The experience of literacy or a literacy lesson can differ for children and young people across the board. You would be forgiven for thinking that a national curriculum and standardised set of expectations for all, is perhaps not the most effective means of achieving universal success. However, instead of using this platform to discuss an alternative approach or to bemoan the injustice of it all, I’d rather share some of the wonderful alternative learning methods and ‘other’ experiences we have witnessed and – in some cases – facilitated.

I have written previously of my love of Clicker and the opportunities it provides for for those with greater access requirements, or support in the composition of their work. I won’t dwell on it again here, because writing is only a very small part of the whole literacy experience (and in some cases, doesn’t feature at all.)

If the outcome of a lesson is to produce literacy and written literacy at that, then an all-singing, all-dancing word-processing package is great. However, if the ability to compose a sentence is secondary to the outcome of expressing an opinion e.g. contributing a question to the Prime Minister (in the letter that every school in the land seems to have composed at some stage), then I think it’s fair to say that finding a way for every individual to write it down by hook or by crook is entirely unnecessary.

Fortunately, it has never been easier in the history of mankind to capture audio and video at a second’s notice, whether this is spoken, signed or communicating via alternative means. Due to the constant advancement of technology and the ease with which people can communicate or “join in”, the value of simply being able to “join in” is enormous.

The rise in popularity of home-school link platforms are a great example of this in practice. The likes of Class DojoTapestry and SeeSaw enable both teachers and parents to record these successes and share them with the other. Valuable literacy outcomes in those instances are now characterised by engagement rather than the ability to ‘sit correctly at a table, holding a pencil comfortably and correctly.’

It does remain the case that access to or support with written literacy is a big part of what we do. Numerous online platforms exist to enable young people to learn and practice writing and spelling skills and it would be remiss of me not to speak of their value and the importance of such resources to so man.

In terms of assistive technology and the accessibility of things, the Choose:it series is one worth exploring. It ticks an awful lot of boxes as far as ‘ease of access’ is concerned being fully compatible with direct access (just touching the screen), switches, EyeGaze or good old-fashioned keyboard and mouse. Questions can be read by the user or spoken aloud, and answers are given in a very simple multiple-choice format. I am highlighting this software particularly as it is great as a baseline teaching tool for pre-writing or a consolidation tool to use alongside in-class teaching practices but also works brilliantly as a standalone resource purely in the interest of exposure to literacy. Simply, engaging with these tasks, hearing the terminology, seeing the letters and words and making connections may well be sufficient in some cases. This is where the purpose of this post comes to light. The importance for everybody, regardless of cognition, physical ability or educational placement of exposure to a literacy-rich environment is absolutely paramount.

An example of a literacy activity within Choose:it readymades.

Some of the best examples of this I have seen have come about due to the tireless efforts of teachers, TAs or other specialist education professionals. The transcription of a class book, simplifying the language and adding symbol support meant that the one pupil for whom the text was previously inaccessible is now able to join in with the discussions, form opinions about the characters and revel in the joy of reading (whether by himself or when being read to). He is able to put down the ORT level 3 books and forget about Biff, Chip and Kipper’s misadventures at the beach for a bit and experience the world his peers are experiencing.

From a technology perspective, this feat is relatively straightforward. Once a text is available electronically, in the form of an e-book for example, this can be copied into the appropriate software – InPrintSymWriter, or our old friend Clicker and it will be automatically symbolised. This can then either be consumed on the screen or printed as a physical copy and hey presto! An additional advantage to this in some cases is that the computer will also speak the text aloud for you (either via screen-reading software which is built into Windows or via a handy ‘read aloud’ button on Clicker) which gives the additional benefit of independent access – the caveat to this is, of course, that text read aloud by a synthetic voice on your computer does not offer quite the emotive experience of an audiobook read by Stephen Fry… This has been taken further by many in the production of entire series of books in this format, using Grid 3 as the platform Scandle, for example, offer a whole host of accessible books.

Funnybones converted to a Grid book by SCandle.

Should the symbol support or simplification of the text not be appropriate, use of audiobooks for this purpose is an increasingly popular alternative. Again, the advantage of independent access is a biggie here as audiobooks are available across so many platforms. Spending 10 minutes ‘reading’ can be achieved by asking Alexa, or using your communication aid to ask Alexa, pressing a switch that triggers Alexa, or by accessing the audiobook app on your phone or tablet using your preferred access method. Even if the outcome of this exercise is not to write a dissertation on the author’s use of language to portray the struggle the main character experiences with her desire to be free (I don’t know either…) but simply to enjoy the story or to enjoy the process of being read to and absorb the language, or to experience the auditory stimulation of the cadence of speech there is so much value in being exposed to it.

Audiobook options on Audible for ‘children’s books’

Whether it was reading stories to my class, listening to readers in the corridor, reading The Tiger Who Came to Tea for the one millionth time to my son or listening to Rod Campbell reading his books on YouTube (my absolute favourite), I can’t help but feel strongly about all of this. Providing the opportunities for our young people to participate, in their own way, on their own terms is invaluable, and just think what it means to them.