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Technology For Supporting Dyslexic Students Using Mathematical Notation And Scientific Language

by Lynette Penney | Oct 18, 2012

Mathematical notation and scientific language poses particularly difficulties for dyslexic students studying scientific, maths and engineering disciplines. This articles looks at the technology available to help them.

 

Introduction

Mathematical notation and scientific language poses particular difficulties for dyslexic students studying scientific, maths and engineering disciplines. This articles looks at the technology available to help them.

Students studying maths and science courses need to be able to understand, manipulate and retrieve a variety of scientific terms and mathematical notation. Symbols and expressions must be accurately recalled during lectures, exams, lab sessions and assignments; all difficult tasks for those with dyslexia. Science, engineering and maths students also tend to study in many varied locations: laboratories, field sites, computer labs and work placements as well as in the more traditional lectures, tutorials and libraries.

Approximately 30% of dyslexic undergraduates study scientific, engineering or medical disciplines. But whereas in other subject areas assistive technology such as phonetic spell checkers and text-to-speech can be used alongside standard word processing packages to overcome many of the difficulties associated with dyslexia, these solutions cannot generally handle scientific terms or mathematical notation. Nor can they always cope with the wide variety of learning environments or computer applications used in science, engineering and maths disciplines. So what assistive technology is available for these students?

Writing and Spelling

Standard word processing packages and spell checkers will not recognise specialist terms. In fact they will mark them as incorrectly spelt. So it is important to have tools to easily double-check if these are genuine mistakes or not. Electronic dictionaries, combined with spell checkers and speech feedback, help to spell terminology correctly and to identify errors. There is a variety of specialist dictionaries and spell checkers available covering a wide range of topics. These can be stand-alone software packages, handheld devices or spell-checkers that integrate into standard word processing packages:

  • Spellex adds subject specific terminology into Microsoft Word spell checker. UK versions cover medical, pharmaceutical, legal, biotech, botanical, technical and geographical.
  • InducteI provide electronic medical and scientific dictionaries which also include a spell-checking add-on to word-processing packages.
  • The Spellex Handheld Medical Speller provides a portable spell checker for medical terms. Although this is a US product and does include some UK-specific terms.

Specialist electronic dictionaries can also be downloaded on to portable devices and computers from Mobipocket.

EB WordBanks, a word-grid program, can be used to create grids displaying frequently used words or phrases. When the user right-clicks on a cell in the grid the word or phrase is read aloud so that they can check they have the correct text. When they left-click it is entered into the application they are currently working in. Wordbar works with virtually all text-entry programs including email, web-based forms and databases. New grids can be quickly and easily created.

Word prediction programs, such as Read & Write Gold and Co:Writer, can learn scientific terminology and so help predict commonly used terms and phrases. This is particularly useful for those students with word retrieval difficulties and slow typing speeds.

Reading

Text-to-speech engines can read aloud new words. However, they will try to pronounce them phonetically, which may be incorrect. Most text-to-speech programs, such as Read & Write and ClaroRead, have tools for training correct pronunciation but this takes time. Inductel Medical Dictionary contains recordings of many terms that can help with the correct pronunciation.

Optical character recognition packages for scanning have problems with scientific documents. They are unable to convert any equations or formulae into text and it is necessary to manually select that these are kept as images. See below for more details on handling equations.

Some OCR packages may also be unable to recognise whether scientific terms have been scanned in correctly and may query many words. It is best to skip this process within the OCR package and transfer the text into an application where a specialist spellchecker can then be used to check it, such as Word with the appropriate Spellex or Inductel add-on. Abbyy FineReader has medical and legal terms in its English dictionary and can also recognise some computing languages. The latest version of Texthelp Read & Write Gold uses this OCR engine.

The C-Pen portable scanner is a digital highlighter that inserts whatever you highlight into any application on your computer. The C-Pen comes with a built-in speech synthesis that allows you to listen to whatever you highlight, on your computer.

Writing Mathematical Notation

Equation tools in standard word processing packages such as Microsoft Word 2003 are basic. It can be time-consuming to create an equation and once done the program treats it as an image making it difficult to edit and impossible to read aloud with a speech engine.

Text-to-speech for Mathematical Notation

Mathematical notation normally cannot be read aloud by text-to-speech engines; maths uses symbols which are not read linearly and usually takes up more than one line. It is possible to use accessibility tags within PDF files to program that each individual equation is read aloud correctly by typing in the text version of the equation (see our PDF Accessiblity article for more details. This is a time-consuming and complicated process, only manageable by a central disability service or publisher with extensive knowledge of the subject material and is therefore not an option for individual students. However, it is possible to read aloud html files or web pages containing equations if they have been coded using MathML. MathML is a version of XML code designed specifically to make equations and scientific notation on the web. A free plug-in called MathPlayer enables Internet Explorer to correctly display and read aloud MathML. Read & Write Gold can read aloud equations displayed using MathML.

Specialist mathematical word processing or web packages are required to create MathML. They packages also make it easier to create equations within documents and typeset them correctly. The most popular packages are Scientific Notebook and MathType. MathType is a more advanced version of the equation editor which will work within Office 2003 and many other applications. Both Scientific Notebook and MathType have functions for exporting documents to web pages with equations displayed using MathML.

Using Speech Recognition with Maths

MathTalk is additional program that can be combined with Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate equations into Scientific Notebook. With MathTalk the user trains Dragon NaturallySpeaking to control Scientific Notebook. This can be time consuming and there a lot of commands the user must remember. Dictating equations via MathTalk can be quicker than using a mathematical word processor where an equation is entered using clicks on menus and the toolbar. But it requires a very powerful computer to run at a workable speed and is only suitable for users that would be using speech recognition anyway due to the additional training required.

LaTeX

LaTeX is the scientific industry standard for typesetting mathematical text. It is a mark-up language similar to html and can be written into any text-editing application on any operating system. For example emph{this is in italic} creates this is in italic. Equations are written in a similar long-hand: [ f(x) = sum_{i=0}^{infty}frac{f^{(i)}(x)}{i!} ] produces

Raw LaTeX documents are not WISIWG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) and must be complied to produce a printable document. Although this may not seem very dyslexic-friendly, specialist LaTeX editing programs enable colour to be used to highlight the code which many visual students have said they prefer to a WISIWIG approach. Both MathType and Scientific Notebook export to LaTeX. Scientific Workplace, a more advanced version of Scientific Notebook, allows users to use LaTeX for typesetting commands. Most academic users of LaTeX distribute files in PDF format which are difficult to make accessible to speech engines. However, it is as easy for authors to create these files as html/MathML but there is a lack of awareness of this approach.

Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word provides an advanced method of editing equations within Word documents. It is easy to enter equations within documents and to edit them. Equations are presented in a font making them look professional while they can be quickly entered and edited using a linear code via simple LaTeX commands called Maths Autocorrect.

Tablet PCs

Tablet PCs combine the functionality of a laptop with the versatility of pen and paper. A Tablet PC has a touch-sensitive screen allowing users to write on it and control the computer with a stylus. Most models consists of a standard laptop with a screen that can rotate and lock the screen over the keyboard so that it can be used both as a laptop and in paper mode. Tablet PCs offer specific advantages to science and engineering students. Users can:

  • Annotate Office documents
  • Draw diagrams on screen directly into documents
  • Select, copy, paste & highlight using pen
  • Convert handwriting to text
  • Convert hand written equations to text

Microsoft OneNote

Microsoft OneNote is an application for managing notes on your laptop or PC. When used on a Tablet PC, handwritten notes and diagrams can be included. You can easily re-organise and search through these notes. Microsoft OneNote 2007 will be included as standard in the new Microsoft Office 2007 for Students package.