This article is an excerpt from the LD@school learning module Technology for All: Supporting Students with LDs by Integrating Technology into Classroom Instruction. Click here to access this module.
The act of reading simultaneously draws on many different processes: a reader must decode words, know what they mean, understand words when they are strung together in sentences, understand the use of pronouns, make connections between ideas using relationship markers, create mental pictures, make inferences, sum up information, and so forth.
The right technological tools can make a significant difference to students who struggle with word recognition as well as reading comprehension.
The ability to read develops over many years. At the primary level, students learn word recognition, a skill that often poses a great challenge to students with LDs. Difficulties with word recognition, in turn, tend to cause problems with the other processes required for effective reading.
It is important to note, however, that difficulties with word recognition only affect processes related to written language. If a student with this challenge were to hear a story read to them, the processes required for comprehension of this verbal text would not be impaired.
There are many technological tools that can support students with difficulties in word recognition.
Later on, comprehension becomes the key focus of reading instruction. Educators must support students in the following ways:
- Provide students with a variety of reading material and media
- Develop their understanding of literary devices
- Model comprehension strategies
The following sections present technological tools that support these reading goals.
Text-to-speech software can read aloud digital or printed text; this is beneficial as students are more likely to understand text when unfamiliar words are read to them (MacArthur, Ferreti, Okolo, & Cavalier, 2001). Text-to-speech can have a positive effect on: decoding and word recognition (Raskind & Higgins, 1999), reading fluency, and reading comprehension (Izzo, Yurick, & McArrell, 2009; Montali & Lewandowski, 1996; Stodden, Roberts, Takahishi, Park, & Stodden, 2012). Text-to-speech software can be especially helpful for students who retain more information through listening than reading. This software can assist students with monitoring and revising their typed work, as hearing the text read aloud may assist students in catching grammatical errors that may have otherwise gone unnoticed (Raskind & Higgins, 1995; Rao, Dowrick, Yuen, & Boisvert, 2009; Zhang, 2000). After reviewing the literature, Strangman and Dalton (2005) reported that the use of text-to-speech software can improve students’ sight reading and decoding abilities. In addition, text-to-speech software can improve the reading comprehension of individuals with specific deficits in phonological processing (difficulty hearing letter-sounds) as students can learn to decode new words when they are highlighted as they are read aloud (Fasting & Halaas Lyster, 2005; Holmes & Silvestri, 2009).
Examples of Text-to-Speech Software:
- Read&Write (for Google Chrome, Windows PCs, iPad, Macs)
- Kurzweil 3000 – firefly
Twenty-first century readers must be able to comprehend many different types of texts, such as comic strips, fairy tales, news, informational documents, and many more. Some texts are similar in digital and print forms, but others are available only through the use of technology. For example, tweeting and blogging are texts that now play a role in many of our daily lives.
Digital texts greatly facilitate the task of differentiating instruction. Students are able to use accessibility functions to customize their settings (font size, spacing, colour contrast, bolding, etc.), which frees up cognitive load for comprehension.
Furthermore, most digital texts include features that help students to better understand the texts. For example, many sites have a menu or table of contents that remains visible on the screen, which helps readers understand the structure and main ideas of the text.
Finally, hyperlinked text helps students compensate for a weak vocabulary and access further information on concepts for which they have little prior knowledge.
Visual Learning Software
Visual learning software, such as graphic organizers and mind maps, is another indispensable tool to develop students’ reading comprehension skills. It can be used to illustrate different text structures (narrative, descriptive, argumentative, etc.), and it helps students identify the most important elements of the text they are reading, as well as see an overview of the entire text.
In a different setting, when students “read to learn”, visual learning software helps to reduce the burden on working memory and to display the ideas in a different way to better draw connections between elements of the text by categorizing them or by linking supporting evidence to key concepts.
Educators can also model the use of visual learning software to demonstrate relationships among characters in a novel. These relationships, often implicit in novels, become explicit and visual when visual learning software is used, which helps students better understand these subtle connections as they read.
Explicit Instruction of Reading Strategies
Even when students use technology to compensate for an area of weakness, it is crucial that they be able to exercise their other reading skills in order to comprehend the text. Therefore, educators should explicitly teach reading strategies to all students.
Reading is a difficult task that draws on many cognitive processes at once, but with access to individualized instructional strategies and assistive technology, students with learning disabilities can improve their skills in both word recognition and reading comprehension. Educators in the primary grades should focus on the improvement of word recognition, which may help to prevent future problems with the processes required for effective reading. In later grades, when comprehension becomes the key focus of reading, weak reading skills can be supplemented by assistive technology such as text-to-speech, digital texts, and visual learning software. Regardless of the intervention used, all students should be explicitly taught reading strategies that encourage them to utilize contextual cues, focus on metacognition, ask questions, make connections, and expand on what they have learned.
Fasting, R. B., & Halaas Lyster, S. (2005). The effects of computer technology in assisting the development of literacy in young struggling readers and spellers. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 20(1), 21-40. doi:10.1080/0885625042000319061
Holmes, A., & Silvestri, R. (2009). Text-to-voice technology in adult aboriginal sample with reading difficulties: Examination of the efficacy. Toronto, ON: Aboriginal Office of the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.
Izzo, M., Yurick, A., & McArrell, B. (2009). Supported eText: Effects of text-to-speech on access and achievement for high school students with disabilities. Journal of Special Education Technology, 24, 9-20.
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Rao, K., Dowrick, P., Yuen, J., & Boisvert, P. (2009). Writing in a multimedia environment: Pilot outcomes for high school students in special education. Journal of Special Education Technology, 24, 27-38.
Raskind, M. & Higgins, E. (1995). Effects of speech synthesis on the proofreading efficiency of postsecondary students with learning disabilities, Learning Disability Quarterly, 18, 141-158. doi:10.2307/1511201
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Stodden, R. A., Roberts, K. D., Takahishi, K., Park, H. J., & Stodden, N. J. (2012). The use of text-to-speech software to improve reading skills of high school struggling readers. Procedia Computer Science, 14, 359-362. doi:10.1016/j.procs.2012.10.041
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