How to Improve Your Reading Skills and Speed with Learning Tools for OneNote

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The best learning technologies do one thing well – they get out of your way.

These learning tools allow teachers and students to focus on what’s being taught.

Learning Tools for OneNote is designed to meet both these goals for anyone who wants to understand any bit of text. The landing page describes it best:

Learning Tools for OneNote is a free Add-in for OneNote that helps everyone improve reading and writing skills, including gifted learners, students with learning differences or a combination of any of a broad range of unique learning abilities.

But maybe, this table says it better.

Learning Tools Benefits

Let’s Start by Installing It

The Learning Tool add-in works with OneNote 2013 and 2016. Versions for both 32-Bit and 64-Bit are available. Close any running instance of OneNote before starting the installer. Close all instances of OneNote that are running (including the “New Quick Note” icon) and click on the downloaded installer. After the installation, you should see a new tab on the OneNote ribbon named Learning Tools.

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Learning Tools Toolbar

The tab has only two buttons and that is where all the magic is hidden.

This simple toolbar was born from a one-week, company-wide OneNote Hackathon. The development team led by program manager Jeff Petty asked itself…

“Where is an area we can help the most, with something as basic as reading? How can we help everyone read better? What are some of the techniques that work for students with reading disabilities?’ [We thought], maybe we can bring those to the table for everybody.”

The toolbar brings together a set of pre-existing technologies like enhanced dictation powered by Bing, immersive reading that uses Windows services of simultaneous audio text playback with highlighting, and natural language processing from Microsoft Research.

The simple goal of improving the way we read and figure out text isn’t just meant for dyslexic students. In the end, this means a better shot at challenging information overload for all of us.

Let’s Start Using the Immersive Reader

Click on the Immersive Reader button in the Tools group of the add-in to start a distraction-free reading environment. Attentive reading needs an escape from any diversions. Use the Next and Previous page buttons to move between pages. You will notice that the reader does not display any images, but it recognizes and displays the text in the images.

Learning Tools Immersive Reader

You can also use a tool like Office Lens on your smartphone to snap a picture, scan it for any text, and bring it into OneNote. The Learning Tools Immersive Reader can then quickly read back the text using the text-to-voice technology, and the grammar aids can be used on the text from the photo.

Press Play and OneNote will start Microsoft Text to Speech engine to read back the text to you. You can change the speed of the playback and the choice of the voice from the Settings menu. You can go with Microsoft David or choose the softer Microsoft Zira.

When you want the narration from a different point in the text, just click that word and the narration resumes from there.

Each word is highlighted with the narration. This is an important instructional feature as it boosts word identification with the double-barreled benefits of voice and reading. It can be compared to the Neurological Impress Method, which is believed to benefit reading fluency in children. The Learning Tool Immersive Reader aims to make everyone independent readers.

Get a Grip On the Text with the Grammar Aids

Even native speakers of English struggle with grammar. In more serious cases, Specific Language Impairment affects 7 to 8 percent of children in kindergarten and continues on to adulthood. Even without this communication disorder, most of us have struggled with the nuances of grammar in childhood.

Click the book icon on the upper-right to open a menu with five language aids. These reading aids highlight different parts of speech with color codes and help to improve learning outcomes.

Grammar Aids in Learning Tools

The Nouns, Verbs and Adjectives buttons, highlight all the nouns, verbs and adjectives on the page. You can enable all three together or enable and disable them individually. Each part of speech is identified with a different color code.

Learning Tools Grammar Highlights

Recognizing parts of speech is a basic building block for learning a language. Students can use this to build their vocabulary and understand the different contexts behind word usage. For instance, we know that a noun may be used as the subject of a verb and also the object of a verb. Students can instantly see this usage as they move through highlighted nouns across the reader.

The Comprehension button displays a reading comprehension mode. Using color codes, verbs and their dependent subordinate clauses are highlighted. Subordinate clauses are enclosed within small, triangular brackets and verbs are displayed in color. You can toggle the display of the verbs and just leave the sub-clause brackets too.

Learning Tools - Comprehension

The Syllables button helps with pronunciation. Break any long word into syllables, and the word becomes easier to read. Every word is split into its syllables and displayed on the screen with small separators between each part of the word.

Learning Tools - Syllables

You can easily use it with the text-to-speech feature to get the correct way any word is spoken. Teachers can include creative syllable teaching activities and help their students pronounce words just right.

The above features are much more effective if you use the high-contrast dark theme.

Enhance Your Reading with These Little Tweaks

There are some simple ways you can improve the reading experience for yourself, your children, or students. Tweak some of these settings and see what works for you.

Tweak a few settings

  • Increase or decrease the text size.
  • Choose between regular spacing or wide spacing.
  • Select the Calibri or Sitka Small font.
  • Choose the Light or the Dark theme.

Speak and Dictate

Back on the Ribbon, the Dictate button allows you to talk to OneNote and enter text with the help of Microsoft’s speech recognition technology. The first time you use dictation, you’ll need to sign in with a valid account. You can use an Office 365 ID or you can use your Microsoft Account.

Learning Tools - Dictate

You will need a good microphone to help Microsoft recognize your speech. This accessibility feature is helpful when you want to talk instead of type. From the feel of it, it is a noticeable improvement over the default dictation tool available with OneNote. And going back to the tips we talked about in OneNote and its unique uses, you can transcribe the voice notes to text and organize them better.

Remember, voice notes are also searchable in your notes. Just enable the search from File > Options > Audio & Video.

Unlocking Multi-Sensory Learning with Learning Tools

The main goal of the OneNote literacy tool is to help students become independent readers. This goal can piggyback on the many wonderful collaborative features of OneNote which is making it an indispensable classroom tool for teachers and students.

It need not only be for the solo learner.

I can already see a classroom where a teacher uses it interactively to teach grammar and parts of speech to an entire class. Using OneNote with a projector can be a better replacement for a whiteboard. With Wi-Fi and mobility, the classroom also need not be in the classroom anymore.

The number of non-natives English speaking children is rising in the United States and U.K. Adults are also struggling to improve their speaking skills. Learning Tools can play a vital role with ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Pronunciation is always a stumbling block. The Syllables button and Microsoft David or Microsoft Zira could be invaluable for learning the different sounds and sound distinctions. Learning the mystical idiomatic expressions could take some doing or even the more common phrasal verbs. But the Learning Tools could supply the first mortar for correct grammar.

Jordan Shapiro, while writing for Forbes.com,  calls it “a game changer for everybody”. The inspiration for the add-in came from the learning challenges faced by dyslexics, but as he explains, a truly disruptive educational tool needs to touch everyone – it should be able to improve learning for all.

This is why you should make Learning Tools for OneNote a part of your education.

Do you think digitization of reading will improve with the help of these tools? Do you have a struggling reader in your family? What are the daily challenges you face?

Image Credits:working on a laptop by Huntstock.com via Shutterstock

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