Encoding 60,000 words for children with dyslexia

The word ‘automation’ may perhaps invoke images of computer­controlled machines and high-tech equipment. And of logistical processes that transport products smoothly from a to b, or that make sure that raw materials are accurately processed to the millimetre. And these, indeed, are topics that Hexapole Automatisering often deals with. However, sometimes a different kind of assignment comes along, in which not only technology is central, but man as well. As assignment that, just because of that, gets under one’s skin just a little deeper. One of these projects is the Canadian ‘The Great Word House’, that Bas Bloemink, the present Director of Hexapole, has been taking part in personally for the past five years. A long read, but an amazing one.

In 2015, Hexapole received a special request from Canada. The applicant: Evelyn Reiss, an authority in the field of dyslexia. Founder/director of the Canadian Dyslexia Society, ‘fellow’ of the Orton-Gillingham Academy, and principal of the Claremont School in Toronto. The Claremont School is dedicated exclusively to the teaching of students with dyslexia from Grades 1 – 8. It offers a tailored curriculum designed by a Fellow of the Orton-Gillingham Academy for specific and intense remediation of reading, writing, and math skills. This so-called Orton-Gillingham approach is a way of teaching that works extremely well and is widely accepted in the English-language educational community. The Orton-Gillingham Approach originated as early as the 1930s and is based on acoustics research. Until now, for teachers there has always been one major drawback when using this approach: it is extremely time-consuming. Teachers must compile an individual reading curriculum for each student with personal, constructive study packages. These packages must always be fully checked and validated by a supervisor. And the teaching material of other subjects must subsequently be aligned with this as well for each individual student.

Excessive puzzling with sound and words

Bas Bloemink: “Try to imagine the sheer size of this. Using the Orton-Gillingham approach, every student at the Claremont School learns to read letters at his or her own speed and in his or her own order. Well, actually they are not actually letters, but rather letter/sound combinations. In technical terminology these are called ‘graphemes’. Let me clarify this with the letter ‘a’: this letter sounds quite differently in the words ‘father’, ‘baby’, and ‘apple’. So we have one letter, and three sound forms. At least. In order to be able to read effortlessly, any child that is anglophone by birth must not learn just the 26 letters of the alphabet, but rather 200 graphemes. Teachers are, therefore, continually composing word and sentence material to practice reading new graphemes. This practice material, to make matters even more complicated, cannot of course contain any sounds that the child has not learned yet. This is a puzzle of epic proportions, and one that teachers dedicate endless amounts of love and even more spare time to.”

The question Evelyn Reiss asked to Hexapole, therefore, was the following: can you automate this drudgery? And that was the beginning of a long and intensive process, which resulted in The Great Word House.

Two worlds, one goal

Bas: “When we started, I only had a very vague notion of what dyslexia meant. I did not have any idea at all what it really meant in special needs education. Evelyn, on the other hand, did not know anything about automation; what works, and what doesn’t. We have actually spent weeks on end, night after night, skyping with each other in order to learn to understand each other’s world, to learn to understand and speak each other’s language. I needed to know exactly how this Orton-Gillingham approach worked. But I also had to learn a lot of new terminology: what is a grapheme, a syllable type, magic-e. I learned about spelling rules, morphology, affixes and suffixes. How the English language is connected to ancient Anglo-Saxon, but also to Greek and Latin. Evelyn had to learn that automation is complex process: how does a database work, how do we encode sounds and syllables in our database, and how can sentences be parsed by means of algorithms?

Eventually we succeeded in building a database at Hexapole that contains a staggering 60,000 English words. Of each word, the individual letters, sound and syllable-types were encoded, and we tagged them with spelling rules and other linguistic labels. The joy was great when the database did exactly what we had hoped that it would do: compose child-friendly teaching material in a quick and flexible fashion. The Great Word House was ready for use.”

A global success story

The database was received with mad enthusiasm. First of all by the special needs education teachers at Claremont School, the language specialists themselves. And during the presentation of The Great Word House at the largest dyslexia convention in the world, jaws dropped and the code word that went around was ‘amazing’. Currently, The Great Word House is also used in other English-speaking countries to provide education to children with dyslexia, from Australia to the Bahamas. To both pre-schoolers and high school students. Besides, the database has proven to be very useful for teaching English as a second language.

The unique collaboration between Evelyn Reiss and Hexapole is a fine example of opposites that take each other to a higher level. A linguist and a software engineer. Bas: “For us The Great Word House is truly the baby of the two of us.” And this baby is currently experiencing a big growth spurt. Moreover, this authentic showpiece makes clear what Hexapole is capable of achieving in the field of custom software.