I’ll never forget the wide-eyed look and broad smile on a fourth-grader’s face when I asked him if he was willing to read in a different way. He had a reading disability, and I had just taken him to the school library and told him to choose any chapter books that he was interested in reading, not just the “baby books”—his words—that he could independently decode. His picks were available and downloaded within minutes from Bookshare, an Office of Special Education Programs–funded organization that provides a vast library of free accessible ebooks for students with print disabilities who qualify.
This intersection of choice, self-determination, and technology was powerful—it started an entire new chapter of self-confidence and independence for this student.
Students with reading disabilities can interact with texts in a variety of ways. They can decode, they can listen to an in-person read-aloud, or they can listen to human audio text or digital text, also called text-to-speech (TTS). Using TTS allows for equity and access. If struggling readers are limited to text they can decode, how can they enjoy the richness of written language, participate in class discussions, learn academic content, and develop a love for reading? Text-to-speech opens up new worlds for them.
Research demonstrates that using text-to-speech tools increases engagement and allows students to access grade-level content and material, as well as websites and books of interest. Interaction with curricular content can help students improve their vocabulary, comprehension, reading accuracy, and fluency. Perhaps most importantly, the use of TTS improves students’ positive feelings about reading and school.
Assistive Technology Tools and Digital Text Build Capacity
Students and teachers need a variety of tools in their toolboxes. Bookshare delivers with its extensive repository, reading tools, and ability to provide textbooks and honor text requests, giving students vast digital resources for both personal and academic use.
Learning Ally, a fee-based organization that sometimes takes requests, provides books with human audio, which is sometimes preferred for pleasure reading. Human audio text may or may not have simultaneous text highlighting to support tracking and does not have a mechanism to interact directly with text.
Many factors affect tool choice and use. A student reading a novel might use an assistive technology (AT) tool that can highlight and annotate digital text, instead of relying on a phone app that reads a menu or email, for example.
Settings where students learn and work, such as large classrooms, small groups, or the kitchen table, also impact tool choice and use. Staff, family, and student buy-in, as well as access to and ability to use AT tools, remain key factors in effective implementation. Keep in mind that students, environments, tasks, and technology change. Ideally, exploring AT tools and services should be an ongoing, problem-solving process throughout students’ academic careers.
To assist students, teachers need to ask, “What is the goal of the activity? And is the student learning to read, or reading to learn?” Remediation and accommodation can coexist, and they can be balanced and beneficial in educational settings. Remediation assists the student in overcoming academic challenges and developing mastery, while accommodations such as AT include alterations of the environment, curriculum format, or equipment that empower an individual with a disability to gain access to content and/or complete assigned tasks. Using AT is not cheating; rather, assistive technology can change the academic trajectory of students with reading and writing challenges.
Teacher, Parent, and Student Teamwork Is Key
It’s not enough to know what AT tools can do. We need to teach students how to use the tools, how they can improve their work, how to advocate for tool access, and how to choose the right tool for the task and environment. We need to make time for students to explore the tools in-depth and collect data on how the tools aid engagement and performance.
Furthermore, teachers need support in learning the tools, integrating the tools, and troubleshooting problems in real-time. “Show and tell” alone doesn’t cut it—ongoing student and teacher coaching with clear expectations for tool use, understanding of how and when to access support, and outcome measures are key. And when teachers collaborate and communicate across content areas to ensure tools are successfully embedded across the curriculum, students succeed.
Parent education is also critical. Parents need to know when their child will be better served decoding text, reading digital text, or listening to audio text. They need to understand AT use and how to support their children at home and across educational settings so they can meaningfully participate and advocate within educational teams.
In many districts and households, lack of knowledge and limited budgets can negatively impact access to and provision of quality AT services. The individual and societal costs of illiteracy are immense. Bottom line: The literature supports the premise that students with learning differences who use AT transition more successfully to high school, show improved quality of work, gain positive perceptions of themselves as learners, and experience positive post-school outcomes. Such intersection of choice, self-determination, and technology can be powerful. How can we afford not to provide a valuable resource like assistive technology tools?