AT for Reading for Students with High Incidence Disabilities

Traditional Reading Instruction is designed to support readers’ ability to decode and make the connection between the sounds heard and letters read. It leaves behind a group of students who may never achieve a level of speed, fluency, and accuracy that supports their emotional, social, cognitive, and intellectual development. And it leaves the struggling reader with little to no energy or capacity left to solve the word, make sense of it, and then do something with it (i.e., comprehend or respond) (Hirsch, 2003).

About 90% of students with learning disabilities (LD) have significant difficulties in literacy (Vaugh, Linan-Thompson, & Hickman, 2003). These students are more likely than their peers to be disengaged from the learning process (Seo, Brownell, Bishop, & Dingle, 2005).

What AT is most commonly used to support reading?

Text-to-speech (TTS) software is the most common AT used for students struggling with reading. It works very well for some, but not all. Must be tried for multiple sessions to see if it will make a difference. Programs have varying features, including reading rate, voice type, document tagging (which affects reading order), and dynamic highlighting.

There is a learning curve to using TTS, not just its operation, but how to make it work effectively for you. Some students with similar disabilities may be more skilled at decoding than others and may benefit differently from TTS. Some may have co-morbid diagnoses, such as attention deficit/hyperactive disorder, which may affect their reading performance. In addition, personality and social factors interact with each student’s disability and may either facilitate or inhibit TTS use.

TTS increases vocabulary, increases reading speed, and provides exposure to correct pronunciation. Stodden, Roberts, Takahishi, Park, & Stodden (2012) found that TTS needs to be used for at least 40 minutes per week for one semester. Its use allows more room in active memory for constructing meaning and leaves students less fatigued.

Several studies show that the use of TTS increases reading comprehension and reading rate (Young, Courtad, Douglas, & Chunr, 2019, Moorman, Boon, Keller-Bell, Stagliana, & Jeffs, 2010, and Gruner, Ostberg, & Hedenius, 2017). Gruner, et. al. also found that using TTS increased the time students spent on reading.

One interesting finding is that students may feel they finish reading tasks more quickly and read more fluently even when they don’t (Meyer & Bouck, 2014). This may be related to feeling less fatigued after using TTS to access text. Additionally, TTS allows students to customize viewing, interacting, and pacing of the text. These enhance student engagement, interest, and motivation (Reinking, 2005; Strangman & Dalton, 2005). Coleman, Carter, & Kildare (2011) found that a faster rate often increased comprehension, so it is worth trying different rates to see if it makes a difference.

Using TTS technology does not mean that students don’t have to be skilled readers. It means that the computer has become their decoding eyes. They must then: add expression, reread with fluency, create pictures in their mind, make connections, and make sense of it all (Parr, 2013).

The Iowa Text Reader Longitudinal study of TTS found students accessed the computer passages using TTS at 160 words per minute, while they read paper probes at 79 words per minute. They alternated conditions each week on probes to eliminate bias. When using TTS, students accessed twice as much text with in the same amount of time. In the second year of the study, students were able to access twice as much information with improved comprehension, even when material became more difficult. The use of the TTS allowed students to demonstrate improved comprehension scores on factual and inferential (higher level thinking) comprehension questions and the students moved to more fluid use more quickly the second year (week 7 vs. 11). Their comprehension also improved. Teachers reported improved academic performance, better on-task behavior, and more engagement when using TTS (Hodapp & Rachow, 2010).

Wood, Moxley, Tighe, & Wagner (2017) completed a definitive meta-analysis of studies of TTS. They excluded students without identified LD. And included single subject design studies. They found the use of text-to-speech tools has a significant impact on reading comprehension scores for students with learning disabilities.

How can we decide when to try TTS?

Parr (2013) reviewed the research and found that TTS appears best for students with:

  • slow or inaccurate decoding that does not correlate to their cognitive and intellectual potential (i.e., less than 90% accuracy);
  • lower levels of fluency, typically 24 to 92 words per minute;
  • high levels of listening comprehension that can be activated by TTS;
  • low levels of confidence and/or internal motivation that lead to reader reluctance and withdrawal;
  • pacing and attentional difficulties that can be regulated by TTS; and
  • the need for multiple readings of assigned text.

Do Students need other instruction with TTS?

Although Moorman, Boon, Keller-Bell, Stagliano and Jeffs (2010) found that TTS increased reading rate and comprehension for two students with learning disabilities, TTS alone is usually not enough. Training is still needed in comprehension because students may have missed the opportunity to learn and practice comprehension skills when they were struggling to decode text. It can help them to think aloud about how to self-question and reflect during and after reading. It has also been found to help when students are actively involved in monitoring their understanding and processing text meaning (Edmonds, Vaughn, Wexler, Reutebuch, Cable, Tackett, & Schnakenberg, 2009).

Overall what does the research on TTS show?

Basically, the research on TTS is limited and results are mixed, but overall it supports the use of TTS.

It should be paired with comprehension strategy training. And must be used a long enough time for the student to become skilled in its use before expecting to see results. It is best to talk with each student about how it is working/not working for him or her.

Does experience with TTS have any impact on reading without assistance?

There has been very little research focused on whether the use of TTS has any effect when the student is reading without the assistance of TTS. One preliminary study of struggling readers (including many with a formal LD diagnosis) in the 9th grade focused on their reading performance when not using the assistance of TTS. They found significant increases in both reading vocabulary and reading comprehension (Park, Takahashi, Roberts, & Delise, 2017). One limitation of this study was that while the TTS was used for an average of 582 minutes per semester, the range of use was 52 minutes to 2175 minutes. There was no way to look at a difference in performance related to amount of TTS use.

What other AT is used to support students struggling with reading?

Graphic Organizer can help students take notes, comprehend content, make connections within and between information; and participate more in class (Hall and Strangman, 2002; Gajria, Jitendra, Sood, & Sacks, 2007).

Even the use of E-books has been shown to be beneficial for some students with disabilities because they allow changes of font size to significantly increased legibility. Siegenthaler, Wurtz, & Groner, (2011) collected eye-tracking data on the participants and found a significant decreased fixation on the text when compared to paper books, They found the decreased time of fixation represented an increase in legibility.

While some studies have found the use of audio books can improve comprehension when compared to reading (Boyle, Rosenberg, Connelly, Washburn, Brinckerhoff, & Banerjee, 2003) other studies suggest it is possibly better suited to recreational reading than text book reading. Daniel & Woody (2010) had students without disabilities listen to podcasts or read a text. Students initially reported preferring to listen, but on a test two days later the listeners scored 59% while the readers scored 81%. Student’s individual preferences and abilities affect the utility and effectiveness of AT for reading.

One area where audio books may have a big impact is in vocabulary.  Good readers read about 60 minutes a day and struggling readers read about 1 minute per day. This leaves struggling readers with a real deficit in what Beck, McKeown, & Kucan (2013) identify as Tier 2 vocabulary words. Those are the higher level words which are found frequently in text, but are rarely used in oral language. Their research shows that hearing text aloud can: increase comprehension and knowledge of content, increase vocabulary and improve accuracy and fluency in visual reading.