AT for Reading: Alternative Strategies using AT
By David C. Winters
Welcome back! I must say, I really enjoy your visits to my AT Lab. I do hope you’ve been able to try some of the ideas we’ve already shared.
The last time you visited, you had some young children with you, and we talked about how to help them as they are learning to read. Today I want to start talking about AT strategies for those in the reading to learn stage (Chall, 1983). Around third or fourth grade, the primary focus for reading instruction changes from helping students fluently make symbol to sound connections (fluent decoding) to using these decoding skills to learn new information.
Unfortunately, individuals who have not become fluent decoders struggle to keep up with their peers in this ability to use reading to learn. At this point, we need to reconsider the best approach for their instruction. If we continue to focus only on decoding skills, they are likely to miss important world knowledge, opportunities to learn new vocabulary, and other critical language skills (e.g., syntax, grammar). On the other hand, if we focus only on the reading to learn aspect, their progress in becoming fluent decoders may plateau. Therefore, the key to instruction for the person with reading difficulties from fourth grade on is to continue to work on building fluent, automatic decoding through direct instruction while also providing alternative access to text. Unless we help them access the same information as their peers, they are likely to fall further and further behind. At the same time, we must strive to help them become effective independent fluent decoders. So, while providing direct instruction in decoding, using AT strategies to make grade-level and age-level text accessible helps them keep up with the rapid, extensive exposure to new information and academic vocabulary experienced by their peers.
Low-Tech AT for Reading
But first, as you probably remember, we should consider low-tech AT solutions before high-tech ones. Just as we noted for younger children, persons with continued decoding difficulties benefit from having someone read text aloud. The main drawback to this strategy concerns continually increasing reading demands, resulting in greater dependence on other people, including their schedules and availability. However, with handwritten reading material, this may be the only strategy currently available.
For those with generally accurate, but slow, decoding skills, a low-tech approach involves decreasing the amount of reading while maintaining the knowledge and language skill level. For example, the person would read just highlighted sentences or paragraphs containing the most important information. Or someone could rewrite the information at a word structure level that the student could handle independently. As with the oral reading strategy, both of these involve having other people prepare the materials—and requiring time they may not have available.
High-Tech AT for Reading
While these low-tech strategies can be helpful, high-tech AT may be more effective, especially since it fosters independence. With high-tech AT, the text source/form becomes important. Currently, we find text in print, electronic, and online media. So today, let’s consider printed text that’s not available in an electronic or online form.
By printed text, I’m speaking of text in items such as books, magazines, newspapers, mail, letters, brochures, handouts, tests, and worksheets. While some books, magazines, and newspapers may be available in both print and electronic/online formats, others are likely to be only available in a print format. To make these texts accessible, high-tech AT needs to convert the printed text into an electronic format so that a device can “read” it aloud.
One of the earliest AT devices to “read” printed text was developed by a team led by Ray Kurzweil in the mid-1970s. This device had three main components: a scanner, an optical character recognition system, and a text-to-speech synthesizer. The user must scan the printed text that the machine then converts into digitized speech.
The current version, the Kurzweil 3000-firefly (www.kurzweiledu.com), is available as a yearly subscription or as a stand-alone individual purchase. Besides the main computer-based program, firefly is a free companion app for the Web and/or iPad for materials that have been scanned into the user’s online library. While the Kurzweil 3000-firefly also can read electronic/online text, users must have access to a scanner for the program to read printed text. While fairly expensive, the program is much more than a text-to-speech reader; it has many features for both reading and writing, including a wide selection of natural sounding voices. For additional details, check the website.
Because of reliance on scanner technology for print materials, users of text-to-speech devices have been unable to read items when a scanner is unavailable. Recently, though, developers have released an iPhone app that uses its camera to scan text.
The KNFB Reader (www.knfbreader.com) is currently only available for the iPhone, although the company has indicated it is working on an iPad version. This $99 app uses the iPhone camera to take a picture of the text on one or more pages. The app quickly recognizes and immediately reads almost any printed text in fourteen languages. It is quite accurate, and with a bit of practice, reasonably easy to use.
A slightly different approach uses a translation app as a text-to-speech reader. For example, with Translate Photo (free—but does contain ads), the user begins by taking a photo of text. Then the user can crop the text, choose the source language, and have it read. While the app’s design would next have the user choose a translation language (about 70 available), our user would have the app read the source/recognized language. The app does not offer any choice of voices within a language, and the English voice has a British perspective. In addition, this app requires an active Internet connection.
Ah! I see our time is about done. Before you leave today, let me add one more bit of advice. When around other people, be sure to use headphones when using one of these text-to-speech readers so you don’t disturb them. Next time, we’ll talk about some different text-to-speech options.
Chall, J. (1983). Stages of Reading Development. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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