Thursday, December 17, 2009

SOLO 6- A Literacy Tool with the Right Balance of Power and Features!

Brian Friedlander graphicIt was with great anticipation that I arrived home last week to find my copy of SOLO 6 waiting at my doorstep. I have trained hundreds of educators and students on SOLO over the years and was excited to learn about all of the new features that Don Johnston Incorporated had added to the new version. For those of you who may not be familiar with SOLO 6, it includes the following four applications: Write:OutLoud 6, Co:Writer 6, Draft:Builder 6, and Read:OutLoud 6. SOLO 6 provides students with a suite of applications that work together to provide the student with a level of support not often found in other products. SOLO 6 is an ideal tool for both writing and reading and provides students with text to speech support using the high quality Acapela speech engine. Using the Acapela speech engine throughout the SOLO 6 product is a welcome addition. Students will now enjoy having access to a high quality naturally sounding male (Ryan) and female (Heather) voice to read their text. For me this is a huge feature and one I know that students will enjoy using when writing or reading text on the computer. From the user's point of view, I am really excited to see that students can jump into any of the four applications without having to Log–in. Students can now simply click on any of the four applications and get right into the work they need to do. However, if the teacher does prefer, students can sign in to Student Central as they did before in SOLO 5.

Write:OutLoud still remains one of the easiest talking word processors to use and provides student with a great deal of support in the writing process. Students will appreciate the ability to easily navigate through their written work and listen back to what they have written in the new high quality voices.

Co:Writer graphic

Write:OutLoud still provides students with spelling supports using the Franklin Spell Check engine which is really good at picking up the mistakes that students with learning disabilities tend to make. If you work with students with poor spelling skills you will find that having the text-to-speech support available in the spell checker, as is the case in Write:OutLoud, is essential. Students can also use the Homonym checking feature in Write:OutLoud to help them flag the confusable words that often wind up in their writing. I have always found the Bibliographer Tool to be indispensable for students who are creating their first bibliography. In fact when I show this feature to teachers that I am training, they often comment that they wished they had a tool like this when they were doing their graduate work. In today’s Internet age, students younger and younger are now be asked to show where they found their information; and being able to create a citation with the advent of the Bibliographer Tool and the Bibliographer Wizard has really streamlined the process for students making it possible for them to successfully create a bibliography. In Write:OutLoud I was please to see that there is more flexibility in the interface allowing students to change the size of the icons on the toolbar, making it more consistent with the concept of Universal Design and this is true throughout SOLO 6.

Working with Co:Writer throughout the years, I have always been amazed at its ability to predict words based on a couple of keystrokes. For me Co:Writer has always been the premier word-prediction tool in the industry and with the release of Co:Writer 6 it continues to hold its place and takes a quantum leap in usability and design. If you have used other versions of Co:Writer, you will be extremely happy to see the redesign of the user interface. The value proposition now for using Co:Writer 6 is in its simplicity and power. After you launch Co:Writer 6 you will see a small floating window in your writing application. Begin typing and Co:Writer 6 will begin to provide you with a list of predicted words. The interface is clean and helps students to focus on their writing. With the latest version students should be up and running with Co:Writer 6 in no time. All the familiar features are still retained in Co:Writer 6 and customizing the user experience is significantly easier to do. To customize the features in Co:Writer 6 you simply click on the arrow at the bottom of the Co:Writer 6 dialog box and the dialog box flips over to reveal the Options. You will find it incredibly easy to select or create Topic dictionaries and giving students access to the Word Bank feature that shows up when word processing can help students with word-retrieval difficulties. I guess I can’t state it enough to say just how clean and usable the new interface is in Co:Writer 6 that will allow students to focus on the task at hand and complete their written work. I should also mention that Co:Writer 6 can be used to read text in almost any environment.

For students that need more support in the area of writing, Draft:Builder remains a very strong application. While Draft:Builder 6 has not changed all that much as compared to the previous version it does contain many more writing templates that students will find helpful. Draft:Builder 6 is ideal for students who are challenged when presented with a blank page and told to write. Using the templates and prompts, teachers can create writing environments that can help move students through the writing process. In Draft:Builder 6, students have the text-to-speech, spell checking, Bibliographer Tool, and dictionary supports built in that they can take advantage of. The real power of SOLO 6 is in the integration of the tools. Students who need spelling supports can quickly open a note in Draft:Builder 6 and turn on Co:Writer 6. It is this integration that allows students to focus on their writing so that the tools fade into the background. Students can now customize the tool bar in Draft:Builder 6 as they can in Write:OutLoud.

Of all the applications in SOLO 6 the one that has really evolved is Read:OutLoud. With the advent of a high quality text-to-speech engine and ease of use, Read:OutLoud firmly plants itself as an all-around tool for reading text on the computer and on the Web. Keeping in the tradition of Read:OutLoud, students can easily highlight and extract text notes to the sidebar or can add an Outline to complete as they are reading the text. Read:OutLoud comes with a number of outlines that can be used to help students better comprehend the text that they are reading. Once the student has captured the notes, they can be sent to Write:OutLoud or Draft:Builder and take advantage of the tools that are available in each of the respective writing environments.

One of the most important features which is not apparent to the user is the ability of Read:OutLoud to open a wide variety of different text formats. Read:Outloud can open PDF, NIMAS, DAISY 3, Microsoft "Save As Daisy", Bookshare files, Rich Text Format (RTF), TXT, HTML, and XML. For districts investing in a text-to-speech reader, it is important for the reader to have the ability to support a wide range of formats, which is the case for Read:OutLoud. As more students access services that provide text in the NIMAS or DAISY 3 format it is important that the text reader can efficiently work with these file formats. When working with NIMAS files it is not unusual to have to use a utility to unpack them before they can be opened in a reader. This is not the case with Read:OutLoud—simply open the file and Read:OutLoud does all the work for you. It is really that simple!

SOLO screen shot

With more and more students accessing NIMAS formatted books, this is a critical feature and one that that I know teachers and students will appreciate. Once you have opened your NIMAS formatted book, students will be able to change the Etext style very quickly. If you are working with students with visual impairments you can quickly change the background and the color and size of the text with one mouse click. Then with a click on the Read button, students will have access to the text, have it read to them and highlighted on the computer screen.

Read:OutLoud has made huge improvements in being a tool that can access and read the Web on both Windows and Macintosh platforms. When accessing the web, you will find Read:OutLoud to be much faster than the previous version at rendering web pages and now you can quickly jump around the web by clicking on page links. The text-to-speech engine makes it a pleasure to listen to and you will find some really nice features like the ability to look up the definition of words using the Google search engine. Read:OutLoud uses a simple Read button to have students turn the text-to-speech engine on and off. With a simple and clean interface students will be accessing the information they need and take notes if they desire.

Users of SOLO 5 who migrate to SOLO 6 should feel right at home with the release, but with the fine tuning and interface improvements, students will be able to be more productive and access the features they need more easily. SOLO 6 provides students with an array of features which makes it a compelling literacy tool for students with a wide range of abilities. With the release of SOLO 6, Don Johnston Incorporated has set the mark for an integrated literacy suite that has the right balance of power and features. More importantly, with the changes in the interface and careful vigilance to usability, students and teachers will be up and running with SOLO 6 in no time.

Brian S. Friedlander, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Education at the College of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ where he Coordinates the Graduate Programs in Special Education and teaches graduate courses in assistive technology. Brian is the subject matter expert in the soon to be released video: Assistive Technology: Powerful Solutions for Success available from National Professional Resources (nprinc.com) as well as new reference guide: Assistive Technology: What Every Educator Needs to Know to be distributed by National Professional Resources (nprinc.com). Dr. Friedlander maintains an assistive technology practice and provides evaluations, workshops and training in the area of assistive technology. With a background in school psychology Dr. Friedlander brings a unique perspective to his assistive technology practice. Dr. Friedlander publishes Inclusion Times an electronic newsletter which focuses on educational and assistive technology- it is published four times a year.

One Sentence Summary Created with Context Organizer -SOLO 6 provides students with an array of features which makes it a compelling literacy tool for students with a wide range of abilities.


This article originally appeared on the Don Johnston, Inc Website.

 
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