Tools for Dyslexic Learners

November 18, 2019

According to the Society for Neuroscience, dyslexia is a language processing disorder that affects up to 5-15% of Americans. That’s 14.5 - 43.5 million people.


It's highly likely that you know someone that is dyslexic to some degree. Because it presents itself in such a variety of ways, every dyslexic student may require a slightly different set of technology tools to help them navigate the written word.


There are three primary tools and skills available to empower dyslexic students to become more independent in their learning. An example shown on the Don Johnston Human Learning Tools website showed how a dyslexic grade 11 student went from silent reading at a fourth-grade level to reading using audible technology at the 11th-grade and 12th-grade levels.


In this article, we’ll look at three available tools for assisting dyslexic students, text to speech, dictation, and touch typing.


But before we dive into the tools, we need to figure out what is causing the trouble in the first place.


Perhaps when someone says dyslexia, you're thinking letter reversals. However, it's a lot more than that. According to the article “Dyslexia and Working Memory” published in Psychology Today, Jan 15, 2016


"When it comes to writing, students need both verbal working memory and phonological awareness skills to blend the phonemes of a word, combine words to make a meaningful sentence, and finally remember what they want to say in order to write it down."


Perhaps you've gone to the kitchen and looked in the fridge only to question what you went for in the first place. Your working memory failed you. But usually, if you stand there sifting through your thoughts, something will trigger a memory of why you are standing there and what you needed.

Imagine doing that with most words on a page. Now, in addition to that scenario happening as you decode each word, you need to know the meaning of the words you already read and hold them in your mind in the correct context as you figure out the rest of the sentence. Exhausting, I'm sure.


So, when offered the option of text to speech, a new world opens. One text to speech format that you're probably familiar with is audiobooks. This is a growing industry - not just for the convenience of commuters, but also a great resource for dyslexic learners. More books are becoming available every day.


In addition, to complete audiobooks on services such as audible.ca/ audible.com, Kindle gives you the option of having the book read to you. And whether you’re a Mac user or PC is your preference, there are a variety of screen readers available to assist you on almost any electronic device.


Although the text to speech option opens the world - what about the printed word in the wild? Not all print is screen-based, what about handouts at conferences, slides during presentations, and forms that need completing at the dentist’s office.


Sight vocabulary is still required and is often only achieved after dedicated and grueling, regular practice.


The beauty of the text to speech opportunities is that vocabulary is built and can be used when using the next tool - speech to text.


People with dyslexia are not limited to their written vocabulary. Remember all the vocabulary that was learned by listening to audiobooks and text to speech tools? With speech to text software, you can speak, and the words will appear as text on the screen.


Now, of course, it is not exactly that easy. Users need to train the machine to understand their voice first, and there will still be errors - it is a machine after all. Nevertheless, users with an understanding of writing structure can correctly punctuate and format their work using spoken commands.


Once the text is complete, users can then use the text to speech feature to have their work read back to them, thus enabling them to be independent in revising their work.


A few tools students find helpful in augmenting the speech to text tool are Spell Check and Grammarly (or a similar tool).


Writing is always a process, and although it will take a dyslexic learner longer to write their composition, it is possible. And, even with all the tools available, a human proofreader at the end of the process is prudent regardless of your written language skills.


The final tool we'll talk about is touch typing. Although not technology-based, touch typing is an invaluable skill for any writer.


For people with dyslexia that have a good handle on basic spelling and phonics, touch typing is a final step of independence.


Touch typing allows students to get words on the screen without consciously thinking about typing each word. It enables them to get ideas on the page without announcing them to the world in their raw, unedited form.


To aid their working memory and increase the benefit of touch typing, people with dyslexia do well to create an outline before writing.


The outline serves as a kind of external working memory. It keeps the writing organized and reduces the working memory required to do the actual writing. With an outline, touch typing helps students get their messy first draft done with less stress.


Technology is opening the text-based world to dyslexic students in ways we couldn't have imaged 50 years ago. And, although text to speech, speech to text, and touch-typing have been highlighted as tools for dyslexic learners, they offer new opportunities for crafting the written word for us all.