Terrific resource on ICT and Dyslexia

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Alan Stewart has prepared a brilliant resource on Livebinder (new to me) on technological supports for learners with dyslexia.

I have nothing to add – just check it out.

“Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”(Saturo)

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We are moving rapidly from an age in which the tendency to treat individual texts as discrete, closed-off entities is over. We are learning to ‘delimit’ boundaries between what is to be included and what excluded. To illustrate the notion of intertextuality, Kristeva (Kristeva) refers to 2 axes: the horizontal connecting the author and the reader and the vertical which connects the text to other texts. Uniting these 2 axes are shared codes: ‘every text is from the outset under the jurisdiction of other discourses which impose a universe on it’.

Intertextuality refers to far more than the ‘influences’ of writers on each other. Traditional notions of authorship encompass originality, creativity, individual expression. However, language is a system which was there before the individual speaker so that when writers write they are also ‘written’ in the sense of being interpreted. To communicate we must deploy existing concepts and conventions. Consequently, whilst our intention to communicate and what we intend to communicate are both important to us as individuals, meaning cannot be reduced to authorial ‘intention’.

A text is… a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations… The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them. (Barthes 1977, 146)

Reading and writing are not neutral acts.

Now I have studied neither English literature, nor philosophy and I think I have reached the limits of my ability to discuss linguistics and semiotics. But this is relevant as it helps me to edge towards an understanding of the way that digital technologies are altering the ways we read.

Good pedagogy allows the learner to act first and attempt to make sense later. So it is with my trial of the ‘born digital’ story, Inanimate Alice. I’ve had a shot and am now beginning to grasp more about how the reading experience of my grandchildren will differ (is already differing) so greatly from my own: I talk in order to understand; I teach in order to learn’ (Robert Frost).

I mentioned here the possibility of the screen watching us, adjusting to our perceived needs. Kevin Kelly, from whom I’ve gleaned much for this post,  describes the next generation of e-books thus:

Eventually e-ink paper will be manufactured in inexpensive flexible sheets. A hundred or so sheets can be bound into a sheaf, given a spine and wrapped with two handsome covers. Now the e-book looks very much like a book of old. One can physically turn its pages, navigate the book in 3D, and go back to an earlier place in the book by guessing where the spot was in the stack. To change the book, just tap its spine. Now the same pages show a different tome. Since using a 3D book is so sensual, it might be worth purchasing a very fine one with the most satin, thinnest sheets.

Fascinating though it is to dwell on the various containers that are likely to hold stories this is not at the heart of the changes that are happening. The article continues:

Such flexibility recalls the long expected, but never realized, dream of forking stories. Books that have multiple endings, or alternative storylines. .. there’s no reason images in digital books must remain static

or, I may add, singular. Kelly cites Wikipedia as a prime example of ‘the first networked book’, one that is ‘not only socially read, but socially written’.

The ‘deeply collaborative nature’ of scientific research has always led to joint publications, but Kelly is unsure whether fiction with its ‘self-contained story, unified narrative and closed argument’ will be constructed in a similar way: ‘ the central core of most books will probably continue to be authored by a lone author’.

Interestingly there are some writers who are breaking the mould, one of whom happens to be my son. He and a collaborator, Natasha Soobramanien, have,

recently begun work on a joint novel-length project. This will tell the story of the Chagossian islanders and their illegal expulsion from the Chagos archipelago in the 1960s at the hands of the British government, in order to expedite the leasing of the largest island, Diego Garcia, to the US government for use as a military base. …

This will be a ‘hybrid work’ which uses a variety of documents and texts both fiction and non-fiction.

Luke continues:

Apart from the Italian collective who write as Luther Blissett, I don’t know of other writers currently working this way. Collaborative practice seems to be more common in contemporary art practice.

Interesting times.

The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being (Jung)

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  Aimee Daniells‘  interesting post, Fight dyslexia with the Kindle! has ignited this summary of the benefits of Kindles for learners with dyslexia. All that she says relates to all digitalised methods of accessing text of course, but the case for the Kindle is that it is so transportable.

Many people with dyslexia can become relatively competent at reading given motivation, good teaching and an awful lot of hard work. It is often the slow speed of reading and the poor organisation of thoughts which inhibits them from becoming fluent. However, for many there will be an instinctive negative reaction to large swathes of text and to overcome this, they must have a real desire to break the barrier. The small progress bar on the bottom of the Kindle shows the percentage of the book that has been read: a great motivator.

The facility to change text size, font style and line spacing when using a Kindle enables less confident readers to take control of their fear. The text on the plastic sheet looks as sharp and readable as traditional ink on paper. It’s this above all that has made the Kindle a runaway bestseller.

And although the text-to-speech specification features a less than pleasant robotic voice it does at least offer the opportunity to access the words in an alternative format. Uploading audiobooks is also an option of course.

The Kindle’s built-in dictionary is also a boon for learners with dyslexia. Using a conventional dictionary is tough for those with sequencing difficulties, especially if they experience visual stress when looking at densely packed pages of information.

I have taken to using my Kindle for reading books to which I wish to refer at a later date; whether for a book group discussion or professional reflection. For this I use the highlighting tool. This facility is particularly useful for people who find it hard to organise themselves. Dyslexics’ desks are often strewn with bits of paper which inevitably get lost. If there is a need to refer back at any point, having the text with notes in the same place helps immeasurably. These highlights can be extracted and re-read with ease.

Another great feature of the Kindle is its search provision. This allows you easily to locate specific names, places or events to refresh the memory. Hunting for relevant information can take up huge amounts of time which slower readers can ill afford. The bookmark is also very helpful for finding your place when you return to the book. Fluent readers – ones who love books and/or who are studying from them – ‘annotate, mark up, underline’; their books are likely to be ‘dog-eared, summarised, cross-referenced, hyperlinked, shared, and talked about. Being digital allows them to do all that and more’.

Thetechnium,  when speculating about the future of the book, discusses the prospect of a screen that we not only watch but that watches us, the readers. For people with slow processing speed, there is the potential for interactivity with the text:

to map whether you are confused by a passage, or delighted, or bored. Prototype face tracking software can already recognize your mood, and whether you are paying attention, and more importantly where on the screen you are paying attention. That means that the text could adapt to how it is perceived. Perhaps it expands into more detail, or shrinks during speed reading, or changes vocabulary when you struggle, or reacts in a hundred possible ways. There are numerous experiments playing with adaptive text. One will give you different summaries of characters and plot depending on how far you’ve read.

This flexibility might challenge the very nature of books, of reading – something for another post perhaps – but for learners with dyslexia it opens up a whole world from which hitherto they been largely excluded.

The price of our technological ‘toys’

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A thought provoking article by Ted Genoways shatters the myth of the environmentally friendly ‘paperless revolution’.

The environmental impact of a single e-reader … is roughly the same as fifty books. The real problems come in lifespan. At present, the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books—not used or rare editions, 250 million new books—each year just to come out footprint-neutral. Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, textbooks, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold. Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.

Every MacBook and iPad, every Kindle and Droid contains the labor of hundreds of invisible workers, uncounted lives foreshortened by poisoned water and air, and a landscape permanently scarred by our voracious scavenging. No matter how sleek and earth-friendly these devices may appear, they rise from the dirt and are mined with sweat and with blood.

Of course he states that our information age is not ‘inherently bad’:

But in our rush to embrace the new—the smaller, the faster, the more powerful—we must not confuse revolutionary products with revolutions in production. We must not forget that even in this age of enlightenment, much of the world remains stooped in black tunnels, tracing veins deeper into darkness.

What to do?

Inanimate Alice and Me 5: Creating Episode 5

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My first post about my project using Inanimate Alice with a group of P7 learners with dyslexia quoted the author:

Kate (Pullinger) described how her attention had been drawn to alerts to the publication online of episode 5, and not just one but several versions. ‘to have students taking a piece of writing by someone else and engaging with it in an entirely new way is a very exciting form of interactivity’.

And I went on to say:

The notion of text is evolving. We need to think again about what we understand by ‘literacy’ and the way that we read and interact with text and stories. ‘The children are redefining ideas of what authorship means, who owns the text, who is allowed to tell stories’. There are real opportunities for learning in delving into the digital realm to motivate and inspire youngsters, particularly perhaps those who have traditionally considered that storytelling is not for them.

Well, at last we have begun our own storytelling venture. The children were keen to get started weeks ago but I held them back. I don’t often discourage children from writing but I felt we needed to have studied the components of the original episodes before embarking on creating our own. This is not least because these inexperienced writers require strong models and significant support. 

We have spent a good deal of time examining the first 4 episodes of Inanimate Alice and exploring the common elements in the story line and in the presentation.

I used a terrific article, ‘What do Good Writers Do?’ to help me focus on the work to be done. Good writers can

identify and articulate what makes a narrative. They also understand the structures and features of the narrative before using what they know about narratives to transfer to their own writing.

I had prepared cards illustrating the storyline and presentational aspects about Alice for reference to help them develop these crucial skills. The cards – laid out on the floor throughout the session – helped them to ‘consider all factors before and during the writing process: characters, setting, plot, main idea, length, audience’. Thus they were able to ‘use their prior knowledge of the text type and the topic to help them develop a text’.

We debated whether this would be a joint or individual venture but the decision was made for us when only one computer was available. Welcome to the real world. As it happened I felt this was a positive thing: the collaboration between the children ensured that the soppiness of the girls was countered by the violence of the boys. Apologies for being gender specific but you’ll get the point when you see the final version!

We resisted the temptation to find pictures and structure our tale around them as I had done when using Storybird. Rather than having a specific plan for our storyline to develop in a logical sequence we went with the flow. I guess if Philip Pullman can do it, so can we:

I don’t exactly choose [themes and storylines] so much as surrender to them. I couldn’t write at all if I had to choose, in a sort of cold-blooded way, between this idea and that one. If they both excite me, I’ll write about them both.

When I wrote Northern Lights I had a rough idea of where it was all going, and I knew a few things about some places I wanted to stop at on the way. I knew it had to end in a garden; I wanted to bring in the hornbeam trees in Oxford; I thought I might have to go to the world of the dead. That’s all. I discovered most of it as I went along.

However, as we’re not (yet) as experienced as Pullman, some scaffolding is important. This is why basing our story on Alice’s adventures is so useful for these children who have found writing so very challenging.

The children were bursting with ideas which, to my pleasure, centred firmly upon the story rather than the telling of it. I suggested they use Audacity to record their story as an alternative to written text but this suggestion was summarily dismissed.

In the end I haven’t given them the option of using Storybird or Glogster. (I had also considered trying  Scratch  but couldn’t get access at school.) I felt learning these tools would distract from the composition. So PowerPoint it is.

While the children had refused any offers from me to read the text of the earlier episodes, they were content for me to scribe.

We ended yesterday’s session with a story that contained many of the elements embedded in Inanimate Alice but which was unique.

Next week, all being well, they will fill out the bare bones of the story with images, sounds and (possibly) music.  They will also put their own individual stamp on that skeleton.

Many young writers find being aware of an audience hard, especially those who do not read a great amount. I will encourage them to ‘use descriptions, details and language to help the reader visualize and make connections to the setting of the narrative’. I hope to ensure they ‘plant seeds throughout a story for characters and the plot to develop for the reader to keep interested and want to read on’.

The aim is to present their story to the whole class in a fortnight.

The motivation’s there; let’s hope there is enough time.

Back to work after 40 years

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This is very short – so watch carefully. If you’re under 40 you might not get it.

Inanimate Alice and Me 1: New notions of authorship

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The act of writing is an act of optimism. You would not take the trouble to do it if you felt it didn’t matter. Edward Albee

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to hear Kate Pullinger speak on the theme, Digital Literacy: Keeping it Real! Kate is the author of the digital fiction story, Inanimate Alice, along with other very interesting projects. Inanimate Alice tells a story through sound, text, image and video and gaming components which become increasingly important as it develops.

I was somewhat mortified when I was introduced to her as the teacher who had so loathed her first experience of Alice! She was very charming about this however, especially once I had explained that my initial reaction was being tempered by further investigation and a commitment to trying digital storytelling with some of my students.

Kate described how her attention had been drawn to alerts to the publication online of episode 5, and not just one but several versions. ‘Which was interesting. Because I am the author of Inanimate Alice and I’d only produced 4 episodes … For me this was a really big moment: to have students (in the US) taking a piece of writing by someone else and engaging with it in an entirely new way is a very exciting form of interactivity’.

The notion of text is evolving. We need to think again about what we understand by ‘literacy’ and the way that we read and interact with text and stories. ‘The children are redefining ideas of what authorship means, who owns the text, who is allowed to tell stories’. There are real opportunities for learning in delving into the digital realm to motivate and inspire youngsters, particularly perhaps those who have traditionally considered that storytelling is not for them.

Enabling students to create their own content as opposed to pushing it on them and creating these standards-driven story-worlds is the key to learning in the 21st Century. Inanimate Alice forces us to pay attention and change the way education is conceived. As Ian Harper states, “The kids get it, even if you don’t.”

I began working with a group of 11 year old learners with dyslexia once a week for an hour in their writing time in mid-January. After 3 weeks of our project the impressions the children have of Inanimate Alice are changing. At first they were wary of the whole concept, although prepared to indulge me when I explained I had recruited them to help me learn about this new form of storytelling. Children with learning difficulties notoriously fear the new; expect to find learnng hard; prefer to stick with what they know rather than try something new in case they fail even further.

However, they seemed pleased to take responsibility for reviewing this new form of text.

Initial negative reactions to the speed and ‘blurriness’ of the text as it appears and disappears have become less dominant as they realise that they can review whenever they want. This is important for these children whose decoding skills are considerably slower than others of their age. It is interesting to note that they decline all offers from me to read it to them: they are determined to read for themselves although they are prepared to allow me to scribe their thoughts.

The initial focus was on the story itself and the puzzles they encountered in episodes 1 and 2. Once they had ‘read’ each a couple of times – each at her or his own pace – we discussed the ‘digital’ aspects of the content. They appreciate that the music reflects the country where Alice lives and how it alters the mood. On the whole they like the video clips as they ‘give you more detail about the situation’. One boy is ambivalent about the benefits of ‘moving pictures’ as he feels too much visual information detracts from his ability to imagine for himself what is happening.

They like the puzzles on the ba-xi best, not least because ‘it’s not all about reading and that makes it more fun’. The reaction to the sounds, however, varies from ‘it’s a bit nippy’ to ‘it made me want to rip my ears off’. The most disliked element at this stage, apart from the electronic noise, is the rapidity with which the text disappears from the screen at times and the way that it flashes.  Learners with dyslexia often become visually stressed, especially when looking at strong contrasts. Inanimate Alice has white text on black background and thus is not particularly dyslexia friendly.

At the end of week 3 they are noticing common elements in the episodes, both in terms of the story itself and of the devices used to tell it. They are very keen to get on with writing their own episodes.

In our last session before the holiday, we read reactions from older students from ‘Just Another Teacher Rambling’s’ blog. This galvanised them into increased focus on the differences between traditional books and this digital story. They were delighted to discover that students a few years older are also investigating Inanimate Alice and clearly feel the whole project is becoming worthwhile in itself not just because of my whim.

Tomorrow we will explore in more detail the differences between print and digital texts.

I’ll report back.

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