Dyslexia is an unseen and often undetected learning difference that many students have and never received help for. If the language processing deficits go undetected, those who are afflicted can suffer far-reaching consequences (Tallal, et al, 1996). Dyslexia affects 10-15 percent of the population (Colbert, McGraw, Wenrich & Burdette, 2003). Some suggest that in rural Appalachia, dyslexia is present in 30% of the population due to genetics (Stoddart, p188, 2002). Many consider Appalachia reaching into some parts of New York State.
In Fillmore Central School, Fillmore, New York something great is happening. Students who have never been successful at reading are becoming successful. Student who have always been reluctant readers are now reading more and are able to complete reading tasks that they start. The main reason for this success is the learning and technology integration embraced by a few Special Education, Middle school teachers.
Stacy and Rose needed help with a computer program called Kurzweil. They had never used Kurzweil before but heard it could help their students. Both teachers will fully admit that technology is not their forte, but the great thing about teachers like Stacy and Rose is that they will try anything to help improve the lives of their students. I worked with Stacy and Rose quite a few times before they felt comfortable using Kurzweil with their students.
Often, one never knows the result of professional development. Rarely does a professional developer know if what they’ve done has made a difference. After working with Rose and Stacy for about three or four months, off and on, I was in Fillmore again. I popped my head in their door. I asked them how it was going with their students. Stacy said a great thing. She stated that some of her students were actually using Kurzweil and a website called bookshare.org to not only read books that their teachers assign but to read on their own for their own enjoyment. This is a great thing. Not all students were reading on their own for enjoyment. As educators, its understood that what works for one student may not work for others.
Studies confirm our findings in Fillmore. According to a 1993 study published in the journal Annals of Dyslexia, a study was conducted using a text to speech conversion software with dyslexic students. The results were very striking. In this study, students were baseline tested and interviewed about their perceptions about computers, video games and how much they read on their own. Part of the baseline study tests were given to determine grade level. The test used mainly was the Gray Oral Reading Test-Revised (GORT-R). Students were pretested to determine reading grade level equivalency. After students had used the text to speech software called Bookwise, they were tested again at the end of the semester. All students were post-tested and their reading threshold was discovered. For some students, once their reading threshold had been reached and they were unable to continue comprehending what they read, they were allowed to use Bookwise to aid their reading until a max aided reading threshold was reached. Other students, once they reached their reading threshold, were asked to re read the paragraphs again and continue. Here are the results. The students who were able to use the software to aid their reading on average increased their grade level reading equivalency to 1.2. The students from the control group who read unaided made little improvement. 75% of the unaided reading group did not gain at all. It is important to note that not all students improved in this study. About 14% of the students in the study either did not improve their reading and some of the 14% actually decreased their reading ability. The findings of this study are clear. According to Elkind, Jerome, et al., “For many of these [dyslexic] students it appears that computer reader technology could make the difference between academic success and failure and enable them to develop realistic aspirations for careers that require higher reading skills” (1993, p258).
Anecdotal evidence by Stacy Bentley confirms these findings. One of the greatest benefits from text to speech technology is that it seems to take away the student’s anxiety. Stacy states that many of her middle school students are very anxious about sounding words out and decoding. This technology helps students with the anxiety of the actual physical task of writing. For many of Stacy’s students she noticed that the anxiety around sounding out words and comprehending the mean of what they read caused a kind of “learning paralysis.” Using these types of technology has helped to cure this learning paralysis.
When Stacy was asked about changes concerning students reading on their own she stated that it was kind of “too soon to tell” but that she has noticed a change in her students’ confidence levels. Stacy did go on to say that she fully expects after more time has elapsed, her students will become more independent readers due to this technology. Stacy goes on to say that she loves to see her students shine when they are reading the same books their peers are reading. Stacy feels that the biggest success that these technologies have do was remove much of her students’ anxieties. Students seems to be somewhat surprised that they are able to finish readings. Stacy states that some students are finishing reading things that they never believed they were capable of.
Students are asking to use assistive technology for just about every written assignment. But Stacy has to balance her students’ reliance on technology with the fact that they are in school and although technology “levels the playing field” students can’t just use the technology for every assignment. Stacy states that practicing the physical act of writing whether it is with a pencil, pen or typing on a computer keyboard is still important.
Stacy’s students are not the only ones learning and finding success. Stacy is learning and finding the ongoing professional development offered by Cattaragus Allegany BOCES to be a great benefit. After meeting with professional developers from CA BOCES, Stacy feels much more comfortable about using technology. She feels a lot less alone and does not have to spend to much time figuring out the technology all on her own. One of her techniques for getting helps was to keep a list of questions on her desk and writing down the issues whenever she runs into an obstacle she is unable to problem-solve on her own. She then asks CA BOCES PD staff these questions either via email or in person. Stacy says that her confidence level has increased in general when it comes to using technology.
It has been observed in other schools, where some educators, not understanding the power of technology to help students achieve, have, on occasion, questioned, disciplined or have even confiscated MP3 players due to students violating school district policy. Stacy stated that that has not happened at Fillmore. Stacy goes on to say that “the only things on the iPods are things that I put on them.” She does say that putting things on the MP3 players herself is very time consuming but that it is her hope, and she knows it is possible for 7th and 8th graders, to have students learn to put books and other education materials on the MP3 players themselves.
It is easy to hear Stacy’s concern for her middle school students in the tone and inflection in her voice. She admits that sometimes her only stumbling block, and it is a big one, is remembering all of her passwords. Now that Stacy has seen the change in her students and have experienced changes in herself, she know that she has no choice but to embrace this technology for the good of her students.
Colbert, J., McGraw, T., Wenrich, J., & Burdette, K. (2003). The role of technology in the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia. Retrieved from http://www.edvantia.org/products/pdf/TechResSyn03.pdf
Elkind, J., Cohen, K., & Murray, C. (1993). Using computer based readers to improve reading comprehension of students with dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 43, 238-259.
Stoddart, J. (2002). Challenge and change in appalachia: the story of hindman settlement school. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky. Retrieved from http://tw.gs/U4r7h.
Tallal, P., et al. (1996). Language comprehension in language-learning impaired children improved with acoustically modified speech. Science, 221, 81-84.