Balancing Ear and Eye Reading

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October 2015

By Jamie Richardson, Amy E. Vanden Boogart, and Denise Douce 

Assistive technology is popping up everywhere. While the availability of help is fantastic, it can be difficult to know what to embrace and at what age. Should we let students have textbooks, assignments, tests, and homework read to them, or are we negating the time they are putting into their dyslexia therapy by allowing audio content to take center stage? Does the availability of audiobooks and assistive technologies mean that therapy for dyslexia is no longer necessary? This is a difficult balancing act, but this article offers some additional information and pointers you may find useful.

What is eye reading?

Eye reading is the traditional learning of letter identification and rhyming, and then learning how the individual sounds join to form words and those words form sentences and so on. If a person is diagnosed with dyslexia, that doesn’t mean he or she is unable to read; it simply means that learning to read requires a different approach. It is referred to as a learning disability because dyslexia can make it very difficult for a student to succeed without phonics-based reading instruction that is unavailable in most public schools. (For more information click here to read “Dyslexia Basics,” an IDA Fact Sheet.) Dyslexia cannot be fixed with eyeglasses because it isn’t a vision problem. While some kids may need vision correction, that is not related to a diagnosis of dyslexia.

What is ear reading?

In common terms, ear reading means reading using audiobooks or similar text-to-speech software. Rather than the written words being taken in through the eyes and processed in the brain, the verbal words are heard through the ears and then processed in the brain.

What are the advantages of ear reading for kids with dyslexia?

Students with dyslexia are often smart enough to handle vocabulary at a much higher level than what they can read. Ear reading helps bridge that gap. With audiobooks, students can take in the same books that their peers are reading—just in a different format.

What are the disadvantages to ear reading for students with dyslexia?

The biggest concern for many is that audio options can become so easy that the student does not want to work on learning to read with his or her eyes. For others, audiobooks don’t work because attention is lacking. While an eye-reader must reread the same paragraph multiple times if they are distracted by something in the room, an ear-reader must realize they are distracted, remember where they became distracted, find that point in the audio, and start again.

What is available in ear reading format?

Audio formatting has become more popular than ever. Between audio book libraries including Learning Ally, Overdrive, Audiobooks, and Audible, there is no shortage of great fiction and non-fiction. E-readers such as the Kindle offer audio options. Many textbooks even have an audio counterpart. Assistive technology is also used for text that is not a published book, for example, email. Check out these apps for the iPad. For additional low-tech and high-tech options for ear reading, click here and scroll down to “New Media & Technology” to find more articles about assistive technology.

With all of these options… is eye reading even necessary?

The answer is a resounding “yes!” Eye reading is very important. Despite all the great audio options out there, a student with dyslexia should still receive systematic, explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics from a trained professional so that they are learning the skills they need to ultimately read texts on their own. The audiobooks and other assistive technology should not be used as a substitute for explicit, systematic instruction or as a way to avoid that kind of instruction.

Click here to learn more about the importance of effective reading instruction. IDA’s fact sheets Evaluating Professionals and Helpful Terminology provide guidance on finding that instruction.

How can a parent know when audiobooks are appropriate and when eye reading should be required?

Nicole Vella’s article for Learning Ally said it well: “What I’ll do is open the book and have my student read a page to me.  I silently read along with her for one minute. As I’m doing this, I keep a tab of the words she read. How many were right? How many were wrong? Afterwards, I tally up the numbers to find out what percentage of words my student read accurately. In my experience, if she can read 95% of the words accurately, then she can read it with her eyes. However, anything less than 95% accuracy, for me, would be a good one for ear reading via an audiobook format. Anything less than 95% tends to be a struggle, and it takes the joy out of reading.” The idea is to make sure the text is challenging enough to maintain interest, but not so challenging that the student gets frustrated. If the text is important but above the student’s reading level, consider an audio alternative.

Finding the Balance

Ear and eye reading both play a role in helping students with dyslexia succeed. The trick is to find an appropriate balance. Bestselling author Debbie Macomber’s story from The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity is a great example. She uses audiobooks as a multitasking tool. She also has dyslexia, and she learned early on that audiobooks could bridge the gap between her reading abilities and her intellectual capabilities.

A great time to introduce audiobooks is when children are on break from school. Let students find something they WANT to read and see if the audio format helps them fall in love with what books have to offer. Consider some popular series such as Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or 39 Clues. Sometimes when students fall in love with what’s inside a book, it motivates them to read more.

Jamie Richardson is the Editor of the Dyslexia Connection, a freelance writer and editor, and a homeschool mom to three kids.

Amy E. Vanden Boogart is the Director of Product and Service Development for Really Great Reading, a company that provides decoding instruction and intervention materials and assessments to schools and educators nationwide.

Denise Douce is the Director of Publications and Communications at IDA.

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