By David Ryan Polgar, Contributor
Growing up, school was challenging for Cliff Weitzman, who struggled with dyslexia. Despite his aptitude, he spent a good portion of his time in special needs classes, leaning on friends and turning to audiobooks to overcome difficulty with reading. Determined, he graduated from Brown University in 2016.
But this isn’t the end of his educational story.
Weitzman’s struggle in college to find textbooks available in audio format prompted him to build a text-to-speech software called Speechify that makes it possible for a smartphone to scan any text and turn it into audio. Today, Speechify is used in thousands of schools to improve the learning experience of dyslexic students and other auditory learners—and it represents a technology trend reshaping the educational landscape for dyslexic students.
Technology for All
Dyslexia is characterized by difficulty with spelling, decoding abilities, and word recognition. According to the non-profit Dyslexia International, one in 10 people—700 million people worldwide—are affected by the disability. While dyslexic students are no less intelligent than their non-dyslexic peers, due to a tweak in the brain’s language processing center, dyslexia can make things like reading comprehension and word organization a struggle.
The use of technology to assist dyslexic learners is not a new phenomenon. Assistive technology such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, a dictation software and speech recognition program, and Read&Write, which converts notes to audio, have been on the market for years.
“For awhile, there was some really great software out there,” Sharon LePage Plante, a learning disability technologist at the Southport School in Connecticut, explained. “But it was expensive and you often needed a lot of training, and it never really evolved.”
Plante is the co-author of “Using Technology to Engage Students with Learning Disabilities,” a book helping students, parents and teachers apply practical, tech-driven strategies to learners in the classroom. She has spent her career trying to understand how technology can correct learning challenges in innovative ways, and in recent years, she has seen an emerging trend in educational technology (EdTech) whereby tools that appeal to widespread audiences also assist learners with specific challenges, like dyslexia.
Products designed for the masses, such as Audible, an audiobook service, are becoming commonplace. Applications such as Newsela, which is designed to improve reading engagement, or Front Row, that segments assignments into different levels across disciplines, are meant to aid students at large but have also emerged to specifically benefit learners with challenges like dyslexia.
Plante believes the mass adoption of these mainstream tools in the classroom is transforming the way dyslexic students learn. For starters, new educational technology has the capability to seamlessly blend together learning styles, removing the stigma for students who need assistive technology. For example, tools such as Grammarly, a free writing app that makes sure your text is error-free, are used by millions, including—but not limited to—dyslexic students.
An additional benefit of embedding technology tools like speech-to-text and text-to-speech in the classroom, Plante noted, is that educators are potentially aiding students who exhibit traits but have not yet been identified as dyslexic.
“For awhile, there was some really great software out there, but it was expensive and you often needed a lot of training, and it never really evolved.”
— Sharon LePage Plante, Co-author, “Using Technology to Engage Students with Learning Disabilities
Removing the Stigma
For Plante, the reading app, Speechify is an example of what the future holds for dyslexic learners. Speechify enables anyone to highlight or copy text (even take an image of a physical text) and immediately process it into audio text—available in a range of languages and speeds.
The key for Weitzman, as he developed Speechify, was to create a product that made dyslexic users feel empowered, rather than judged or singled out. At the same time, he wanted the tool to appeal to general markets. In the end, he found a way to achieve both goals.
Branding the product in a way that made its benefits clear to both users with learning differences and users who simply wanted to save time, Weitzman helped remove the stigma from dyslexic learners who used his tool. It was, after all, for everyone.
In Plante’s opinion, adopting easy-to-use, mainstream tools, like Speechify, to address the needs of dyslexic students in the classroom is beneficial for both students and educators. For educators, the ease of distributing these types of apps to all students reduces the need for specialized training. For students, being able to use same tools as their peers removes the potential stigma of using separate assistive technology tools.
“If I’m talking to my device, dictating an email or writing a paper, nobody thinks anything of it nowadays,” Plante echoed. “Previously, you went to a special room to do those kind of things or people wondered why you had a device and nobody else had them.”
“We can give these kids [with dyslexia] some confidence early on where they’re lacking it by giving them the accommodations with technology, showing them how they can help themselves with it.”
Voice of the Future
In addition to the adoption of mainstream apps in the classroom, Plante also sees the trend extending to the home. She is optimistic that the rise of voice assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home will increase the comfort level for dyslexic students in utilizing voice technology. With the popularity of voice assistants, like Alexa, people are increasingly becoming comfortable talking to their devices.
Plante says the more people rely on these voice assistants, the more promising it is for dyslexic education. Voice technology becoming more commonplace is a positive sign for the millions of people who struggle with dyslexia on a daily basis—and anyone who benefits from auditory learning.
“We can give these kids [with dyslexia] some confidence early on where they’re lacking it by giving them the accommodations with technology, showing them how they can help themselves with it,” Plante said. “It makes them a little bit more open to try those harder things because they are not feeling so defeated anymore.”