Helping Kids With Dyslexia
Originally published in TEACH Magazine July/August 2018
By Adam Stone
A reading clinician and English as an Additional Language teacher in Western School Division, Southwest Manitoba, Valdine Bjornson, frequently uses the Handwriting Without Tears app when working with students suffering from dyslexia. It’s designed to improve handwriting, but can also have a big impact on those who struggle with reading.
“If you always write the letter the same, if it is consistent and automatic, that lowers the cognitive barrier,” she says. “When you don’t have to think about that part of it, it opens a gateway to reading and writing in general.”
Technology can be a classroom boon for those who are dyslexic. Computer-based experiences can promote social emotional learning, ensuring kids who have trouble with reading are not left behind or feel out of step with their peers. Apps can also play a role in promoting reading skills for those who need extra help along the way.
How Tech Helps
Broadly stated, dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by difficulty in reading. “Reading is complex. It requires our brains to connect letters to sounds, put those sounds in the right order, and pull the words together into sentences and paragraphs we can read and comprehend,” according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. “People with dyslexia have trouble matching the letters they see on the page with the sounds [that] those letters and combinations of letters make. And when they have trouble with that step, all the other steps are harder.”
Many educators look to technology foremost as a means of offering accommodation or accessibility, to help ensure dyslexic readers don’t fall behind. “Technology has the ability to unlock printed text, which is what many dyslexics struggle with. If you can’t decode a word then you can’t access the meaning of that word. You can’t read a story or a newspaper article. Then you’re stuck,” said Susan Chambre, an adjunct professor at William Paterson University and a former New York City special ed teacher.
Technology can close the gap by helping students stay current even when they can’t keep up with the reading. Chambre points, for example, to Bookshare, a U.S. government-funded program that makes textbooks and commercial books available in print-to-speech format. It’s one of several tools available that converts the written word into spoken format.
“The goal here is not teaching you how to read. It’s a way to keep you current on the classroom content so that you can participate in the conversation,” she said. “It means that even if I can’t read on grade level, I can still join in the discussion about Pompeii or Mt. Vesuvius or whatever the subject is. In school, it’s all about not looking stupid: you want to do what everyone else is doing. That social-emotional piece is critical.”
Just as audio books convert text into spoken word, learning can go in the other direction too, with tools that help students convert their spoken ideas into written words.
“Some of these exist already within the computer’s hardware, while others are apps or software programs like Dragon Naturally Speaking,” says Molly Ness, an associate professor in the Fordham University Graduate School of Education. “These resources allow a student’s voice to be captured and then translated into the written word—improving their accuracy and efficiency to encode the ideas in their head onto paper. Students can use this for everything from short answers, to their homework, to longer essays.”
When researchers at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity tested Dragon Naturally Speaking, they got strong positive feedback. After two weeks, one student reported: “I can do my homework so much faster. This is just unbelievable, I love it.”
Let’s take a look at some of the most recommended classroom tools and learning apps that may be used to support dyslexic readers.
- Note taking: Some people with dyslexic have trouble jotting down quick notes. This makes it hard for a student to create a reminder while simultaneously listening to a teacher. Evernote makes it easy to capture ideas on the fly without breaking stride. Portable handheld scanning devices like Infoscan and the Livescribe smartpen also fulfill this role.
- Text-to-speech: An online application, Natural Reader uses a natural-sounding voice to give students ready access to web pages, emails, PDFs, documents, and text messages. Balabolka and Panopreter operate along the same basic lines.
- Typing tools: Talking Fingers teaches typing while also breaking down language into its phonetic components. Students get a practical skill—the ability to type—while absorbing a deeper appreciation for phonics, which can support fundamental reading skills.
- Audio books: In addition to Bookshare, another popular source of audio books is Learning Ally, a nonprofit whose offerings include a collection of some 80,000 audio books at all grade levels. By highlighting words as students read along, the tool can help dyslexic readers stay connected to the text.
- Vocabulary builders: A web-based tool, Rewordify helps students understand words and build their vocabulary. Readers can enter a word or block of text to see suggested alternatives. The tool simplifies hard-to-read sentences, with the reworded portions highlighted.
These tools can help with both the social aspects of dyslexia and the direct educational process: they can enable students to feel like they are keeping pace with their peers, and they can augment teacher efforts to promote reading ability.
While tech tools offer a range of potential supports for the dyslexic learner, educators offer some words of caution as well.
The Right Tools
Not all dyslexic learners are the same. Difficulty with reading can have a range of causes and may manifest in different ways for different learners. Educators caution that tech tools in support of dyslexia should be similarly nuanced. “Teachers have to be very critical about the materials online, to make sure they are useful in supporting the learning for a student’s specific needs,” Bjornson said.
To ensure that is the case, Chambre looks for apps that are highly customizable. “Let’s say I want to help a kid learn [the] short ‘e’ sound. I find an app that teaches that, but it might have short ‘e’ words with consonant-vowel-consonant, or it may have consonant-consonant-vowel-consonant, or some other combination. A kid who is truly dyslexic has to master ‘bed’ before they can tackle ‘bred’ or ‘bled.’ They have to build up to that.”
Pedagogy matters too. If the point of an application or program is to support reading skills, it makes sense for the teacher to take a somewhat deep dive into the specific approach being implemented. “I lean toward tools that mention synthetic phonics or morphological training. For most kids with dyslexia, we are trying to break down those little pieces in the reading material, so I look for tools that take the same approach,” Bjornson said.
She also seeks out those apps that offer a streamlined user interface. “There is a lot of stuff online with too many complicated visual pieces, with too much information. I look for tools that offer a narrow practice for particular skills, to reinforce specific instruction. I want it to be as clear and straightforward as possible,” she said.
Finally, Chambre says, it makes sense to look for apps that offer a logical learning sequence, a forward progression that aims to develop sequential skills.
“Does it differentiate once a student has mastered a skill set? What skill does it go to next? There is a stepwise progression in how children master language. You can’t jump right to higher-level orthographic patterns. There has to been some rhyme of reason to the progression,” she said. “A lot of apps just throw in words. It has to be done in a logical way.”
Even apps that meet all those criteria likely won’t prove a panacea for the young reader whose neurological setup makes it hard to turn all those cryptic squiggles into intelligent signifiers. The written word is a complex landscape for the dyslexic learner and there’s no fast and easy path through the woods. Nonetheless, educators agree that the right tech tools can have a decidedly positive influence when paired with thoughtful and persistent classroom support.
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.