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Monday, February 3, 2014

Assistive Technology for Reading

 When I first began to think about using Assistive Technology (AT) in the field of reading, I was overwhelmed with the amount of information available. After 22 years of teaching special ed, I gained a lot of skills in the diagnosis of reading difficulties and methods for teaching reading. As a techie, I immediately applied my knowledge to help struggling readers. Sadly, people in the reading field and people in the tech field don’t necessarily collaborate.

Reading is one of the most complex activities a person can do. It involves vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, phonics and phonemic awareness. It is most closely associated with auditory skills (of many varieties), but visual skills (of many varieties) are also factor. Interfering factors besides weak auditory or visual skills can be attention, short-term memory, inability to visualize, and a lack of background knowledge. Reading selection concerns whether the student will read only, highlight only or highlight and read. Whereas reading letters, words, chunks, lines, sentences, paragraphs or a whole screen each pose their own set of difficulties for the struggling reader. Text preferences, such as font, style, size, color, background color, highlight color, affect the reader’s abilities. Reading sentences or chunks can affect comprehension, if the student is still trying to decode each word (sound it out).

There are some tools that can help with very little expense. These are the low-tech reading tools such as colored plastic filters, highlighters, post-it-notes, post-it page tabs, plastic colored page overlays, reading guides and graphic organizers. Color can be an important factor in the ease of reading, although there are not many studies available on this important topic. Tools that are a bit more expensive are tape recorders, audio books, book lights, accessibility features on computers, tablets, and electronic dictionaries,

At the high end, text readers read the material for the student so that they can keep up with the information contained within. Screen readers such as Kurzweil ($1395), Premier ($79.95 to $299.95), WYNN ($99), and Acrobat (free, but will only read .pdf files) can be very expensive. Optical Character Readers (OCR), which take input from a scanner and then read it,  are also on the expensive side. They can translate textbooks into audio for students. Somewhat less expensive is the Don Johnston software
Co:Writer, Read: OutLoud, Start-to-Finish books, and the Solo Literacy Suite. MathPad, Access to Math and Ultimate Reader can change the color of backgrounds, texts and highlighters.

I would be amiss if I were to forget to mention my favorite reading web sites. Tar Heel Readers is a site that has many interesting books. Some are even written by students. Each page has a picture and the text is read to the student.  At Reading A to Z, schools or parents have to purchase access to the resources, but there are many books at each reading level and lots of resources for parents and teachers. Tumblebooks is another commercial site, but it is too expensive for individuals. I also love Goodreads. Teachers can post recommendations for their students or receive recommendations for whatever genre of reading they want.

Finally, there is a web site called Readability that will let you download an add-on button to your browser (Firefox) toolbar that simplifies pages so they are less distracting and simpler in appearance.

There is much, much more, but I will never get this published if I don’t stop at some point.