By Tracey Dowdy
We’ve all heard the slogan, “Readers are leaders,” and it’s true – reading and reading comprehension are the keys to academic and personal success. The problem is, not everyone comes to the table with the same set of tools. Whether it’s because of learning or accessibility challenges, a lack of support at home, or a preference for numbers over letters, reading doesn’t come easily to everyone. Some students will compensate by working harder to make up the gap, but for those who struggle with comprehension, it’s not that simple. Some will become the class clown or act out in ways that get them removed from the classroom to distract from their struggle. This only adds to the learning gap, preventing them from reaching their potential and creating more problems that taken to the extreme, can lead to delinquency. In fact, According to the literacy fast facts from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), 2/3 of students who cannot read by the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Over 60% of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.
Those are sobering statistics. The good news is that with all the advances in technology over the past several years, there are more resources available than ever before, and the future doesn’t have to be so grim.
Start by talking to your child’s teacher to see what tools and extra help is available during the school day. If reading is a source of frustration for your child, knowing there’s hours of homework waiting for him or her at home means you’re already in trouble. That negative attitude and sense of defeat before you’ve even started makes learning twice as challenging.
Jamie Martin, a consultant in assistive technologies who specializes in dyslexia, suggests getting your child a tablet. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but used the right way, it’s invaluable to a student trying to improve their reading comprehension and letter recognition. Using the microphone for dictation opens doors to creativity and expression. Think how difficult it would be to get your thoughts and words on paper if you struggle with dyslexia or are a beginning reader. Both Android and Apple devices have predictive text, so as the child begins to type out a word, options will appear in the bar above the keyboard, allowing them to progress without having to stop and ask how to spell words over and over.
One of the biggest hurdles for struggling readers is learning their phonemes: the sound that a letter or collection of letters represents. English is notorious for its exceptions to the rule, making it an even greater challenge. There are no shortcuts, and no matter the skill level, the key is repetition. Apps like Endless Alphabet and Starfall ABCs are great for reinforcement and repetition.
As the student continues to develop reading and language arts skills, sites like Grammarly and Co:Writer are useful. Think of them as equipping your student with their own personal editor. Grammarly will proof your work, note errors in spelling, subject/verb agreement, punctuation, and other common grammar errors. You can even have it check for plagiarism, so as students learn to paraphrase or quote another source, they can check their work before turning it in to be graded. Co:Writer is a word prediction program that also includes a ton of topic specific dictionaries. So, if your student is writing about ancient Mesopotamia, it will recognize and assist with spelling words like “Hammurabi” and “Gilgamesh” and not flag them as misspellings.
Apps like Inspiration can help students who have difficulty structuring their thoughts to create an outline. Using visual thinking and visual learning, students can mind-map their thoughts the same way others use the paper outlines you may have used as a student. DragonDictate or Naturally Speaking and Rewordify are useful tools for older students. DragonDictate will “learn” your child’s speaking voice, and while it it’s important to correct errors in transcription, over time it becomes very accurate. Rewordify does exactly what you expect – it rewords complicated sentences into less complex terms. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than having to use dictionary.com every time they encounter an unfamiliar word or phrase. SMMRY will summarize text to help students save time, particularly helpful for those who take forever to complete assigned readings for subjects like history or geography. You can even use it to summarize PDF or text documents by uploading the file, or summarize web content by pasting the URL.
Remember, all of these resources are to be used in conjunction with a larger, more comprehensive program. Talk to the principal, teachers, classroom aides, and other support staff to ensure your child has every tool available. Remember, readers really are leaders.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.