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Can we read with our ears?

Jules Daulby

Jules Daulby was originally a Secondary School English and Drama Teacher and Deputy Head of Sixth Form. Following a period working for the Falkland Islands Radio Station as a News Broadcaster, she returned to the UK and worked as a Parent Partnership Officer. Alongside this, Jules worked in a Further Education College teaching key skills and Functional Skills in English. She then worked as a Learning Support Tutor for FE and HE students and is now a Specialist Teacher and Assessor of students with Specific Learning Difficulties. She also undertakes training and Assistive Technology Assessments for students in mainstream education.

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Different students have different ways of learning, and this is absolutely true for literacy. Jules Daulby, whose wheelhouse includes SEN and English teaching, discusses how a certain amount of pupils are best learning with their ears...

In order to be an effective reader, two skills are required:

  • the ability to decode or make sense of letter / sound correspondences 
  • the ability to comprehend or understand the meaning of the text

Some students are excellent decoders and can read aloud fluently but have very limited understanding of the meaning of what they have read. These students may appear to be doing fine in class but close questioning or written work exposes the gaps in their individual comprehension. These students need intensive vocabulary work and planned activities in lessons to develop their detailed understanding and inferential skills.

Some students will show good language comprehension but have difficulties with decoding. They may have to identify words by laboriously sounding each one out and losing the meaning of the text. I come across these students frequently and it is extremely difficult for them to access the curriculum, particularly in secondary schools where learning is text based and pitched to readers who are fluent. Although early intervention is key to improving reading, it takes time to tackle difficulties. There will be some students in your classes who are developing basic reading skills and whose reading has still not become fluent or automatic. A student who has difficulty decoding, no matter what their age, is not accessing the text he or she needs for progress in their subjects.

So what is the impact of waiting for these learners who cannot decode efficiently to ‘catch up’ before we give them full access to the texts we are using in class?

Stanovich (1986) argues that reading improves ‘crystallized intelligence’ and compares children who do not learn to read with those who do, by using ‘the Matthew Effect’ analogy. This is taken from the bible quotation which describes how ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’. He applies it to developing readers to indicate that, if this is the case, then a student who is delayed in their reading is in danger of falling even further behind his / her similarly able peers as their education continues. This widening gap is caused by the inability to access quality texts. The impact of this is not restricted to reading attainment but may also affect spoken and written outcomes.

A student who seems fine but cannot read fluently may well not really be coping in class, but through good social skills be calling upon help from peers, thus becoming dependant on them. Conversely, student who cannot read may have developed many avoidance tactics. In a worse case scenario s/he may mask reading difficulty by escalating bad behaviour. Which is preferable from the student’s point of view? Causing a scene in an English class to get sent out, or exposing their inability to read and thus risk feeling publicly humiliated?

However, there is a third way. Many students with weak decoding skills can read: with their ears. As teachers, we can make a strategic choice of differentiating in our lessons in order to allow a poor reader to ‘read with their ears’ in class until the time they can read with their eyes. As long as this occurs alongside additional intervention to address their decoding difficulties, we may be improving his or her life chances by providing this opportunity.

Before reaching a conclusion on this, ask yourself two questions

  • Would you find it acceptable for a student with poor eyesight to use spectacles to read?
  • Would you find it acceptable for a student with a visual impairment to use a laptop with increased font size to read?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then it should be equally acceptable for a student with poor decoding ability to use audio support on a laptop to support them to read with their ears.

Alongside explicit phonic teaching, free Text-to-Speech software (TTS), targeted appropriately for learners with poor decoding skills, can help them access the curriculum independently. Particularly as a student gets older, this promotes self-sufficiency rather than the learned helplessness which is often otherwise the case.

  • Having the text read to a student on a computer takes away the decoding difficulty, ensuring they focus on understanding the language of the text. 
  • Students who are given this opportunity have complete control over what they read, how they read, when they read; this is motivating and empowering.

For a student who cannot decode, speech-to-text is like spectacles for someone with poor vision. Showing a frustrated student that they can have text read to them is an enlightening experience. Their body language changes – they sit up, their eyes light up and immediately they begin changing the voices, changing the speed of the voice and the colours the text is highlighted in. At last, they have control over their learning which isn’t dependent on someone else.

If a learner has a reading difficulty, then steps should be taken to level the playing field and include them in the lesson; this is what reading with ears does. The mechanics of decoding is only one aspect of reading – every student should read and access the wide and rich vocabulary their typically developing peers are soaking up. Remember the Matthew Effect – if we don’t do this we are letting them down. And it costs nothing.

All a school needs is an old laptop and some headphones and although the commercial TTS software is superior, I can assure you that a student who cannot decode will not complain if you use the free versions.

Using text-to-speech as a reading tool

Load2Learn provides electronic copies of textbooks. It is FREE.

Balabolka – means Chatterer in Russian. It is FREE. You can add voices to Balabolka if you have 16+ students – need to register with Jisc TechDis for two voices Jack and Jess – they are very high quality and Northern which I like. MyStudyBar (from EDUAPPS) already has Balabolka built in.

It also has a mind mapping tool, a screen reader, a coloured tint, reading ruler and dictionary. MSB has speech recognition. Although in my opinion, it is not as good as Dragon Naturally Speaking, it is nevertheless very impressive considering it’s free. MSB is a portable app and can be loaded onto a USB stick. In addition, it is possible to turn a word / PDF document into an MP3 file which means they can then listen to the audio file on a smartphone / iPod. This is great for revision.

If you have any students with a print disability, dyslexia / visual impairment you can get free electronic copies of books your school owns. If Load2learn do not have a copy of the book, they will request it from the publishers who rarely say no. Your school must be a member of the Copyright Licensing Association CLA.

If your school uses iPads then there are ireadwrite or VoiceDream, which are both excellent text-to-speech apps. For android I am not so knowledgeable but Google TTS can be used.

Commercial Software

If you are convinced by the case for reading with ears and want to purchase some more advanced text-to-speech then ReadWriteGold and ClaroRead are two leaders in the field; there are plenty more however and it is worth doing your homework. Dyslexia Action does their own version of Text-to-Speech and Speech Recognition called WordQ. I haven’t tried this out yet except for 5 mins at the BETT Conference. I was quite impressed but can’t yet recommend as I haven’t used it enough.

For writing and reading text back it is worth looking at Clicker – this uses prediction, word banks and will read aloud – for younger learners may be a useful tool.

Of course EAL learners are not to be categorised as SEN unless they have additional needs beyond explicit support required for learning English. But your EAL students can suffer from the Matthew effect too, perhaps even more so since the disparity between their early English skills and their cognitive capacity is huge. The available software can accelerate their progress and inclusion.

Other ways which help poor decoders

You need to bear in mind that TTS is a synthetic voice so it does not read as a human would read. Although this is fine to access the curriculum there are better options to hear literature.

Audiobooks are great and allow students to read the same books their peers are reading – again the Matthew Effect – exposing them to a wide and rich vocabulary and age appropriate stories.

Reading aloud: Always encourage parents to read to their children at home if that’s possible. Approach this sensitively as adults may also have literacy difficulties. If that’s the case then shared audio books may be a better solution and encourage family learning. Even if the student is an adequate reader, he or she may not read in the same way as a fluent reader, with intonation and expression. Hearing these modelled is another crossover benefit for EAL learners, particularly those new to English.

If you want children to read out loud in class, give them an agreed amount of text and give them time to prepare it. I used to teach in a mixed ability class and would give a page to a good reader and a paragraph or few lines to a poorer reader – all students would have time to prepare, check meaning of words and pronunciation.

Time and consistency: Giving weak readers extra time is paramount if they have to read independently. They also need reminders of the practical strategies being taught to them in intervention sessions. Partnership and liaison with specialist teachers helps create a supportive bridge to learning for the student.

I am grateful to Dominic Lucas and Justine Flowers for much of what I know. They ran an online course called ‘Inclusive Reading Technologies for the Print Disabled’; this introduced me to many of the ideas I discuss. The course was funded by Load2Learn – a joint enterprise by Dyslexia Action and RNIB. Also to @DiLeed for EAL contribution and for proofreading this blog.

Do you use similar methods in your own teaching? Tell us about it in the comments.

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