Software unlocks the writer in Luke

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Luke Williams is a great story-teller. But the 12-year-old Barrie student used to do anything to avoid putting pen to paper.That’s because Luke was born with tremors in his hands that make writing exhausting and the words illegible. He got by at school by giving his answers orally or having his teacher or education assistant scribe his work. But he’d fallen behind in spelling and math, and while a computer helped, his shaky hands made the process painstaking and prone to error.

That changed in Grade 4 when Luke received WordQ, a word-prediction software developed at Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre, Canada’s largest children’s rehabilitation hospital. WordQ predicts the most likely words after Luke types the first one to three letters decreasing the key strokes required by 50 per cent and giving Luke spoken feedback so he can identify errors.

“Projects that used to take me hours to type can be done in much less time and I can do it all on my own,” Luke says proudly.

WordQ is targeted to children and adults who have learning or physical problems that make writing difficult and has been purchased by school boards, rehabilitation hospitals and universities across North America.

“By helping students with the mechanical aspects of writing, it allows them to get past those basics so they can be more functional and creative in their writing,” says Fraser Shein, the Bloorview MacMillan engineer who developed the product. Since its launch in 2001, Bloorview MacMillan’s writing aids service has prescribed the device to about 100 children each year. The software predicts words based on vocabulary tailored to specific age and language groups, and adapts to the writing style of the user.

“Now Luke can put down on paper the kind of wonderful, funny response that he could only express verbally before,” says his mother Ruth, a special education resource teacher. Seeing word predictions on the screen and hearing them echoed back “has really helped Luke with editing,” Ruth says. “The correct spelling comes up and after seeing it a number of times in this non-threatening situation, as opposed to in a drill, Luke’s spelling has improved. The oral feedback has also helped him in composing sentences and using punctuation.”