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Collection: Word Prediction

purple arrow (1137 bytes)Enabling a Student with Developmental Delays

The following vignette was written by Emily Hoeffel who worked as a tutor with Margaret [pseud.], a student with developmental delays associated with Williams Syndrome.

PRODUCTS: Co:Writer (Don Johnston, Inc.); Write: OutLoud (Don Johnston, Inc.); Powerbook (Apple Computer)

Margaret is a young ten year old child with developmental delays associated with Williams syndrome. Her learning issues involve attention deficit-type behaviors, impulsivity, language problems, and delays in gross and fine motor skills development. As is also typical with this syndrome, she was small for her age and unafraid of strangers, appearing very friendly and talkative. Margaret was attending a special needs program when I began working with her at home twice a week. Our goal was to develop computer skills which might compensate for her inability to use a pencil or magic markers, and to assist in language development.

Margaret was enthusiastic about using the computer, carefully typing out the word "boo" on the Apple IIgs. Before we had finished she had typed out the same word many times. In addition to perseveration, Margaret also displayed the hearing sensitivity characteristic of this type of child. She reacted very strongly to the noisy Image Writer II printer, seeming simultaneously intrigued and repulsed. She alternately put her ear directly against the printer, but then pounded on it and turned away from it. With the printing done, she proudly showed off her paper, rereading it several times, but then quickly turned her attention to a talking stuffed animal, making "Barney" repeat phrases again and again.

Recognizing the importance of auditory feedback to Margaret, at the next session we used a simple talking word processor. The effect was instantaneous. Laughing and exclaiming, she typed her favorite words (still just words) over and over, and had them repeatedly spoken aloud by the computer. She was reading at about a second grade level and her sight recognition, and comprehension were surprisingly solid.

To capitalize on these skills, we decided to try a Macintosh computer with a "talking" word prediction program. New programs were just coming on the market whereby if you typed, for instance, the letter c, a list of words beginning with c appeared on the screen. It was hoped that the word prediction feature would improve the quantity and quality of Margaret's verbal expression: she would not have to type the entire word, and she would have a constantly changing word list to sustain her attention. As her confidence, ability and productivity improved, the word prediction program also would facilitate the writing process. The combination of Co:Writer and Write :OutLoud and a Macintosh PowerBook would provide Margaret with a powerful tool that she could take with her to school.

Anticipating the purchase of these hardware and software tools, we focused on Margaret becoming as independent as possible on the computer. It became Margaret's responsibility to turn on and off the equipment and to load the software at each session. If something didn't work, she was encouraged to check the plugs and power strip. With practice she learned to manipulate the software, opening, retrieving and saving her work. Firm limits had to be set on the speech component, or she would constantly have the computer speak her words. During this time Margaret was improving her keyboarding skills. While no attempt was made to introduce formal keyboarding, she was gaining familiarity with the keys and clearly beginning to remember their locations.

Margaret frequently wanted to type the same word over and over, but was encouraged to type complete sentences, no matter how brief and disconnected. Often her sentences were actually memorized from a favorite story book. She saved and printed out her work, putting each page in a vinyl sleeve in a three-ring binder. She would reread these and have them read to her frequently during the week.

With the arrival of the laptop, we installed the word prediction software (Co:Writer) and its companion word processor with speech (Write:OutLoud). By putting the word processing program in the Co:Writer folder, and by creating an alias for Co:Writer, Margaret simply had to double click on the Co:Writer icon on the desktop to have both programs launch at the same time. As Margaret typed a letter, a choice of five words beginning with that letter appeared below it, arranged vertically by number. If the word was at the beginning of a sentence, it was automatically capitalized. Furthermore, the words were "intelligently" predicted: word choices made syntactical sense. The program provided assistance with grammar, spelling and language. It also provided Margaret's most frequently used words at the top of the word selection list, an optional feature whereby the program "learns" user preferences by keeping track of frequency and recency of words.

Margaret started typing a sentence (now a requirement) using her favorite words, initially unaware of the word list appearing at the bottom of the screen. When explained that she could type the first letter and then use the laptop trackball to highlight which word she wanted, she very matter-of-factly began using this feature. She also quickly grasped the idea that if her word choice did not come up immediately, she could type the next letter in the word and more word choices would come up. As her hunt-and-peck skills increased, sometimes she would type out an entire little word without realizing it had been predicted for her. Since she showed an ability at keyboarding, it made sense to ignore this oversight and only remind her to try to type the second and even third letter of longer words in order to have them presented to her in the list. In this way she could use more vocabulary by relying on her strong sight reading skills while not having to spell out each word.

The great surprise and delight for Margaret came when shown that, by clicking on icons along the top of the screen, what she had typed could be spoken by the computer. In addition, she could press a "repeat" icon and have her words repeated -- and repeated. Margaret was off the stool and literally dancing around the room, laughing with delight, and darting back to the laptop to hit the repeat again and again.

The next phase of working with Margaret was to impose limits on the repeat function by requiring that she write a certain amount before she could press the speech icon. From an initial requirement of producing a complete sentence, soon she had to write a "story" with a beginning, middle and end, using a minimum of three sentences. This was very hard work for her, but once she verbally composed a sentence (usually very simple and frequently one she had memorized from a storybook that had intrigued her), we used the word prediction feature to get it typed before she lost her focus. We also clicked on icons to enlarge the text, perform a spell check and print out her work. The rewards of being able to hear her own work and share the printed page were extremely motivating. Her sentences were becoming more complex and ideas more original, though it was still difficult for her to hold a story line together.

In order to push to the next level in writing a story, Margaret began dictating her story before she was allowed to type. I would quickly write it down, rereading her sentences to her as prompts to have her continue dictating the story. We gradually increased our goal to six sentences, always trying to have the story make sense by looking for a beginning, middle and end, and stressing the ingredients of who, what, where, when and why. We also increased the word selection list from five to seven. Margaret tolerated the increase very well and was able to speed up her writing by having more choices presented in the initial list. She was writing little stories, such as:

I like to go on the commuter rail. I went on the commuter rail to Boston and South Station today. Mommy went with me on the commuter rail to South Station. I sat in the back of the coaches and they went clickity-clack, clickity-clack. I came out of the train yard and to the aquarium and back to the station and home.

Besides the obvious need for control over Margaret's desire to press the speech repeat icon (she quickly figured out how to go into the pull-down menu and turn the feature on again), we were also concerned that the word prediction list might "put words into her mouth." This has not been an issue thus far. The occasions when she has been distracted by the word options, a brief reminder to stay with her story has sufficed.

To encourage the use of both hands on the keyboard, small green and red stickers were placed on the dividing line keys to differentiate right and left hand. A "smiley face" sticker was placed on the "wakeup" key, and the period was also marked.

POSTSCRIPT: We worked together for six months. Margaret returned from being away over the summer and, with the assistance of an aid, entered a mainstream classroom in the second grade at her local public school. In addition to the PowerBook and word prediction software described above, a scanner makes it possible for Margaret to complete workbook pages and classroom assignments on the laptop. Her enthusiastic use of these tools and her continued progress academically and socially speak to the powerful opportunities this technology offers.

[Last updated September, 1997]

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

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