A different kind of assistive technology
The C-Pen is a small, hand-held device for scanning text from a printed page and then displaying it in its own small screen. It also has a text-to-speech facility and multi-language capability.
It is specifically designed for people with reading difficulties such as dyslexia, as well as for some readers with low vision. It comes in 3 different models, with the model being tested here intended for use in the exam room.
The C-Pen is lightweight and easy to handle. Its display is blue text on a black background, with these colours being reversed for each word as it is read out loud. It has a font size range from 6.5pt to 22pt and two clear female voices (British and American English) available either via its own internal speaker or via headphones.
How it works
A line of text can be scanned by dragging the pen across the page. More lines can then be appended, or the pen can be set to replace any existing text in memory each time new text is scanned. Once in memory, text can be read out loud as many times as required (it is well-known that candidates can be reluctant to ask a human reader to repeatedly read out a question, often leading to loss of performance for the candidate).
The accuracy of the C-Pen’s OCR (optical character recognition) is very good. Occasionally a letter or a punctuation mark will be mis-read or a space missed, but such errors are minimal. Furthermore, it will also often correctly recognize special characters such as 40 cm3 (voiced as “forty cubic centimeters”), but also occasionally it will just read the same set of characters as “cm 3” or even “c r n 3”.
C-Pen’s pronunciation is also generally very good – possibly the best of any assistive technology currently on the market (it’s the only AT I am aware of that correctly pronounces “hydroxybenzoic acid”!). It also correctly handles many other pronunciations of more common words that other ATs struggle with, such as “stakeholder”, “wavenumber” or “bunged”, to name but a few.
However, there are limits—an experienced PDF accessibility editor can force a screen reader to pronounce chemistry symbols such as “O” and “OH” as separate letters in order to differentiate them. However, these are indistinguishable from each other when read out loud by C-Pen.
Comparisons with other literacy software solutions
The great advantage of the C-Pen is that it can be used with a paper copy of an exam, with no additional equipment required. This is in contrast to students using more traditional literacy software solutions that will require a computer as well as an accessible PDF version of the paper.
There aren’t many downsides, but if I had to pick one it would be speed. As you have to first scan the page and then play back what you have scanned it is unlikely to be as quick to use as more traditional literacy software solutions such as Read&Write Gold or Claro (C-Pen’s accuracy does seem to drop if you scan a line too quickly). And speed of operation drops dramatically if you have to (manually) switch languages in a multi-language document. However, it is unlikely that this issue alone would be a deal-breaker.
The C-Pen works in English, French, Spanish, German and Italian. Our testing (brief as it was) of a French language document produced excellent results. If C-Pen’s other language options work as well it can only be a great asset to language students with dyslexia.
C-Pen is a truly innovative technology that compares well with other available options and which may well drive down costs and improve performance and results. As such, it is a very welcome addition to the growing range of tools available to people with reading difficulties.