K-12 | Read to Achieve


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A Principal’s Approach to Building a Culture of Readers
Ms. Bilello with colleague dressed up in costume.

November 11, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

Vanessa in her school hallway Principal Vanessa Bilello of the Hopkins Elementary School in Hopkinton, Massachusetts is on a quest. She wants all 580 students in her building to excel at reading. Just like the athletes who queue up to run the Boston Marathon each year on her track and fields, Ms. Bilello believes, “Reading is a marathon. It takes practice, motivation and persistence.”

Building a culture of readers isn’t easy, but Bilello and staff are resilient. Like many educators, they face the challenge of students with diverse needs and learning styles. Some students are over-achievers; others are not. Reading comes easy for some, and almost impossible for others. 

What seems like a daunting mission of “literacy for all,” this administrator addresses with a multi-structural language approach layered with access to curriculum with a reading accommodation when needed. “Getting all kids to enjoy reading takes effort,” says Bilello. “We’re working to ensure that students are equipped to study on grade-level, feel more socially connected, and prepared for a promising future.” 

Multi-Faceted Reading Approach

Hopkins’ fourth and fifth grade teachers combine SEL (social and emotional learning) with explicit literacy instruction. They use reading strategies to develop students’ decoding and encoding skills, improve fluency, reinforce comprehension and expose students to complex materials as part of a Readers’ Workshop model. This approach may include: 

  • Guided reading with the Fountas and Pinnell system, based on benchmark assessments.

  • Independent reading akin to personal interests.

  • Reading at home.

  • Heterogeneous book groups, according to student interests.

  • Peer to peer reading. 

  • Sequential intervention using Orton-Gillingham, Wilson System, Project Read, and Just Words.

  • Accessible content to level the learning field so students can study grade-level curriculum through Learning Ally.

Early Identification of Reading Deficits

Students have abundant opportunities to read stories based on their interests and a variety of genres, authors, and popular titles. Bilello believes that integrating reading time throughout the school day is critical for students whose comprehension skills are stronger than their decoding skills. “If students have not mastered fundamental reading skills by 4th or 5th grade, they can feel failure and frustration. We are not doing our job to meet their needs if we don’t provide adequate access to high quality, diverse titles of texts.” 

For students who are dyslexic or have reading deficits, Hopkins turns to The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution -- a quality reading accommodation and digital accessible library. Bilello says, “Listening is reading. When children show signs of struggle, this is the time to implement or intensify reading instruction. Audiobooks are a useful supplement while students work with their teachers to improve their decoding and fluency skills.” She also adds, “Children love to hear stories read aloud. Human narration builds their vocabulary and introduces new patterns of words, not to mention the sheer enjoyment of reading."

Reading while listening to text is a research-proven way to increase fluency and overall reading skills. For older students with learning disabilities, teachers use the audiobook solution to expose students to age-appropriate text, to build background knowledge, to encourage independent reading and social connections; and to introduce new genres and authors. 

Leveled Readers 

On the topic of 'leveled' readers, Bilello says, “We know that the biggest indicators of children reading well is practice. Audiobooks give students the ability to comprehend information at their intellectual level.” 

She is not a proponent of only giving students leveled books. “Many educators and parents believe a child can only do “P” books, but we don’t believe in limiting any child. This is the time to broaden their repertoire and to help them feel confident.”   

CARES Program – (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, Self-Control)

The theme of inclusion and diverse learning styles is carried through Hopkins ‘Understanding Our Difference Program.’ The year-long curriculum immerses students and staff to spend time learning about learning differences and what it’s like to be dyslexic, autistic or visually impaired. To reinforce the values of cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy and self-control, Bilello developed a positive behavior recognition system called CARES, based on the Responsive Classroom model language. Students can earn CARES cards for demonstrating good values, distributed by students and staff to deserving students. Students whose card is selected in monthly drawings earn their choice of a paperback book. 

For thinking outside the box and promoting a culture of readers where every student has what they need for academic success, Vanessa Bilello is the recipient of the 2019 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award. This award honors U.S. educators who display exemplary leadership to ensure more students with reading deficits reach their full intellectual potential. Winners receive a monetary award for themselves and their school. It is not surprising that Ms. Bilello will use her award to strengthen her mission so that literacy for all stretches far beyond the classroom. 

If you know an educator, administrator or school that is making a difference for students with reading deficits, Learning Ally’s nomination process is now open for the 2020 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award.

For more information on Learning Ally, or to request a demo, visit www.learningally.org/educators or call 800-221-1098.

About Learning Ally                                                    

Learning Ally is a leading education solutions organization committed to transforming the lives of struggling learners. The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is a proven reading accommodation composed of human-read audiobooks, student-centric features and a suite of teacher resources. Used in more than 17,500 schools, this essential solution empowers students with reading deficits to become engaged learners and reach their academic potential.


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New Search Categories Make Finding Audiobooks & Textbooks Easy
Algebra 1 textbook.

October 28, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

by Cher Ware, Classroom Integration Manager

Educators working to support struggling readers know that it can be difficult to help students find the right book. It can also be daunting to give students, who are decoding below grade-level, access to the instructional texts that are part of the curriculum. 

Learning Ally has an extensive library of over 80,000 human-read audiobooks including fiction, non-fiction, textbooks and primary source documents. With several ways to search for just the right audiobook, the browsing features of our audiobook library makes finding the right  books easy for students and educators. 

New! Browse by Curriculum

Educators can now search for audiobook titles which align to their curriculum to better support reading instruction. 

Curriculums included are:

  • ARC® Core 2017

  • Amplify ELa 2016

  • EngageNY 2016

  • Learnzillion

  • Pearson MyPerspectives™ 2017

  • Texas Education Agency Instructional Materials

The Declaration of Independence Book Cover - three revolutionary people marching Educators can also search our category called “Standards Aligned and Primary Source Documents” to find instructional text aligned to rigorous standards. This category includes primary source documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. If you use these texts in your classroom, make sure all students have equitable access with Learning Ally.

Grade and Subject

The Grade-Band Carousel, located on the Browse Audiobooks page, is organized into three categories: Excite in Elementary, Motivate in Middle and Encourage in High School. The carousel highlights titles which will engage students and keep them coming back for more reading. 

You might consider highlighting this search area with your students who are unsure how to search for a book they will enjoy. It’s an easy way to get them started previewing text and finding text that meets their interests. 

Searchers can also filter by categories such as grade and subject area. This is beneficial for educators who may be looking for a book on a specific topic like the Civil War, women in science, or books for a book club. This search feature can be especially helpful to students who may be browsing for a book on a topic in order to do research or discover a new book that matches their interests such as graphic novels. 

Photo of Dr. Martin Luther King - Book Cover Letter From a Birmingham Jail


Several options are available when searching by Category:

  • NEW! Recently Added - Students and educators can now find the latest additions to the Learning Ally audiobook library by searching in the Recently Added category. These books are updated frequently so be sure to revisit this browsing feature often. 

  • Great Starts - Includes highly engaging titles that will motivate readers, especially first-time readers to keep coming back to read. These titles are changed quarterly. 

  • VOICEtext - Learning Ally’s audiobooks are narrated by volunteers who help bring the story to life for readers. These books include audio and text together to provide students with multisensory learning experiences.


If using Lexile levels to find books for students to read, keep in mind that Learning Ally’s human-read audiobooks allow students to read books at their comprehension level instead of their decoding level. With Learning Ally, students are given equitable access to grade-level text along with their peers. They can read books they need to read and the books they want to read. 

Whether an educator is looking for a book which aligns with curriculum or a student is looking for the latest young adult fiction, Learning Ally’s audiobook library makes finding that perfect book easy to do.

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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How I Got My Principal on Board to Implement Audiobooks for Learning
Ms. Davis with her principal and colleagues in classroom.

October 23, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

Grant Elementary School in Shasta County, California has some of the highest academic scores of any school in the region, yet, like many schools, there is a population of students who aren’t making reading progress. 

This is where Eilyne Davis, an Early Development Literacy Coordinator and Intervention Specialist, steps in. She works with children identified through her school’s early screening process who have reading deficits. One of her strategies is to use human-read audiobooks from Learning Ally as a supplement to explicit reading instruction. 

Ms. Davis initially experienced audiobooks with her son, Archer, who has dyslexia. Through his journey, she was determined to help more children to read successfully and sought out to show her principal, Mike Freeman, the potential of this resource to unlock children’s reading barriers.

Archer’s Journey

Eilyne and her son huggingEilyne heard about the human-read audiobooks from her son’s literacy tutor. Archer was diagnosed with dyslexia in the second grade. As a teacher, it was painful for her to watch her son struggle, so she purchased a household license for the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution. “He read books,” said Eilyne. “This was a big deal!” 

She then spoke with Archer's third grade teacher to find out what books he would be required to read in class. She downloaded them for him on the Learning Ally Audiobook App. 

A Long List of Students to Support

In her K-6 classes, many children showed signs of reading deficits in decoding, phonics, phonemic awareness and fluency. Eilyne raised their challenges with her Principal, Mr. Freeman. She shared her son’s experience and asked, “What if we could help more children with this resource?” They evaluated how audiobooks with human narration could break through reading barriers like decoding, and improve skills in listening, comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, prosody and verbal reasoning. When Mr. Freeman saw how audiobooks could unlock more children’s potential, he initiated a school-wide literacy program.  

Eilyne had demonstrated how audiobooks were effective and provided equitable access to content. She said, “At some point, every teacher will assign books that one or many students will not be able to read. This is when they fall behind and can’t meet their goals.” 

Watching Brooke Grow in Fluency and Comprehension 

Ms. Davis and student, Brooke in a classroom Brooke, a sixth grader with reading challenges, was struggling to keep up with her peers in class. She also expressed her frustration at not being able to read books that many of her friends were reading. Using the Learning Ally Audiobook solution, she logged 2000 pages in one week. “She worked so hard to fit in but always felt isolated and different,” said Eilyne. “In the first trimester, her reading fluency was 94 words per minute. When we re-assessed her in the second trimester, she improved to a whopping 120 words per minute! Her comprehension went from a Lexile level of 625 to 900!”

Reading Data Reveals More Students’ Progress

Eilyne routinely reviews her students’ reading data on the Learning Ally teacher dashboard. She wants to get a glimpse of their reading behaviors and genres that interest them. “Students love searching for books and tracking their pages read,” she says. “When you empower them to select their own books, they are more apt to read independently. They see your confidence in them that they can do it.”

Sharing Success Through the School Community - Facebook Live

Eilyne and her principal decided to do a Facebook Live meeting with their community to help more teachers and parents to understand how the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution works, and the power of audiobooks for students with reading deficits. Principal Freeman said, “We want reading to come alive. Learning Ally is like having a public library in our students’ book bags.” 

Stacking the Bookshelves for Transition to High School

At the beginning of fall semester, Grant teachers determine how much summer reading slide occurs. Eilyne says, “Children, who once saw so many books out of reach, now read. We love seeing the joy on their faces.” Brooke and many other students are transitioning to high school. “This is the time when they will be assigned complex material,” said Eilyne. “They are ready! The ability to ‘see and listen’ to audio textbooks and literature has given them confidence and skills to comprehend more grade-level work and feel good about their future.”

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Audiobooks are Cheating? Not at all.
Male student with headphones enjoying an audiobook.

October 17, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

With the rise of audiobooks and technology supporting spoken text to accommodate students who struggle with reading, or even those who just enjoy listening to a story in that format, there is great speculation as to whether the impact to learning and comprehension holds any weight. And some regard listening to audiobooks as cheating. Psychologist, Daniel Willingham writes that some, “think you’re getting the rewarding part of it … and it’s the “difficult” part that you’ve somehow gotten out of..{..}..and your brain is doing less work than reading” (Science of US, 2016)

While some researchers have hypothesized that reading and listening would process semantic information differently, findings from a study by the University of California, Berkeley, revealed just the opposite (Deniz, Nunez-Elizalde, Huth, & Gallant, 2019). 

Lead researcher, Fatma Deniz, used 3D semantic maps that represented MRI recordings of their volunteers’ brain activity while listening and reading a story. They paired this technique with semantic word categorization and “voxelwise encoding” (or in other words, how the brain decodes things we have previously remembered) to indicate which parts of the brain would be activated when words were listened to or read. It was expected that different areas of the brain’s cerebral cortex would be activated, but the semantic maps revealed that listening and reading yielded identical brain activation. 

What does this mean? Whether we are reading or listening to an audiobook, our brains process the words in the same way—they have the same semantic processing reaction. We create the same meaning with text whether read or listened to, which implies that we derive a comparable level of critical thinking in both formats—there is no slacking in how our brain sorts, remixes, and creates inferences. 

The findings of this study have significant implications for the estimated 1 out of 5 people who have Dyslexia (International Dyslexia Foundation, 2019), and warrants further exploration regarding how people with the disorder make meaning of text through audiobooks. 

"If, in the future," Deniz suggests, "we find that the dyslexic brain has rich semantic language representation when listening to an audiobook or other recording, that could bring more audio materials into the classroom."

So, go ahead, pick out that audiobook, it’s not cheating. Over 375,000 students in over 17,500 schools have boosted their reading skills by using the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution. Our multisensory reading accommodation allows students to not only read in a way that best suits their needs, but also to take an active role in reading. They can listen, take notes and highlight text, and still be able to process what they are reading, aiding in retention, comprehension and the ability to apply their critical thinking skills..In fact, our audiobook solution empowers students to work to their true potential by leveling the playing field and allowing students to access grade level content that they couldn’t previously.

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Learning Ally Partners with Square Panda to Deliver Reading Solutions Across Entire Pre-K to Grade 12 Range
Square Panda logo ...bear image

October 9, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

For Immediate Release: 

SUNNYVALE, Calif., and PRINCETON, N.J., Oct. 9, 2019—Square Panda, creator of an award-winning multisensory edtech literacy platform aimed at pre-readers and early readers, and Learning Ally, a leading nonprofit education solutions organization focusing on struggling learners, announced today that they have signed a strategic partnership. The partnership will enable the two companies to collaborate on sales, marketing and implementation opportunities, and serve the entire pre-K to grade 12 education market.

As the sole distributor of Square Panda products in the U.S. education market, Learning Ally will now complement its award-winning Audiobook Solution targeting students with reading deficits in grades 3-12, and Professional Learning catalogue reaching nearly 100,000 educators, with the ability to provide an early literacy learning system designed for students in pre-k to 3rd grade.

The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is a proven multisensory reading accommodation featuring human-read audiobooks, student-centric features and a suite of educator tools for real-time progress monitoring and data reporting that helps struggling readers with a reading deficit become confident, engaged learners, capable of reaching their academic potential.

Square Panda’s learning games are grounded in the latest neurological research around brain development and reading. Its multisensory playset interacts with tablets to help children learn reading skills with confidence. Its proven approach helps build essential reading skills in children ages 2-8 years old—engaging multiple senses, including sight, touch and sound, as research has shown this is how young children learn best.

“For more than 70 years Learning Ally has been providing innovative support for students from across the United States with reading deficits, blindness and visual impairments, and physical disabilities that don’t allow them to read standard print,” said Andy Butler, CEO of Square Panda. “We are proud that Learning Ally has chosen Square Panda as its phonics and reading readiness partner to extend its offering to reach early learners. Their current reach to 17,500 schools and their educator success infrastructure will allow us to move the needle on ensuring all children in our schools meet the ‘Read by [grade] 3’ goal, which all educators aspire to achieve.”

“We are thrilled to expand our footprint into early literacy and partner with Square Panda,” said Andrew Friedman, CEO and president of Learning Ally. “Square Panda’s literacy platform will enable early childhood educators with an adaptive literacy system, allowing them to better meet the needs of all types of students with different social-economic backgrounds and/or learning differences to develop core fundamental reading skills.”

About Square Panda

The award-winning Square Panda™ playset is a complete phonics learning system with multisensory play. Designed for kids two and older, the playset blends physical and digital learning as it keeps kids entertained through age-appropriate learning games grounded in research-based curriculum. Early readers play their way to reading fluency as they engage with physical smart letters that connect them to a library of learning games. Every play session guides children as they explore the alphabet, practice letter sounds, discover rhymes, build vocabulary and more. For more information, visit www.squarepanda.com.

About Learning Ally

Learning Ally is a leading education solutions organization dedicated to transforming the lives of struggling learners. The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is a proven multisensory reading accommodation for students with a reading deficit, composed of high-quality, human-read audiobooks, student-centric features and a suite of teacher resources to monitor and support student success. Used in more than 17,500 schools, this essential solution, along with its catalogue of Professional Learning, bridges the gap between a student’s reading ability and their cognitive capability, empowering them to become engaged learners and reach their academic potential.  For more information, visit www.LearningAlly.org.

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