Learning letter by letter

Supporting people with functional illiteracy

According to research recently conducted by the University of Hamburg on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), there are 7.5 million adults in Germany with a minimal ability to read and write. Now a new technique has been developed as part of AlphaPlus, a project sponsored by the BMBF. It makes it easier for people to get into reading and writing. The technology behind the technique was developed by a company called MediTECH Electronic near Hanover. The teaching system will be launched this year. An important foundation has been laid through close collaboration between Professor Franz Hinrichsmeyer, who heads up Uniform. Design Steinbeis Transfer Center and the Institute of Industrial Design and Interface Design at Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences. 

MediTECH has been based in the Lower Saxony town of Wedemark since 1996. Over the last 15 years, it has looked closely at testing and training processes used to promote speech, attention and perception. The new technology is based on the Warnke® Method, which helps children and adults whose language development has slowed as a result of central auditory problems. Instead of conventional exercises, the company uses special equipment to help the brain process and perceive language.

The company bought standard housings with analog controls and refashioned them into new technical solutions. The AlphaTrainer was developed in the same way, as a prototype to teach reading and writing. As the company expanded, it soon needed to design its own equipment and develop its own products. What was called for was a specially designed housing with different controls, especially for people with severe reading difficulties.

The MediTECH development department is not far from the specialist engineering and industrial design department at Magdeburg- Stendal University of Applied Sciences so this was an expedient way to redesign the AlphaTrainer. In a joint project with the Institute for Industrial Design’s engineering and industrial design department, design student Eckhard Kaltenhäuser wrote a report as part of his bachelor degree at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Project Management. This took place in close cooperation with graduates from the Institute of Electrical Engineering.

The first design was intended for serial batches of 3,000 units. It featured a twinshell housing with a membrane keyboard. The project team looked for ways to injection- mold parts near Magdeburg, using a new kind of cost-efficient aluminum tooling process.

For optimal use in therapy sessions, the AlphaTrainer offers a variety of additional settings and usage options which can be matched to the user. Overall, operation has been made as clear as possible thanks to carefully designed icons that make it easy to familiarize oneself with the controls, even if people have limited reading ability. Every user can jump in at the right level. An intelligent brain-jogging program develops and expands specific skills needed to process spoken and written words.

Over a seven month training period, the people involved in the AlphaPlus project raised their ability to read and write by the equivalent of 1.5 school years. Around a quarter went straight from training into a job, often for the first time. By the end of 2011, approved establishments will also be allowed to use the special system. And the success of the project – on several levels – is now reflected in another recent development: Earlier this year, Professor Franz Hin- richsmeyer founded the Steinbeis Transfer Center Uniform.Design at the Magdeburg- Stendal University of Applied Sciences. Its field of specialization: the design of business- to-business products and medical technology.

The Warnke®-Method

To understand words quickly – and without special effort – and automatically identify the sound of letters, the listener has to be able to distinguish between the key sounds of a language, rapidly and with certainty. To write smoothly and shape the direction of letters, a person has to be able to control and readjust hand movements through observation. The Warnke® Method goes back to the early 1990s, when it was proved that there is a link between learning difficulties and low-level difficulties with hearing, seeing and motor skills. As well as improving cognitive processing, one side benefit of the technique is significant improvements in writing.

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