By Jemima Hutton
Psych4Schools Guest Blogger
At 19 years of age, I still act like a total child when it comes to writing something like this blog. I am simply overwhelmed and quite frankly, intimidated by the enormity of the task. The irony of a dyslexic writing about how other dyslexics can engage with writing (and reading) is not lost on me. But as I lay here wriggling around on the floor torturing myself to write, I know that I am doing so for the benefit of the many dyslexic students you will be teaching, so please, PLEASE hear me when I say your actions speak so much louder than words.
This blog is one of two, the first related to reading and the next to writing. They both use scenarios to help you recognise how you can implement technologies into the classroom. I have specifically written in this way in the hope that you will act, not just read with intention. With that said, here are three things I want to remind you, before you read on.
- Every student is different
Although two dyslexic students share similar learning characteristics, they are not the same and should not be treated as such. No matter if you have encountered a hundred dyslexic students before or if this is your first experience teaching one of the 10%, we are all unique and will have different needs. When it comes to technology, I can present options, not answers. You will need to test a range of tools with your students to find those that best suit them and their needs. Prepared to try, fail and most importantly, persist.
- Something is always better than nothing
On the topic of failure, some teachers may be reluctant to implement these technologies as they may not work for their student. I would ask, ‘Is it going to do them any harm?’ The answer is of course no. There are really only two possible outcomes – either it will work or have no effect. There is nothing to lose! Some of you may be afraid to introduce technology because you are unfamiliar with how to use it yourself. This is not an excuse to deprive your dyslexic student of their right to learn. Most children of this generation are tech-savvy. Your suggestion, encouragement and support can be enough to lead them on the path to success. The specifics of how to navigate each software does not have to be your responsibility. Providing access to the software is.
- Time spent now saves time later
Not only will these technologies save your students an exorbitant amount of time when reading and writing, they will save you time as well. If you take the time to introduce technology to these students, they will become self-sufficient, freeing up time that you might usually spend with them one-on-one inside or outside of the classroom. Moreover, this independence will be your greatest gift to them and to their future teachers.
Text 2 Speech
Both speech to text and text to speech software has improved dramatically in the last few years. Long gone are the days of paying for programs with robotic voices; students now have access to text to speech software on every Microsoft and Apple device. Simply go to your toolbar and search for the ‘speak’ function. I believe Microsoft’s newest free learning tool Immersive Reader is far superior to other text to speech software and I would highly recommend that all classroom teachers become familiar with this tool. Microsoft offer free workshops so staff and students can become familiar with using this technology.
More and more students are listening to text aloud. With the help of earphones, it’s discrete and allows them to engage with written text at a similar pace to students who receive information visually. Where teachers and students run into problems is when the text is not already available on a screen. Here’s the quick fix you’ve been waiting for . . . introducing Speechify. Created by a dyslexic student, this app is free for phones, ipads and computers. It has speed and voice adjustment settings and most importantly, it can translate any written page in real life (as well as PDF files!) into audio format. At this point, it’s important to note that the Microsoft Office Lens app can carry out those functions as well. What sets Speechify apart, is that you can store multiple pages at a time as part of the one ‘book’, making fluency easier and requiring far less fiddling around. However, Microsoft Office Lens is far better at translating hand-written notes on a whiteboard into audio form.
Another issue students face with text to speech can occur when doing some sort of research project. I used to waste a lot of time cutting and pasting web pages into Word so I could read them. Now, I simply use a free add on to Google Chrome called Chrome speak. Search for the ‘speak’ add on in your Google Chrome search engine, complete the free download and watch your students read web pages with ease and of course, with speed.
So, in summary if you need:
- A document to be read aloud – Use Microsoft’s Immersive Reader or the Speak function on the ipad.
- A handout or hard copy text read aloud – Use Speechify.
- To translate your (hopefully neat!) whiteboard notes into audio – Use the Microsoft Office Lens app.
- A webpage read aloud – Use Google Chrome’s ‘speak’ add on.
Textbooks and Comprehension
In Year 12, I made the bold decision to no longer use textbooks as my primary source of knowledge. When you’re dyslexic, often the problem is not just that you struggle with reading words, but you also struggle with remembering and comprehending them. My memory for words is terrible, yet when working through a textbook, I can describe almost every picture on every page of that chapter with vivid detail. So how can I harness this strength? The answer is video.
Unless I could get my textbook online and listen to it like an audiobook through one of my text to speech apps, it would sit in my locker and gather dust. So, I turned to online tools like YouTube, Khan Academy, Crash Course, Edrolo and even Eddie Woo maths. The reality is EVERYTHING is on YouTube now. There are hundreds of thousands of free lessons delivered in visually engaging ways. Edrolo was one of my best friends through VCE as their lessons are specifically tailored to the VCE curriculum, but if students wish to access high marks, I found watching alternative videos was extremely helpful, mimicking the effects of ‘wider reading’. So please, for the sake of those two students in your class who are dyslexic, offer a ‘pre-watching’ alternative to ‘pre-reading’.
Let’s say I have been assigned a book to read for English. I immediately search for it on ‘Audible’. This is my preferred platform and it has a wide range of titles (over 200,000!). Darn. Turns out my school has chosen yet another obscure book that I don’t have a hope of finding as an audio version. Enter my life saver . . . ‘Vision Australia’. Many years ago, Vision Australia developed an audio library of their own, however most people have switched to Audible as they haven’t really updated their technology. One of the best kept secrets about Vision Australia’s library is that you can request specific books to be recorded, a life saver for many dyslexic students who attend schools that don’t think to search for an audio version prior to publishing the book list.
When it comes to reading books for school, or dare I say it, for pleasure, Audible your student’s best friend. With so many titles, everyone can to find something they like at high quality and low cost. Students can bookmark sections of text, add notes, jump forward and backwards and perhaps most importantly, adjust the speed at which they are listening. With your first book free, what are you waiting for? Sign up and give it a go. You will have a much better chance at getting dyslexic students to read for pleasure with an audiobook, than you will ever have with a paperback.
Something I mentioned earlier was listening back to content at higher speeds. This Tech Tip was probably the most revolutionary in my dyslexic school life and one of the biggest contributors to me finally catching up to my peers. Essentially, by training dyslexic students (or yourself!) to listen at higher speeds, not only will they become more engaged in listening to material like audiobooks, but they will be able to catch up or even surpass their peers in terms of the amount of information they can take in. This is something the vision impaired have been doing for years and it makes sense for dyslexics to start doing it too, acting almost as a (learned) compensatory skill for our poor reading abilities. So how do you do it?
First, start the student off by listening to an audiobook they like at a normal, comfortable speed (e.g. 1.5x). After a short time push them up to the next level (1.75x). This may be slightly uncomfortable, and they may not get every single word, but as long as they understand ‘the gist’ of the sentences, remain at this level until it becomes comfortable and easy. As the student progresses, they will likely take more time to adjust to each level. Eventually they will train their ears and brains to listen to speeds that are three or four times faster than normal. I can now comfortably read at three times speed and get through a ten-hour audiobook in just over three hours. I went from a student who read the SparkNotes or watched the movie for every English novel, to one who was able to read each novel two or three times over, deepening my understanding of each text. It has also become my best party trick to show off to other students … and I now have the added bonus of being able to binge-watch Netflix twice as fast as anyone else.
Microsoft Immersive Reader, Speechify, Microsoft Office Lens, Speak It, ClaroSpeak, Voice Memos, OneNote, YouTube, Khan Academy, Crash Course, Edrolo, Eddie Woo maths, Canva, Nessy Fingers Touch Typing, Grammarly, Microsoft Photo Editor, Audible, Vision Australia Audio Library.
Jemima’s next blog will explore how technologies can support students with dyslexia, when writing.
Jemima Hutton is a diagnosed dyslexic student who recently gained entry into Medicine. In 2018 Jemima founded Dyslexia Demystified, a social enterprise that allows her to share her knowledge of navigating the school system as a dyslexic with staff, students and parents world-wide. Jemima was the winner of the 2018 Unleashed Jumpstart Award.
Further classroom practical strategies
The word dyslexia means ‘poor with words’. The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as being characterised by difficulties with accurate and fluent word recognition and poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language. Secondary consequences include reduced reading experience, which can impede growth of vocabulary and general knowledge, leading to problems in reading comprehension. 
Psych4Schools offers more than a dozen resources that address the varying needs of students with dyslexia. Some resources are for members only.
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Murray Evely, Psych4Schools Psychologist/Guidance Officer
 The International Dyslexia Association. 2002. ‘What is dyslexia?’ http://www.interdys.org/FAQWhatIs.htm