As we start to develop and introduce students to accessible e-text in one of the pilot secondary schools for this project, there are important questions and conversations that are emerging from this implementation. Here are some of these questions that we are exploring with our school-based professionals:
What is reading? How does reading with supported e-text “fit in” to the traditional definition of reading?
How does text format change the way students interpret, comprehend and respond to text?
How does text-to-speech work? How does it help the student with a learning disability or reading disability? How do we scaffold use of text-to-speech for reading purposes?
Should all students be offered multiple format options when it comes to reading? Or should certain formats be “reserved” for students with specific learning profiles?
How do we offer these choices in the context of independent reading?
So we are tackling these questions bit by bit…and we are using current research on text to speech (TTS) as a basis of our conversations.
With regards to use of TTS, there is an excellent article that I always go back and re-read when I need some clarification. In her 2013 article in Learning Landscapes, Dr. Michelann Parr (Shulich School of Education, Nippissing University) responds to some common questions about use of text-to-speech for reading and provides a good basis for answering some of the above questions.
Dr Parr states that even with the most strategic intervention, some students will never develop the reading skills that “allow them to derive meaning from text with adequate speed, fluency, and comprehension.”
We are very fortunate that in 2016 we have options for students who struggle with reading. We can bypass the difficulty with decoding, and fluency, and make recommendations for implementation of assistive technology. However there are often these questions that arise:
Isn’t it cheating when a student is allowed to use technology to read? How are they going to work on decoding if the technology does that for them?
Well, to answer this question, we have to understand the purpose of reading: extracting meaning from written text. We also have to look at reading within the broader definition of literacy:
Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world. (International Literacy Association).
So if the purpose of reading is to construct meaning, and the greater goal of reading is to be able to communicate, why would the method chosen to extract meaning from text matter? As Dr. Parr states, “TTS frees the student to focus on the meaning of the text (Wise, Ring, & Olson, 2000), in turn facilitating comprehension of the text, student dialogue, collaboration, communication, and access to content area texts.”
When a student is a weak decoder, text to speech compensates for accuracy and fluency that the student would not otherwise attain. So, TTS becomes their “decoding eyes” (Parr, 2013). In doing so, TTS increases comprehension by bypassing these areas of difficulty. Comprehension is the important part of reading that allows students to interact with the text. TTS enables students to interact, to think actively as they read, and ultimately to make meaning.
“Struggling readers should not be limited to low-level activities focused on decoding and literal comprehension (Ontario Expert Panel on Literacy in Grades 4 to 6, 2004).”
That being said, TTS does not replace effective and sustained reading instruction. Even if students are weak decoders, they still need targeted intervention for specific areas of difficulty. Still, we need to consider this important question for our students with learning or reading disabilities:
“If a child repeatedly fails to read and to understand printed text, how much data documenting this failure needs to be gathered before we have enough evidence that the child can’t perform the task? (Edyburn, 2006).
By allowing our students to choose to use TTS, we are breaking the cycle of failure.