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.

What Struggling Readers Wish School Administrators Knew
struggling student

January 21, 2020 by Julie Heaton

In September, Learning Ally hosted an edWebinar, titled, “What Struggling Readers Wish Administrators Knew.” Terrie Noland, V.P. of Educator Leadership & Learning led the session. Here is an excerpt.

Through the Eyes of John 

From the very start, John knew he was not reading like other children. He was confused because he was a smart child. His parents said so and he believed it. That is until reading assignments came along, and a thirty-minute assignment took two or more hours for John. Every night he struggled. His learning journey became a daily frustration ending in self-doubt, isolation, and dread when asked to read. John’s angst mounted and began to impede his health.

Sadly, John’s school wasn’t prepared to support him. Administrators lacked the time to develop a system to identify early-literacy reading deficits. Teachers lacked essential training on reading instruction and what the research says about it today. By the fourth grade, John’s parents hired a tutor, and paid for a battery of tests to discover he has dyslexia. They placed him in another school. By middle school, John was on track academically. He received the right strategies and reading accommodation and now is able to read just below grade-level. He is thrilled to be on the honor roll. His outlook soared. But, what about the millions of struggling learners who are largely trapped in a spiral of poor reading skills or are not diagnosed with a learning disability?

Addressing the Reading Crisis in America 

A national conversation is taking place across the U.S. about the lack of understanding and training on the science of reading. Droves of educators, administrators, researchers, parents, and the media are discussing the growing literacy crisis and how to stop it. Yes, there is so much going on in schools. The challenges for administrators and educators are endless. Yet, common goals remain: improve test scores and skill performance, support students who demonstrate ill-behavior and prevent chronic absenteeism.

Low reading ability affects a person’s health and well-being. Without explicit reading instruction, motivation and accommodation, students face tremendous hardship and stereotyping. Often, struggling readers hear, “he’s stubborn or just lazy,” “she will eventually catch up,” “he will never be a good student,” “she’s too young to test,” and “boys learn slower.”

Sadly, many teachers, administrators, and parents still use these terms. Students may find it easier to act like a class clown and arrive in the principal’s office every day, rather than look stupid reading. The humiliation of “popcorn reading,” i.e. reading aloud in class, is too hard to bear. Bad behavior is a common coping mechanism among struggling learners. These learners truly may not know why they act out, but in all probability, it’s because of poor reading skills.

Not Being Able to Read is "NOT" Good 

In 2018, Dr. Kenneth Pugh at the Syracuse University on Neuroscience Research Day, said, “We largely know how to fix this problem, and it is criminal if we do not.” Current research on brain-based imaging insists on “early testing for reading deficits,” even as early as kindergarten. 

Students who struggle to read, like those with dyslexia, are often intellectually bright but give up because of lack of interest in school. They do not know that they are missing fundamental skills in decoding and phonics-based instruction. Their assignments are dummied down, thus they are never exposed to grade-level vocabulary. Their school does not have a systematic, structured intervention process, and thus teachers do not scaffold instruction. 

Additionally, and unfortunately for the student, teachers assign “leveled books," thus they will never enjoy literature on their cognitive or grade level.

Reading Fluency and Phonological Awareness 

Two important fallacies are the belief that reading fluency means the rate in which someone reads. This is not accurate. Reading fluency is about rate, but also prosody, automaticity, and full comprehension of information.

How phonics-based instruction is taught is also of great concern. Discrete understanding of phonemic sounds is extremely important for reading success.

Tier of evidence based instruction

In this section we share points expressed by students on what they wished their administrators and teachers knew.

These small step suggestions have been embraced by school leaders and literacy experts.

  • Empathize with the learner. 
  • Evaluate ineffective school and classroom practices by grounding ourselves in evidence-based research and information.
  • Implement an early literacy solution that includes identification of how, where and when struggling readers should receive intensive evidence-based, structured reading instruction.
  • Place students into an RTI/MTSS program for more individualized learning, and begin evidence-based instruction in Tier I. If you wait until Tier II, your student's learning gap may never close.
  • Provide consistent access for students to receive a proven reading accommodation and accessible books. Equitable access will ensure that a student who is reading below grade level has every opportunity to read literature and textbooks on their grade-level. 
  • While your students receive intensive core instruction, provide them with access to grade level text. This supplement can build your students' skills in higher order thinking, comprehension, vocabulary and boost their social and emotional learning confidence. 

Learning Ally mobile app bookshelf capture

You can also explore Learning Ally’s mobile app, an integrated learning tool with a built in dictionary and annotation features.

A teacher or student can easily build a personalized digital bookshelf holding titles that will keep a struggling reader engaged and reading independently, while improving fundamental skills.

Administrators can encourage pre-service and ongoing teacher training. They can share research on topics like dyslexia, the science of reading in the 21st century, and books by literacy experts. Here is a short list.

Motivate and Accommodate 

John says, “Dyslexia is not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just me.” He wants us to learn from his struggle. He wants us to identify children with reading deficits as early as possible and to rid ourselves of outdated mindsets, like learning through audiobooks is somehow cheating.

Regrettably, many schools do not budget for assistive technology. Administrators and teachers are unaware that this resource can support all students who struggle to read, not just those with a 504 plan or IEP in special education.

All students have the right to an equitable and fair education. Changing the trajectory of struggling learners will have an enormous impact on your school goals and empower teachers to revive instruction. You will also receive the appreciation of parents and your local community who are desperate for their child who struggles to read to succeed.

Thank you for sharing this blog. You can watch this edWebinar in full to gain education certifications. These edWebinars are no cost to help you stay abreast of research, learn best practices, connect with like-minded colleagues and to participate in events, like our “Spotlight on Dyslexia” virtual conference.

We invite you to sign up for Learning Ally’s “Empowering Struggling Readers” online community, and join education leaders across the U.S. who are transforming struggling readers into academic achievers.

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Struggling Readers Can Thrive in Catholic Schools
student reading with tablet

January 14, 2020 by Julie Heaton

Blog Author: Mary Cohen


Catholic schools face extraordinary challenges today in addressing a multitude of students' learning needs. This is especially true for educators who teach students who struggle to read. As a dedicated servant of the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools first as a teacher, then principal and associate superintendent for twenty-five years, I have gained a unique perspective on strategies that may help more of these learners succeed. I want to share them with you.

Barriers to Reading - Learning Disability

Children come to our schools with joy, wonder and unlimited potential. They have special gifts and talents, but many students face considerable obstacles in their learning process. Barriers to reading may be due to learning disabilities, like dyslexia, a language-based processing disorder that now affects tens of thousands of children who cannot easily comprehend print, and thus are not able to keep academic pace with coursework and peers. 

Many intellectually bright children are unnecessarily frustrated in the learning process and deal with emotional distress. Many teachers experience failed attempts to reach a child's true academic potential because of a learning disability, leaving the student, the teacher and their families wondering what to do. No child should feel trapped in the learning process and no teacher should have to settle for this fate.

Early Identification - RTI Framework

Statistically proven, children who do not read well by the third grade will fall behind academically. They need our help to identify their barriers to reading early in the learning process. How do we help them make sense of language and have access to grade-level text they are required to learn? 

In Colorado, we employ a framework of screening assessments to identify struggling readers as early as first grade, and then use a systematic remediation and intervention process. This includes instruction, testing, interventions and data to develop a baseline understanding of a child's needs.

We screen every student in first grade with the DIBELS reading assessment at the beginning of the school year. Using that screening information, we develop intervention plans to deliver in the classroom with the assistance of a reading specialist. The specialist implements the interventions are for three to six weeks and then we conduct a progress monitoring assessment to determine the success of the intervention. 

Students in grades 2 through 8 also begin each year with a reading screening assessment. They complete the STAR Reading Assessment and students in grades 2-4 may receive additional support in the classroom from the reading specialist. We use the information gained from the screening of the older students to determine instructional reading levels, appropriate literature and appropriate time allotments for processing text. 

Access to Curriculum

We also provide access to curriculum-aligned materials on grade-level in digital format, including audiobooks, (textbooks, literature and pleasure reading) from Learning Ally, a nonprofit organization. This audiobook solution provides an effective reading accommodation, access to all kinds of digital books, and a cost-savings resource that does not require additional teaching staff.

Teacher Collaboration and Support

With potentially three or more students in a classroom who may have a learning disability, it is nearly impossible for teachers to always think outside the box to address each child's individual needs. Knowledge sharing proves to be very beneficial. Encouraging time for teachers to connect with colleagues enables them to learn about and try new approaches in their teaching regimes, and to strengthen their resolve to find solutions. 

Weekly collaboration meetings with teachers have worked extremely well. Through the act of caring and sharing, we are able to bring new ideas to light. We are grateful for reading specialists on staff who support our students with interventions that address specific skill sets, such as improving vowel sounds that can stall a struggling readers' ability to read fluently. 

Teacher collaborations also keep us accountable and keep teachers from working in silo environments. None of us has all the answers. When we come together, we reap the benefits of pooling resources, and receiving reinforcement and reassurance that we are doing everything possible to ensure a child's academic success. 

Reading Accommodations and Access to Curriculum 

Access to grade-level text is also critical for struggling readers. The Learning Ally audiobook library has textbooks in science, history, English and literature, as well as age-appropriate books to keep students inspired to read in school and at home. These audiobooks with human-narration help to model accurate oral representation of text for reading prosody. This is particularly helpful to middle school students who have rigorous studies with intense vocabulary. At this critical age, keeping academic pace in grade-level coursework and reading enrichment are keys to learning success.

Students who once pretended to read now read with gusto with human-read audiobooks. They appreciate having more control over their learning process. they no longer rely on their parents. They see themselves as readers. This is a wonderful thing.

It is true that many of our Catholic schools have limited resources, but there are always solutions if we have faith and willingness to be open to new approaches.


Mary Cohen Headshot

In this article, I shared some of the proven strategies and resources that have worked for me. My hope is that these ideas may help you educate more struggling readers and that more families choose catholic schools to reap the rewards of a faith-based, catholic education.

Parents always ask me if we have the strategies and tools in place to help their child who is a struggling reader succeed academically. I can say emphatically that we do, and so can you.

Mary Cohen is a recipient of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award for her service to the Catholic Church and ministry of education, a highly distinguished recognition given by the Pope and Vatican.

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Another Route to Reading
Middle school boy writing

December 17, 2019 by Jenny Falke

Blog Author: Lindsey Gervais

middle school boy writingMost students who struggle with their reading also do not feel as though they are in control of their learning experience. Unfortunately, when students do not feel as though they can self-regulate through their learning, their ability to envision what is possible tends to falter. The opposite is true of students who feel confident and in control of their learning. At a school in Seymour, Indiana, we see this of students who struggle to get over that hump.

Meet Sarah Bumbleburg, a Special Education Coordinator at Trinity Lutheran High School, who believed that after having Learning Ally for 11 years as site-wide option, the multisensory Learning Ally reading experience was an effective alternative route to reading that students who struggled with reading due to dyslexia needed. Learning Ally enabled these students to become independent readers in a general education class. Bumbleburg saw first-hand that this assistive reading technology “allowed students to feel in control of their learning.” As a result, they can feel their own success and learn the same information their peers are learning.

Student Spotlight:

Imagine a technology so impactful and impressionable on a student that it empowered them to approach an advanced level course. Bumbleburg described a student on a CSEP (Choice Student Education Plan) who used Learning Ally as a junior, and despite some inconsistencies in his work ethic, wanted to give AP-level English a try. Upon starting the class, Bumbleburg says, “he was adamant about using Learning Ally and wanted to use it on a daily basis once heavy reading was required”. This student had gained so much confidence from Learning Ally, that he was able to take control of his learning and knew what he needed to succeed. He was able to keep up with his advanced level course, and further demonstrated that with Learning Ally, dyslexia is not a matter of lacking intelligence; it is about traveling an alternative route to literacy with the same confidence as other students in general education and advanced level classes.

This profound case was a common instance at Trinity Lutheran H.S, where students were using Learning Ally to access content for an enhanced reading experience, and then proceeded to help others understand as they were now able to. In almost every other use case with Learning Ally, as students gained confidence, the more initiative they took in their learning. This speaks to the unquestionable impact that equitable access for students who are dyslexic in a general education class can have on reading development.

Support Your Students with Reading Deficits with the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution

The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is a multi-sensory reading accommodation that levels the playing field for students who struggle to read due to a reading deficit, providing them the opportunity achieve in school and in life. Gaining access to the books they want to read—and the books they need to read—in an easy-to-absorb format can be a game changer. Sign up for a demo or get more information today to experience the satisfaction of seeing students who have never before experienced reading success blossom, with improved grades, higher test scores and increased confidence and self-esteem.

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What To Do About Stalling Literacy Rates in the U.S.

December 13, 2019 by Jenny Falke

What to do about the lack of progress in reading scores?

student readingWe know that a student’s reading proficiency directly impacts their ability to succeed academically. Strong literacy skills aren’t just important throughout a child’s education, but carry significant weight as they move into adulthood and start their careers. Because of literacy’s link to academic success, reading performance is evaluated consistently throughout K-12. The hope is that with all the focus and resources spent on literacy development and reading skills, test scores will improve, and the literacy gap will narrow. The most recent data from the Nation’s Report Card, unfortunately, showed bleak results. The gap in reading performance isn’t shrinking. Not only that, but students who were already dealing with a skill deficit are performing worse. Determining how to combat these disappointing results requires a combination of understanding where the educational deficits lie while implementing the right resources to truly help struggling readers succeed.

Digging into the data

“Since 2017, reading performance has dropped significantly across grades 4 and 8,” according to an Education Week analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data. In 2019, only one state showed improved reading rates for fourth graders, Mississippi. Washington, D.C. was the only place to experience an increase in reading rates for students in eighth grade. Everywhere else, across the nation, saw proficiency scores decline.

National Achievement-Level Results Chart

Around a third of each grade level is currently at or above the achievement level expected of students within those grades. At a time when it’s known how important strong reading skills are throughout school and into adulthood, data like this is almost frightening. It’s imperative we find a solution to help these students.

Building skills in the classroom to improve literacy rates

A key area potentially impacting the reading deficit is how educators engage with struggling students. “NCES researchers found teachers of low-performing students in reading, math, and science…were significantly less likely than their peers teaching high-performing students to report that they engage their classes in higher-order thinking or offered students advanced work,” according to Education Week. Students should feel challenged in their work in order to stay interested, and ignoring that fact with individuals already struggling to read can make them detach even more from the necessary skills to succeed.

An example of this is where eighth graders, at the lowest proficiency level of reading, are asked to summarize reading passages as a way to improve comprehension skills. This exercise not only prevents them from really engaging with the content, but also can be discouraging because they are struggling to decode the passage. In addition, they’re getting asked to do the most basic assignment while students at a higher proficiency level are allowed to analyze characters’ motivations or identify general themes within a selection. These engaging and interesting activities promote discussion and teach students to think beyond the words on the page, which promotes comprehension on a broader scale. They’re also accessible for students at any reading level, bringing the class onto the same page in a way that’s positive for everyone. Focus the assignment around a common topic for all students, and the foundational knowledge will help make decoding easier as well.

Learning to enjoy reading

Participation in a reading assignment is only part of the equation. Students also need encouragement to become lifelong readers. Improving a student’s comfort level with reading, so that reading stops feeling like a chore, adds another layer toward their developing literacy skills. “Only about 40 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds said they enjoyed reading "a lot," and more than one- third of them say they read daily. By the teen years, only 22 percent reported reading every day, and fewer than 1 in 4 reported really enjoying reading,” according to data from the Education Week article. This means students aren’t getting into the habit of reading, possibly because they’re not being encouraged to read, even if it’s assigned as homework. Maybe reading is simply too hard, and they give up. Maybe students get tired of not understanding what they’re asked to read, so don’t try.

Giving students access to books in a format they can connect with helps transform disinterested readers into passionate book lovers. Creating an environment where students can connect to what they’re reading and talk about it with their peers leaves a lasting impact. Doing that though, requires the right tools and the right approach to literacy.

Approaching literacy by providing options

Given all the roadblocks placed in front of students on their journey to improved reading skills, most of which they can’t control, it’s essential they get access to the right resources. They need tools that engage them in reading, helping to mold them into lifelong readers. They need access to content that appropriately challenges and interests them, which means a wide range of titles. It’s no easy feat to create both a format and a library that supports students in this way.

Through equitable access to all the books students want and need to read, Learning Ally’s Audiobooks help struggling readers become engaged, independent learners. With an extensive library of over 80,000 human-read audiobooks with highlighted text for students to follow, Learning Ally presents content in a multi-sensory format that enables readers to absorb books easily. Not only can students stay on-task with their schools work by reading books aligned to their curriculum, but Learning Ally has a wide assortment of popular fiction, non-fiction, STEAM-based titles and more to attract any student.

As a teaching tool, once you’ve gained a student’s interest in reading, you’re able to use Learning Ally to:

  • Track student’s reading progress.
  • Manage assignments.
  • Provide progress reports to parents and administrators.
  • Access professional learning resources and support.

Combat the boredom of generic reading comprehension assignments with Learning Ally’s innovative tools that invigorate the classroom, and help students build reading acumen and confidence.

Closing the gap in reading

Students need a stronger connection and comfort level to reading in order to truly lessen the literacy gap in the US. Resources and activities that pique their interest start the process, which is then enhanced with classroom discussions and assignments. When students face a reading deficit or just need some extra support, a combination of these often does the trick. Teacher support and guidance goes a long way, but so does access to the tools students can use both in and out of the classroom. Audiobooks are one option to consider. Solutions like Learning Ally may help struggling students by making books students are already reading in class more accessible.

These disappointing reading scores don’t have to be the norm. With the right strategies and support, today’s educators are in a strong position to affect change and positively impact student success.

Support Your Students with Reading Deficits with the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution

The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is a multi-sensory reading accommodation that levels the playing field for students who struggle to read due to a reading deficit, providing them the opportunity achieve in school and in life. Gaining access to the books they want to read—and the books they need to read—in an easy-to-absorb format can be a game changer. Sign up for a demo or get more information today to experience the satisfaction of seeing students who have never before experienced reading success blossom, with improved grades, higher test scores and increased confidence and self-esteem.

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Learning Ally Wins Tech & Learning Award of Excellence For Outstanding Education Technology Product
Tech & Learning Award of Excellence

December 10, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

For Immediate Release:

PRINCETON, N.J., December 10, 2019 -- Learning Ally, a leading nonprofit education solutions organization, has won a 2019 Tech & Learning Award of Excellence for its Learning Ally Audiobook Solution. The Solution now serves more than 470,000 U.S. students with reading deficits, including those with learning disabilities like dyslexia and visual impairments.

Each year, Technology & Learning judges evaluate products that are unique in the K-12 market, as well as those that are helping schools solve specific problems, such as providing equitable access to educational content for students with exceptional needs. The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution was selected as an outstanding education technology product that improves the way educators work and students learn in today’s diverse learning environments.

Eligible students can study grade-level text and read age-appropriate titles using a quality reading accommodation with access to an extensive “human-read” audiobook library. The 80,000 audiobook collection contains curriculum-aligned textbooks, literature, fiction, non-fiction, graphic and diverse novels, poetry and popular titles. Audiobooks are narrated by skilled subject experts, voice artists and volunteers who make information come to life.

Students enjoy the freedom of using a mobile app with built-in classroom tools to read in school, at home, and on the go in a multisensory reading experience to comprehend information on a deeper level and improve fluency, vocabulary and critical thinking skills while maintaining academic pace in mainstream classes.

A suite of professional development resources support teachers' efforts to monitor data for reading accountability and to gain insight into genres students enjoy reading independently. Teachers can easily integrate fun, reading engagement activities into their classroom instruction to motivate students to read all year long.

Terrie Noland, V.P. of Educator Leadership and Learning for Learning Ally says, “This Award of Excellence reinforces our mission to support the teachers and specialists who are working diligently to transform the learning experiences for students with reading deficits who deserve every opportunity to reach their full potential."

Technology & Learning Magazine will recognize Learning Ally and all 2019 winners of the T&L Award of Excellence in the December/January 2020 issue and at a special ceremony during the TCEA Convention & Exposition in February 2020 in Austin, Texas.

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 catalog 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 http://www.LearningAlly.org.

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