Will Digital Accessible Books Improve Reading for Students with Dyslexia?

In second grade, Jose Alvarez struggled to read. He had fallen behind early in school. His older brothers and mother are dyslexic, and the family feared that Jose might have a learning disability too.

Shortly after attending a third grade class taught by Ann Henkels, a dyslexia teacher in Frisco Independent School District in Texas, Jose’s reading abilities began to improve. His teacher had given him a reading assignment with an accessible book that he read on an iPad. Jose’s reading ability went from a second grade level to a fifth grade level. His mom credits Ms. Henkels, his teacher and accessible books for the joy her nine-year-old now experiences in the learning process.

Jose Alvarez reading on an iPad.

When you ask students with dyslexia how they feel about their disability, they will use words like “dumb” and “frustrated” to describe their emotions. Older students may confide that they were called “lazy” and hid their difficulties with inappropriate behavior for fear of embarrassment. Whether we have a learning disability or not, if the curriculum (e.g., novels and textbooks) is at too high of a readability level, it is unlikely that we will enjoy a reading experience. As a result, our motivation to read and learn, our confidence and our spirit may decline.

So, the questions on the minds of thousands of educators, parents and advocates today who are clamoring on the doors of schools and senators’ offices are:

  • How do we reframe our discussions of whether a child with a reading disability will comprehend more of what they read with accessible instructional materials (AIM)?
  • How can we modify testing accommodations to help the child demonstrate more knowledge?
  • How can early identification of reading disabilities, met with proven strategies and resources, produce higher achievement going forward?

What are Accessible Instruction Materials (AIM)?

Accessible education or instruction materials are specialized digital formats of textbooks and printed materials that are provided to accommodate persons with print disabilities. This may include children with visual impairments, blindness, a physical disability, or a reading disability, such as dyslexia. AIM formats include braille, audio, large print and digital text in a common standard file format called DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System).

In audio books, DAISY enables a user to hear a recorded human voice or synthesized electronic speech (computer voices), which most children are familiar with through video games. Digitally accessible books and audio formats can be read with technologies and mobile devices, which make learning “on the go” easy and fast. As students read content on an iPad, tablet, smartphone, or computer, they simultaneously see and hear the words read aloud. This is commonly referred to as text-to-speech or TTS.

For students with dyslexia, the multi-modal sensory experience of seeing and hearing text read aloud may be a smart way to reconnect their minds to decode more words and comprehend information. They enjoy reading and want to read more. This was the experience of young Jose Alvarez and today, he is doing great in school, thanks to his teacher and parent who advocate for greater access to educational content in digital formats.

What Can You Do?

Parents and educators may want to inquire with school administrators, curriculum and special education teams about the availability of accessible curriculum (e.g., books, literature, and textbooks) and encourage textbook publishers to provide digital accessible formats routinely.

If a child already has an IEP (Individual Education Plan) or 504 plan required under the 2004 IDEA law (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), request reading assignments prior to the start of a semester and check out resources like Bookshare for the novel or K-12 textbook.

“Digital accessible books are an educational resource that all children with learning disabilities should experience and explore.”

Learn the statistics: One in five students or 15% to 20% of the population have a language-based learning disability. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that 38% of fourth grade students have “below basic” reading skills. These students are below the 40th percentile (performing below 60% of their peers) and are at greater than 50% chance of failing the high-stakes, year-end school achievement tests.

Work directly with students to explore strategies and tools that work best for them. Kids know technology! Many teachers in special education, speech and language pathologists (SLPs), occupational therapists (OTs), reading and dyslexia teachers, and assistive technologists are very knowledgeable on topics such as universal design for learning (UDL), personalized learning and response to intervention. Ask them for input!

“Growing up with dyslexia, I never had access to technology or digital books,” says Mrs. Alvarez. “I felt frustrated and unintelligent. Accessible books gave Jose reading independence. He has meaningful conversations now with friends about what he reads. Digital accessible books are an educational resource that all children with learning disabilities should experience and explore.”