One in 10 New Zealanders is affected by dyslexia, including 70,000 school children. Learning can be daunting and challenging for these students, so one Tauranga teacher has developed an app to improve the way they approach exams, writes Lee Suckling.
Physical education teacher Charles Leota, of Otumoetai College, has been awarded an AMP Scholarship for his creation of ‘My Kete’, which helps dyslexic students submit their NCEA exams.
Leota taught himself to code several years ago through a Stanford University online Java course. His first coding project, back in 2012, saw him create an app that helped with students who failed to use their homework diaries. His self-taught expertise came in useful again in Term 1 this year, when he noticed one of his students was having a lot of trouble with his exams.
“He told me he was dyslexic, and I asked, ‘How have you been dealing with it?’,” recalled Leota. “He really wasn’t feeling that confident about school at all. He said, ‘I’ve just been struggling through life with it’.”
Leota decided to take this student’s plight outside of school hours and into his own time. “Sometimes I wasn’t even sleeping; I’d just code all night and go straight to school in the mornings.”
Reading NCEA exam questions
The result of such extraordinary efforts was My Kete, a Text-to-Speech app for laptop and desktop computers that reads NCEA exam questions to a student, and reads their answers back to them. Use of My Kete, or ‘My Basket Of Knowledge’, is extremely simple, Leota explains.
“The student presses play on the system and a question is read out loud. They type their answer in and it gets read back to them. It includes a word counter and a spell check. When you finish, it spits out a PDF document that is ready to submit.”
Students submit their exams through Google Drive, Google Classroom, or USB stick. Leota currently has four exams for Years 10-12 in the My Kete system, two from the Physical Education strand, one from Social Studies, and one template.
“The unfortunate thing right now is, all exam questions need to be hard-coded – input manually – by a teacher. When I spoke to NZQA, they said they’ve encountered the same problems with other learning systems, when teachers have to input data themselves, it creates a barrier and they’re hesitant to try.”
However, Leota says hard-coding of exam questions into My Kete requires little technical knowledge and the barrier can be overcome easily. “It takes about three or four hours. All you need to do is know how to type and use tabs.”
Operating offline library
My Kete does not require the internet. Instead of incorporating an online library like many other Text-to-Speech apps use, it is set up for offline use through a pre-installed open-source Java library.
“This is one of the real strengths of this app,” said Leota. “You don’t have to rely on the internet during exams. If it shuts down it’s not going to affect you.”
Any computer with the latest version of Java installed can use My Kete and, while tablet use is not currently supported, Leota sees it in the future. A range of feedback has come in from the students who have used Leota’s app.
“A lot of students say they feel a lot more confident about school. They don’t have to go to a learning centre for their exams, they can do them right at a normal desk. They say everything [in the examination process] makes more sense when their answers are read out to them … and I definitely notice that in marking.”
Propel ‘My Kete’ nationwide
One of the greatest learning outcomes of My Kete is seeing students go from ‘achieve’ to ‘excellence’ in NCEA, Leota says.
“But there are still some students whose grades stay the same. Then you can look at whether they’re studying or not studying, and how they’re going about their classwork.”
My Kete is still in its infancy but Leota hopes to propel it nationwide with the AMP scholarship. Importantly, with the use of My Kete, students “might pursue university when they otherwise wouldn’t”, he adds.
“They won’t be afraid of being an outcast with their abilities. There’s no self-esteem dropping, and students don’t have to lure into behavioural issues. My Kete can help students get what they want in life.”
Lee Suckling writes for INTERFACE Magazine.
What is dyslexia?
Defining dyslexia is complex and there’s no universal definition. However, it’s fair to say
it’s a spectrum of specific learning difficulties, including trouble with reading, writing, spelling, numeracy, or musical notation. Different people are affected to varying degrees.
Check out TKI’s advice at