By David C. Winters, Ph.D.
What’s that you say? Oh, they’re having difficulty learning to read, and you’re worried that they’ll fall behind their peers. As Stanovich (1988) pointed out, this is a valid concern. He noted that children with reading difficulties tend to read significantly less text than their peers, which can lead to a lack of exposure to the rich language and vocabulary available to those who read more. He called this negative impact the “Matthew Effect,” in which a poor reader’s reading continues to decline while a good reader’s reading steadily improves. We need to do what we can to prevent this from happening.
When thinking about these young children, let’s keep in mind the primary focus of reading instruction through third grade: helping children learn to read (Chall, 1983). During these early grades, children learn to understand the relationship between the sounds in spoken words and the symbols used to represent those sounds in print, and vice versa. Once children grasp this basic principle of sound-symbol (encoding) and symbol-sound (decoding) correspondence, they gradually build fluency until their primary focus during reading changes from “What is this word?” to “What does this word mean?”
However, even though the instructional focus during these grades may be on learning to read, children gain important information and practice in language and comprehension strategies through the reading they do. Therefore, children who struggle with learning to read can use AT to keep up with acquiring language, vocabulary, and comprehension while they are building their decoding skills through instruction. For today’s visit to my AT Lab, let’s direct our attention to using AT to support decoding skills in younger children.
Low-tech AT for Reading
As you might remember, whenever possible, we want to consider low-tech AT first. For younger children, an effective AT strategy to support decoding is to have someone read the text to the child. What’s that? Yes, you’re quite correct. Technically, we could consider this strategy as no-tech AT, as the child does not need any special equipment.
Reading aloud to children is an important part of overall literacy and oral language development. In fact, when parents ask me what they can do to help their child who is struggling with reading, my advice is that the parents should read to the child at least 15 minutes each day. AT for Reading: Young Children 2
Reading aloud to children allows them to hear new and increasingly complex oral language structures and vocabulary. If a child’s reading difficulty is more severe and a structured literacy approach is being used, the text the child reads independently may have less complex grammatical structures than the text his or her peers are reading.
Besides having someone read the text aloud, there are other helpful low-tech tools available for reading. I encourage children to use the eraser end of a pencil to help them track the text while reading. They can also use the blunt end of the pencil to trace a word or word part as they work to decode it.
Some children benefit from a card to help them keep their place while reading. While some find the edge works well, others may need a rectangular box cut out of the middle of the card in order to minimize distraction from text around the word they are trying to read.
High-Tech AT for Reading
Unfortunately, having someone read everything to a struggling reader quickly becomes impractical once the child reaches school age and the amount of required reading increases. Over the last few decades, various AT devices and software programs have been developed to help to minimize this reading issue. Often these options have been expensive, have relied on specialized equipment, and have been difficult to use, especially for the young child. However, advances over the past few years have lessened these negative aspects of AT for reading.
An easy-to-use approach for young children involves read-aloud versions of published books. For example, parents or teachers can purchase many popular children’s books on Apple’s iBooks app. Check out the “Read-Aloud Books for Kids” button on the iBooks Store Children & Teens page. Because this app works on the iPhone, iPad, and Mac computers, the child can access the book on multiple devices. In addition, many books highlight each word as it is read. These read-aloud versions are relatively easy for children to use. Sometimes the child taps a button directly on the page, while other times, the child taps a speaker icon near the top of the screen. Prices range from $1 to $12, with most books around $4 to $5. Some examples of books available from the iBooks store are Make Way for Ducklings ($8—read by Jake Gyllenhaal), Franklin Rides a Bike ($5), and The Three Little Pigs ($1).
Other options for children with access to a tablet or smartphone are interactive book apps that include both audio and animation. Most of these books also highlight each word as it is read. Selections include both popular published children’s books and new books designed to take advantage of tablets and smartphones. Loud Crow Interactive (www.loudcrow.com) has a number of excellent interactive books, including Goodnight Moon, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, AT for Reading: Young Children 3 and PopOut! An excellent and entertaining series of new interactive books is Millie Was Here (www.milliewashere.com).
Well, I see our time for this visit is about gone. When you visit my AT Lab the next time, we’ll continue our discussion of using AT for reading.
Chall, J. (1983). Stages of reading development. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Stanovich, K. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360-407.
More of Dr. Winter’s AT Labs:
David C. Winters, Ph.D., Fellow/AOGPE, is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education at Eastern Michigan University. He has been a classroom teacher, tutor, diagnostician, administrator, and tutor/teacher trainer for over 30 years and is a member of the International Dyslexia Association Orton Oaks. He currently teaches courses introducing preservice teachers to special education as well as instructional and assistive technology, writing, and assessment in special education for preservice special educators and speech language pathologists.
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