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Using Technology to Assist With Learning Differences

By Marilyn E. Moore
 | Apr 15, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-157868061_x300When speaking with a colleague in the Special Education Department (SPED), I asked whether the integration of teaching students with dyslexia or teaching students with dyslexia using assistive technology was included in their advanced reading course. The answer was no, as dyslexia was not considered a learning disability in the SPED. Thus, we decided to include teaching students with dyslexia in the Teacher Education Department advanced Reading Specialization courses. This blog on enhancing their learning represents the start of my revision to include this topic in an advanced reading course in the Reading Specialization at National University.

Agreement in research on dyslexia

The International Literacy Association’s Research Advisory (2016) reports these important convergences in the research on dyslexia:

  • Both boys and girls have more difficulty than others in learning to read regardless of their levels of intelligence; however, with engaging instruction that is responsive to students' needs, the percentage of school children having continuing difficulty is small.
  • The nature and causes of dyslexia are still under investigation, although genetics and neurology appear to play a role.
  • Dyslexia, or severe reading difficulties, do not result from visual problems producing letter and word reversals.
  • Many researchers accept the idea that dyslexia/severe reading difficulties result from analyzing and manipulating sounds in words.
  • Currently, there is no best method for teaching students with dyslexia. As students classified as dyslexic have varying strengths and challenges, instruction calls for teachers’ professional expertise.

Integration of technology

Teachers need to integrate new technologies into their repertoire of teaching strategies; however, when teaching students with dyslexia, computer programs need to be combined with direct instruction, as noted by Kelli Sandman-Hurley in Dyslexia Advocate! How to Advocate for a Child With Dyslexia Within the Public Education System. Below are suggested technologies for integration into reading instruction.

Digital tools for word recognition

M any e-books have text-to-speech features to enhance key content. For example, Bridget Dalton and Dana Grisham’s recommendations for Ten Ways To Use Technology to Build Vocabulary include ideas for using digital tools such as Wordle and Wordsift to quickly generate visual displays with word mapping technologies that highlight the most frequently used (and perhaps most important) words in a text.
Other useful learning supports in this category include the following:

  • Learning Ally: This collection of 80,000 audio books at all grade levels highlights words as students read along.
  • Bookshare: This online library has 370,000 books for people with print difficulties. 
  • Dolch Word Lists: These are sorted by grade level, and can also remind educators of the most common 220 words and 95 nouns encountered in children’s books. These words need to both connect to and have meaning for students.

Bookshare is free but Learning Ally requires a subscription, and both require documentation of a print-based disability.

Digital tools for fluency

Students with dyslexia may also experience fluency difficulties because of processing differences in the brain. The process of translating written symbols into the correct combination of sounds in order to create a word can be challenging for some individuals. Consequently, this lack of speed can hinder comprehension. The use of technology can be incorporated into research-based instructional methods to support growth in reading fluency, as Theresa J. Palumbo and Jennifer R. Willcutt wrote in What Research Has to Say About Fluency Instruction. Notably, all of the aforementioned digital tools that support Word Recognition offer students opportunities to practice their reading fluency as well.

Digital tools for comprehension

Several digital tools can also be useful to build reading comprehension skills. A few of my favorites are listed:

  • Plot Diagram is an organizational tool that allows readers to visualize the key features of narrative and expository text. Desktop software such as Inspiration 9 or Kidspiration for younger children can also be used to develop graphic organizers to create comprehension lessons.
  •  Cast Book Builder supports reading comprehension development in a digital interface that enables teachers to create picture books and texts with embedded pedagogical agents that prompt students to use reading strategies and to provide models and think-alouds.
  •  Rewordify is a web-based tool that helps students better understand and learn new words. Readers can click on words in text they do not understand and a word with the same meaning will be shown and pronounced for them. 

Technology is advancing quickly. By 2030, handheld devices and other tools such as iPods, tablets, smartphones, and computers will probably be replaced with new technologies to empower dyslexic students with dyslexia. To keep up with these changes, we, as educators, need to keep learning throughout our teaching careers. For further reading about Assistive Technology Solutions for Dyslexia, visit

marilyn moore headshotMarilyn E. Moore, EdD, is professor of education at National University in La Jolla, CA, and serves as faculty lead for the Reading Program.

This article is part of a series from the Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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