Learning Ally Blog: Access and Achievement

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Now more than ever, people with learning and visual disabilities are flourishing in the classroom, launching productive careers and becoming assets in their communities. This blog spotlights remarkable individuals who demonstrate that having a visual or print disability is no barrier to educational success.


Subject Matter Continuity and Reading Comprehension
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April 14, 2018 by Jhara Navalo

Natalie Wexler  by guest blogger, educational author, and journalist, Natalie Wexler


Kid Struggling to readIn the fall of 2016, a new student joined Sarah Webb’s fourth-grade class in an Ohio suburb—a sweet, blond-haired boy who I’ll call him Matt. His mother took Webb aside and confessed that she was worried about his reading. Matt hadn’t been diagnosed with a disability, but he’d always been placed in the lowest reading group.

Webb had seen kids like Matt before: discouraged, struggling, seeing themselves as part of “the dumb group” year after year. Neither Webb nor Matt knew it yet, but this year would be different.

Like virtually all American kids, Matt had spent his school career in a system that limits children’s knowledge of the world largely to what they can access through their own reading. But, as research has shown, up to about the age of 13 children can absorb more sophisticated text by listening than through reading. And they need to hear that kind of text read aloud to acquire the knowledge, vocabulary, and critical thinking skills that will enable them to succeed in upper grades—and in life.

The assumption has been that if kids have trouble reading, they just need to spend more time practicing their reading skills on books that aren’t too hard for them. That makes sense for decoding skills. But reading comprehension skills like “finding the main idea” and “making inferences”—which students practice day after day, year after year--won’t turn struggling readers into proficient ones. Readers can’t use those skills to make sense of a text unless they have enough background knowledge and vocabulary to understand the text in the first place.

If you don’t know much about, say, cell biology, you’ll have a hard time understanding an abstract of an article about it. For children whose knowledge of the world is still limited, lots of texts—especially nonfiction texts—assume knowledge and vocabulary they don’t yet have, making reading a confusing and discouraging experience. Even children who seem to be doing fine in the early elementary grades, when reading simple stories, can encounter serious problems later on when they’re expected to read more complex nonfiction, both in class and on standardized tests.

When elementary teachers introduce nonfiction, they generally still focus on supposed skills—for example, identifying “text features” like captions or glossaries--on the theory that they’ll help students comprehend any nonfiction text. They may jump from a book on clouds to one on zebras to one on volcanoes. But students are much more likely to acquire new knowledge and vocabulary if they spend at least a couple of weeks focusing on a single topic.

The year Matt joined Sarah Webb’s class, she tried a different approach. Her students still had time to read books of their choice at their own reading levels. But Webb also read aloud to the whole class from books that had been chosen not for their supposed ability to develop comprehension skills—the standard approach—but for their ability to build knowledge. The books were part of a curriculum called Wit and Wisdom, which provides sets of books grouped around topics like the meaning of the phrase “a great heart,” or the American Revolution. Webb also led class discussions of the books and had her students write about what they were learning.

All of Webb’s students were enthralled by the new curriculum, eager to learn more about certain topics and read more books by the same authors. The high-achieving kids were flourishing. But so were the ones who struggled with reading—including Matt.

He was keenly interested in everything the class was learning about. And the fact that he was studying the same material as his higher-achieving peers boosted his confidence to the point that he often led class discussions. After the class learned about Clara Barton, Matt wrote an entire paragraph about her—more than he’d ever written before—and proudly read it to his parents. Matt’s mother said she had never seen him so enthusiastic about school. At the end of the year, Matt wrote Webb a thank you note, saying that reading wasn’t a struggle anymore.

Wit and Wisdom is only one of several knowledge-focused elementary literacy curricula that have become available in recent years—some of them for free. Others include Core Knowledge Language Arts, Bookworms, EL Education, and American Reading Company. More and more schools are adopting them—and seeing the same kinds of results that Webb did.

But the vast majority still use the skills-focused approach. If you teach at one of those schools, or your child attends one, you can advocate for switching to an approach designed to build knowledge and vocabulary.

Parent and Child listening to audiobooks Parents can also supplement a skills-focused curriculum by finding several books on the same general topic and reading them aloud to their children—or having them listen to audio books like those provided by Learning Ally--at home. But until all schools treat reading comprehension as an outgrowth of knowledge rather than a set of general skills, too many children like Matt are likely to languish in “the dumb group” rather than being enabled to develop their full potential.


About Learning Ally

Learning Ally is a leading nonprofit ed-tech organization delivering a comprehensive learning solution for struggling readers in elementary, middle and high schools. Our proven solution includes the most extensive library of human-read audiobooks that students want and need to read both at home and at school. This reading experience helps accelerate learning, enables a new level of access to knowledge and powerfully increases confidence and self-belief.

 

Learning Ally empowers over 240,000 students with improved comprehension, vocabulary, fluency and critical thinking skills. For over 70 years, we have helped transform the lives of struggling readers by bridging the gap between their reading capability and their academic potential as they confidently become lifelong learners who thrive in school and beyond.

Learn More About Becoming a Learning Ally Member

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Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss! Audiobook Recommendations
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February 23, 2018 by Jhara Navalo

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss! Dr. Seuss is considered a genius for writing content that supports early childhood reading development using word recognition through rhyme, creating a sense of fun by building on an ever-growing chaotic plot, and appealing to all audiences. Through good times and bad, his books have brought families and elementary classes many hours of fun reading. Here's a list of books (non-controversial) that we recommend you read.

 

Happy Birthday to You

Grade Level: 1-4
Lexile: NPL
Fly with the Great Birthday Bird in this fantastical commemoration of YOU And make the most of your special day, which only comes once a year.


 

Cat in the Hat

Grade Levels: Preschool - 2
Lexile: 260L
Poor Dick and Sally. It's cold and wet and they're stuck in the house with nothing to do . . . until a giant cat in a hat shows up, transforming the dull day into a madcap adventure and almost wrecking the place in the process!


 

Horton and the Kwuggerbug and More Lost Stories

Grade Level: K-3
Lexile:AD650L
This follow-up to The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories features familiar Seussian faces and places. this new volume of "lost" tales is a perfect gift for young readers and a must-have for Seuss collectors of all ages!


 

If I ran the circus

Grade Level: 1 - 4
Lexile: NPL
Young Morris McGurk lets his imagination run wild with his circus McGurkus. "Fun for the entire family.


Got a book list suggestion? Send your ideas to allkidscanread@learningally.org and help us get you the books you want and need to read.


About Learning Ally

Learning Ally is a leading nonprofit ed-tech organization delivering a comprehensive learning solution for struggling readers in elementary, middle and high schools. Our proven solution includes the most extensive library of human-read audiobooks that students want and need to read both at home and at school. This reading experience helps accelerate learning, enables a new level of access to knowledge and powerfully increases confidence and self-belief.

Learning Ally empowers over 240,000 students with improved comprehension, vocabulary, fluency and critical thinking skills. For over 70 years, we have helped transform the lives of struggling readers by bridging the gap between their reading capability and their academic potential as they confidently become lifelong learners who thrive in school and beyond.

Learn More About Becoming a Learning Ally Member

 

Read More about Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss! Audiobook Recommendations

Audiobook Recommendations to Celebrate Multicultural Week
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February 8, 2018 by Jhara Navalo

In celebration of our nation's melting pot of cultures and storytelling, we compiled a list of authors that have brought joy and delight to students everywhere. Their books highlight their own dynamic cultures and families, sharing different perspectives on everyday life. We recommend the following audiobooks, and think that students will enjoy reading them.

Andrea Cheng

 

Andrea_Cheng

Popular Book Title: Year of the Book

Children’s book author and educator Andrea Cheng, authored books with an intercultural and intergenerational focus. Cheng was born in El Paso, Texas in 1957, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. Cheng grew up with her two siblings and extended family living together under one roof. Inspired by her family, a young Andrea enjoyed writing her own stories throughout her years in elementary and middle school. Andrea married Jim Cheng, who was also the son of immigrants.


 

Author Meg Medina

Popular Book title: Mango, Abuela, and Me

Meg Medina is a Cuban-American writer of young adult fiction, who grew up in Queens, New York, where she met her husband Javier Menéndez. Medina's parents both emigrated from Cuba prior to her birth, her family's stories serve as the inspiration for her writing. 


 

Matt de la Pena

Popular title: Last Stop on Market Street

Matt de la Peña born in San Diego, California received his BA from University of the Pacific which he attended on a basketball scholarship. He then received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. To date, de la Peña has written 15 books, the latest being Last Stop on Market Street which won the 2016 Newbery Medal. He currently resides in Brooklyn where he teaches creative writing courses at New York University.


 

Tracey Baptiste

Popular Book Title: Jumbies

Tracey Baptiste was born in Trinidad; she grew up on local folklore and fairy tales, and decided to be a writer at the age of three. Her debut, a young adult novel titled Angel’s Grace, was named one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing by New York City librarians. Tracey is a former teacher, textbook editor, ballerina, and amateur librarian. She is now a wife and mom and lives in New Jersey, where she writes and edits books for kids.


 

Frank Cotrell Boyce

Popular Title: Millions

Frank Cottrell Boyce was born in Liverpool and studied English at Oxford University. In 2004, he wrote a book for children based on his own screenplay - Millions - and this book won the 2004 Carnegie Medal. It was published as a play in 2010. His second children's novel, Framed, was shortlisted for both the 2005 Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year Award.


 

Shaun Tan (Illustrator)

Popular title: Trapped

Shaun Tan is an Australian artist, writer and filmmaker. He won an Academy Award for The Lost Thing, a 2011 animated film adaptation of a 2000 picture book he wrote and illustrated. In 2006, his wordless graphic novel The Arrival won the Book of the Year prize as part of the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards. The same book won the Children's Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year award in 2007.and the Western Australian Premier's Book Awards Premier's Prize in 2006.


Got a book list suggestion? Send your ideas to: allkidscanread@learningally.org and help us get you the books you want and need to read.


About Learning Ally

Learning Ally is a leading nonprofit ed-tech organization delivering a comprehensive learning solution for struggling readers in elementary, middle and high schools. Our proven solution includes the most extensive library of human-read audiobooks that students want and need to read both at home and at school. This reading experience helps accelerate learning, enables a new level of access to knowledge and powerfully increases confidence and self-belief.

Learning Ally empowers over 240,000 students with improved comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and critical thinking skills. For over 70 years, we have helped transform the lives of struggling readers by bridging the gap between their reading capability and their academic potential as they confidently become lifelong learners who thrive in school and beyond.

Learn More About Becoming a Learning Ally Member
Read More about Audiobook Recommendations to Celebrate Multicultural Week

North Carolina Struggling Readers Are ‘Reading to Learn’ With Access to Audiobooks
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February 8, 2018 by Jhara Navalo

Learning Ally, a leading K-12 ed-tech reading solution, provides students with dyslexia and print disabilities in NC public and charter schools with access to more than 80,000 quality ‘human-read’ audiobooks to strengthen their reading comprehension skills to ‘read to learn.’ 


February 6, 2018 - Princeton, NJ – Middle and high school students in the Mitchell County Public School District, NC are keeping better academic pace with their peers thanks to a partnership with Learning Ally, a leading K-12 ed-tech reading solution. The nonprofit enjoys a rich history of serving struggling readers by providing high quality, human-read audiobooks as well as a suite of teacher and student resources that easily integrate into the school’s instructional environment.

Kristie Autrey, Curriculum Director for Mitchell County School District credits her state for its leadership in providing accessible books for students who need them. Autrey has a Masters in Reading and is an expert in the Orton-Gillingham instructional method for teaching students with dyslexia. 

Mitchell County middle and high school students have some of the highest usage of Learning Ally in the state. Students can easily download audiobooks to their devices for English, history, biology and other academic subjects. 

NC Students in Class using audiobooks“Too many students fall behind and some drop out because they can’t keep pace with grade-level assignments,” says Autrey. “These kids are smart and have the desire and intellectual aptitude to be high achievers. By the time they reach upper elementary, they feel defeated. Learning Ally has helped us to reverse this course.” 

An eighth grader in her district, diagnosed with dyslexia in the fourth grade, is now able to read books on par with his intellectual ability. He attends upper-level classes, loves literature and shows pride in his achievements.

Research suggests that one in five students has dyslexia in the U.S. and may benefit from a multisensory reading experience in which text can be seen and heard simultaneously through highlighted words on a digital device, like a smartphone, tablet or computer. Autrey believes that human-read audiobooks take learning engagement to a higher level than computer voices.

In 2017, NC passed SB 149 House Bill requiring that the North Carolina State Board of Education ensure professional development opportunities are available for the identification of and intervention strategies for students with dyslexia or other specific learning disabilities and that information is made available electronically to provide information on the characteristics of students with dyslexia and educational methods.

During her district implementation, Autry met with educators in seven schools in her district to discuss Learning Ally. Teachers and librarians embraced the library quickly to find audiobooks for students based on grade level, intellectual ability or personal interests. Autrey mailed letters to parents describing the benefit of audiobooks, especially for students who did not have Internet access at home. She wrote, “Your children can download a book in school and read it at home.”

Autrey has also shared her observations with colleagues. “Today our students are reading more independently. They have improved their fluency, comprehension, vocabulary and critical thinking skills. They complete their assignments on time. Their morale has improved. These are all strong indicators of a beneficial education reading resource.”

For more information about Learning Ally, contact your district Exceptional Children’s Department or Madelyn Dabbs, Education Engagement Manager at mDabbs@LearningAlly.org - 609-520-8038.

To request a demo call 800-221-1098 or sign up for a demo at: www.learningally.org/educators/demos.

Other NC schools with high usage include Watauga County and Buncombe County. 

Learning Ally partners with state education departments in NJ, FL, NC, MA, IL, CA, VA, IN, and TX.  
                        

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Shaping the Future of ‘Reading to Learn’ Using Data, Science and Automation
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February 5, 2018 by Jhara Navalo

by Andrew Friedman, President and CEO, Learning Ally

 

It is apparent that the ed-tech community remains vigilant in tackling both the age-old problems in public education and the rapid shifts that compel our industry forward -- to develop the best products and services that will significantly benefit our students and the educators who teach them.

There are many challenges to overcome before a “nirvana” in public education can occur, but the one that remains consistent is the vast reading crisis in America. A failure to read for any student is never an option and their inability to read has far-reaching consequences for all -- from the school administrator to the teacher, student, their family, our industry and our nation. Reading challenges affect all student populations, yet those at the highest risk are children born into low-income households and students who have gone undiagnosed with a learning disability, like dyslexia for many years of their education. These students have and will suffer a great tragedy and many may never reach their true academic potential.

When we look at the research about reading in the U.S., it signals an alarm. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2015 results reports among the 10,000,000 kindergartners entering school this year, (2016) 6.4 million of them will not be reading at grade level proficiency in four years. These students are 400% more likely to not receive a high school diploma than their peers. The statistics show the lack of reading proficiency in our nation is a key reason why an estimated 8,000 students drop out of school each day limiting their financial potential and ability to compete in the workforce. By 2020, the U.S. will face a shortage of 1.5 million workers with college degrees.

How are we to tackle this critical issue so that more students can break through the cycle of poverty, learn at the same pace as their peers, and be active learners? There is never a silver bullet, but we must continue to bridge the gap for more struggling learners and support the many school leaders and teaching professionals who work in this endeavor.

The Key is Better Understanding Our Students

Just the sheer diversity of a U.S. school classroom today bodes many challenges of a rapidly traversing learning landscape, but we must remain even more focused to devise personalized learning strategies that can improve educational outcomes. Learning Ally believes that we are at an inflection point …and approaching the point where science and technology can help us to better understand our students and how they learn.

Through successful partnerships with State DOE’s, Denver Public Schools, the University of California at San Francisco Dyslexia Center, LAIP California Northridge, and many leading research experts in neuroscience and instructional design, we believe that every student should and will be able to receive a personalized learning plan. This will be the “new norm” for education excellence – customization, personalization and automation.

The result of many partnerships and the data we have been able to collect over our 70-year history of developing human-read audiobook solutions have provided great opportunities to study the reading patterns of all types of learners, all ages, all grades, all demographics and socio-graphics.

Emerging partnerships with neuro-researchers are now allowing us to better understand and identify root causes for the students we serve. We have seen shifts in educational (and we believe social and emotional) outcomes when we can engage struggling readers to read for more than 30 days consecutively in the school year. We know that continuing on this path will give us more insight into what engages specific types of learners.

To that mission, we are committed to all of you in our ed-tech and education communities to help to remove more barriers to learning so that every student will receive the environment and instruction that is best suited for them. This will ultimately help more students to reach their true academic potential in school and to lead lives that are more productive in all walks of life.

Learning Ally NAA Winners

Article originally published in the 2017 Voices of Industry column for MDR's EdNET.

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