K-12 | Read to Achieve


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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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Introduce Students to Diverse Literature and Open World to Self-Reflection
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November 3, 2018 by Valerie Chernek

Imagine a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book by relating to a character … a protagonist*.


Diverse literature often reflects and honors the lives of young people, and mirrors our own experience. These stories are curiously written to help children and teens discover their identity, feel more valued, less afraid and alone. 

This type of literature provides opportunities for children and teens to learn about someone’s life and experience their own life through the eyes of the characters. When you assign diverse literature, you can help to foster a new respect for students’ differences, and promote more empathy toward others.

Introducing diverse literature in your school reading program is a great way to widen class discussions and build a new culture of readers, that includes all types of learners.

Did you know that Learning Ally has many audiobooks that can be classified as diverse literature?   


The Hate U Give


The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a great example of juvenile fiction in our current times. The book was published in February 2017 and remained on the New York Times YA best-sellers list for 50 weeks. The story is in movie theaters now across the U.S. and receiving positive reviews.  


Why not download and listen to our human-narrated audiobook version of The Hate U Give with your students. The heroine, Starr Carter, is a high schooler who describes how she feels living two lives in a world of racism and activism. It is appropriate for students in grade 9 (age 14 and above), and has a Lexile level of HL59OL. The movie is rated PG13.

To date, this audiobook has been downloaded more than 1700 times by Learning Ally members. Listen to this video clip of our skilled voice-over artist narrating this story and bringing the characters to life. 

Do you have a favorite diverse literature title? If so feel free to share it with us in the comments.    



Learning Ally is a leading nonprofit edtech 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, along with a suite of teacher-focused resources that ensure student success. Schedule a quick demo to learn how your school or district can transform more struggling readers into grade-level achievers. 800-221-1098 

Definition of pro·tag·o·nist / /prōˈtaɡənəst,prəˈtaɡənəst/
  *A protagonist (from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning 'one who plays the first part, chief actor') is the leading character of a story. The protagonist is at the center of the story, makes the key decisions, and experiences the consequences of those decisions.
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"Learned Helplessness" Identifying The Symptoms of Dyslexia
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November 3, 2018 by Valerie Chernek

Guest blog by Tracy Block-Zaretsky, Dyslexia Training Institute     

Have you looked up dyslexia on the Internet just to find overwhelming definitions, data and symptoms? It is daunting for parents and teachers. You don’t know what to believe or what to look for in a child or teen that is struggling to read. Why?

No two people with dyslexia will look exactly alike in their symptoms and the manifestations of those symptoms. There are multiple symptoms, and they can range from mild to severe. The more severe the symptoms the earlier they will become apparent. Some symptoms show up later in the learning process, because a child may learn to mask them, and may display high intellect and the ability to develop compensatory strategies. This is common when the symptoms of dyslexia are mild and/or the student is gifted (high IQ).

Backwards/Forwards Letters

Let’s start with a symptom that most people believe: Seeing letters and words backwards. It is developmentally normal to reverse letters through first grade. It is uncommon to continue to have reversal issues past first grade. Students with dyslexia are not seeing letters backwards, their brains are having difficulty learning that directionality matters when it comes to reading print.

Before students start learning to read, directionality does not matter in defining an object. An elephant is an elephant no matter which way it is facing, or standing, or laying down. However, we have specific ways to form letters and orient them on a line. Learning this form and orientation can be more challenging for a student with dyslexia (or dysgraphia). These learners see print like you and I, but have challenges with reversals of letters and words well beyond what is developmentally normal.

Comprehension – Patterns and Structures

Another common symptom is difficulty remembering a word a student has seen and practiced. They may have figured a word out on one page, just to struggle to recognize the same word in the next occurrence. Students with dyslexia have a difficult time picking up language patterns and structures not explicitly taught. They may be able to pick up patterns not related to language (ie: math, art), but not language patterns and structures. This is why students with dyslexia have a difficult time rhyming-- a language pattern that their brain does not process well.


I have never met a student with dyslexia that didn’t struggle to spell. All the rainbow writing, air writing, tracing, etc., that is typically taught and repeated doesn’t help. Frustration mounts as student begin to acknowledge they cannot spell words in their written work that they use all the time in their native language and oral responses. Written work of students with dyslexia rarely reflects their intellectual abilities. This can be humiliating.

Reading Avoidance and Coping Mechanisms

We often hear these statements about students who struggle to read: “She avoids reading and writing.” “He just don’t seem to want to apply himself.”  “She isn’t working to her potential.”

A child starts out in school trying their best to learn, to be like their peers, to please teachers and parents. As hard as they try, they are not learning. They are letting others down. It doesn’t make sense to them why they struggle so much. They are not seeing a payoff and begin to think there is something wrong with them and they are stupid. Some students will turn into wallflowers or just the opposite act out in class to avoid reading and writing. These are not signs of not applying themselves or not working to potential, these are cries for help!

Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is an unintended result of having learning disabilities that many students with dyslexia experience. Well-meaning teachers, aides, parents or tutors who aren’t trained or skilled at working with struggling learners, unintentionally lead student’s to believe they are not able to do a task without “help.”

When a student states they cannot do something and the person helping them shows the student how to do it, often completing a portion if not all of the work, over time, the student requires more and more help, and loses the ability to learn 'how to learn.' This feeling of “helplessness,” spirals negative beliefs about themselves as learners. They can lose faith in themselves that affects not only school. They may be labeled as lazy or not applying themselves, and not receiving adequate academic expectations and goals that match their intellectual ability.

More Struggling Readers Can Achieve

We are getting smarter. I want to give you hope for the future and a current look at what’s happening around dyslexia now.

-- More awareness about dyslexia and support for legislative change is happening due to parents advocating and groups like Decoding Dyslexia. (Check DecodingDyslexia.net to find your state’s group.)

-- More schools and institutes are educating and training teachers and parents to look for dyslexia in struggling learners, and how to teach them, but there is more work to do to get schools on board.

-- More research to study dyslexia and comorbid* conditions is happening in the U.S. and around the world.

-- More parents are advocating for dyslexia screening processes that start as early as kindergarten, but don’t stop at any grade to avoid students falling through the cracks.

-- More teachers and specialists are developing personalized learning plans and IEPs that include explicitly teaching patterns and structures of the English language, but also incorporating reading and writing accommodations, like assistive technology, audiobooks, reading devices and speech-to-text, that remove barriers to curriculum so that students can access and produce grade-level content and are motivated to read and write daily.

-- More educators and parents are aware that a student’s self-belief is as important as their academic prowess.

About Tracy Block-Zaretsky

Tracy Block-Zaretsky is the co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute. She has provided remediation for children and adults with dyslexia for the past 20 years and has developed and taught workplace and family literacy program. She is a certified Special Education advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process. She is a past President of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. Tracy has training in Structured Word Inquiry, the Orton-Gillingham approach, Lindamood-Bell programs, Read Naturally and a variety of reading and writing assessments. She co-created and produced, "Dyslexia for a Day: A Simulation of Dyslexia," and has provided professional development for educators and training for parents at numerous conferences, private on-site trainings and online courses and webinars. Tracy is also a parent of a child with dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADD and Executive Function Disorder.


Learning Ally is a leading nonprofit edtech 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, along with a suite of teacher-focused resources that ensure student success. Schedule a quick demo to learn how your school or district can transform more struggling readers into grade-level achievers. Call 800-221-1098.

To get involved, learn more about the Dyslexia Training Institute, about Learning Ally’s reading accommodation and audiobook library, and share this Edwebinar, “What Dyslexia Red Flags are for Students in Different Grades.”

*Comorbid definition - ‘existing simultaneously with and usually independently of another medical condition.’

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