Reading with Your Ears, Writing With Your Voice
By Eric Price, M.Ed.
In a world where so much communication is done through writing, literacy has long been considered an essential skill for success in life. However, one in five students is affected by dyslexia or another language-based learning disability, which makes it much harder for students to acquire this skill. Struggling to read hurts students' self-confidence, and makes it difficult to enjoy school--or any type learning, for that matter. That being said, as educators, we need to ask ourselves: should our focus be teaching these students how to read or teaching them how to learn? I think the key is teaching them how to learn.
Many successful people have been dyslexic, from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs, and they came up with their own coping mechanisms to help them through it. I don't think dyslexic kids necessarily have a disability, they just have a different learning style, and we need to find ways to work with them. Luckily, we couldn't live in a better time for kids who struggle with reading. There are so many tools out there that can enable these kids to still learn at high levels, even if they are poor eye readers.
A Personal Connection
I grew up as struggling reader. I didn't realize what was going on at the time. In the 90s, dyslexia wasn't talked about the way it is now, if at all. My parents and teachers told me I didn't have a good attention span, and that I just needed to focus more and I'd do better. Well, I worked really hard in school. I struggled because I didn't understand why I wasn't like everyone else, and it affected my self-esteem. Eventually I found I had different strengths. I read out loud to myself and I could listen to things really fast, so I figured why spend time struggling through a book when I can get the info audibly?
Three of my four kids have been diagnosed with dyslexia, and are currently on IEPs. One of my daughters is more severely dyslexic. Third grade was when it got particularly rough. She faked being sick to skip school because she was having so much trouble reading. I began to look into tools to help her and my other children keep up with their peers. My wife, who is also dyslexic, was involved with Decoding Dyslexia in Utah. She invited me to speak at the Wasatch Reading Summit. Preparing for that presentation helped me reflect on my kids' struggles and my own struggles in school, and inspired me to look at new ways to help kids with dyslexia.
Tools for Struggling Readers and Writers
As an adult, I've become a big fan of audiobooks. At one point, I realized I was sometimes listening to three books a week. I'd never done that before, but had always wanted to. Audiobooks are great because students don't have to worry about returning them. Overdrive offers free audiobooks through libraries, and of course there's always programs like Audible, Learning Ally, and Bookshare. Kids don't have to read the book with their eyes to understand plot, setting, or theme. One of my daughters has "ear-read" more than 148 books this school year.
Dyslexia affects not only reading skills, but also writing. At my school, we also have kids who are struggling writers, who struggle to spell. We teach them how to use voice-to-text so they don't spend hours trying to figure out one word, which holds up their learning process. Assistive technology isn't limited to people with learning disabilities, though. It can help everyone. Some people are verbal processors, so it's just easier for them to say something out loud than to type it all out. I once knew an English teacher--the best writer I know--who used the voice-to-text feature just because that's how he preferred to work. At our school we also had a kid with a broken arm, so he used voice-to-text to write while he healed. No matter your ability level, if these tools get you to where you need to go faster and more efficiently, why not use them?
A Shift in Perspective
It's a mental shift, trying to get teachers to see alternative ways to help kids be successful.
I have regular conversations with the Special Education department at my school, identifying students who need interventions and tools, and working together to get them access. This way of thinking isn't schoolwide, but the more we get kids using these tools, the more teachers buy into it. My daughter has been a great example for teachers. She can listen to books at a very fast pace. She ear-read more than 10 books over winter break.
This being said, the struggle is not always teacher buy-in, but parent buy-in. Sometimes it's tough for parents to understand--it was tough for me for a while too--given that there's so much emphasis on reading in education these days. Of course we still need to teach reading, but if the focus on eye reading is hindering students' ability to keep up with the learning of their peers, we need to ensure that we are providing adequate assistance for these students in the meantime. After all, there are very few things these days that have to be read, considering how many tools are out there that will read things to you, such as Claro ScanPen Reader, Prizmo Go, and Google Read and Write, along with many others that come standard on most devices.
You never see a parent who doesn't want their kid to read, and to read at a high level. Parents are often stuck in the mindset that if their child can't read well, they won't be successful, which is untrue. Even if kids struggle to read, that doesn't mean they can't learn. There are numerous tools can be of crucial assistance in keeping struggling readers learning at the same level as their peers.
Assistive technology isn't cheating when it comes to teaching dyslexic students to read; it's a completely necessary tool. You wouldn't tell a kid that they couldn't read just because they need glasses, would you? If it's a tool they need, why tell them they can't have it? We should absolutely be teaching kids to read and write, but just because they struggle in these areas doesn't mean their learning should come to a halt while they improve these skills. Assistive technologies open doors for struggling students and help them to keep up with their peers while they build on their own unique strengths. The key is to get kids to understand that they're not dumb, they just struggle with something, and they can overcome that struggle with hard work and the right tools.
Eric Price, M.Ed., spent several years as a teacher and administrator in Title 1 schools in the Houston, Texas, area prior to taking his current position as a middle school assistant principal in Utah. Price has an M.Ed from Lamar University in educational administration and a bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University in history education. He shared more of his insights in the webcast "Don't Stop the Learning: Assistive Technology in the Classroom," which was part of last year's Reading Horizons Online Dyslexia Summit.