Sunday, April 1, 2012

Reading with Your Ears: Assistive Technology, 21st Century Skills, and Vocabulary (Filippini & Morey)

Dr. Alexis Filippini is the executive director at Mission Learning Center and a literacy consultant (website). She is passionate about literacy, especially among students who do not fit the "mainstream" mold. She has taught English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities in 1:1 and small group contexts, and conducted research on early reading and vocabulary acquisition. The ideas in this post were first inspired by hearing her husband Ben Foss use text-to-speech for work and play.  

Anne-Marie Becker Morey is the founder of Bay Tree Learning. Anne-Marie is a certified educational therapist with a masters degree in special education from San Francisco State University. She is certified by the Association for Educational Therapists and received specialized training in educational therapy from the University of California Santa Cruz. She has trained extensively in research-based literacy methods, including Lindamood-Bell® and Orton-Gillingham. Anne-Marie is a member of the Association of Educational Therapists, the Council for Exceptional Children, and the International Dyslexia Association.

In my last post, Phonemes and Morphemes for All, I wrote about vocabulary instruction for students with specific learning disabilities (SLD), such as dyslexia, that impact print processing. Today, Anne-Marie and I want to elaborate on my previous hints about using technology to support robust, Vocabulogic-style literacy instruction for these learners. To discuss assistive technology (AT) today, we must consider that we live in an entirely different context than twenty, ten, even five years ago. In the era of "new literacies," many of our students (and most of us!) use computers, phones, smart boards, e-readers, etc. to access information on a regular basis.

New literacies or 21st century information and communication skills are “the ability to use technology to develop 21st century content knowledge and skills in support of 21st century teaching and learning.” In the context of vocabulary, everyday technology offers multi-modal instructional opportunities to hit the major vocabulary principles (e.g., Blachowicz & Fisher’s big four: be active, personalized, immersive, and build multiple sources of knowledge through multiple exposures; 2000). This high-tech plus Vocabulogic-style instruction can capture the hearts and minds of children so much better than copying definitions – but the best part is, it’s more effective, particularly for learners who thrive with accommodations!

For example, learners with SLD may have receptive and expressive language that is far stronger than their encoding and decoding skills and therefore require additional support (accommodations) to access new or old literacies. We commonly focus on remedial support but overlook Assistive Technology (AT) and alternate text formats. AT is any technology that can “increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with disabilities” (Individuals with Disabilities Act Amendments, 2004). Alternative text formats are typically audio that is either a “natural” human voice or a synthesized voice (obviously braille as well, although less relevant to this conversation). These formats are available through commercial avenues, such as, or disability-specific avenues, such as,, or the National Library Service. Simple software can turn any computer or gadget into a talking device to read aloud, as well.

Effective use of technology to circumvent encoding or decoding is like using a wheelchair to confidently roll up a ramp and into a neighborhood public school, rather than being denied access. While the current reauthorization of IDEA requires consideration of AT for children with individualized educational plans (Blackhurst, 2005), “consideration” is often limited to checking a box. This lack of consideration may be due in part to uncertainty about how, when, and what to teach with these tools. One of the questions I am asked most often by teachers is when to introduce accommodations, and when and how to adjust the remediation-accommodation balance (illustration below; Edyburn, 2006) for learners with print-related disabilities. (We could also learn a lot from work on augmentative and assistive technology use among individuals with significant communication needs, e.g., Soto & Zangari, 2009, but that is for another conversation).

(click to enlarge; right-click to download
Research in academic technology, new literacies, and AT is “fragmented” and “inconclusive” (Fitzgerald, Kourey, & Mitchem, 2008, p. 215) due to rapid changes in technology, perceived barriers to implementation, and assumptions about the very nature of literacy. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to open every door we can to support our students in accessing meaningful text independently. There is no other route; we know the importance of exposure to text for vocabulary growth.

Assistive Technology (AT) in the Vocabulary-Focused Classroom
A number of tools are available to support children with SLD in accessing grade level content, such as text-to-speech software and devices and “books on tape” (usually digital files, now), and simple low-tech options such as pencil grips. Many common AT tools for literacy like speech-recognition software and spell checkers come pre-packaged with common software (e.g., Microsoft; McKenna & Walpole, 2007). To be effective tools for increasing learning and independence, however, all technology must rest on thoughtful, evidence-based teaching.

Let’s look at some examples of using speech synthesis or audio books as a route into vocabulary learning. By turning on the text-to-speech feature in plain old Microsoft Word, a student can hear text read aloud. For example, if she opened Dr. Mohler's packet of engaging activities as a Word document, and went to the prefix activity, she could first listen to the directions, then click through each prefix and its definition and hear it read as she chooses its function. (See Dr. Mohler's post.)

This means that rather than being bogged down by decoding: 1) She is building skills and confidence by working independently; 2) She is receiving multiple exposures to morphology, meaning, and word analysis. Far more than she would be in the same amount of time. 3) Odds are that she is more on task, because she is not avoiding work that seems impossibly difficult. This improves the classroom climate for all students, as the teacher focuses on teaching literacy rather than redirecting challenging behavior.

Let’s consider an adolescent learner who is reading at a late elementary grade level. He is not encountering enough morphologically complex (“big”) words on his own to practice, despite receiving high quality explicit instruction. But imagine if this student is reading with his ears as well as his eyes. That is, he is listening to text read aloud or produced through speech synthesis, while following along with printed material. When he encounters a new, or semi-familiar word, he can go straight to morphological analysis/word study, rather than sounding out the word. While he may not be as adept at picking out visual cues (Bellomo) as stronger decoders, the visual display coupled with the audio together can be enough support for him to generate meaningful hypotheses about new words.

From there, the teacher can explicitly guide him through verifying or modifying the hypotheses, looking up the word, doing word sums (Bowers), concept maps (Bear) or other explicit teaching. Thus, this “struggling reader” is first of all, reading, and therefore encountering new words and old friends. That is, he is reading if we can let go of the notion that reading must happen with the eyes exclusively. Second, whether the content is literature, science, or superheroes, the teacher now has far more flexibility and range to explore the meaning of complex words, and therefore complex ideas. For example, she could pull ideas from Dr. Bear’s post on concept sorts or Dr. Castek’s post on creative Web 2.0 vocabulary and integrate them with AT.

But wait, shouldn’t this kid be learning to read independently? Let’s return to the remediation-compensation equation (Edyburn, 2006). Consider the idea that it is not a zero sum equation. Rather, when students access grade-level content (including E/LA) through audio, and receive explicit instruction with engaging vocabulary principles that include morphological awareness and word study, remediation is happening. We don’t need to wait until a child can decode multisyllabic text to instruct meaning. In fact, if we wait, they may never get there. Each year they encounter fewer and fewer words relative to their peers, and the Matthew Effect we see in early decoding become an even larger disparity in access to information in the later grades. See Dr. Goodin's post on how librarians help address the Matthew Effect and diminished motivation for reading.

The research offers little guidance on when to introduce AT, but teachers know when their vocabulary instruction is limited by the decoding level of their students. We offer this gauge:
As soon as a student begins to lose access to age appropriate content and grade-level vocabulary, it is time to introduce alternatives.
Want more?

Watch this YouTube video to learn how to enable an accessibility feature called "Text-to-Speech" on a Mac computer. When text-to-speech is enabled, the Mac will read the website or the documents aloud.

For more technology tools, click here.


Blachowicz, C. L., & Fisher, P. J. (2000). Vocabulary instruction. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. III (pp. 503-523). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Blackhurst, A. E. (2005). Perspectives on applications of technology in the field of learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28, 135-178.

Edyburn, D.L. (2006). Assistive technology and mild disabilities. Special Education Technology Practice, 8(4), 18-28.

Fitzgerald, G.E. Kourey, K. A., & Mitchem, K. (2008). Research on computer-mediated
instruction for students with high incidence disabilities. Journal of Research on
Computing in Education, 38
(2), 201-233.

Soto, G. & Zangari, C. (2009). Practically Speaking: Language, Literacy and Academic Development of Students with AAC Needs. Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing Co.


  1. Thanks for the great ideas, tips, and resources. I was intrigued by the website highlighted in Alexis's bio (Head Strong Nation) and all the possibilities it offers for students with any type of reading difficulty:

    I also greatly appreciated the link to the YouTube video showing how to enable text-to-speech.

    Another great website for learning ways that teachers can make the most of Web 2.0 tools is Literacy Beat, by the same Jill Castek you mentioned in your post. Here is the link for Literacy Beat:

    Thanks Alexis and Anne-Marie!

    1. Hello Susan! I recently became aware of your site and immediately joined, as I am a veteran teacher and Learning Specialist who is determined to improve the internalization of new words for my middle school students. My Masters was dedicated to learning everything about the research and creating a web-based tool for my students. I would like to submit an article I've written regarding my work. Please let me know if this is possible and how to do it!

      Carla Kessler

    2. Sure, I will send you an email, Carla. Let's talk about your ideas.

  2. Hello Alexis and Anne-Marie! Assistive technology of all kinds has been very useful in my classroom. Thanks for encouraging more use of technology! I also encourage students who struggle with sitting down with a book, to listen to books on tape. Even if the student can't focus on the words on the page, while listening, he/she is getting exposure to words, pronounced correctly and inflected in such a way that context clues are sometime more easily accessed than when the student reads the passage for her/himself.

    I would also like to take this opportunity to encourage fellow members of
    Vocabulogic to look at the web-based vocabulary curriculum I developed over
    the past 14 years. Go to and let me know what you think!!

    Carla Kessler

    1. Anonymous4/03/2012

      The ideas at sound intriguing. Thanks for sharing them. I agree about audio - I listed a few examples of resources for audio in the post - and certainly high quality vocab instruction can be layered onto audio OR print reading. Your make a great point about context clues, too - thanks!

  3. Cathy Wilson4/02/2012

    Hi Susan-

    I especially love your post this week on assistive technology! You have presented some great information on a topic dear to my heart as a dyslexia specialist. Thank you!

    There is a Text-to-Speech feature on the Office 2010 software to have words, phrases, or text passages converted to speech when using Microsoft Word, Power Point, Excel, etc. The Speech-to-Text feature is also available in some other versions of Office including Office 2007, Office XP, and Windows Vista, if you have any of these systems available. Sometimes the audio is a little hard to understand since you can't really control the rate of speed, but my students report it can be helpful. I don't have a video to offer, but it is fairly easy to activate that feature. One can also find an assortment of apps which can be purchased from the iTunes App Store (some free and some with a small charge) that can be used on iPads, iPod Touches, or iPhones which provide additional support for my students in the classroom and at home. Technology and audio books can really level the playing field for students with print disabilities!

    Cathy Wilson
    Dyslexia Specialist
    Coppell, TX

    1. Thanks, Cathy. Alexis and Anne-Marie will be glad to see your note!

      At the end of their post, Alexis and Anne-Marie provided a link to a YouTube video to enable Text-to-Speech on a Mac. Now you are providing us with similar info for a PC. Excellent!

      PS. You are right to warn us about the quality of some non-human audio output, yet I think the quality is much better than it was only 3 years ago. The wonders of the Web!

    2. Anonymous4/03/2012

      Yes, thank you for the note, Cathy! I have used the word feature with students, even for simply editing their work after writing it and I agree that it is basic but effective.

      To complement your suggestion, I have a few more links to text-to-speech and other resources here:

      I agree that the synthetic voices are getting better! I also hear reports that once an individual becomes used to audio, synthetic voices are preferred. With synthetic, the rate can be increased to be comparable to that of a typical reader reading with their eyes. Cool stuff.

  4. Anonymous4/02/2012

    Hey, what is the balance beam graphic by Edyburn all about?

    1. Anonymous4/03/2012

      Reading at grade level is usually the goal of reading instruction, and for a student with SLD that typically means a focus on remediation, trying to bring the skills up to grade level. That's the piece that is referred to as "instruction" in this graphic (and I'm glad you asked this -- out of the original context that is not totally clear!).

      The other end of the see-saw is "compensation", or accommodation, such as assistive technology that allows a student to access grade level content (e.g., history book) regardless of decoding ability. So the graphic is showing the balance of remediation (e.g., instruction in reading) and compensation (i.e., bypassing decoding, or whatever the barrier is). An analogy is for a person with a physical disability, the balance between physical therapy/rehab and a wheelchair, walker, etc. that allows them to move around independently.

      In both examples, there is no clearcut answer about the perfect balance, and much depends on the individual and the context. My personal feeling is that the ideal equation is one that achieves maximum independence for the individual who is doing the learning. What is the best balance now to support them as they grow into self-determined, independent adults?

      Let me know if that doesn't make sense ....

    2. Anonymous4/04/2012

      Thanks. That clears it up for me.

  5. Geri Mohler4/03/2012

    Now that we have Siri for the iPhone and something similar on Droids, speech-to-text should also be an option. Has anyone used this for reading/writing instruction? I would think that having new or struggling readers speak into phones (or whatever) and then READ what they just said would be a great way to help with reading skills.

    1. Anonymous4/06/2012

      Hi Geri - Yes! Anne-Marie and I were even thinking about doing another post later this year on speech-to-text and vocabulary growth. Dragon Dictate is infinitely better than it was even 3-4 years ago, and the mobile apps are so handy. Thanks for the comment!

    2. Cathy Wilson4/15/2012

      I would love any additional information that you can provide on assistive technology! :)

  6. Thanks for the list of technology tools! I've had much success using as a step in the writing process when my students listen to their own writing before peer editing. I recently starting using BookShare for eligible students with surprising results. My ninth graders are reading/listening to books on everything from their Ipod Touch to their smart phones. They are thrilled to access the Hunger Games trilogy without intimidation. I look forward to trying other tools on your list!

    1. Anonymous4/06/2012

      You're welcome. Thanks for sharing your stories - it's wonderful to hear that your students are enjoying Hunger Games (they must be braver than me though.... even though I loved them, I got nightmares after the books!)

  7. Hi Susan,

    I love this post! In addition to the incredible links to resources, including the YouTube video for the Mac, I was heartened to see the graphic about the remediation-accommodation balance. My colleague, Joanne Allain, and I have raised this point in our book, RtI: The Forgotten Tier as a "dual solution." In the context of RtI with its focus on providing intervention, we encourage attention not only to remediation, but to access (i.e., accommodation). All of the tools that you have suggested in your post certainly open the door to meaningful participation for the entire school day (and beyond), not only during intervention time.

    Thank you for such a rich and useful post!

    Nancy Chapel Eberhardt
    3t Literacy Group

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Nancy.

      All thanks and credit to Alexis and Anne-Marie! They will be happy to see your comment, I predict.

      Ps. Your RtI book sounds interesting.

    2. Anonymous4/06/2012

      Yes, Susan - very happy! And the book does sound interesting; it is rare to hear anyone raise accommodations in the context of RTI.

    3. Alexis,
      Send me your mailing address and I'll send you a copy of the book! We would love for you to have it.
      Best regards,

  8. Anonymous4/10/2012

    Hi again everyone--I was just revisiting the Common Core Standards, and while there is plenty to like and plenty to dislike in them, I found the following (p. 6) quite relevant to (and in agreement with) this discussion of reading with your ears: "...for students with disabilities, reading should allow for the use of Braille, screen-reader technology, or other assistive devices, while writing should include the use of a scribe, computer, or speech-to-text technology."


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