Many kids who hate to read often love reading with technology.
The teachers or parents I talk to in my work as a clinical child psychologist and researcher often find this statement counterintuitive. They wonder why the reading vessel should make a difference, and worry that screens will actually make reading harder. In fact, there's increasing evidence that many apps, video games, and educational websites can improve both reading fluency and comprehension, and -- perhaps more importantly -- can help motivate kids to practice reading.
One of the key issues for kids who struggle with reading is that they simply don't enjoy it. As a result, they have a hard time putting in the effort necessary to improve. In addition, kids with reading challenges often struggle with sounding out words, fluency, and comprehension. While practice alone can’t guarantee struggling readers become competent readers, it can certainly help. Many struggling readers need to establish new neural pathways in the brain to help them with reading. Repeated practice helps them establish these new pathways, in the same way that constant hiking over a path in a forest establishes it as a well-marked trail.
Here are four strategies for using technology to help struggling readers become more engaged and successful readers.
Use ereaders to make reading more fun.
Kids love all types of electronic gadgets, and ereaders are no different. Whether kids use a device specifically designed for reading or download a reading app on their tablet or phone, a library of reading material is always within reach. I've had teenagers tell me that using an ereader is more engaging for reading, in part because it's "lighter" (both by weight and brightness), and also because they can manipulate the size of the font. These reports are supported by a study conducted by Matthew H. Schneps and colleagues in 2013 that found ereaders could improve reading comprehension and fluency for individuals with dyslexia. The researchers hypothesized that ereaders help people with dyslexia because the lines of text are traditionally shorter on them, making for less difficulty with visual attention.
Ereaders also have some great features that make them powerful tools in the classroom for individualized reading. One family that I work with couldn't stop talking about their 11-year-old son's reading improvement once he began using the immersion reading program available through Amazon. This program, which can be found on many of the newer Kindles, shows the words on an ereader and simultaneously has a professional narrator reading the highlighted words while the kid reads along. The parents reported that their son dramatically improved his attention to reading, comprehension, and retention. They told me his scores on standardized tests quadrupled, and he started getting 80s and 90s on reading assessments in school. Perhaps most importantly, he began to enjoy reading.
Let kids choose what they read.
I can't tell you how many times my patients say they hate to read but admit that they'll explore websites about skateboarding and BMX bike riding or spend hours on the Internet to learn more about animals, the Titanic, or their favorite sports team. Websites about animals like the San Diego Zoo Kids site and National Geographic Kids, and on sports such as Sports Illustrated for Kids, are great places to practice reading. When teachers combine website research and reading with an interesting class project or a trip to a museum, reluctant readers are motivated to read and learn even more. There are also some fantastic multi-purpose kids’ websites, such as Curiosityville and BrainPOP Jr., that make reading fun.
Introduce them to audio options.
Reading is a crucial skill for all forms of learning in the 21st century, but traditional book reading may not always be the best method for struggling readers to learn. For some kids, "reading to learn" can be extremely challenging due to the number of cognitive resources they use in order to read and the resulting difficulty with fluency and comprehension. Once these students are proficient at traditional reading, using audiobooks through companies such as Audiobooks.com and Audible or text-to-speech programs such as Voice Dream Reader or Google Text to Speech as supplementary tools can be an incredibly motivating tool for learning.
In the classroom, consider using audiobooks to preview what students need to read. By listening first and then reading, students practice their reading skills twice. For younger kids, Read-to-me books like A Busy Day for Stegosaurus and Ice is Nice!: All About the North and South Poles combine text to speech with pictures. For struggling readers, listening to a book can open up the joys of reading and learning about their world. Don't get me wrong -- it's very important for kids to learn how to read. However, once students enter middle school, it's more important that they be able to read to learn. And if reading to learn means using an audiobook, go for it! Listening to audiobooks can be a powerful and liberating tool.
Use video games and apps to improve reading skills.
Another fun way to practice reading is by playing apps and video games. A recent study conducted in Italy by Sandro Franceschini and colleagues found that children who played the action video game Rayman Raving Rabbids for 12 hours were able to improve their reading fluency and accuracy. These researchers also reported that the amount of improvement in reading skills was equal to what would typically be seen from an average amount of reading practice for one full year. They suggested that the gain in reading skills was due to characteristics of action games that lead to improvement in visual attention span and learning to recognize the most important information from their reading.
While it may be difficult to incorporate video games into the traditional classroom day, it might be possible to use game time as a reward for work completion or as a homework assignment. Alternatively, teachers could identify games that require reading within the game in order to be successful. This way, kids practice their reading skills without being told to do so. Game series such as the Legend of Zelda and Professor Layton are excellent choices to keep a kid engaged and practicing reading.
Apps that teach specific reading skills such as letter-sound correspondence, fluency, comprehension, or vocabulary can also be very helpful. It's best first to evaluate the student's unique reading skills before choosing specific reading apps as intervention tools. Because many of these apps are fun and captivating, they promote the practice of reading skills and capture the attention and effort of kids who may not like to read. Two of the best examples include Learn with Homer and Monkey Word School Adventure.
Both the research and the anecdotal evidence are overwhelming: many apps, video games, and technologies can help improve reading fluency comprehension, attention, and the enjoyment of reading. For those who may have very serious reading disorders, I would recommend an evaluation of their disabilities or careful consultation with a reading expert so that efforts are focused in the most meaningful direction. Apps, games, and websites do not adequately substitute for an intensive reading program such as Orton Gillingham Reading Instruction or the Wilson Reading System for children with dyslexia. However, once these kids learn the basic skills, technology is a powerful tool to keep them interested, developing a love for books and helping them improve their reading.
Post originally published April 9, 2014.