K-12 | Read to Achieve


Welcome to Learning Ally’s blog. You've come to the right place if you are an innovative teacher who wants to transform more struggling readers into grade-level achievers.

We all learn differently, and that's okay!
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November 24, 2018 by Valerie Chernek

No student wants to look or feel differently in class. If they do, there’s a greater potential for loss of confidence in the learning process. Feelings of failure can creep into our psyche and drag us down. This includes our grades. When this happens we retreat never to reach our full academic potential. Did you know that only 36% of fourth graders today read on grade-level and one in five students has dyslexia? Did you know that students who do not read proficiently by the 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of school?

 “I Feel Dumb”

Outside influencers can make the situation worse for struggling learners. Sometimes well-meaning teachers or parents label a child dumb or lazy, or a bully picks on a student to the point of isolation from friends. Our friend, Max always felt inferior to his classmates. He has trouble understanding what he reads. Some classmates call him names. What Max, and students like him, need to hear is...“Everyone learns differently and that’s okay!”

Building Reading Confidence 

“If a child feels bad about themselves as learners and cannot keep up with school work, then we as teachers are doing something wrong,” says Nelda Reyes, a Texas elementary teacher and dyslexia specialist. “It is unthinkable that with all the technology and assistive devices we have today that kids who struggle to read feel unsupported." 

Eye reading vs. Ear reading

There are many ways we learn new information – we can read it, listen to it, watch it, and touch it or a combination. No method is better or worse, we just have to understand what type of learner we are. The important thing to remember is that if we can comprehend more information and feel confident as a learner, then the strategy or resource we use is doing its job. Ear reading may be one of your chosen teaching solutions.  

Using audiobooks is an auditory learning strategy that thousands of teachers rely on to level the learning field and provide multiple models of representation as in a universal design for learning environment to deliver accessible education materials.

Do you believe that when a child listens to an audiobook and sees text simultaneously, they aren’t learning?

Ear reading can be an effective tool because if we have dyslexia our brains do not process information fast enough to absorb print. Sadly, many people still believe that 'learning through listening in a multi-sensory way' is somehow cheating.  “Nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Mrs. Reyes, “especially for students who have the intellectual ability to learn well, but lack the ability to keep pace with grade-level curriculum.”  

Read for Fluency 33 days consistently for 20 minutes

“Some educators believe that “eye reading” above a student’s decoding level can be counter-productive for a student who is dyslexic or receiving dyslexia intervention,” says Terrie Noland, VP of Education Initiatives for Learning Ally. “Dyslexia therapists often want to banish the act of guessing words – a strategy that students with dyslexia use to disguise their inability to decode words fluently to discern meaning. If a student with dyslexia is thrown into text with words he has not learned to decode, he will revert back to old habits of guessing based on certain letters or shape of a word.”

Learning Ally recommends reading for 33 days, 20 minutes a day to ensure reading fluency happens. “This is a statistically-proven formula we’ve tested with students of all ages and demographics and it works,” says Terrie Noland. “Allocate the time and struggling readers will improve critical thinking and foundation skills such as expanding vocabulary, increased background knowledge, reading in context, and fostering a love of reading. It is no surprise that students with dyslexia learn best when they use a variety of learning stimuli -- listening, watching, and experiencing a story or textbook. Audiobooks with human narration work the best to keep students engaged and reading consistently.”

Start today to build a growth mindset for struggling readers. Tell them it’s okay to read in different ways. Give them the tools and the time to make reading happen. Demo Learning Ally and see how you can the magic happen for more learners.  

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The Benefits of Ear-Reading

November 19, 2018 by Jhara Navalo

By Dana Blackaby - A dyslexia specialist discusses the assistive technologies she uses to help students with dyslexia make gains in reading.

Student Reading Audiobooks in Library

I’m a dyslexia specialist, and I work to promote a growth mindset and establish an expectation of high achievement for all of my students, so I ask them every day, “What are you reading today?” A key strategy I use is having them read along with audiobooks, which is beneficial in tying their emotional belief system directly to their academic performance.

It’s important to allow students to choose books that match their interests, hopes, and dreams, and that is still true when working with audiobooks. For example, I had a student who came to me as a non-reader in second grade. Through conversation, I learned that he wanted to become a storm chaser when he grew up, so together we searched for nonfiction audiobooks related to tornadoes, tsunamis, and hurricanes.

He went home and ear-read an entire book for the first time in his life. Overnight, his belief system about reading and books changed from avoidance to intense interest. Previously, he had thought of books as a form of torture because reading involved intense, laborious decoding that resulted in frustration. He hadn’t thought of books as a means to learn something new.

He began using vocabulary he had heard while ear-reading high-interest books, and we continued to talk each day about what he was reading and added new books to his online bookshelf.

A few months later, his mother emailed to tell me that his attitude toward school had changed. She was thrilled that he now wanted to go to school. This shift in attitude transformed his academic performance—he became engaged in school and took ownership of his learning, and his self-confidence began to blossom.


Students who qualify as having dyslexia typically read below grade level but have the aptitude to become high achievers. For them, exposure to words in context via ear-reading can significantly reduce reading barriers, and human-narrated audiobooks really do make stories come alive for these students.

Each day, I ask my students to ear-read for 20 minutes to strengthen their reading frequency, vocabulary, and stamina—a practice promoted by Daily Five and Learning Ally, a nonprofit education technology organization that provides schools with access to human-read audiobooks, textbooks, and literature. There are other companies and organizations that provide accessible books too, like Overdrive, Bookshare, and Audible.

Other resources in my assistive technology toolbox are text-to-speech programs like Snap&Read and Natural Reader. My students have become celebrities around our district of more than 12,000 students because of their skill at using these types of software—we created the Student-Led Tech Crew, made up of students with dyslexia ages 9 to 17 who have become confident public speakers and presenters.

The Student-Led Tech Crew travels around our district sharing their assistive technology toolboxes with other teachers and students. We were even booked to teach in our district’s professional development sessions prior to the 2018–19 school year. Most recently, we were invited to present our tools for academic success to a room full of district administrators, and my students handled these executives like pros.

These students have made marked improvements in their reading skills and social behavior as a result of our structured literacy curriculum, my high expectations for their achievement, and their use of supplemental assistive technology resources. Through the structured literacy curriculum, I teach students to decode words in an explicit and systematic manner that focuses on phonology, sound-symbol association, syllable types, and syntax. In addition, this instruction is delivered in a multisensory way that is proven to build pathways to improve phonological memory.

Used together, the curriculum and assistive technology support students, improving their performance through exposure to new vocabulary and daily access to grade-level texts.


After using these resources with fidelity, my students performed higher on state testing and demonstrated large strides in self-confidence. In our state assessments, 97 percent of my students who utilized audiobooks and text-to-speech software met the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) reading standard.

The biggest benefit is that students are recognized for reading and academic achievement—a rare occurrence for most students with dyslexia. Another moment of recognition came last year when we won third place in the nation in Learning Ally’s Great Reading Games, ear-reading over 134,000 pages in just seven weeks. The students were thrilled to be featured by our local news station.

Students come to class each day and eagerly participate in my structured literacy lessons. They continue to choose audiobooks above their reading level to read at home, and they talk about books with their peers. They demonstrate, with authority, how to use technology to read audiobooks and to help them read unfamiliar words on websites or PDFs. As a result, they’re now asking their classmates, “What are you reading?” with confidence. I’ve also noticed emotional gains in my struggling readers, such as perseverance and independence.

The effective use of assistive technology coupled with an explicit structured literacy curriculum can be life-changing for students with learning differences. Try one of these tools to see if your students will come out of their shell. Give them the freedom to choose what topics they want to learn about and watch the transformation in their self-belief that they can be successful readers and achievers.

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 an extensive library of human-read audiobooks that students want and need to read at home and at school, along with a suite of teacher-focused resources that ensure student success. This reading experience helps accelerate learning, enables a new level of access to knowledge and powerfully increases student confidence and self-belief.

Learning Ally partners with 13,000 U.S. schools, districts and state education systems to empower over 300,000 students with improved comprehension, vocabulary, fluency and critical thinking skills. For 70 years, the organization has helped to transform the lives of struggling readers by bridging the gap between their reading capability and their academic potential to become confident, lifelong learners who thrive in school and beyond.

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Nine Out of Ten Educators Believe Learning Ally Enables Students to Better Comprehend Grade-Level Texts
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November 14, 2018 by Valerie Chernek

For Immediate Release:

November 13, 2018 - Princeton, NJ -- A 2018 survey of more than two thousand U.S. educators revealed that participants overwhelmingly agreed that audiobooks, read by skilled narrators, increases academic achievement for struggling readers, including students with dyslexia and other learning differences.

The survey, conducted by Learning Ally, a New Jersey-based nonprofit edtech organization and leading producer of high-quality, human-read audiobooks, is intended to learn about how educators are addressing the growing challenges of struggling readers, and what role popular fiction, nonfiction and curriculum-aligned materials in audiobook format can play in bridging the reading gap.

"Over 20% of today’s K12 students struggle with reading," said Jeffrey Ho, VP of Data Sciences for Learning Ally. "National surveys like this one provide critical feedback that enables us to tailor our learning solutions to meet the needs of this underserved student population, and to develop best practices in reading engagement and resources for teachers."

Key findings from the survey include:

- 93% of educators believe Learning Ally enables teachers to ensure that students have access to grade-level reading
- 91% of educators believe Learning Ally enables students to achieve academically
- 91% of educators believe Learning Ally empowers students to take greater ownership of their learning

One of the biggest challenges facing educators today is how to bridge the reading gap between struggling readers and their higher-performing peers. Learning Ally, with its vast library of human-read audiobooks, does exactly that by giving every student equitable access to grade-level content. 

“With Learning Ally, instead of worrying about the mechanics of reading, struggling readers are able to read the books they want and need to read,” said Ho. “In doing so, they build vocabulary and background knowledge, strengthen their reading comprehension and higher-level thinking skills,  develop greater learning confidence and self-esteem and, ultimately, increase their academic success.”

About Learning Ally 

Learning Ally is a nonprofit organization committed to helping struggling readers with learning differences become confident, engaged learners. Learning Ally's extensive library of human-read audiobooks gives struggling readers access to the books they want and need to read, helping to bridge the gap between their reading capability and their ability to learn grade-level content. A complete learning solution that includes teacher-focused resources, Learning Ally is helping more than 375,000 struggling readers in over 15,000 schools nationwide reach their academic potential. 

In 2018, Learning Ally received a distinguished Library of Congress Literacy Award for its outstanding commitment and innovative research-based best practices to ensure literacy for all in U.S. schools. To learn how your school or district can become a member of Learning Ally in support of struggling readers, schedule a Learning Ally demo or call 800-221-1098. 

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7 Ways Audiobooks Benefit Students Who Struggle with Reading

November 9, 2018 by Valerie Chernek

Would it surprise you to learn that using audiobooks in the classroom can improve learning success and even reading scores? 

When students in grades 3–8 have reading skills that are below benchmark, they lose ground more rapidly. Providing access to human-read audiobooks can support reading skill development. Audiobooks allow students to hear explicit sounds of letters and letter patterns that form words. Audiobooks help students engage in text and gain exposure to more words, ultimately improving vocabulary, comprehension and critical thinking skills. Audiobooks can be a great resource for you to encourage independent reading. 

Take a glance at these seven reasons why audiobooks are the perfect accommodation for your struggling readers.

1. Increases word exposure and improves vocabulary.

When students are offered the opportunity to have audiobooks in the classroom, their world can finally open up. Having books read aloud helps these struggling readers move beyond the decoding and right into learning. The more words they learn and incorporate into their knowledge-base, the better able they will be to access grade-level materials.

2. Builds background knowledge.

Students in grades 3-8 come to the classroom with differing experiences for sure, but those who’ve also struggled with reading arrive even less prepared. Human-read audiobooks expose students to academic vocabulary and the language of books. This exposure helps build their background knowledge, an essential component to an evolving student. It also helps develop higher-order thinking skills. The ability to build background quickly through audiobooks cannot be underestimated. If students are left to read only materials at their reading level, they lose out. They lose opportunities to get access to content and information that represents their capabilities and intellect. This is not only frustrating and causes emotional stress, but also limits learning experiences.

3. Reduces working-memory deficit.

Students who struggle with decoding and the mechanics of reading spend so much time focusing on sounding out the words that it is difficult for them to retain the information they are reading. By eliminating the focus on decoding they are now able to retain, remember, and understand the content. When students begin reading with their ears, they start building their working memory. This helps them respond to questions about the text more readily. The more often this happens, the more confident a student gets around the one subject that has plagued them, reading. Building working memory helps make other reading tasks easier and improves reading ability.

4. Removes printed word decoding anxiety.

As soon as the pressure to read the written word is gone, students are open to learn and happy to find out they can. Audiobooks allow students to be immersed in the meaning of text. They also remove the lag time of decoding, which becomes increasingly important as texts become more rigorous. Anxiety plays a huge part in a struggling reader’s entire school experience, so the introduction and regular use of audiobooks can actually help students enjoy school more.

5. Increases comprehension.

When students can hear the story or information as a whole, read by a human being, their comprehension increases. Reading books word-by-word doesn’t help create a whole experience. Kids in grades 3-8 who can finally put all the pieces of information together at one sitting, begin to make meaning of text.

6. Develops grade-level appropriate content knowledge.

Giving students access to grade-level materials by providing an audiobook accommodation improves their self-esteem and increases their participation in class and peer discussions. They are now able to work alongside their peers and get hours of time back. Just because a student can’t read the words in the same way as their peers, doesn’t mean they aren’t developmentally ready to learn this information. Listening to audiobooks brings the information to the student when they are ready for it, not when they can read it.

7. Gives students educational independence.

When students get access to the content and are able to work independently, it gives them the confidence to become successful learners and control their educational outcome. Students who are given the audiobook advantage as an accommodation also have more continuity of learning in the classroom. This means peer relationships can develop normally and students can feel more like insiders.

This Learning Ally article was first published by WeAreTeachers. To learn how your school or district can transform more struggling readers into grade-level achievers, schedule a quick demo or call 800-221-1098.

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Decoding Versus Cognitive Ability
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November 3, 2018 by Valerie Chernek

By Terrie Noland, VP Education InitiativesEarly Reading Brain - Everything matters in development of the reading circuit with images of brain scans

Automaticity is necessary in everything we do to move to higher order thinking skills and perform tasks flawlessly. In this blog, we will explore the reading brain to understand the “automaticity” of executing lower-level reading processes that will help us master higher-level comprehension. 

Brainpower to drive a car

When we first learn to drive a car, we expend our brainpower on technical skills such as speed, turn signals, and road signs. We use both hands on the wheel. It takes significant cognitive capacity to remember to look in the mirrors to change lanes. At this stage of our learning process, we have not mastered the “automaticity” of the skills needed to drive a car, but with practice and confidence, our lower level processing becomes automatic.

This is true in the classroom too. If we cannot easily perform lower-level reading processes such as phonemic awareness, phonics, and decoding with “automaticity,” we will find it more difficult to free up our mental capacity to concentrate on the task. When our cognitive load becomes too intense to comprehend, there is enhanced likelihood that gaps in our learning process will exist – thus affecting reading achievement and feelings of failure. This scenario happens for many learners in lower socio-economic status, struggling readers and students with learning disabilities, like dyslexia.

Multi-Faceted Reading Definitions – ‘Reading for Meaning’ 

Research suggests that the act of reading is multi-faceted:

1) An explicit skill building activity necessary to access print.

2) An ability to comprehend text that comes from accurate word decoding.

While researchers debate the definition of finite reading skills such as fluency (Rasinski et al., 2011), there is a consensus that reading does involve understanding written text and constructing meaning from that text (Afflerbach et al., 2011). What happens if teachers only pay attention to one reading definition? Let’s test this.

Reading Test

Read the following excerpt from Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a popular series for ages 7-13, and with a Lexile level of 950:

Today is the first day of school, and right now we’re just waiting around for the teacher to hurry up and finish the seating chart.  So I figured I might as well write in this book to pass the time.  By the way, let me give you some good advice. On the first day of school, you got to be real careful where you sit.  You walk into the classroom and just plunk your stuff down on any old desk and the next thing you know the teacher is saying – ‘I hope you all like where you’re sitting, because these are your permanent seats’ (Kinney, 2007).

If you mastered the skills of decoding and fluency, pulling words from the page by attaching sounds to letters and reading with correct rate, (automaticity and prosody,) then you are likely to make sense of the text. Your brain met the automaticity of the lower level processes. (Kendou, 2014).


Now, read the following excerpt from a medical journal about developmental dyslexia:

Two female subjects showed multiple instances of focal myelinated conical infraction, with neuronal loss, gliosis, and myelination of the scars affecting perisylvian and cerebral arterial border-zone territories.  The presence of myelin in the scars suggested that the injury preceded the second or third year of postnatal life.  One of the males showed, in addition to microdysgenesis, a small number of these myelinated scars.  The brain of the twenty-year-old female had no scars in the cortex but did have a small number of ectopias distributed equally between the hemispheres. Other abnormalities included a bilobar hippocampal oligondendraglioma and a frontal arteriovenous anomaly in one female case; one male and another female case also showed arteriovenous anomalies and a male showed arthitectonic abnormalities in the lateralis posterior and medial geniculate nuclei of the thalamus” (Galaburda et al., 1985, p. 223)

Did you exhaust brainpower to decode all the technical words in this text? Did it slow you down? Did you try context clues or isolating root words and affixes to decipher the vocabulary? Did you feel less smart when you read the second passage as the first?

Cognitive Load Theory 

This is an example of cognitive load theory, suggesting that our working memory can only handle two or three pieces of information at a time. The limitations of working memory overloads the finite skills of full comprehension. (Rueda, 2011 & Foorman et al., 2011).

Cunningham et al., (2011) stated, “…when word recognition is not yet automatized, the reader experiences significant cognitive demands while decoding text. As a reader matures, and the demands of conceptually more difficult texts require the use of complex thinking strategies, a reduction in conscious attention is necessary at the word recognition level to free up cognitive energy required for comprehension” (p. 260). 

In the time it took to read the first passage to the second, your intelligence did not change. What changed was your ability to decode content and understand what you read. In the second passage, our brainpower had to drive into overload to use our lower level processes.  

Bridge the “Automaticity” Reading Gap - Fluency

“Reading fluency helps to reduce the cognitive demand and thus makes text comprehension easier for the reader” (Rueda, 2011).

Dr. Maryanne Wolf (2008), in her book Proust and the Squid, builds a visual story of what reading is about by uncovering the precepts of reading as defined by Marcel Proust, “Proust saw reading as a kind of intellectual sanctuary, where human beings have access to thousands of realities they might never encounter or understand otherwise.” (p. 6).

For struggling readers and those with learning disabilities, we need to help them find a bridge to content while being taught the lower level processes of reading. Many educators use an evidence-based structured literacy program, but this approach takes time, maybe 1 or 2 years.

Just as any young child can comprehend above their ability to read, so can a student that is struggling to read. They require a tool to help them automatize the decoding process and to provide reinforcement of skill building in the lower level processes of reading. Access to human-read audiobooks can serve as a reliable tool to keep both processes going simultaneously -- comprehension and cognition.

Holistic Reading Approach

If we only allow students to rely on the explicit skills taught, their ability to catch up to grade level will be farther out of reach.  As a community of researchers and education professionals, consider three questions:

1.  Are the cognitive capacities and abilities of students, not just learning disabled students, on par with grade level content when the lower level processes of reading are not automatized?

2. What are the tools and resources that teachers use to create a holistic environment and culture of reading and literacy when time and pacing of curriculum do not allow adequate time spent on explicit instruction?

3. Are classrooms that take a more holistic approach to reading instruction more effective? 

With further investigation into these questions and applying recommended tools such as human-read audiobooks, we can have hope that the achievement gap will lessen over a shorter period of time, and students who struggle with the finite processes of reading can keep pace with peers.  If reading automaticity is an issue for your struggling reader, Learning Ally, a nonprofit providing access to curriculum in human-read audiobook format can bridge the gap between lower level reading processes and reading for thorough comprehension and content mastery.

For a list of references cited in this article, contact Learning Ally at 1-800-221-4792

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