Learning Disabilities and Assistive Technologies Guide: Chapter 3 - Reading

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Problem: Individuals with reading learning disabilities have difficulty with the task of reading individual words, sentences, and/or paragraphs and with understanding what they read. This difficulty stems from an inability to decode words (associate sounds with letters), track words and sentences on a page, comprehend the written information, keep thoughts and images organized, and/or generalize the information to previous knowledge. This deficit may stem from problems with visual processing or auditory processing.

In order to effectively use assistive technology for persons with a reading disability it is imperative to understand where the difficulties arise. Does the person have trouble with visually seeing the difference between a “’b” and a “d” or loses her place frequently while reading. This may indicate a visual processing difficulty. Does the person have trouble associating the correct sounds with letters or letter blends or not understand text even when read aloud? This may indicate auditory processing difficulties. The tools needed to compensate for these are different. A person able to understand text read aloud can use screen readers or text to speech software to read text. A person who can’t process the information even if read aloud may be able to benefit from tools that present information in a more graphic manner. Successful use of assistive devices depends on pairing appropriate lower tech tools, hardware or software with the individual based on deficits and training the individual to use the AT in real life situations.

Characteristics of Reading Difficulties

The individual with reading difficulties may do one or more of the following:

☐ Read slowly and deliberately with no fluency;

☐ Appear to re-read or read very slowly, when reading silently;

☐ Reread or skips lines in oral reading;

☐ Have trouble reading signs, notes, forms, want ads, etc.;

☐ Substitute, omit, and/or transpose letters, words, syllables, and phrases;

☐ Lose place on page;

☐ Skip lines, words, letters, and numbers;

☐ Have poor comprehension of written materials;

☐ Guess at unknown words and thus compromise comprehension;

☐ Have trouble sounding out unknown words

☐ Have decoding problems (difficulty with sounds/symbol relationships; problems discriminating between sounds and between certain letters (e.g., bs and ds, ps and qs; frequent reversal of letters and numbers; difficulty blending sounds together to form a word) ;

☐ Have difficulty with basic skills assessments;

☐ Have problems keeping place in test answer sheets;

☐ Have difficulty tracking from test booklet to answer sheet.

Many of the first assistive devices were developed for individuals with visual impairments, but these tools have been found to be very effective for people with reading disabilities and have since been adapted for persons with learning disabilities.

Light Tech, Mid-tech & High Tech:

Technology both light, mid-tech and high tech can:

  • read any text printed on the computer screen to the user;
  • convert printed text from a paper or a book using a scanner into editable text so a screen reader can read aloud on a computer or be converted to wav files for use in an MP3 or similar player; text can be read aloud and highlighted as its being read to help with tracking
  • provide auditory access to printed materials through tapes, CD-ROMs, DVDs, portable readers/players, and special internet services;
  • format text to be easier for a user to see such as increasing size of text, pairing use of graphics with text, changing background and font color, changing to a more readable font, or using highlighting to emphasize certain text.
  • give pronunciations and definitions for words using portable spell checkers, auditory dictionaries and thesauruses on the computer or reading pens
  • provide materials through videotape, DVD or videodisc
  • pair text with graphics such as rebus symbols or picture communication symbols for users who can interpret pictures but not the printed word;
  • help a user keep his/her place on the page, use transparent overlays to change background color of a page, or magnify a line of text for easier reading

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Strategies for Reading Problems

 Reading Difficulties Strategy I – Alternative Format Books -There are different services to utilize for obtaining books on tape and/or disk. 

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), http://www.rfbd.org is a non-profit service organization providing educational books (academic text books) on audio cassette and CD. This service requires a $50.00 registration fee and a $25.00 membership service charge a year. Some schools, including colleges and universities should have an institutional membership. RFB&D has materials in all subject areas from grade four to the postgraduate level. RFB&D notes that "more than half of the people who use RFB&D's services have a learning disability--not a visual disability."

An RFB&D application requires a signature either by a professional in medicine or psychology or educational specialist. Applications for RFB&D can be obtained by calling (800) 221-4792; faxing (609) 987-8116, e-mailing custserv@rfbd.org or writing to RFB&D, 20 Roszel Road, Princeton, NJ 08540. Books may be ordered by calling (800) 221-4792.

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a free service of the Library of Congress, is commonly referred to as Talking Books. NLS offers leisure materials and magazines on audio cassette or audio disc. The collection includes popular novels, classical literature, poetry, biographies, and magazines. The Talking Books program is maintained by the National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind and Physically Handicapped at the Library of Congress, 1291 Taylor Street NW, Washington, DC. The telephone number is (202) 882-5500. The service has thousands of titles available or will order what the applicant requests. Talking Books are distributed through a network of regional and sub-regional libraries. There are no fees charged by the regional libraries of the NLS.

Talking Books requires that your application be signed by a doctor of medicine, not a psychologist. Applications can be obtained from a Talking Books Center in your area.

Both services require a special cassette player, CD player or software to read the CD. The cassette player uses 4-track tapes. The tape player is supplied as a free loan when you submit your application to a Talking Books Center. A smaller sized version of the 4-track player can be purchased through RFB&D by calling (800) 221-4792. The players range in price from $100-200.

Bookshare: http://www.bookshare.org Bookshare is a subscription based on line service that provides digital books to persons with disabilities. A user must complete an application and have proof of disability to subscribe and download books. Thousands of books are available. This service provides more access to recreational reading material than RFB&D. Public domain books in TEXT format and HTML are available to any subscriber to use their own text to speech software with. Set-up fee is $25 and then an annual fee of $50.00 allows members to download as many books as desired. These books come from volunteers and users n the community who have scanned a book and sent a copy of the text to Bookshare for distribution.

Variable Speech Control Tape Recorders (VSC): VSCs are portable units that, unlike standard/conventional tape recorders, enable the user to play back audio taped material (e.g. lectures, meetings, books on tape) slower or faster than the rate at which it was initially recorded without the loss of intelligibility (“chipmunk”-like speech at faster speeds). Intelligible speech at varying rates is easily achieved by adjusting speed and pitch control levers. (Portions of Strategy I drawn from Raskind, 1993)

 Reading Difficulties Strategy II - Text to Speech

There are numerous software applications on the market which read aloud text on the computer. Some applications read the text in their own application; some are paired with other software to read the text with the software itself. For example READPLEASE is a freeware program designed to have text copied into its own window to be read aloud. The TextHelp application Read and Write reads material in any windows application such as Word or WordPad or on the Internet.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and Text to Speech: Scanning software and OCR software can take text from printed material and convert it from an “image” to annotated text so a text reading program can read the written material to the user. In order for a computer to “read” material from hard copy (books, magazines, etc.) one needs a scanner, scanning software, OCR software, text to speech software and a compatible computer. Users scan the material into the computer as an image much like a “xerox” copy. The OCR software then converts the image of the page into text which can then be read aloud using the text to speech software.

Options such as voice, rate of speech, highlighting, and screen display may be individualized depending on the text to speech software being used. Text can be read back a letter, word, line, sentence, paragraph or screen at a time. Some reading aid software such as Read and Write Gold can convert text to a wav. file for use in an MP3 player.

 Reading Difficulties Strategy III – Mid to Low Tech Aides for off Computer Use

Some persons have adequate reading skills to access printed material, but they have trouble with following the lines of text, having the words jump/move on the page on standard black on white print, can’t decode or understand more complex words, or have trouble skimming text for important information to study. Low and mid tech tools can help compensate for these difficulties.

Colored transparent sheets can be placed over black on white text to help calm the page. Often persons with visual processing difficulties complain text “jumps or moves” on the page. The color of the overlays is an individual preference. Most persons with learning disabilities tend to chose cool colors such as blue and green. Although there is some evidence that red helps the eyes use the rods and cones more effectively.

Reading pens and portable spell checkers can be used when a reader can decode most text but needs help with limited words. A reading pen is designed so a user runs the scanning pen over a word and the punctuation and definition is read aloud. Good fine motor control is required since the user must run the pen tip over the desired word. A user can enter a word into a portable spell checker or dictionary to obtain a punctuation or definition. These options are only effective for users how have good basic reading skills.

Bar magnifiers are 6-9 inch bars with one yellow line down the center. It can be run down the text one line at a time to magnify and highlight one line of text. This is very helpful for readers who a have a tendency to read words in different lines.

Some readers can read text but have difficulty when going over text to study for tests because they can’t skim for important information only. This can be helped by using a variety of highlighters. Using a system of different colors for different types of information can help cue users to where to look for text to review. For instance yellow for topic sentences, blue for new vocabulary, pink for dates, green for supporting sentences, etc.

For new readers can use personal word lists give visual hints about word definitions and differences. QuickBooks is one commercially made list used frequently in elementary schools.

 Reading Difficulties Strategy IV – Remediation

The strategies discussed above help with compensation of reading difficulties. There are also numerous software applications and other programs which work on increasing reading skills. Deciding when to use compensation strategies as opposed to remediation techniques is up to the individual and his/her “team” depending on the age of the user. Generally it is important to look at the goal of the activity or task to decide whether compensation strategies are used. An eighth grader who can understand grade level science material but can’t read the material needs compensation. Here the goal is learning science so giving the student the material an auditory format would be more appropriate than having him struggle to read the material.

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