Just say pen

Sal McKeown looks at how some learners with special needs might benefit from a new text-to-speech reading device

End-of-course examinations are to replace coursework and controlled assignments as part of the government’s drive to make assessment more rigorous, but how can you support students with dyslexia or other conditions which affect their ability to read and write?

The commonest adaptation for learners with special needs is extra time, but this is not satisfactory as candidates get tired and two assessments in one day could mean having an extra hour under exam conditions. Some students who have difficulty writing legibly or quickly enough to complete a paper in the allotted time may be entitled to use a word processor – without spellchecker.

Another common arrangement is to have a person who reads out the words but is not allowed to explain their meaning. In 2011-12, some 57,000 candidates, roughly 8 per cent of the total candidates taking GCSEs, used a human reader. This meant that many schools were obliged to provide a reader, an invigilator to ensure that the exam rules were not breached and a separate room so other candidates would not be disturbed. It is a very expensive option.

Since 2008 Scotland has offered digital exams, allowing pupils to use text-to-speech software to listen to questions and check their answers. England has been slow to catch up but now the Joint Council of Qualifications (JCQ) lets candidates use a text-to-speech reader which might be a piece of software or a reading pen.

There are a number of stipulations: 

• the arrangement must reflect the candidate’s normal way of working in internal school tests and mock examinations
• a permitted examination reading pen will not have an in-built dictionary or thesaurus, or a data storage facility.

One of the great advantages of a reading pen is that it can be used by candidates who might not qualify for a human reader.

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The Exam Pen has been developed by Wizcom and costs £190 including VAT. It is bright orange and has Exam Pen written on it so invigilators know it is an approved device. It looks similar to a bar code reader. The user runs the ‘nib’ across the word and the pen copies the text into its display window and reads it aloud. It is a discreet solution. So long as the candidate has headphones, no one else will be disturbed.

While it would not be suitable for students with really poor reading skills, it is a good solution for those who need support to read more complex words and those who feel self-conscious about having a reader – often someone they do not know – sat at their side.

Many schools have been buying Exam Pens so students can practise ahead of the exam season. Kate Corbin, SENCO at Blundell’s School in Devon, says: “One of our students found it was an absolute lifesaver in her English language exam because there were words in there that she never would have been able to tackle and she would’ve missed quite a lot of the meaning in the text that she was required to read.”

It also worked well for maths. Three students used an Exam Pen and the school did not have to provide any readers: “I would hope that, in the future, it will also enable us to cut down on manpower. Within the band of students that have a reader, some are slightly more able than others. Many of our students would fall into that upper band. They’ll be able to sit their exams with their peers using the Exam Pen with headphones.”

Exam Pen W: www.scanningpenshop.com Joint Council of Qualifications W: www.jcq.org.uk

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