Certified Academic Language Therapist, Denise Emert, is an interventionist in the Marshfield Schools in Missouri, and has been teaching in public schools for nearly a decade.
A few years ago, as I was reading to one of my classes, a fifth grader looked up at me and said, “what did you say that word was? It starts with an h, are you sure you said it right?” The word was, “honest,” and although she had seen the word and heard the word dozens of times, it might have been one of the first times that she made the connection that those letters in that order didn’t sound like “hoe nest.”
The reason the memory stays with me is that this kid was smart! Not the kind of smart that gets all As or scores in the highest category on standardized tests, but the kind of smart that could literally take on any conversation and run with it for an hour. This fifth grader could listen to a lesson in class and tell about it for days! I had seen her out in the community and she was independent and social. Interestingly though, the reason she did not recognize the word “honest” might be because she had only been reading picture books for years, just like many students with dyslexia across the United States. Her teachers that had recommended those picture books did so with the best of intentions because they wanted her to have something that was at her reading level, but they had missed that she had the capacity to enjoy more complex literature when it was delivered in a different way. They didn’t recognize the neurological difference that made reading, writing and spelling difficult for her, called dyslexia.
As the second of three generations of people with dyslexia in my family, teaching kids to read and teaching teachers to help kids become better readers, is my passion! I instantly relate to a kiddo who will not take home homework because I remember my mom saying, “that’s what your teacher is for,” when I would ask her questions and she did not know how to help. As a teacher, I can spot a student who is avoiding reading aloud with pinpoint accuracy even if it looks like that youngster just has to take a restroom break. My colleagues rely on me to make accommodations on assignments and tests so that their assessments are really meeting the objectives at hand. And as a mom, I can empathize with parents who say, “I have tried everything to get him to read, but he just hates it,” because that was my son.
In my home state of Missouri, most teachers would not even know how to recognize dyslexia, what to do in the classroom to help kids with dyslexia, or even be comfortable saying, “dyslexia,” at school until recently. But, that changes for us this year! Thanks to a predominantly parent driven revolution, 42 states currently have dyslexia laws to help kids and teachers address dyslexia by name at school, and Missouri is among them. This is opposed to just 5 years ago, when less than half of the states had any guidance regarding dyslexia in schools, even though it is the most common learning disability and occurs in 1 in 5 individuals.
When the new school year starts, teachers all over our state and many others will be making plans for all of the students in their classes. If the class has 25 students, statistically there are at least 5 who struggle with some degree of dyslexia. It would be amazing if this is the year that those kids get everything they need to learn to like books in the regular classroom! To that end, there are many ways that teachers can help their students become better readers, but encouraging the integration of audio books into the daily routine might be the easiest! Studies show that the impact of just listening to books is striking!
Listening to audio books helps comprehension immensely! Children are taught in the early grades to, “make pictures in their minds,” as they are reading to remember the story and comprehend what the author is communicating. For a student who has difficulty with decoding words in chapter books or who sees letters that “dance,” making a picture of the story is an overwhelming challenge. But, when the written language is removed from the equation, the student can focus on what a story is about. It gives them the opportunity to experience what their classmates are learning. Books like Nancy Drew become real mysteries when you are not focused on sounding out every third word.
Audio books open doors to vocabulary that our students today are not getting from other sources! When you consider the amount of time that many students spend playing video games or watching videos, you will understand how we need to cultivate their vocabularies in a meaningful way. I know a teacher who had students listen to the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz. One fantastic result was that students asked questions about words that may have been brand new to them even though they had seen the story many times. Some of the words showed up on the vocabulary portion of a standardized assessment later in the year and those students didn’t have to guess what the words meant because of the discussions they had when they were listening to the book.
Lastly, but most importantly, listening to books increases reading motivation! Teachers have said to me, “Don’t you think that letting him listen to books is teaching him to cheat?” The short answer is, “no.” What I say most of the time is, “When you go to an amusement park, do you ride the trolley in from the parking lot or do you walk?” It’s not my original analogy, but it is the one I like the best because it gets right to the heart of the real issue. Everybody should be able to enjoy good literature just like everybody should be able to go to the amusement park; if it is so much work to get to the fun that you won’t have a good time when you get there, why would you go? I have known many 9, 10 and 11 year-old kiddos that have never completely read a chapter book and frankly don’t want to because of the amount of energy it would take. It breaks my heart! I want them to be able to carry around those fantastic Diary of a Wimpy Kid books or the others that their peers are reading. So, I show them how to plug in to an audio book and just listen. I talk to their teachers about letting them log on during the class drop everything and read time so that they can be listening and I encourage them to finish a book or two. It amazes me when kids start figuring out the kinds of books that they like and seeking out authors. Even the kids with dyslexia can listen to age appropriate books instead of always having to choose a picture book and that is awesome!
For More Information
Dyslexia Laws in The USA: An Update by Martha Youman and Nancy Mather
Information on Effective Reading Instruction provided by the International Dyslexia Association