Vector image of a book


Deep Dive

Why is this so important?

Reading for meaning is a complex skill that must be taught. Once mastered, this skill opens opportunities for a lifetime of learning. Yet at ALL grades and ALL subjects, teachers encounter struggling readers.


The antecedents for students who struggle to read and understand text begin early, in early childhood. Snow, Burns, and Griffin (1998) identified the following three potential stumbling blocks to first learning to read:

  • Understanding and using the alphabetic principle;

  • Failure to transfer the comprehension skills of spoken language to reading and acquire new strategies that may be specifically needed for reading;

  • The absence or loss of an initial motivation to read or failure to develop an appreciation of the rewards of reading.


"Entering school, these students continue to face challenges with the increased literacy demands. Multiple areas of concern tend to be the rule and not the exception for a child who is having difficulty learning to read. The variable we do have control of, the fixed and inflexible, one-size-fits-all medium of standard print, is a promising area of exploration". 

- Reading Strategy Instruction, UDL, and Digital Texts” – Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom - Hall, Meyer and Rose

What About Literacy in the Digital Age?

Literacy today means something quite different than it did even a decade ago. According to Warlick (“The New Literacy”) “we live in a time when the very nature of information is changing: in what it looks like, what we use to view it, where and how we find it, what we can do with it, and how we communicate with it. If this information is changing, then our sense of what it means to be literate must also change. The notion of contemporary literacy represents the essential skills involved in effectively accessing, processing, and communicating information.”

girl with tablet from Pixabay

Why Do Students Struggle with Reading?

person sitting on stack of books attribution

There are many reasons why students struggle with learning to read; poor phonemic awareness, lack of exposure to text & books, trouble with focus and attention, speech and hearing problems, lack of background knowledge affecting comprehension, and more. Dyslexia is a common language-based learning disability that affects a person's ability to read text.  The way it presents itself from person to person can vary in severity, but often has common challenges such as phonological processing (manipulation of sounds), fluency, comprehension, writing, and spelling. Dyslexia is not something that children outgrow, but rather they learn strategies over time to help manage their reading challenges. With targeted reading instruction and accommodations, students can be successful. Dyslexia can have a huge impact on academic success as well as the social and emotional well-being of children, so it's very important for educators to learn more about ways to support students who struggle with reading.

Experience dyslexia simulations:

Jumping letters, Interactive game

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Historically, how has technology supported the

development of reading?

[From WATI “Assessing Student’s Need for AT: Assistive Technology for Reading, 2009”] If we look for an answer to this question from the field of AT, technology has played two important roles in supporting literacy development, by incorporating:

Programs that remediate specific skills through individualized or repetitive practice

Programs that compensate for challenges (e.g. text to speech programs (TTS).


Let's dive deeper...

Whether programs, like TTS, are acceptable accommodations for students has been a question that often gets raised. Do they solely compensate for a skill a student lacks, or can the use of TTS actually improve reading abilities and comprehension? Have we given up on reading (decoding) and are simply providing a student with a crutch (much like the conversation about students struggling with math facts and fluency in completing calculations using calculators)?


The following research summaries [cited in “Assessing Student’s Need for AT: Assistive Technology for Reading”) provide some answers to those and other questions.


In a review of research about the effectiveness of TTS with students with disabilities (Silver-Pascuilla, et al, 2007), it has been found:

  • TTS helps students improve comprehension, fluency, and accuracy and enhances concentration;

  • Word recognition skills also improve with the use of this support;

  • Being able to immediately decode a word by hearing it spoken within the context of a passage helps students build word recognition and vocabulary without disturbing the flow of comprehension;

  • Comprehension is augmented by supporting decoding, thereby freeing the listener to focus on the meaning of the text;

  • This support provides a supportive reading environment and increases a student’s ability to read interesting and appropriate grade-level materials.


In interviews with secondary and college-aged students with learning disabilities about their use of TTS, Elkind and Elkind (2007) found:

Image of kid in hammock Image by Daniela Dimitrova from Pixabay
  • 93% of students report that reading is easier, less stressful, and less tiring;

  • 91% of students said that they were able to increase the time that they could sustain attention to reading before their attention; wandered or they needed a break

  • The average duration of sustained reading reported by students with attention disorders increased about 60% from 30-40 minutes to 50-60 minutes;

  • The combined effect of faster reading speed and longer reading durations can result in a dramatic increase in the amount of material that a slow reader can read in an extended reading session of several hours. Some slow readers saw improvements in the number of pages read by factors of 2 or 3.

And finally, in a statewide, 3-year study of the impact of using TTS on student achievement and attitudes (Iowa Assistive Technology Text Reader Project), improved reading fluency and comprehension as well as overwhelmingly positive subjective responses from students and teachers implementing the project were documented. Students accessed twice the amount of material using text reader software. One finding was particularly interesting: student’s comprehension of paper text declined as the text difficulty increased, yet they were able to maintain and even improve comprehension levels using text reader programs as more difficult text was introduced. Many of the gains from this study were seen in the second and third years of implementation.

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How can we support struggling readers?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Learn the basics about Universal Design for Learning. The framework supports ALL students, including those who struggle with reading. Dive deeper into the specific UDL checkpoints and visit these websites to learn more: Novak Education, Learning Designed, Understood. UDL Resources on this site.

  • Define appropriate and achievable goals and allow students flexibility in how they meet them​;

  • Recognize and reflect on diverse learner needs by learning about their strengths, challenges, areas of interest, backgrounds, learning styles, talents, and planning skills;

  • Recognize barriers in the curriculum and problem-solve how to reduce or eliminate them;

  • Understand when students may require assistive technologies to support access and support learning;

  • Reflect on your UDL knowledge and implementation skills with the UDL Progression Rubric, a tool by Katie Novak and Kristan Rodriguez, authors of Universally Designed Leadership: Applying UDL to Systems and Schools (CAST, 2016);

  • In applying the principles of UDL to reading comprehension instruction, the authors of the book "Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom: Practical Applications" look at each of the three networks, identify potential barriers to reading success, and consider how some practical applications of the UDL guidelines could address those concerns through a scaffolded digital reading environment.


Strategies & Tools for Diverse Learners

The tools and strategies on the Open Access AT Resource FlipKit are arranged by the types of supports a teacher might be looking for to support students who struggle with reading.


The FlipKit includes the following types of resources:

  • digital& audio textbooks/literature/accessible web content 

  • text-to-speech (TTS)

  • tools to support optimization of visual information and reducing screen clutter

  • comprehension tools, authoring tools, adapted literaturebuilt-in accessibility options for reading

  • and no/low-tech strategies.


Add Scaffolded Supports

Proficient readers are strategic readers. They use comprehension strategies to help bring meaning to the text being read, whereas struggling readers rarely use comprehension strategies as they are reading even though their understanding of the text is poor.

According to CAST researchers, the most promising practice to support literacy instruction is the creation of digital learning environments that help struggling readers become strategic readers. Many assistive technology software programs have embedded these types of study skill supports for a number of years (e.g. Read:OutLoud, WYNN, Kurzweil 3000, Read&Write Gold), with studies that show evidence that using these tools enables struggling readers to improve reading comprehension by learning the strategies of proficient readers (Lange, Phillips, Mulhern & Wyle, 2006).


Tarheel Reader offers TTS and visual optimization choices. It is also a book authoring tool.


Using ComminLit, struggling readers can translate words and phrases, hear text read aloud, and use guided reading mode to better access the content. Students can also make annotations and access embedded vocabulary support. and are great examples of how well-designed “scaffolded digital reading environments” (SDRs) benefit students with challenges learning to read, including those with significant intellectual disabilities, those who are deaf or hard of hearing, and those whose first language is not English.


Think of how the “inflexibility of print” impacts the following two types of students:

  • A fourth grader who struggles to decode printed words, will expend far too much cognitive energy in converting graphic information into linguistic form (decoding) when the focus of reading in upper elementary on up through high school is on acquiring information from the text;

  • An English language learner who is able to decode with accuracy, but lacks the requisite vocabulary knowledge to make sense of the complex language of middle school or secondary texts.

Printed text ALONE cannot support these students in the comprehension process. CAST’s tools provide examples of two research-based practices that support the overall principles of UDL using digital text. These are replicated in other digital options as well.

"Expert learners as purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed".


Learn more: CAST's Top 5 Tips for Fostering Expert Learners.

See strategies and supports in action...



Cumley, J. (2009). Assessing Students' Needs for Assistive Technology: Assistive Technology for Reading. Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative.


Elkind, K. &. (Summer, 2007, vol. 33, no. 3). Text-to-Speech Software for Reading. International Dyslexia Association Newsletter, Perspectives, 11-16.


Lange, A. M. (2006, 20 (3)). Assistive Software Tools for Secondary-Level Students with Reading Difficulties. Journal of Special Education Technology, 13-22.


Maurer, S. D. (2006, May 16). Retrieved from Iowa Department of Education Statistics:


Silver-Pascuilla, H. R. (2007, March 30). A Review of Technology Based Approaches for Reading Instruction: Tools for Researchers and Vendors. Retrieved from National Center for Technology Integration:


Warlick, D. (2005, March/April). The New Literacy. Retrieved from