Transformative Assistive Technologies for Students with Dyslexia

When speaking with students with dyslexia and their parents, I always start by explaining that dyslexia is a mechanical disability, not a thinking disability.

Often, that clarification offers important relief and reassurance. Nonetheless, students with dyslexia can have trouble expressing themselves or accessing information, and that can obscure and interfere with their intellectual capacity. There is nothing reassuring about that. Having difficulty reading assigned material or composing an essay can cause significant academic stress, loss of confidence, and low performance in school.

Assistive technologies can play a critical supportive role in preventing the cycle of academic despair and failure triggered by weak mechanics. Because of the ever-evolving technologies designed to support students who struggle with reading and writing, there has never been a better time to be a student with dyslexia. It is exciting to witness the landscape of assistive tech possibilities constantly expanding and improving.

Recently, two assistive tech developments have ushered in transformational opportunities so significant, I would argue that every dyslexic should know about these technologies’ potential to change their school experience and be encouraged to at least experiment with them. These tech tools have improved students’ ability to express their ideas in writing, and changed the way they access content. Additionally, both developments have proven to be so essential that they are available on various platforms, in several different versions.

Speech-to-text

I remind my students daily that writing is thinking. Written words are an idea delivery system for stories and ideas. However, for a student with dyslexia, the process of breaking down the mechanics of writing can obscure her thinking abilities and make it difficult to communicate her ideas. In these situations, dictating one’s ideas into a device can be a game changer.

Students with dyslexia often distinguish themselves by a noticeable gap between their oral and written expressive abilities. The same student who leads class discussion will often produce (if unaided) barely readable, minimalistic written work. It is painful to watch this disparity in modes of expression play out in the classroom. However, “speech-to-text” technology has changed that by helping to align a dyslexic's expressive capabilities. Students who struggle to put their ideas down on paper can now speak into devices to answer a question or to write an essay.

Speech-to-text has made great progress over the last decade. The newer versions are much more evolved in terms of translating younger, higher voices. This kind of “oral composition” does take practice, but the translation becomes more accurate as the device adapts to the speaker’s voice. Ever since my first brave fifth grade student pioneered the use of Siri to compose his work, it has profoundly transformed written expression for my student writers. Many, if not most, have evolved from written responses of one to two incomplete sentences to frequently composing (with considerable pride) several pages. Dictation regularly helps them express themselves on paper, in a much less laborious and more effective manner.

Synced text/Audio books

I am specifically referring to a unique speech-to-text capability: audio books with synced text that features a human voice. As a teacher, I had long dreamed of an e-reader that integrated text and speech functionalities for my students with dyslexia.

Aside from reading text synced to a synthetic voice translator (very difficult to listen to for any period of time), students who struggled with reading used to have only two choices: read (written) books that matched their reading ability in order to develop their decoding and fluency skills, or listen to audiobooks that matched their interests and intellectual level to develop their vocabularies, ideas, and love of story. Addressing their various reading needs meant that my students were left reading two different kinds of books for two very different reasons. It wasn't a very efficient use of their time or energy, and it sabotaged my hopes of nurturing their love of reading.

With synced text and audio, my struggling readers can meet all their objectives with one book — one device. Most of the synced text and audio options also include a real-time highlighting function that helps readers track the story, dramatically improving their reading attention (and providing effective support for readers who struggle with ADD). Not only does this kind of reading experience make my students better readers; it also makes them more passionate, confident readers.

This form of assistive tech allows them to read books they want to read (the ones their friends are reading) while eliminating their previous frustration and shame. One of the best synced voice and text alternatives is the Whispersync Immersion Reader, available through Amazon on Kindle Fire devices. There is also a Web-based synced text/audio reading system offered through through Learning Ally, accessible through most devices.

Of course, there are many more exciting assistive tech developments that help students with dyslexia, supporting skills like note taking and editing. Nothing, however, has come close to these speech-to-text and text-to-speech developments in terms of leveling the playing field and helping dyslexics inhabit their academic and intellectual potential.