Educators seeking new ways to personalize instruction for students with dyslexia and other reading disabilities are turning more and more to e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and the Intel Reader.
But the jury is still out on just how effective those digital tools are in helping struggling readers. And that’s largely because educators only recently began testing the tools with students with reading disabilities.
“It’s beginning to be looked at very closely,” says Alan E. Farstrup, the past executive director of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association. “But regardless of what the preliminary research says, and much of it is inconclusive, kids are growing up as digital natives, and we’re really thinking about literacy in a different way now.”
Today’s students, whether they have a reading disability or not, are comfortable with technology and may prefer to read text on an e-reader rather than from a printed book, says Farstrup.
In fact, a recently released survey by Scholastic found that a third of 9- to 17-year-olds said they would read more books for fun if they had an e-reader.
Yet there is little research to support anecdotal claims that e-readers help improve reading skills.
One Israeli study, however—by Ofra Korat, the head of the Early Childhood Program at Bar-Ilan University—found that a small sample of kindergartners and 1st graders using digital readers showed greater progress in word meaning and word reading than students using traditional texts.
‘Liberating for the Teachers’
Typically, teachers who don’t use e-readers electronically scan textbooks and other reading material for students with visual impairments or reading disabilities, then use software to turn the text into an audio file the students can listen to.
1. Changing the font size of the text and the number of words on the e-reader screen can help students customize the text to their preferences, which can be especially helpful for struggling readers.
2. Using the built-in dictionary function of some e-readers may help students quickly define words they don’t know and provide pronunciation information that can help them sound out unfamiliar words.
3. Having students record their thoughts or respond to specific questions with the “notes” feature of some e-readers provides individualized insight to their comprehension of the text for teachers.
4. The text-to-speech feature of some e-readers could provide the scaffolding for struggling readers to better understand a text by reading aloud the words that cause them the most difficulty.
5. Most e-readers can convert books into audio files quickly for students who struggle with reading, a process that previously was more cumbersome and time-consuming.
While effective, the process is cumbersome and time-consuming, says Ben Foss, the director of access technology for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based technology company Intel.
Foss, who himself has dyslexia, created the Intel Reader, a mobile e-reader that can take pictures of text and then convert the text into an audio file within seconds. Students can also change the size of the text on the screen and the speed of the voice that reads the text aloud.
“The really exciting thing about it is you can grab any text,” Foss says, from the words on a sign to the latest handout from a teacher.
Karen Ann Breslow, a program specialist for special education at the 7,500-student Sequoia Union High School District in California, piloted the Intel Reader with one 8th and one 9th grade student last year.
The technology allowed the students to become more independent of their teachers and parents, she says, by allowing them to read text on their own without adult assistance.
“It is not only liberating for the kids, but also liberating for the teachers,” says Breslow.
Benefits and Drawbacks
Robyn Rennick, the program coordinator for the Dyslexia Research Institute, in Tallahassee, Fla., received a Kindle as a gift last Christmas. Rennick, who has dyslexia, points out that being able to change the size of the type may help some struggling readers.
But not having a physical book to flip through might be a challenge, Rennick warns. Some students with reading disabilities depend on being able to quickly skim the headings and subheadings in a textbook to orient themselves and organize their thoughts, she says, and “when you don’t have the ability to move through those really quickly, that’s going to be a bit of a drawback.”
Even so, e-readers could become powerful tools for re-engaging some students with reading, says David H. Rose, the founder and chief education officer for the Wakefield, Mass.-based Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST, a nonprofit research and development organization that promotes universal design for learning.
“The worst thing is if [students] stop reading altogether,” he says. Also, because e-readers are not specifically designed for students with disabilities and do not have a stigma attached to them, struggling readers may feel more comfortable using the devices in front of their peers, says Rose.
However, the true potential for e-readers in education has yet to be tapped, he says.
“There are a lot of things that e-readers could do that would be much more powerful,” says Rose. For now, it’s imperative to bring together the manufacturers of e-readers, as well as educators, policymakers, and experts in educational technology, to determine what features e-readers could and should include, he says.
Andres Henriquez, the program officer for the national program and urban education at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, agrees.
“People should start talking about e-readers more than just the fact that there’s going to be less weight in [students’] backpacks,” he says. “I think there’s huge potential for value-added instruction in terms of working with youngsters who are struggling readers who might need the kinds of scaffolding necessary for deep comprehension of text.”
More research needs to be done to inform schools of how e-readers are best used and if they are a worthwhile investment, he says.
“There are a number of technologies that creep into the classroom without adding value,” says Henriquez. “What we know from our digital past is that schools and districts will start buying new technologies without knowing what the impact on learning is going to be.”
That looking-before-you-leap cautionary note is something that Lotta Larson, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kan., also expresses about e-readers in education.
“There’s a huge sense of urgency right now,” she says. “This [technology] is starting to enter our schools very rapidly, especially as the prices come down, and before that happens, we have to inform people.”
Fluency and Vocabulary
Indeed, there’s a real need for professional development to accompany the reading devices, says Larson. “I don’t think the e-reader in itself is going to make a difference, but if it’s used with effective instruction, then it can make a huge difference,” she says.
Through her research using e-readers with 2nd graders and special education students, Larson predicts the devices could help facilitate fluency and vocabulary development.
For instance, Larson noticed that some of the students in the classes she studied used the e-readers’ built-in dictionary feature not just to look up definitions of words, but also to view pronunciation and chunking, which is the way the word is broken up into syllables.
“Right there, that’s a fluency tool,” she says.
The ability of some e-readers to insert notes into the text could also be a helpful teaching tool, says Larson.
“If you take the time to actually look at the notes [that students make in the digital readers], you know what they’re thinking, and you can accurately assess what they really understand,” she says. “It’s almost like having a glimpse into their brain.”
Still, much more research must be done before the devices are ready for mainstream use in education, she says.
"[E-readers] have the most amazing potential, but they’re so new in terms of formal studies that there isn’t a whole lot that has been done yet,” Larson says. “Within the next year or two, we’ll have some more evidence.”