Andrew Sharp, Partner Sales Manager, Professional Solutions

Does word prediction technology give students an unfair advantage?

Writing supports—like text readers, text highlighting and word prediction—make educational content more accessible for every student. And of course that includes English Language Learners as well young people with dyslexia and other everyday literacy challenges.

I’ve heard a few people ask whether these extra supports are somehow ‘unfair’. But in my view, doesn’t everyone need some assistance and encouragement when they’re learning something new?

Boy typing on laptop with headphones

As children, we all depended on training wheels as we mastered the tricky skills to ride a bike. And that’s really just what word prediction does - helping young writers with spelling, grammar and mature word choices as their confidence grows. I outgrew my training wheels years ago, but at the time I couldn’t get going without them.

And while we’re feeling nostalgic, remember the 1970s when pocket calculators gradually appeared in school classrooms. Debate about their academic merits among educators raged for years - and indeed widespread adoption in the 1980s was followed by subsequent U-turns in several states. By the 90s, however, calculators were standard equipment for every child and mandated by most schools.

Whether it’s bike wheels or calculators, technology isn’t there to help anyone ‘cheat’ or not learn something in the first place. And for young writers, word prediction tech doesn’t exist to do students’ thinking for them. It’s about decoupling the process of content creation from the mechanics of getting the right words down that many individuals struggle with.

Research1 demonstrates that word prediction consistently encourages students to write longer sentences, and that students make a wider variety of word selections when they’re prompted with appropriate suggestions.

What’s more, it’s been shown2 that ‘errorless learning’ - a powerful set of instructional procedures that reduce student mistakes and increase writing quality - is a powerful enabler for good writing practice. Word prediction supports this strategy by providing appropriate grammar and spelling suggestions so the learner is practicing writing better rather than practicing the common mistakes they make over and over. And even when those supports are taken away, students still demonstrate quantifiable improvements in use of language and sentence structure.

Word prediction also removes one of the biggest barriers to confident writing: the fear of making mistakes. Offering grammatically correct, accurately-spelled word options frees students to say - or write - exactly what they mean. And that’s a game-changer for young people whose disabilities, or having English as a Second Language, make it hard to share what they’ve learned in class or in the exam room.

So, if you’re an educational publisher, think about how today’s assistive tech can dramatically enhance and broaden the appeal of your online content and writing tools.

I think now’s a good time for everyone to agree that not providing the right supports to young people who need them really is cheating them out of the education they deserve.

1. Gibson, J.L. (2014). Using word prediction to support struggling writers, presented at Assistive Technology Industry Association Annual Conference, Orlando FL, January 30, 2014.

2. ​RMC Research (2008). RMC Research Evaluation Brief, Technology for Learning Disabilities Evaluation Summary, Washington, 2008.


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