computer (in the Macintosh world these are called PowerBooks) so that he might carry the computer to the library to avoid having to transcribe from a notebook into the computer.

Follow School?
Another variable for parents is the question of buying the kind of computer a child uses at school. My simple answer is, it doesn’t matter whether you have the same machine the school uses or not because you probably won’t be running the same kind of software the school uses anyway. And, the kinds of things your child or you will do with a computer at school will be different from the kinds of things he or you will do with it at home. Why be stuck with whatever the school has decided is best? The bottom line is that kids, even dyslexic kids, can adapt to various kinds of computers much more easily than adults (so stop projecting your uneasiness about computers onto your kids!).

Large Print
Any Macintosh computer that has ever been, and probably ever will be, can display text in a variety of typefaces, sizes, and styles. The size of type is only one of many variables that can effect readability. The typeface used is also an important consideration. Macintoshes come with many built-in typefaces and you can purchase hundreds more. Any Macintosh typeface can be displayed on screen and on paper in a wide range of sizes to make reading easier.

Possibly a more important consideration in readability is not the physical medium, but the quality of the writing itself; the quality of the author’s thinking and his or her ability to illustrate that thinking with words. That’s another story (and column).

Getting Text Into The Machine
Before a computer can read text aloud the text has to be in the machine. Either the user has to write the text or have written the text, or somebody else has to write the text, or have written the text.

Keyboarding
Even considering what will eventually happen with speech (see below), learning the keyboard is an important part of the writing process. It is not, however, an important part of using a computer, just the writing process. For this reason, there is little reason to learn to touch type until one wants to write faster. Yes, I know how to touch type and I’m glad I know. But, I learned only after being motivated by wanting to write faster, not because I was told that it was an essential ingredient for computer literacy, which it is not.

The positive part of keyboarding as many dyslexics already know is that it does not tap our weaknesses; it is purely the memory of kinesthetic sequences which have little to do with auditory or visual memory. For that reason and the fact that I can look at the screen while I type, learning to keyboard has improved my spelling and my writing as well.

In the end, my advice is to let the need to learn to keyboard invent itself and when it does, be ready with one of the many excellent electronic keyboarding programs.

Speech
There is another option and that is speech. The original question didn’t mention speech and I’m not going to go into it now except to say that there is technology available, both on the Macintosh and in the Windows world for doing speech-to-text (you talk into a microphone and the computer displays your speech as text). The Windows product is called Dragon Dictate and the Macintosh product is called Power Secretary. There are limitations to both products and they are both extremely expensive. But what was expensive in the past is inexpensive now so it’s important to track this technology because eventually it will compete with, if not replace, the standard keyboard.

Optical Character Recognition
One way to get text into a computer is to take a page of written text, say a textbook page, lay it on a scanner, and make a digital picture of the page in the computer. This is referred to as scanning. The problem with scanning alone is that the image the computer has is just a picture of text, it isn’t the real text that can be edited and read aloud. In order to turn the picture of text into text that can be read aloud, a special piece of software called optical character recognition software (OCR) must be used. This software looks at a scanned image of text and translates the image into text characters. Just to be clear, OCR software does the scanning too. All a user does is place a book on a scanner and run the software, it does the rest.

There are a number of ways of doing OCR. One way is with a hand-held scanner that the user drags over a page. Another way is with a flatbed scanner (looks like a photocopy machine) that the user places a book on face down.

Also note that many OCR packages have certain scanner and computer requirements. If you know that OCR is going to be an important use of your machine, make your shopping list accordingly.

A final note: I do not own OCR software, although I have a scanner which I use to scan artwork rather than text. I can read. I read slowly, but fast enough so that this technology would get in my way. I’m assuming that most dyslexics might have limited use for this kind of technology in the early parts of their reading careers, but after a while their reading will improve to the point that going through this process will seem more cumbersome than just sitting down and reading the material.

Electronic Books
There are also other options for getting text into your computer. Books that are out of copyright can be legally scanned or keyboarded into computers. This includes much of the literature that is studied in many high school curriculums. For instance, the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe are available on many online services for users to take, for free. And, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of other electronic texts available, as well as electronic versions of Barron’s Book Notes and other study aids. Of course, once you have the electronic text on your machine, you can enlarge its type or have the machine read it to you.

Online Services
The easiest way to have access to this wealth of electronic information is to join a commercial online service. And, the easiest-to-use and cheapest online service is America Online (AOL). AOL is available on both Windows machines and Macintoshes and provides numerous resources for both kids and adults with dyslexia: electronic mail, a learning disabilities forum for questions, answers, talk with other people with learning problems, access to hundreds of electronic books and other useful software, and more.

A modem is required for access to any online services.

The Ability to Read Text Aloud
There are two ways of storing and retrieving audible text on a computer. You can read some text into a microphone and record it such that the computer will play it back like a tape recorder. This is called digitized sound. Just like an audio compact disc (CD), the content sounds very good. Most multi-media products that have fixed content use digitized sound.

The problem with digitized sound is that it is not interactive: it can’t read (play) what you type on the screen because that content wasn’t fixed ahead of time. Theoretically, I could digitize every word I might type, but what would happen when I made a spelling mistake? Would the computer read back the word spelled correctly? How could it?

To have text read aloud interactively: what you type is what you hear, a speech synthesizer is used. This technology is sometimes called “text-to-speech.” Text-to-speech technology is software that you install on your computer. The quality of the sound this technology makes is inferior to the quality of digitized sound, but the fact that it is completely interactive makes up for the drop in sound quality. With this technology you can have any text read back to you, text that you write or text that someone else has written.

You should note that for teaching basic vowel sounds to dyslexics with weak auditory discrimination, text-to-speech technology leave much to be desired, but you probably would use a program with digitized speech for this purpose anyway and leave the synthesized speech for use when kids are doing more writing and need more interaction.

Any current Macintosh computer is capable of doing text to speech synthesis and this capability is built into many products.

Question
How do computers change the writing process and what effect might this have on a dyslexic writer?

Answer
Using a computer and various pieces of software for writing makes the writing process easier, and so allows more writing to take place. Word processing software doesn’t necessarily teach people how to write; it simply allows more writing to take place (by making the process easier) and so, allows people to learn from their own writing experience. Here it is again: the way to learn how to write is to do a lot of writing, and using a computer and software for writing can make the process of doing a lot of writing easier.

Why Write?
How do you get someone who hates writing to use a tool – even one as potentially interesting as a computer – to do something that is hard, unpleasant, or may have no personal meaning beyond getting through school? Just having access to a computer doesn’t automatically solve a writing problem; the computer has to be used regularly as a writing tool to produce a variety of writing.

One solution is to find a motivating force to get a person started with writing and keep them writing long enough to get hooked on the process. An external motivating force (an assignment or a reward) may work in the short term, but it’s not portable and may not work with every writing task a person has to do in life. What happens when the external motivation isn’t there? Better to learn how to produce an internal motivating force, for instance, sharing a piece of knowledge, an idea, an opinion, anger, or joy.

Separating the Tool from the Writing
It’s also important to help dyslexic writers keep certain ideas clear in their minds: the difference between their disability and their intelligence, and the difference between the tools they are using for writing and the content that they want to produce with those tools. The end goal is to use the tool to share the depth and complexity of one’s thinking in a form that others can understand, not to prove mastery of the tool.

With this in mind choose simple, easy-to-use writing software that will fall into the background quickly, letting the writer get to the writing without wading through layers of user interface that may confuse and undermine self-confidence.

How Computers Change the Writing Process
When you write with a pen and paper, the composition process (forming, organizing, and encoding ideas) and the printing process (getting ink on paper) are wed. Unless one has an incredible memory and can hold complex trains of thought in sequence long enough to get them written by hand, the pen and paper method isn’t very useful for anything more than short pieces of writing. When you fold dysgraphia into the mix, the pen and paper method isn’t very useful for anything more than writing checks. A typewriter solves the dysgraphia problem, but it does not solve the memory problem or the problem of needing to edit the writing later.

Computers change the writing process by holding all of the writing in memory (instead of on paper), freeing the memory of the person doing the writing, and because all of the writing is being stored electronically, it can be changed at any time with all sorts of electronic editing tools. Even the simplest computer printer will produce easier-to-read print than a dysgraphic person can produce by hand, making the print easier to proof-read, edit, and eventually share.

Electronic editing allows:

* Expanded vocabulary: The person doing the writing is freer to take chances with words that they use but don’t know how to spell because they can fix the spellings later
* De-emphasis of spelling: Dealing with spelling can be left until the content is set; then a spelling checker can be used
* Easy cut and paste organization: Easy reorganization frees a person from having to hold the entire organization of the piece of writing in their heads before starting to write
* Easier proofreading: Allows a person to finally get a sense of their own writing style and makes revision possible and bearable
* No more rewrites: Takes a huge weight off the dysgraphic person’s back.

Conversational Writing
I learned how to write by writing hundreds of letters. I was motivated by loneliness and anger. I had just moved to a new city and didn’t know many people and had left a lot of good friends behind, and I was in the process of coming out as a dyslexic adult. I had a lot to share and didn’t have close friends to talk things over with, so I turned to my manual typewriter. I started conversations through letters with many of my friends who then lived too far away to talk with regularly. It wasn’t an appropriate form for all of them, but a few of them kept up the conversation through correspondence. I was not a very experienced letter writer, but I tried to write the way I spoke. I thought about conversation, at times even speaking whole trains of ideas aloud before I typed them. I photocopied all of my letters and kept them though I didn’t know why at the time. What I started to see as I read through old letters was the complexity of my thinking. Seeing this hooked me, and I wrote more.

The lesson I learned here was simple: had you assigned me a paper on any one of the ideas I was writing about, I’d have been blocked, but in conversation, through correspondence, I was able to give form to the ideas.

What’s so special about conversational writing?

* The motivation of conversation with another person
* Shared language and ideas
* Informality (spelling and mechanics de-emphasized)
* Purpose
* Relatively fast feedback.

Conversational writing can take many forms: writing and sending letters through the mail; sharing a keyboard on a single computer and conversing through writing, writing and sending electronic mail or taking part in an online chat with a modem. The important part is the conversation – experiencing a less formal form of writing as a vehicle for sharing ideas.

To this day I spend a considerable amount of time on mail. Some of my best ideas germinate and develop in this kind of conversation. It’s also nice to stay in touch with people; they appreciate it and they usually write back.

List Making
Another simple but powerful technique to help a person get started with writing is list making. Rather than struggle with making complete sentences, punctuating them correctly, worrying about grammar and other technical language patterns, why not start by making a simple list of everything you know (or can remember at the moment) about the subject at hand?

For example, below I’ll list some of the things I know about rock climbing (I used to do quite a bit of rock climbing):

* Rock Climbing
* places
* equipment
* weather
* clothing
* Yosemite
* rope
* carabiner
* piton
* nut
* instruction
* falling
* yelling
* wind
* big walls
* El Capitan
* shoes
* signals
* ratings
* kind of rock
* technique
* schools

The object here is to list everything that comes to mind, in no particular order, without regard to spelling or even if its appropriate for this list. You can always prune and edit later. Many people have a hard time separating the editing process from the idea-generation process and as a result of this, they get in a bind each time a new item is added to the list. Computers allow easy editing later, so why worry? That kind of worry is a vestige of an old process, using pen and paper, where change was hard. Just making the list and exhausting the things you know about a particular subject is actually a self-contained exercise and stands alone nicely as a great way to build confidence. Many times before I write an article (like this one) I’ll make a list of all of the important points I can think of on the subject at hand, just to get them in writing before I struggle to make them make sense.

It can also be very impressive and confidence-building for a student who has never done much writing to see a long list of words and short phrases that represent his knowledge on a particular subject.

Logistically, this list generation can be something a student does on his own, with a teacher, with a partner, or something a teacher does with the whole class using a computer with a projection device so everyone can see and participate. The latter is a wonderful class activity and the teacher can act as talk-show host, asking questions to generate more items in the list. These questions are the kinds of questions a student needs to learn how to ask him or herself when writing independently.

Categorizing Lists
After a list is generated, but before any of the items in the list are eliminated, items should be categorized. This is where a specialized program like an electronic outliner comes in handy. Any word processor can facilitate list making, but moving the items of a list around by dragging (rather than cutting and pasting) requires an outlining program. With an outliner, one can literally grab an item and drag it next to another item until there are groups of like items close together.

If you’re using a color computer and a program like ClarisWorks, you can color-code the items in a list so that items of a particular category are all a single color. This makes it easier to visually group items by color matching.

Outliners also make it possible to take groups of like items in a list and make them sub-headings of another item. This kind of hierarchy building is the final step in categorizing a list. Once items have been grouped in a hierarchy the outline can be collapsed so that only the major category headings are showing; all the detail is hidden (temporarily). Being able to collapse and expand an outline is another technique that makes this kind of writing tool far superior to anything possible with pen and paper. Writers can work with one general idea at a time without the distractions of unrelated ideas showing on the screen or the need to scroll through many lines of text looking for things. What they are seeing is just the major categories with the detail hidden.

In the End
The way to learn how to write is to do a lot of writing, and using a computer and software for writing can make the process of doing a lot of writing easier. Correspondence and list-making are two techniques that have worked for me and are a natural for anyone who has access to a computer.

Tools for People With Writing Problems

richard_typewriter

© 1982 Richard Wanderman

I had a hard time with writing. I didn’t spend a lot of time doing it because it was such an unpleasant activity for me. Of course, it’s no wonder that I had a hard time with it, I didn’t write enough to get comfortable with it. My handwriting is so poor I can hardly read it, and my spelling used to be so far off that people who read my writing didn’t know what I was talking about, if they could read my handwriting.

I’m thirty years old (as I write this in 1982) and I have a language disability. As many other people like me know, these language problems undermine our ability to express ourselves in writing and by doing that, undermine our sense of confidence. Exposing these problems – which seem childlike – to other people can be incredibly humiliating.

Appropriate tools can help us compensate for these problems. Personal computers are the most powerful of these tools for people with language disabilities. Writing with a computer changes the writing process radically, making it much more accessible and enjoyable for people like me.

The Problem
I read a line and as I get to the end of it I start to lose the beginning. I go back and re-read the beginning and lose the end. This is assuming that what I’m seeing is what’s on the page. I may be transposing letters within words, changing their meaning or transposing words within sentences, changing their meaning. It can be a real mess.

I type a first draft on a typewriter, then go back and proofread it marking the mistakes. I type a second draft to correct the mistakes. Not only are there new typographical mistakes that anyone might make, but there are words misspelled that I spelled correctly in the first draft. When my writing problem is combined with my reading problem, I wonder how I can function at all in this language-oriented world.

Appropriate Tools
If a person can’t write, what difference does it make whether they use a pencil or a computer? It makes a big difference because writing isn’t only the physical act of putting marks on paper (with pencil or computer printer), it’s an act of thinking and composing. Writing is also about the interaction between the brain of the writer and the particular capabilities or limitations of the writing tool.

We have to learn to separate capabilities or limitations of tools from people’s abilities or disabilities. Let me explain. I had a hard time learning how to read clocks and tell time. It was humiliating not to be able to give the right time when asked and to rely on others to tell me the time. Had digital clocks and watches been available, I might have been able to avoid the humiliation without necessarily understanding how an analog clock is read, and what it represents. Digital clocks might have prevented the emotional scars that made telling time hard to learn and unpleasant for me. Yes, understanding the analog was important, but not as important as my emotional health and my growing (and fragile) image of myself as a learner. If I needed crutches, so be it. The object was to be able to use time as a means of getting along in the world. As it was, I eventually learned to tell time, pre-digital watch. But the deeper understanding of the analog came much later when I was ready for it.

The Learning Has to be Hard Fallacy
Had digital clocks been available when I was growing up, their remedial use might have been questioned as an easy way around the problem, a crutch. Is there an underlying cultural assumption that learning has to be hard and unpleasant to be effective: no pain no gain? If there is a connection between the brain and muscle, it falls apart in the case of the person with a language disability. Repetition and hard work doesn’t consistently make learning happen. There are other factors in play here. I was confused. I worked hard yet couldn’t tell time. I had no way of differentiating between my disability-caused difficulty and the possibility that I wasn’t working hard enough. I felt stupid. I couldn’t separate the problems in my head from the limitations and appropriateness of the tools (analog clocks) I was using. There was too much negative feedback associated with learning to tell time to keep me actively engaged in it.

A New Writing Process
Typewriters helped me read my own writing and allowed me to share it with others for the first time without quite the humiliation that I felt when I shared my handwritten writing. Writing with a computer goes further. A computer-aided writing process separates composition from printing. I can edit freely without committing anything to paper. I can move words around, change the order of sentences, insert new ideas, check spelling and proofread to my heart’s content, before anything is printed on paper. I can work and re-work a single page of writing for days, yet the finished printed piece has no white-out on it, and I’ve only produced one draft.

All of this allows me, the writer, to concentrate on what’s really important: what I am trying to say. And now that I’ve been writing for a while, I am beginning to believe that I have important things to say and that people find my writing easy to read. I now have an image of myself as a writer. This is why computers are so important to me.

Being a Dyslexic Adult
I can remember being measured and typecast by my relative ability to use language. It was frustrating, upsetting, and humiliating because I knew that there was intelligence inside; I just couldn’t share it in a way that other people understood and accepted. There is an assumption that the sophistication of one’s written language is a window on one’s intelligence, and that people, especially adults, who have problems expressing themselves in writing are lacking in their ability to think. Before I got a computer, I struggled with writing to convince people of the fallacy of this idea, but I ran into a brick wall – my writing wasn’t clear enough to be convincing, and no one could read it anyway. Finally being able to write about my disability has been an incredibly significant event in my life. Now I can attempt to explain what I was struggling with for so many years. Yes, just like the blind person who gets vision, I now have a voice, a means of expression that I lacked when I was growing up.

Image
Many people know me as “the computer teacher.” I’m not a “computer teacher” like other computer teachers. I’ve never taken a computer course in my life. Never. My interest in computers comes from their significance in my life. Yes, I get enjoyment out of controlling machines and things technical, but that’s not what got me started. And that’s not what keeps me going. What keeps me going is what I’m doing now, writing – something I cannot do without a computer.

Research on the Macintosh, Learning Disabilities, and Writing

© 1987 Laurie Fais, Ph.D.

Author’s Note This article was written in 1987 for the Macintosh Lab Monitor (a newsletter, now defunct) while Laurie Fais and Richard Wanderman were working at The Forman School (a private school in Connecticut serving students with learning disabilities). The research and its results are still useful and relevant today. Please be aware that there were very few schools, if any, doing what we were doing in those years. Many of the ideas that we had about the significance of computers, and the Macintosh specifically, only became wide-spread five or more years later. Also note that some of the software mentioned doesn’t exist anymore, the companies have since gone out of business.

John sat across from me at the table in front of a Macintosh computer. As Head of the Department, I was lucky enough to have one in my office, though I didn’t know very much about using it. John was very dysgraphic so I figured using a computer might make it easier for him to write what he wanted to write.

We were working on possessives that day. “Give me a sentence using ‘boy’ in the possessive.””The boy’s bat broke” was his reply. Typical. Even orally, John was in the habit of giving the bare minimum verbal response. “OK, now type it with the computer.” John slouched back, one hand in his pocket and began to peck. With the patience born of working with LD adolescents, this one in particular, I waited. And waited. Finally, my curiosity piqued, I stood up and strolled around behind John to see what was taking so long. He had typed “The boy’s bat broke when he hit the ninety mile an hour fast ball.”

Intrigued but afraid to be hopeful, I gave him another word: “witch.””The witch’s brew boiled.””OK, now type that.” Another wait. Then on the screen appeared “The witch’s brew boiled over and drowned the black cat sitting next to the fire.”

Those who work with LD students, or, in fact, any students, with computers often make intuitive claims about the advantageous effects this work has on their abilities to express themselves in writing. Unfortunately, there is currently a lack of “real” research validating these claims. The work that makes up The Forman School Computer-aided Writing Project has been designed to serve as the basis for some educational research that should validate and explain the effects of using the Macintosh on the growth of the writing skills of these students.

The Computer-aided Writing Project encompasses all of the various contexts in which learning disabled students at The Forman School learn to use the Macintosh computer as a writing tool: the small group classes, computer-aided composition, and the one-to-one language skills remediation course, Language Training (LT). In September of 1986, all of the 185 students in the LT program were screened and 48 were selected to go to the Macintosh lab one day a week during their LT class time, accompanied by their teachers. There they would be taught how to use the Macintosh as a writing tool by the director of the lab, Richard Wanderman, or his assistant, Emmy Pellico. Of these students, 27 were selected as participants in the Computer-aided Writing Project research program, to be pre- and post-tested in a number of writing and language skills.

The students did informal writing samples and were tested on their abilities to judge the relevance of specifics to a given topic, to categorize specifics and topics into coherent groupings/outlines, to order specifics in a logical paragraph order, and to proofread a paragraph with not only grammatical, punctuation and spelling mistakes, but also mistakes of organization and clarity. In addition, the students also took four sections of the Test of Adolescent Language (TOAL), which tested their grammar abilities in the areas of reading, listening, speaking, and writing.

After the pre-testing, the students spent one day a week with their LT teachers and Richard or Emmy working on a variety of tasks. Most learned to use Acta, an outlining program, and became proficient at the process of generating ideas, formulating an outline and producing a written piece of work, either in Acta or in MacWrite. Students learned all the basics of word processing and printing. Some engaged in “conversations” from computer to computer with their teachers. Much of the learning was directed toward the accomplishment of a specific piece of work, often work for another class, such as a senior English critical essay, a history research paper or a science fair project write-up. Some exercises were just that – generated by the LT teacher for the sake of teaching a student how to use the Macintosh as a writing tool. The teachers kept notes on their observations of how certain approaches seemed to work, what students’ reactions were, and what the more subtle effects of using the Macintosh seemed to be.

Students were post-tested in May, covering the same areas as their pre-testing the previous September. In the course of evaluating the results of each of the tests in the battery, certain trends became apparent. These are summarized below for each tested area.

Unrelated Specifics
Students were asked to eliminate from a list of words and sentences those items that did not fit the general category of the list. Students made no improvement in this area; in fact, there may have been a slight downward trend in the post-testing results.

Categorizing/Outlining
Students organized items in a jumbled list, out of the writing context. They showed no change, and in fact may have shown some loss.

Arranging Specifics
Students were asked to arrange lists of sentences into paragraphs. The paragraphs were of differing organizational types: temporal, comparison/contrast, spatial, logical, etc. Markedly more improvement was shown on this test than on the previous two.

Proofreading
Students were asked to proofread for spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraph structure and relatedness of specifics. Over half of the students made noticeable improvements. Fourteen students omitted the unrelated specific on the post-test, while only three had done so on the pre-test. Fourteen correctly joined fragments on the post-test as compared to three on the pre-test. Of the four who corrected spelling mistakes on the pre-test, two did so correctly. On the post-test, nine out of the 15 making corrections made correct corrections.

TOAL: Listening/Grammar
Students were tested for sensitivity to similar (spoken) grammatical structures, a task involving their receptive grammatical knowledge. About one quarter of the students showed no change, one quarter of the students improved, and half of them got worse.

TOAL: Reading/Grammar
Students were tested for their ability to recognize syntactically different (written) sentence structures, again, a function of their receptive grammar. The results were similar; approximately one quarter of the students showed no change, one quarter of the students improved somewhat and half of them got worse.

TOAL: Writing/Grammar
The results were quite different in this test, where students’ ability to utilize English syntax in writing was tested. This tapped their active/expressive grammar. About half of the students lost a little ground, but half of the students improved by even wider margins.

TOAL: Speaking/Grammar
Students’ expressive spoken grammar was assessed on this test. Again, over half of the students made impressive gains, while one quarter of the students showed no change and one quarter of them showed minor loss.

The consideration that seems to be the most significant in making sense of the full array of these results is the distinction between active/expressive tests or tests that were couched in the context of a full paragraph, and passive/receptive tests or tests that were made up of tasks isolated from that context. All the improvements that students made were made in the active, paragraph-size tasks: organizing specifics into paragraph form, proofreading, Writing/Grammar and Speaking/Grammar. Students’ performance on tasks isolated from paragraph context (crossing out unrelated specifics in a list; categorizing/outlining items in lists) and the receptive tests of Reading/Grammar and Listening/Grammar showed no improvement and in some cases showed some loss. Students exhibited greater sentence sense in both the TOAL and proofreading tasks and a much greater tendency to make corrections (and a greater ability to make correct corrections) on the proofing task.

The improvements in active, expressive writing tasks seem to point to a positive experience in the interaction with the Macintosh. Writing with a non-judgmental interactor like the Macintosh which facilitates the writing process by eliminating the high cost of correction and experimentation seemed to give students the self-assurance to “take charge” of their writing, to make corrections, to write enough to learn more about how to go about the process of writing, and to function confidently within the context of the writing experience. The fact that the passive and task-specific tests went down is not alarming; it simply indicates that, since students’ writing abilities per se improved, knowledge of these isolated skills are not necessary to the writing process. The implications for teaching are obvious. Interaction with the Macintosh computer in the writing process and the use of the Macintosh as a writing tool can be effective, positive, and beneficial components in a writing program for LD adolescents. In addition, breaking down the teaching of the writing process into specific tasks is non-productive; those tasks do not seem to contribute to improvement in writing.

In round table discussions after the post-testing was done, teachers who had charted the progress of the students involved through the year of work in the Lab compared their impressions and observations. Some observations were unanimous: students working on the Macintosh were using much more sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure than they had been in the fall. They were generating much greater quantities of written material. They were even using the Macintosh to make an outline before they sat down to write paragraphs.

It seems clear that students produced more sophisticated writing and greater quantities of it for two reasons: first, because the computer is such a non-judgmental facilitator, and second, because it separates writing from hard copy, making a distinction between the process of creation and the tangible result. What is difficult for these students is the physical production of the piece of output. Since the writing process itself is divorced from that physical production, students did not have to limit themselves to the “easy” words, the “little” sentences that they had a tendency to use in order to avoid making mistakes, and therefore corrections, when writing by hand.

The outlining program Acta was a great enabler for some of them as well; freed from having to create the mechanics of an outline, they could concentrate on how to code the relationships between their ideas and, again, with the physical mechanics out of the way, they could realize the benefits of pre-planning. On the other hand, not all students found Acta to be helpful conceptually. Acta gives structure to thoughts, potentially both a help and a hindrance. For the students who were willing/able to think and write in parts and still in need of external structuring, the program was extremely useful. But for those students who thought holistically or who were not able to break down the conception of their ideas into component parts, the program was frustrating. They were not capable of working with their ideas in a piecemeal fashion, i.e., they could not break their thoughts into units from which they could use Acta to construct an outline. Another group of students for whom using Acta was frustrating were the students who were capable of breaking down ideas and structuring them. For them, the program was an unnecessary complication in their approach to the writing process.

Teachers also observed that students did not make as many reversals, transpositions or spelling errors in their first attempts, and definitely caught many more of them in their computer-aided writing than they had in their handwriting. It is not quite as easy to explain why this should be so. Certainly one major factor to increased accuracy in proofreading is the fact that, having typed their ideas onto a screen, the students were able, some of them for the very first time, to read their own writing. For dysgraphic students, the revelation of actually being able to decode easily something they had just written was a primary factor enabling them to improve their writing; for the first time, these students were able to benefit from self-generated feedback. Even students who still had problems with decoding the printed word had less trouble with the Macintosh representation of their work than they did with their own handwriting; the high resolution screen makes for a clear image and the black-on-white printing recalls the standard text representations they are used to. The greater ease of reading coupled with the confidence they gained as a function of working with the Macintosh enabled these students to read more of their errors physically and to recognize them cognitively, so that they could correct more of them. Further, these students were not only more able to revise their work, they were also more willing. Proofreading and revising on the Macintosh, divorced from the scratching out and messy erasures of editing hard copy, are no longer the overwhelming tasks they once were.

But the question of why spelling should be better and why reversals and transpositions should be made less often is not clear at this point. Is there something in the nature of the student/computer interaction that circumvents the processing problems that result in spelling errors for these students? Or is it something as simple as the fact that the effort of keyboarding forces the students to be more conscious of their work and thus to use the knowledge that they have been taught in their LT classes?

These questions will guide some of the work to be done in the coming year in the Computer-aided Writing Project research program. We will also do documentation that will allow us to put numbers to our initial assessment of greater writing quantity and sophistication of vocabulary use and sentence structure. Another interesting observation that we would like to pursue was suggested to us by Shirla Edwards who works (or worked) with learning disabled students in a Microcomputer Demonstration Lab at Montclair, High School, New Jersey. She observed in one of her own dysgraphic students an enormous improvement in handwriting after the student had had the opportunity to do much of his writing on the Macintosh. It will be interesting to follow up this observation with some investigation of the effects of using the Macintosh on the handwriting of dysgraphic students. It may be that some of the illegibility of students’ writing is due to their reluctance to have people read what they have written and to their masking of their mistakes with orthographic vagueness (haven’t most of us at one time or another, when not sure if it was ei or ie, made what could be construed by a sympathetic reader as a loop in each letter and positioned the dot squarely in between the two?). In this regard, it will also be useful to look at a personality index for each student before and after his/her year of work on the Macintosh to determine what sorts of gains in self-image and self-esteem have been made.

Some further observations have clear implications for the mode and content of student/teacher interaction with the Macintosh in the writing process. Whether keyboarding skills are an essential prerequisite to using the computer as a writing tool is sometimes considered controversial. In our Lab, students who did not have handwriting problems and who tended to be impulsive, holistic thinkers, were frustrated by the fact that their slow keyboarding kept their fingers from keeping up with their thoughts. This frustration prevented them from writing enough to learn better keyboarding skills solely as a by-product of their writing experience. For them, keyboarding instruction per se was necessary. For the great majority of our students, however, we found keyboarding to be a non-issue. As long as they didn’t have to do the writing by hand, most dysgraphic students weren’t at all bothered by how long it took them to peck out their thoughts. The benefits of not having to write and, again, of seeing their thoughts in legible form far outweighed any initial frustration, or perhaps more accurately put, dispelled it altogether. The motivation level for these students was high enough that they continued to write, and wrote often enough so that keyboarding, albeit their own brand of it, came easier and easier.

Another issue of less concern to general computer-aided writing circles, but of great concern where LD adolescents are involved is the use of a spelling checker program. Like Acta, a spelling checker has features that make it an advantage for some students and a disadvantage for others. It would seem obvious that, for students for whom spelling is difficult at best, a spelling checker program would be an essential tool. However, in the course of using such programs with our students (primarily WriteNow and Spellswell), several things became apparent. First of all, the program had to be fairly good at coming up with “guesses” for alternatives to misspelled words.

Dyslexic students far more often than non-dyslexic poor spellers make mistakes on the first letter(s) of words; if a spelling checker “guesses” on the basis of first letters alone, the student will be frustrated by the inability of the program to give him/her any alternatives to the word it has flagged as wrong. Thus, a fairly sophisticated program is required in order for it to be useful at all. Second, for very poor spellers, having a spelling checker flag a large number of words in a piece of writing can generate a sense of failure as debilitating as the learning disability itself, especially coming on the heels of the excitement and hope created by working on the computer. Third, spelling checkers are not omniscient. Even where the program is capable of coming up with alternatives for the misspelled word, it is still the student who must determine which, if any, of the alternatives is correct. Thus, spelling checkers cannot be a simple replacement for the remediation of basic spelling skills; the student needs to have those skills in place in at least a receptive sense to be able to utilize the power of a spelling checker.

For all these reasons, then, it is important that care be taken with how a spelling checker program is presented by the teacher and what guidelines are set up for its use by the student.

The Computer-aided Writing Project research program will continue to look at the questions outlined above and continue to examine the ways in which we use the Macintosh as a writing tool for LD adolescents. A necessary step in preparation for further research, however, is the use of our preliminary findings to generate a curriculum and teaching guide that documents what we have found thus far to be the most effective sequence and content for a computer-aided writing program for these students. The guide will be based on the results of our research and on the observations made by our teachers and by the directors of the Lab throughout this past year. It will serve as the framework for the teaching of our students in the program next year and will be expanded and refined as our experience teaches us more and more about how to help unlock the writing potential of these students using the Macintosh as a writing tool.

It is a year and a half after the possessives episode. By now John and I are quite spoiled by having a Macintosh at our daily disposal. And I am spoiled by constant exposure to the tremendously positive effects it has on John’s ability to express himself. But even at that I am taken aback one day. We are both settling into the beginning of the class, me with my usual banter about homework and seniors, but John strangely silent. I look up to see him bent over the keyboard, now with two hands in the semblance of touch typing that he has taught himself. I start to chide him (his favorite way to waste time in class is to rearrange his disks or change the pattern on my desktop) but get no response. I find myself strolling over to his side of the table again. This time what I see written begins “You are going to be mad at me. I started to do the homework last night but there was a play that all the seniors had to see and after that…” John, a “typical” dyslexic, for whom written expression has been an anathema for his entire school career, is choosing to communicate with me in written form.

Tools and Dyslexia: Issues and Ideas

© 2003 Richard Wanderman

This article first appeared in the Fall, 2003 issue of Perspectives, the newsletter of the International Dyslexia Association.

My use of tools, from simple Hi-Liter pens to computers and more has changed my experience of being dyslexic and dysgraphic. Tools allow me to compensate (some might say over-compensate) for my dyslexia-caused writing and organizational problems so well that aside from the few times when people see my handwriting, my dyslexia and dysgraphia is not evident in my daily life. And, I’ve been lucky enough to actually build a career out of talking about this with audiences all over the world.

So, the very tools that I talk about are the tools that allow me to get to the talk, organize, and present it.

My experience, however, is not as common among dyslexics as I’d like. Many parents, students, teachers, and other professionals attempt to use tools with their children, students, or clients and various things happen to get in the way of success.

Rather than focus on the tools themselves I’m focussing on the context surrounding the tools’ use. Consider these issues and talk about them with teachers, students, and anyone who struggles with the use of tools to solve problems associated with dyslexia.

Branding and Stigma
In the context of disabilities and special education various kinds of tools are sometimes labeled “assistive technology.” I have a number of problems with this label.

  1. The label “assistive technology” is redundant: all technology is assistive.
  2. If you are dyslexic and you use a computer to write with it’s “assistive technology” but if you’re not dyslexic and you use a computer to write with it’s not? Huh?
  3. The assistive technology categorization has more to do with funding (where the money comes from in K-12 special education) than it does with actual use.
  4. The branding of a tool as “assistive technology” vs. “regular old technology” can, for some students, get in the way of using the tool enough to make it useful.

I’ve seen #4 happen with Franklin hand-held reference tools and AlphaSmart keyboards, among others. Franklin reference tools are not marketed as special education tools yet, when special education buys them, they are branded. AlphaSmarts sell 8 or 9 to 1 regular over special education yet if they are seen in a special education context, people think that’s their category. For what it’s worth, the playwright Arthur Miller uses an AlphaSmart as do thousands of other professional writers (of course, Mr. Miller does not use an AlphaSmart in school, where people might tease him).

Categorization and stereotyping is powerful and can lead to non-use because of stigma.

Tool as Lever or Crutch
Tools can be used as levers – to extend what we can do, but they can also be used to end-run problems we have with underlying understanding. Too much of the latter and we call them “crutches” which, when your leg is broken are useful but get in the way when your leg is healed and you want to walk fast.

Using a modern cash register to make change does not get me any closer to understanding why someone might give me $1.01 for a .66 charge. I ring up .66. I ring up $1.01 and the register says to give the customer back .35. The difference between that transaction and one where I get $1.00 even is pennies (or, the fact that the customer doesn’t want 4 more of them). The modern register takes the cashier out of the equation by telling him what to give back to the customer. In the stone age (when I ran a register) the cashier had to use his mental abacus to do this transaction.

This is not as cut and dry as it might seem so let’s discuss it further. I had a hard time using my mental abacus under the pressure of cashiering so I didn’t last as a cashier. But, I could hold that job today because the tool would allow me to end-run my weakness.

Is this good? Depends on what you want out of it. If you want to make your abacus stronger (like we do in school) then too much use of the tool may not be good because it’s doing the work for you (this is an assumption, it may not be true in all cases). If you want the job to make money then the tool is great in that it allows weak counters to hold higher paying jobs than box boy.

Don’t give someone a calculator to take an arithmetic test with. Don’t give someone a tool with a spelling checker to take a spelling test on. But, people who do math use calculators all the time. People who write use computers with spelling checkers.

The issue is, does the use of the tool get in the way of getting the underlying understanding? Or, can you get the underlying understanding through the use of the tool?

If the use of the tool keeps me in the game: keeps me doing arithmetic, keeps me working at the store, keeps me writing, then it is possible that I might later go back and take care of (clean up) my underlying weakness in spelling or math that the tool is helping me deal with. I know, you’re thinking few do but I have to disagree.

In fact, in my own experience, this is exactly what happened: the more I wrote with a computer, the better my spelling became. The use of a spelling checker kept me in the game and kept me writing and so, spelling.

Is it possible that for some people the use of a spelling checker gets in the way of learning how to spell independently? Absolutely. But, we have to be careful not to generalize that because some of us have had the opposite experience.

If You Don’t Use it, Nothing Happens
You would be amazed at how many people buy an expensive tool and think that the purchase alone is the solution to the problem. It is not. In fact, it can lead to more and different problems and sometimes does. The tool itself is a part of the solution; the regular use of the tool over time is another part of it; getting an assignment done with it is another part; and a changing attitude about learning and self is another part.

Without practice the tool is useless. Without a task to do practice is meaningless. If, after using the tool to good effect over time you don’t have a feeling of accomplishment there’s something wrong with the entire situation.

There are many reasons tools don’t get used, some of them come from the tool; some come from the user.

  1. The tool is poorly designed and too hard to use (although as I will discuss later, this is hard to sort out if you aren’t confident about what your abilities are)
  2. The user doesn’t know where the needed hard work to learn to use the tool ends and problems associated with dyslexia begin
  3. Power and control issues: “you said to use it, therefore I won’t,” or, “I just bought you this expensive gizmo, your grades better go up.”
  4. The tool comes with a stigma: being seen using the tool “outs” you as “learning disabled”
  5. There is a poor fit between learning style or maturity of user and tool: the tool ought not overwhelm the user, no matter how profound its effect
  6. Attitudes about disability get in the way: “you’re broken and the use of this tool will fix you”
  7. Confusion about getting a job done vs. underlying understanding: electronic cash registers help you make change but they don’t give you the underlying understanding of why a shopper just gave you $1.01 for a .66 cent bill.

It’s the process of using a tool to get work done and learning about the tool and yourself from that experience that’s most important, not the tool itself.

Practice Makes Better
The way to learn how to write is to do a lot of writing. One might call this practice or repetition or work, the result is the same: do a lot of something and it gets easier.

Some tools can make doing a lot of something easier because they fundamentally change the process of doing it.

A computer makes it easier to practice writing because it takes the sting out of making mistakes – you can fix them without a complete rewrite, and so, you may write more. A digital camera makes it easier to practice taking pictures because it takes the sting out of making mistakes – you can throw them out without printing them, and so, you may take more pictures.

Once enough practice takes place the tool starts to fall into the background and what the user wants to do with the tool starts to come into the foreground. In the end, the tool ought to be almost taken for granted and the focus completely on the application or better yet, the topic. However, this can’t happen without practice: a lot of use of the tool so that it’s intimately familiar.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to help people with dyslexia sort out difficulties in learning caused by the newness of the tool from difficulties caused by dyslexia. It may be hard to get enough practice in without sorting this issue out.

Mistake Tolerance
How many of you have a flashing 12:00 on your VCR and have to bargain with your teenage child to set the time because you don’t know how? Here’s a tip: duct tape.

Many adults have a notion that they were born in the mechanical age and that younger people, born in the electronics age are just better at this stuff by nature.

Here’s my theory:

Watch a teenager use a remote control. What looks to you like knowledge and facile motion is actually very fast trial and error work with the thumb. In other words, they make mistakes and correct them so fast you have no idea what just happened, which is just what they want.

Most adults, on the other hand, are scared of “blowing it up” or permanently tuning in The Playboy Channel so you hand off the remote rather than look stupid. Of course, in doing this you’re avoiding the possibility of making mistakes and from them, learning.

Learning happens when you make a mistake, form a theory on how to correct it, test the theory, and move on or go back and try again. Mistakes are an essential part of learning.

By the way, I’m over 50 which means I was born in the mechanical age, yet, I know how to program a VCR, set the stations on a car radio, and do all of the things that some of you think are impossible for folks my age. How did I transcend my age group? I made a load of mistakes early on and generalized that making them was important. To be honest, I did not think like this until my mid-20s by which time I’d sorted out intelligence – dyslexia issues for myself.

Many adults, dyslexic or not, don’t know if it’s the tool or them when they struggle. How do I know if the operating system of the VCR is just counter-intuitive to use or I’m throwing the towel in too early from fear of making mistakes? This is just like the dyslexic person not knowing where “normal” hard work struggling to do a task ends and difficulty associated with dyslexia begins. Given the fact that I’m pretty sure some people reading this think the CD tray on their computer is a coffee cup holder, you know where I think the problem usually lies. However it is and will remain true that some tools are just poorly designed. Tool-phobic adults, however, are not allowed to use this excuse.

Some tools and processes however, are more forgiving of mistakes than others. Here is a simple and yet, not-so-simple example:

Using a Hi-Liter pen as an aid in reading and studying can be quite effective. A typical highlighting job is to pick out the important ideas on a page so that later, in reviewing, you will be able to scan more easily and focus just on those important ideas.

This can be problematic if you don’t read well because in order to pick out the important ideas you have to hold enough ideas together in your head to compare them. If your decoding is too slow to get decent comprehension or you are distractible enough so that your brain is resetting before you get enough ideas to compare this is a hard task and can lead to the infamous yellow page (highlighting too much).

Here are two issues to consider:

  1. Underlying reading problems make it hard to do this task in the “traditional” way
  2. Hi-Liters are permanent and correcting mistakes is impossible (well, you can buy a new book). The consequences of making a mistake while highlighting are a negative influence on doing enough highlighting to learn how to highlight from experience.

I call the underlying issue in #2 “mistake-intolerance” and I find it fascinating to look at all tools and learning experiences with this issue in mind.

My first experience with mistake-intolerance was in an introductory studio art class in college. We were given two media to explore: a large piece of stone and a large mound of water-based clay, kept under plastic to keep wet and pliable.

We were advised to start on the stone as it would take longer and was harder to work with. We donned goggles, picked up hammer and chisel and started chipping away. Two weeks later almost all of us ended up with a BB (a small chunk of stone).

What had we learned? Stone is a mistake-intolerant medium: you can chip away at it but there’s no going back and correcting a chip that wasn’t meant to come off.

Sculpting clay was a very different experience: I could take some away and put some back and as long as I kept it wet I could do this for quite some time (not forever but long enough to get things worked out). Clay turned out to be a much more mistake-tolerant medium.

I have an MFA in ceramics and now you know why.

I like writing with a computer better than ink on paper; I use highlighter tape and an erasable highlighter instead of a Hi-Liter pen; I use a digital instead of a film camera…

Simple is Better if You Want to Focus on Work
The simpler the tool, the more it will get used. The more it gets used, the faster it will fall into the background and real work will get done.

I’m not making this point because I think that people with dyslexia are not smart enough to use complex tools, we are and we do. But, for example, when choosing an electronic writing tool to practice writing, one may be better off with a small battery-powered keyboard (AlphaSmart) than a desktop computer. Why? Less time spent messing with the tool, more time spent writing.

Let’s check this out in more detail.

Computer: turn it on, find the writing program and open it, start writing, spend an hour playing with fonts and formatting, save and name the file, quit from the program, shut down the computer (turn it off), return to writing later repeating these steps and hoping that you can remember where you saved and what you called it.

AlphaSmart: turn it on, start writing, turn it off (AlphaSmarts save every keystroke automatically into flash memory), return to writing later by turning it back on, you are right back where you left off.

What’s the difference? Steps. Reading the screen. Navigation. Choices. In other words, dealing with the various layers of using a computer: the operating system and the writing software.

AlphaSmart takes a different tack: let writing be the primary thing and take care of as much of the background stuff as possible so it doesn’t get in the way.

Note: There are many simple electronic keyboards like the AlphaSmart. The reason I chose it and not, say, the QuickPad or Laser PC or DreamWriter is because each of the others has more steps in the process of using the tool to do a simple writing chore. The AlphaSmart has the fewest steps and so, is a good contrast to a computer.

If you need more support with your writing: word prediction, speech to text, text to speech then a computer is a better choice and it will be worthwhile dealing with the added complexity, but many people think they need the extra support when in fact they don’t, they just need more practice. The simpler tool, if it offers enough support, will allow more practice because there’s less cognitive overhead to deal with in using it.

The simple-is-better formula works with almost all tools:

Remote controls, digital voice recorders, calculators, car dashboards, kitchen appliances… you name it, simpler is better.

And, the more the tool gets used the more work you get done and the less you think about the tool in doing that work.

Solve One Problem, Cause Another
Here are two examples of side effects of using tools that you might not consider.

You’re in high school or college. You’re dysgraphic and find it hard to take notes by hand. You decide to use your laptop or an AlphaSmart or a Palm PDA and folding keyboard to take notes in class.

You find a seat, get all setup and the lecture begins. You start typing. The person sitting next to you glares at you. You have no idea why. She then whispers, “can you type more softly?”

So, you’ve solved your handwriting problem but caused another person to be distracted because of noise.

You take another tack: instead of typing, you bring a tape recorder to tape the lecture only to find out that the teacher doesn’t like being taped (this could become an ADA issue but let’s not go there).

The important thing to consider here is that in a classroom full of kids or a meeting full of other people, some tools may be intrusive enough to be a problem for others.

What to do?

Ideal: re-engineer how teaching is done so that there is less listening and writing going on simultaneously.

Real: find a place to sit in a lecture hall that affects the fewest people (if you plan to pound a keyboard) and even then, acknowledge to your neighbors that you know you might be distracting them and will do your best to keep it down.

Means – Ends Issues
You don’t have to know how an engine works to drive to the store to get milk. In other words, there’s a difference between driving and car repair and car repair is not a prerequisite for driving.

If we had to prove our knowledge of cars by rebuilding an engine before we could drive, few of us would be driving.

Yet, many computer courses deal more with the tool than with its application, and this is a problem in that the application of the tool is where work gets done, unless you’re studying computer science or to be a computer technician.

The tool itself is means to another end, not an end in itself, and achieving that end, often, is what makes tools so meaningful for those of us who are dyslexic.

My Personal Toolkit
I’m over 50, dyslexic and dysgraphic. I touch type. I read. I make a living talking and writing about technology. We live in a two story saltbox house in rural Connecticut. We have cable internet although no cell phone coverage (go figure).

In the years that I’ve been interested in technology I’ve found two overlapping methods for choosing tools for my personal toolkit:

  1. Research online, ask friends, discuss the tool category and all options, join discussion groups, use loaners.
  2. Buy, try, either keep, return, trickle down, donate or throw out.

I tend to use #2 more than #1 (I’m impulsive) but I do a fair amount of research as well.

For example, if you were interested in buying a digital voice recorder here are some things to consider:

  1. Usability: what are the various features of voice recorders and which ones do I think I need? Will I be able to learn to use all of those features?
  2. Brand: are some brands better than others (with respect to #1 and just generally?). Sony better or worse than Panasonic or Olympus?
  3. Process of buying: Do I need to get my hands on it to feel it, see if the buttons are too small for my eyes and fingers? If so, I have to go to a store that carries a variety of these things. Can I buy it in such a way that I can return it if I don’t like it? Is the place I’m using to buy it useful (salespeople answer questions) or am I just using this place for low price?
  4. Price.

Notice price is last. Why? Because, if you don’t use it, it doesn’t matter that it was cheaper than another brand or if your buying experience is terrible it would have been worth it to pay more at another place to have a better experience. Price is important, but only after you’ve chosen what you want because it fits your needs and the way you want to buy it.

We use Macintosh computers and have since 1984 (the beginning of the Mac world). My wife uses a 12″ iBook and I use a 15″ PowerBook (TiBook or titanium PowerBook). These are our only computers. Both computers have AirPort cards in them (802.11b or WiFi) and we have two AirPort Extreme wireless base stations, one connected to the cable modem, the other wirelessly connected to and extending the range of the first.

With portable computers and WiFi we can move anywhere in the house and pretty far into the backyard (in summer) and remain on the internet. My wife usually carries her iBook into the living room to read and respond to email and visit with me (simultaneously!).

With this computer I can do online work anywhere on earth I have a high speed connection to the internet, which these days includes most Starbucks’, Bryant Park in New York, and thousands of other places including many hotels.

We live pretty far from shopping so we do almost all of our non-food shopping online: Amazon, Lands End, and more.

I co-wrote an article called Digital Independence on the impact of living and working like this and you can find it here: Digital Indepdence

I run OS X on my computer and I am writing this article with a simple text editing program that comes with OS X called TextEdit. It’s all I need to do most of the writing I do. I use its built-in spelling checker (not a great one but fine for me) and if I needed it (I don’t) it could easily have it read this text back to me out of the box, with no additional software necessary.

I use the program Sherlock for many things but mostly for its built in dictionary and thesaurus which is a good one. The Sherlock dictionary is actually a non-web front end for Dictionary.com which I could also use but Sherlock is better.

Sherlock also has other tools for language translation, yellow pages and more that seamlessly use various online databases to find information.

I’m working on a program called Confusing Words which is a collection of over 3000 words that people have problems with, like affect and effect and there, their, and they’re. It’s a web-based reference tool that anyone in the world can use.

I use a Dymo Thermal LabelWriter printer to print labels for envelopes. It works like a charm and I’ve used various versions of this printer for many years to avoid having to handwrite envelopes.

We have an HP LaserJet 1012 that is connected to one of our AirPort base stations via a USB cable. We can print on this printer from anywhere in the house, wirelessly. It is our only printer (aside from the Dymo); we do not own an ink-jet or color printer of any kind.

I use iChatAV for daily work-related chat with two coworkers: one in Boston and one in Denmark who run the AlphaSmart Community Center with me.

I use OS X’s included Address Book as well as the iCal calendar program.

I use iTunes (a digital music-related program) not only to digitize CDs but to digitize radio programs like NPR’s This American Life and Fresh Air which I can then listen to on my iPod. I also buy single songs from Apple’s new online music store saving me from buying whole albums.

I have a new, 15 gigabyte iPod that I use to listen to music as well as to hold my address book and calendar. iSync synchronizes the iPod with my computer simply (much simpler than a Palm PDA syncs with a computer I might add). I also have my entire joke collection on my iPod (over 1000 jokes) because my memory is failing.

I use an electronic outliner called Omni Outliner which I could have used to write this article. I keep a single file called “Organizer” that holds detail that I don’t keep in iCal: detailed travel information for trips, serial numbers, passwords, magazine subscriptions, orders and invoices, notes, and more. This categorized list is at the center of my organizational life.

I have a Canon G3 digital camera and I use iPhoto to catalog and crop images. I use Apple’s (actually Kodak’s) online printing facility to make prints which are delivered two days after I buy them.

I use a Panasonic RRQR 100 digital voice recorder for notes on the road, for quick and dirty recordings of drumming practices, and for any recording I don’t plan to keep.

I use a Sony BM 575 micro-cassette recorder for all other voice and some music lesson recording. I had a mini disc recorder but while the digital technology made for excellent recordings, the small size and complexity of the tool made it hard to use.

We have a Franklin Bookman Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary reference tool on our coffee table in the living room. Sherlock’s dictionary has supplanted it but we still use it from time to time. My wife uses a talking Franklin reference product with her students at school.

I use an AlphaSmart 3000 keyboard to write at the beach on the lake down the road and in my kayak. I would never take this computer out in the kayak and with an AlphaSmart around there’s no need. We take the AlphaSmart on car trips and I carry it on planes and use it much more than this computer on almost all flights. When I’m lucky enough to upgrade to business or first class and the plane is new and has a power source in the seat I have the special power cord necessary to use it and use this computer more.

Being dysgraphic, I’m very particular about the pens I use. I like the Sanford Unable Gel Impact RT as well as the Pentel Energel. Both are smooth and a ton of ink comes out, perfect for masking my unsteady handwriting. I’d write all the time with a Sanford Sharpie but alas, it’s a marker, not a pen and it (literally) stinks.

I have a number of rolls of Lee Products’ Highlighter tape which I prefer to Crayola erasable highlighters and I still have and use a variety of colors of Avery Hi-Liters (just not on anything important or where the consequences of a mistake are harsh).

I’m left-handed and I have and use Fiskars Softouch scissors instead of traditional left handed scissors. I like the way they solve the handedness problem better: more inclusive, less exclusive.

I rarely shut my computer down, preferring instead simply to close it putting it to sleep. In the morning, after feeding the cat and making coffee for my wife and me, when I open it, email pours in (spam too although it’s routed to the trash) and sometimes my partner in Denmark (who has been working for 7 hours already) pops up opening a chat that we usually leave open all day.

I scan the headlines in Google News and look at the front page of Salon (of which I am a “premium” subscriber), see what’s up in the AlphaSmart Community Center as well as the Discussion area and the Warren, Connecticut Community area (my town).

By this time I’m finished with my one, large tumbler of coffee (Starbucks mail order which I buy from the web and they’ve just discontinued, rats!), my wife has left for school and the shower is free, my chat partner in Denmark is making dinner so I hop in the shower.

No, I do not bring any of this equipment into the shower with me, nor did I buy a Sharper Image CD player for the shower. One does need time to think, sans-tools, and hot water alone does the trick.