K-12 | Read to Achieve


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Dyslexia…Is it Overlooked in Spanish-Speaking Struggling Readers?

August 27, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

Teacher working with students in a classroom on the computer. Reading difficulties, such as dyslexia, cross all ethnic and linguistic lines. For teachers of English Language learners, it may be doubly difficult to identify the signs of dyslexia when searching for the underlying causes of why a student struggles to read. 

In the United States, 10.9 million school-age children speak a different language, and 80% speak Spanish. Sadly, only 21% of Spanish-speaking English Learners in eighth grade have achieved “proficient” or “above proficient” levels in reading.

For these students, educators may misdiagnose dyslexia as simply the struggle to learn a new language. Additionally, some teachers lack the training to look for signs of a learning disability, particularly when it is cloaked by a language barrier. Even fewer teaching professionals are trained to use effective strategies and resources to teach and remediate such students. 

How do we recognize the signs of dyslexia in Spanish-Speaking English Learners?  What explicit strategies and resources can we use to empower these learners to be more socially and emotionally connected to literacy and learning? How do we build fundamental skills in decoding and comprehension while giving ample opportunities for the student to read grade-level text?

Strategies and Supports for Spanish-Speaking Struggling Readers

On August 7, 2019, Learning Ally hosted an edWebinar led by educators *Nelda Reyes, a Dyslexia Interventionist at San Marcos CISD, and Alexis Juusola, Education Specialist on the Academic Services Team of the Texas Region 13 ESC. These experts discussed actionable teaching strategies aimed at Spanish-Speaking English Learners who struggle to read. 

Earn CE certificates by listening to this edWebinar, and to learn how to:

  • Understand the relationship between the Spanish language and phonological processing

  • Learn assistive technologies that improve reading comprehension

  • Identify instructional strategies to try with Spanish-speaking struggling students

  • Build background knowledge, increase fluency skills and strengthen vocabulary 

  • Empower Spanish-speaking struggling students to become engaged learners

Characteristics of Dyslexia

If we notice a Spanish-speaking student struggling with fluency or rapid naming of digits, letters, and shapes, consider investigating a diagnosis of dyslexia. Some other characteristics to look for include: 

  • Inability to blend syllables and words together 

  • Difficulty accessing oral vocabulary words 

  • Finding the right word and looking for synonyms

  • Slow reading speed and comprehension

  • Following multiple-step instructions

  • Remembering a series of numbers

  • Intensive lack of prosody

  • Struggling to copy notes

Another important characteristic to watch for is when a student exhibits being an excellent “out of the box thinker,” but their writing skills do not match their oral language and vocabulary skills.

Number One Criteria in Diagnosing Dyslexia in Spanish-Speaking English Learners – Fluency and Rapid Naming Skills 

The Spanish language is syllabic and highly rhythmic; rhyming is important to the development of reading. A critical relationship exists between the Spanish language and a student’s ability to “phonologically process words,” i.e. develop patterns children often use to simplify adult language. 

Phonological awareness is important, however, it is not necessarily the key factor in recognizing dyslexia in a Spanish-speaking student. A common misconception is to use the same criteria to diagnose a Spanish-speaking student with dyslexia as we do an English-speaking student with dyslexia. 

Connecting Neural Pathways – Finding Common Ties Between English and Spanish  

English and Spanish are languages based on alphabetical symbols and common sounds. Research on brain activity shows cognitive advantages to biliteracy, such as a rapid transfer of skills when learning a second language. These changes in neurological processing can be achieved when the educator uses explicit instruction and resources, like audiobooks to provide a multisensory reading experience

To improve skills in comprehension, prosody and for independent reading, Mrs. Reyes and Ms. Juusola recommend human-read audiobooks to scaffold their instruction with digital content that is on grade-level and age-appropriate. 

Leveled Readers Are Only Part of the Answer 

Many teachers try to find “leveled” content that meets the students’ decoding level, rather than their intellectual level, but this isn’t always the best option. Without access to grade-level content, students lose the opportunity to develop vocabulary and background knowledge. Audiobooks give students the exact same content they would find in a book, but in an easy-to-absorb format. 

High-quality human-read audiobooks from Learning Ally enrich the reading experience because students can follow the highlighted text with their eyes while listening to the text spoken accurately and authentically. This allows their brains to process the information with automaticity so they can enjoy a deep reading experience. Deep reading, in contrast to “skimming” or “superficial reading,” is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading to enhance comprehension and personal enjoyment of a text. Being able to experience this with the assistance of audiobooks creates a positive reading experience that can lead to empowering a student’s social and emotional confidence. 

Join Learning Ally’s Empowering Struggling Readers Professional Learning Community 

Join a dynamic network of educators across the nation who believe in a common goal – “literacy for all students.” 

For more teaching strategies to enhance the learning potential of Spanish-Speaking English Language Learners with reading deficits, listen to the Learning Ally archived edWebinar in its entirety to receive professional learning CE certificates. 


*Nelda Reyes is a 2019 National Award Winner of the Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Award for outstanding performance and exemplary teaching in U.S. schools.

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A District Approach to Using Assistive Technology to Support Struggling Readers

August 12, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

Professional Learning EdWebinar
CE Certificates - 
Wednesday, August 14, 2019 - 2 pm Est.

Are you ready to empower students with reading deficits to achieve higher outcomes? 

Learning Ally’s edWebinar series offers continuing CE certificates in support of educators in K12 who serve students with reading deficits and print disabilities. 

In this edWebinar panel discussion, educators Jenn Regardie and Jennifer Carr, two assistive technology “powerhouse teachers” from Fairfax County Public School System, Virginia, share their large district’s proactive approach to “equitable access for all.” 

  • Discover how to get your district to embrace technology to support reading.

  • Learn innovative assistive technology tools.

  • Explore academic outcomes of students who have prospered.

  • Gain proven teaching and learning best practices to replicate in any classroom, school or district reading initiative. 


Our PresentersJennifer Regardie, Fairfax AT Teacher

Jenn Regardie has worked in special education for 18 years. She is the parent of a child who discovered a love of reading through audiobooks. Her teaching career began in elementary school and she is now an assistive technology resource teacher in middle and high school. Jenn supports teachers to implement supplemental, assistive technology tools with fidelity, including The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution. She holds a M.Ed. in special education from Lehigh University and a B.S. from Ithaca College.


Jennifer Carr, Fairfax Assitive Technology TeacherJennifer Carr has had a long-standing passion for assistive technology. She works closely with students in pre-school through twelfth grades to find the right AT tools for those who require an accommodation. She is a leading expert in the implementation of AT for all levels of diverse learners and has presented at many local, state, national and international conferences on the topic. Ms. Carr is co-author of “Developing Your Assistive Technology Leadership: Best Practices for Success.”


Join Learning Ally’s Professional Learning Community

Take part in this dynamic network of educators working toward a common goal and national movement to ensure equitable access for all students.  


Did you miss the first back to school edWebinar, “Strategies and Supports for Spanish-Speaking Struggling Readers?” 

You can still review the archived presentation and receive a CE certificate. 

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Virginia Teacher Empowers “Take Charge” Attitude in ESOL and Special Education Students

July 30, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

Katherine Hover with two students in comfy class chairs reading. Katherine (Kate) Hover is a military mom and middle school teacher with keen insight into how students learn. Over her teaching career, she has worked with children of all ages, backgrounds, customs, and cultures. She says there is one thing in common with all students. "They have a 'deep desire' to have someone believe in them. Empowerment and individualized learning can unlock so much potential."

Passing the Virginia SOLs

Many of Kate’s seventy-plus students at Irving Middle School, a Fairfax County Public School System, had never passed the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) standardized reading test before Kate’s tutelage.

In just two years, her middle school students’ Lexile levels and proficiency rates improved significantly. "Students are decoding English more rapidly and passing the SOL reading tests," she says. "Many have gone from 7th to 8th grade as a skilled reader with a clear understanding of their learning style and the strategies and resources that most effectively match how they learn."

Her colleagues say that Kate is a “take-charge” teacher, not in the sense of micromanaging the dually-identified ESOL-Special Education students she teaches, but by encouraging them to own their learning process. This is one reason why Kate is a 2019 recipient of the Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award  

Students participate in their Individual Education Planning process

Kate has implemented a system whereby students discuss their learning challenges and participate in building their own Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Although many students in self-contained learning environments are not typically involved in the development of their IEP, Kate’s students are integral in the process. In planning meetings, they review their Lexile levels and their proficiency ranges. They discuss learning styles and the tools and resources available. 

One way Kate empowers students is to provide login access to The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution. This digital accessible library contains textbooks, literature and popular titles, narrated by real voices. Kate says, “English language learners need to hear English spoken to increase their ability to read words and build vocabulary. Learning Ally provides a perfect resource to meet that goal for students who are eligible with a reading deficit."

Progress Monitoring & Early Language Development

She and her students view tracked reading data to get a better picture of reading growth and to see patterns of genres that students prefer reading. “Giving students the ability to look at their own reading data and choose some of their own books boosts their motivation to read.”

Scarborough Reading Rope displaying each strand of skills necessary for reading in a weaved pattern. Kate shares Scarborough’s Reading Rope with students to determine their strengths and needs. The Rope was developed by Hollis Scarborough, a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories, and a leader in research of early language development and its connection to later literacy. 

“Students must practice reading aloud,” says Kate, “but many struggling readers do not like to read aloud. It creates a lot of unnecessary pressure.” As an alternative, Kate pairs her students with elementary students. They use the video application FLIP Grid to film themselves reading aloud with their virtual reading buddies, and to assess their own reading fluency. Each quarter, Kate’s students get to 'act as the teacher' and conduct their own fluency check and do a self-assessment. 

“Students are not stymied by the fear of reading aloud in the typical classroom scenario,” she says. “They practice the essential Reading Rope skill strands without pressure. This activity boosts their confidence along with their ability to read with automaticity. For years, these students have had teachers tell them that they are not reading fluently, but most do not have a clear understanding of what that means.” 

District Challenge 

In addition to her students' reading improvements in the VA SOL, Kate's students in 4th period won the Great Reading Games in their category. They read over 16,000 pages. A top performer in the challenge had gone through elementary school not passing any SOL reading tests. He went from a score of 394 on the SOL (passing score is 400) in the 6th grade to a passing score of 492 in one year. He increased his Lexile level from a beginning Lexile of 810 to an end of the year 1080. 

Other top readers demonstrated gains in reading with a combined total of 61,463 pages. These students increased their Lexile level anywhere from 11 points to 238 points. Many are now “proficient” readers on grade level. One student read 23 books and 6,126 pages. He increased his Lexile level 177 points and passed the SOL reading test.

Cindy Conley, Kate’s Principal says, “She is a teacher who takes advantage of learning experiences. She thoughtfully considers how to utilize her skills with her students and she has a collaborative nature that has helped other teachers and administrators grow in innovative ways.”

At an EdCampNova conference in Washington, DC, Kate demonstrated Learning Ally for educators who wanted to learn how to help struggling readers. She told them, “This audiobook solution can be beneficial at every level - elementary, middle and high. If your school doesn’t have a Learning Ally membership, get one!" 

Her district is planning to implement the supplemental reading resource into the high school to provide equitable access to audiobooks, including textbooks. literature and popular titles. Kate says, "This solution is a game changer for me and has helped to make a tremendous difference in our students' school learning years and their future."   

Learn more about Learning Ally  

Schedule a demo to see how Learning Ally delivers an immediate impact for students with dyslexia and other reading deficits.

For more information about a school subscription, call 800-221-1098 or email programs@LearningAlly.org.

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Supporting Students as Executive Functioning Skills Develop

July 22, 2019 by Cher Ware

Upon finding my son’s homework in the trash, I asked, “Honey, why is your homework in the trash?” His response, “Mom, I’ll be honest with you. I looked at that homework and thought about how long it was going to take me and so I threw it in the trash.”

If this conversation sounds familiar, you might be the parent or teacher of a student with executive functioning issues. Their approach to coping with the rigorous demands of school may not always match our expectations. Your student may also struggle to stay focused on complex reading assignments. Learning Ally can help!

Research shows how executive functioning impacts reading and learning.  Students who struggle with it often:

  • lack critical thinking skills
  • struggle to persevere
  • find tasks requiring working memory challenging 
  • struggle with reading  

Read Executive Skills and the Struggling Reader, by Kelly B. Cartwright for an excellent, in-depth overview of how executive skills play an essential role in reading. 

The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is a proven multisensory reading accommodation specifically designed for students with reading deficits causing them to struggle with decoding, fluency or comprehension. It acts as an effective boost to any instructional strategy by bridging the gap between a student's reading ability and their cognitive capability.
If your student also struggles with executive functioning, consider implementing some of these tips to help:

  • Motivation - If a student has trouble getting started with reading, set small achievable goals and reward them with praise or tangible rewards to encourage their progress.
  • Tactile reminders - Students who struggle with executive functioning may need to keep a printed page in their notebook or taped near their reading area to remind them how to log-in the  Learning Ally Audiobooks App.
  • Routine - Try to establish a reading routine that is the same time every day in the same location. Help the student set a timer to know when he or she should begin reading and encourage parents to create reliable reading routines at home as well.
  • Focus Tools - Remove distractions and/or provide tactile supports to help students who need to fidget in order to focus. Simply wearing headphones while reading an audiobook can help students ignore distractions!  Sometimes students with executive functioning challenges can benefit from the use of bicycle chairs or bouncy bands so they can silently move their feet while they read. Finally, tactile objects such as modeling dough, a palm weight or a tangle of pipe cleaners can help students stay focused on their reading. 

With the right support, students who struggle with executive functioning can complete their assignments, make progress on reading grade-level text and gain confidence in their own skills.

We want to hear from you!  What has worked in your classroom or at home for students who struggle with executive functioning?  Leave a comment!

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New Jersey District Reading Initiative Aims For Every Child Reading Well

July 10, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

Photo of Ms. Joelle Nappi

Joelle Nappi, a Dyslexia Therapist for Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School, in Freehold Township, NJ is an avid user of audiobooks for reading and learning.  After her school embarked on an initiative to ensure more students with reading deficits received grade-level text in digital format, she saw marked improvements in their reading frequency and self-esteem. 

On average, her middle school students improved their reading engagement by 36%. “We won’t stop until every child feels confident as a learner,” she says. 

Students in Ms. Nappi’s classes are not proficient readers and spellers, and are often unable to keep pace with grade-level classwork. “Reading can be a super hurdle for some students," she says. "Often, they would rather do anything else. At this age, if they cannot enjoy great stories and if they are not exposed to rich language and complex literary structures, they are likely to be turned off to reading for good.”

Beyond Leveled Readers - Target Instruction with Accessible Curriculum

To prevent this scenario, Ms. Nappi uses intervention programs like the Wilson Reading System and Project Read®,  and Learning Ally for accessible literature. The goal of the interventions is to promote reading accuracy (decoding) and comprehension, as well as spelling (encoding) skills for students with word-level deficits. The interventions also teach phonemic awareness, alphabetic principles (sound-symbol relationship), word study, spelling, non-phonetic/high frequency words, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Ms. Nappi says, “Students with dyslexia and other reading deficits need targeted instruction that directly teaches the sound-symbol relationship using controlled, decodable text while they are growing their decoding skills. In addition, they need to listen to self-selected grade level texts.” 

She points out how vital good comprehension skills are to each student's learning success.

“We simply cannot just give leveled texts and ask students to read more in the hopes that this will improve outcomes. Coupling targeted structured literacy interventions with audiobooks of novels and literature, above a student’s independent decoding level, has been critical to our students’ reading growth. Every student with reading deficits should receive tiered supports, including modifications, technology accommodations, and accessible books.”

Jumping on the Accessible Book Bandwagon

She credits her principal, colleagues and parents for jumping on the accessible book bandwagon. At first, there was some skepticism, but through progress monitoring on the Learning Ally teacher dashboard, she was able to report sustainable growth in her students’ reading performance in reading frequency, vocabulary and the number of books they read.

Change Reading Habits to Increase Reading Engagement

Ms. Nappi recommends six to eight weeks to create new reading habits. This year's reading data confirmed that her 6th, 7th and 8th graders improved in reading engagement on average by 36%. Some students now read on or above grade-level and study in general education Language Arts classes. 

"Listening to human-read audiobooks, coupled with direct instruction in the alphabetic code at students’ decoding level, is having a positive effect in my district," she says. "Students, who never saw themselves as readers, read regularly and show marked improvements. Human narration has helped my students improve comprehension and fluency skills by following highlighted text and listening to appropriate modeling of phrasing and intonation."

District-Wide Usage

Seeing this transformation, her district leadership broadened their access of Learning Ally to support students at every grade level on a district-wide basis. “We are proud of the amount of reading that is taking place," says Ms. Nappi. "This investment in accessible literature to enable all children to read well is a perfect example of the mindset that sets Freehold Township Schools apart and can be a model of reading success for more schools in our area and in our country.”

Learn more about Learning Ally  

Schedule a demo to see how Learning Ally delivers an immediate impact for students with dyslexia and other reading deficits.

For more information about a school subscription, call 800-221-1098 or email programs@LearningAlly.org.

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