A New Way of Reading That Invites Everyone In
Disclaimer: I am an enthusiastic fan of both Amazon's Immersion Reader and Learning Ally, but I do not benefit from endorsing their products in any way.
On a Friday afternoon, amid the noisy chaos of our end-of-the-day classroom clean-up, one of my students sought me out to announce, out ot the blue, "Learning Ally has totally changed reading for me. I can read longer and more now."
I was confused by the timing of his remark, but also simply stunned at his self-reflection and need to share. My typically quiet dyslexic student was so excited by his new discovery that he sought me out to offer this unsolicited reading feedback while I was on my hands and knees helping the class pick up paper scraps?
He added matter of factly, "I was never a reader before" and then walked away.
I should also explain that this boy wasn't the only one to demonstrate a sudden and significant shift after his introduction to Learning Ally (formerly known as Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic). Immediately after my qualified students were set up with Learning Ally accounts, I witnessed another one of my dyslexic students forgo outdoor playtime to spend her recesses inside the classroom, addictively reading The Hunger Games series. This same girl had launched the year by warning me that she didn't like to read.
One might think that a teacher who is also the mother of a dyslexic son and a long-time dyslexia advocate would no longer be impressed by the ability of audiobooks to support dyslexic readers. To assume this, however, would be wrong.
Let me explain. This new assistive technology, that allows dyslexic students to read at their intellectual level by synching the written text with audiobooks (while also highlighting the text being read to help students follow along), is new. It was first introduced by Amazon with their Immersion Reader. And more recently, Learning Ally starting producing their audiobooks with this capability. Learning Ally has also made this synched reading available on every platform (including Chromebooks, which is what we have in our class). Prior to the synching of written text and audiobooks, I had my dyslexic students dividing their time between ear-reading audiobooks (at their comprehension level) and eye-reading simpler written texts (at their less-advanced decoding level). Needless to say, it was not an efficient use of my students' already limited time, nor did reading two different levels of books for two different purposes ever create a single passionate reader.
Since dyslexia is, by definition, an unexpected difficulty learning to read in individuals with average to above average intelligence, the ability to read and reference age-appropriate content is a game-changer for dyslexics. Finally, their access to reading content can be be defined by their thinking skills, rather than their more limited reading ability. It also changes the way they interact with content. My dyslexic students now talk about books with passion and conviction. They confidently wear their headphones during independent reading time without a hint of secrecy or shame. In fact, several non-dyslexic students have asked how they can also obtain access to the Learning Ally virtual bookshelves. Unfortunately, they don't qualify for the Learning Ally services that their dyslexic peers benefit from (but any student who doesn't qualify for Learning Ally services can purchase synched books with the Amazon Immersion Reading System).
My colleagues often tease me these days about being an evangelist for this new learning tool. That may be true, but the results speak for themselves. This technology provides access to knowledge and content, access to the magic of story, and access to peer conversations about books and ideas. Not only are my students with dyslexia reading more with this new method, they are becoming more confident members of the class. They report that they understand what they are reading now (and admit that they didn't before) and they tell me that they finally feel genuinely included in our classroom reading culture.
Evangelical or not, that news is worth sharing.
Additional Note: For those educators unfamiliar with Learning Ally, it is a non-profit serving people with print disabilities like dyslexia and blindness. Our school has a membership that provides every qualified student access to Learning Ally's vast audiobook library. There is a subscription fee (based on usage and size of school) that might be cost-prohibitive for less-resourced schools. Individual memberships are also available, if a school doesn't have an account.