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.

A Balanced Literacy Approach Includes Audiobooks for Students with Reading Deficits

June 17, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

Tenth graders at Stephen F. Austin High School in Austin, TX read rigorously in their English II course in The Academy of Global Studies.  They explore other countries and their histories, socioeconomic systems and cultures through the books they read.  Their teacher, Stacey Allen Webster, likes to include a Stacy Allen Webster headshotlittle philosophy, sociology and art theory along with interdisciplinary connections to chemistry, mathematics, social studies, and world language in the topics they explore though writing assignments. Students also engage in project-based units around the themes of “waste management” in the fall and “voice and power” in the spring. 

Expanding Students’ Horizons

Every January, Ms. Webster also helps to organize a learning expedition to Costa Rica for 140 sophomores. Students tour a local university, where they meet other students and teachers and discuss global problems. Students with socioeconomic needs receive scholarships in accordance with The Academy’s travel philosophy: “We all travel, or we don’t travel at all.”

Students in Ms. Webster’s general education classes include some who struggle to read due to dyslexia or other learning differences, students who speak English as a second language, and students who come from low-income families and impoverished neighborhoods.

The good news is that no student with a reading deficit  is ever denied the opportunity to enroll in this challenging course, because Ms. Webster uses The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution, a proven reading tool that levels the playing field for students who have difficulty keeping up with complex grade-level texts in print form.

Learning Ally: A Proven Reading Accommodation

When she learned that her Texas district had a site license for Learning Ally, Ms. Webster was all in. She understands the frustration of students who have the intellectual ability to learn and excel, but lack the basic reading ability to keep pace with their peers.  “You never want students to feel like they’re “hitting the wall with reading,” says Webster. “By presenting grade-level content in an accessible, engaging audiobook format, students with reading deficits turn into confident academic achievers. As students listen to human narrators, they hear content that is authentic and relevant. They absorb knowledge rather than trying to decode every word.

The Power of Choice

In her classes, students are able to choose what they read for most units. Ms. Webster believes having a choice can make a huge difference, since students are more likely to connect with texts that align with their individual interests or pique their curiosity. In one unit, students were asked to read a book by a Latin American author. Those with access to Learning Ally had no difficulty finding titles. Mrs. Webster says these students are more likely to complete their assignments using Chromebooks and smartphones in class, at home and on the go.  She encourages them to read for at least twenty minutes a day and to write for at least twenty minutes a day – a best practice that Learning Ally recommends.  

Another unit focuses on heroes and their journeys. Ms. Webster uses the work of Joseph Campbell, a literature professor and author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other works of comparative mythology to help students understand the journey of the archetypal hero and how that story can be found in the literature of cultures from around the world—from ancient mythology and sacred texts to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Many hero cycle novels, both classic and contemporary, are available on Learning Ally.

Sharing the Wealth of Knowledge

Ms. Webster is one of six teachers nationwide who received Learning Ally’s prestigious 2018 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award for her balanced literacy approach, student-centric learning philosophy, and advocacy of dyslexia awareness and intervention. After receiving the Award, which comes with a cash prize for both the winning teachers and their schools, she was able to purchase copies of several critically acclaimed young adult novels, including The Hate U Give, All American Boys, The Help, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter and How It Went Down. All of these books deal with topics of social justice, allowing Ms. Webster and her class to focus on an important pillar of learning in The Academy for Global Studies: “Recognize and Weigh Multiple Perspectives.”

Dyslexia Awareness

When she’s not busy expanding her student’s knowledge of the world, Ms. Webster strives to help teachers and parents better understand the different ways students learn. It troubles her to know that many students with dyslexia aren’t getting the help and support they need. She talks to colleagues and parents about recognizing learning differences. She encourages students to talk freely about the social and emotional toll they may experience. She introduces students to tools like Learning Ally that can be a beneficial reading accommodation for them.  

The Simple Truth: Audiobooks Work

“There are myths we need to put to rest about audiobooks and learning,” says Webster. “In schools today, an estimated twenty percent of students struggle to read due to dyslexia and other learning differences. Yet many schools don’t use audiobooks, and that’s unfortunate. Many educators think these tools are cheating. They think they are distracting to the class. They don’t think audiobooks help students learn to read. They think if students are listening to an audiobook, they can’t take notes. The truth is much simpler. For students with dyslexia and other learning differences, reading is difficult. Audiobooks take away their frustration and embarrassment. They level the playing field to comprehend grade-level content. When students can do that, they develop more self-confidence to learn and to reach their highest academic goals.”

If you know an educator, administrator or U.S. school that is making a difference for students with reading deficits, Learning Ally’s nomination process is now open for the 2020 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award. For more information on Learning Ally, or to request a demo, visit www.learningally.org/educators or call 800-221-1098.

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California Educator’s Personalized Approach to Learning Earns Him National Recognition

June 11, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

Jerry Voelker with Krystle Johnson in the classroom.If you asked struggling learners at Arroyo Vista Charter School in Chula Vista, CA who has done the most to help them develop their reading skills, their answers might surprise you. Of course, many would mention their English teachers, special education teachers and reading specialists. But another person whose name would come up frequently is Jerry Voelker, a credentialed school psychologist and assistive technology specialist.

Helping Students, Helping Teachers

Jerry is one of four recipients of the 2019 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award, a national achievement award created by Learning Ally as a way to recognize educators who make an exceptional effort to motivate and support students with reading deficits. His school district serves a large population of general and special education students, ranging from transitional kindergarteners to eighth graders.

Krystle Johnson, the special education teacher who nominated him for the award, said, “Jerry is an invaluable resource. His unique insight into how students think and feel and his knowledge of assistive technology allow him to help teachers select the right tools and strategies to meet each student’s needs. He is a big reason why so many struggling Arroyo Vista students are now celebrating learning success.”

Early Screening and Intervention is Critical to Long-Term Success

Jerry’s involvement with struggling learners begins with a screening for reading deficits in first grade. At that point, he assesses their learning capabilities and determines which students need reading accommodations to ensure that they receive equitable access to the curriculum. For students who require intervention, he will design IEP programming and 504 plans to help them develop the reading skills they need to master grade-level content and keep pace with their peers. He will also utilize his assistive technology acumen to determine the best resources for each student.  

The Power of Learning Ally

One important tool in his toolkit is the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution. This proven reading accommodation, with its library of human-read audiobooks, student-centric features and suite of teacher resources, is an indispensable solution that helps bridge the reading gap by engaging and motivating struggling readers. More than 17,000 schools nationwide rely on Learning Ally to help struggling readers reach their academic potential.

Students with learning differences like dyslexia or physical or visual limitations are required by California law to receive a reading accommodation, and the California State Dyslexia Guidelines list Learning Ally as a recommended reading accommodation by the California Department of Education. 

“Students who once hated reading can’t get enough with Learning Ally,” Jerry said. “The format is more accessible; the selection of books allows them to choose titles they enjoy, and human narrators make the stories more engaging to ensure students understand what they read.”

Making a Difference Every Day

Jerry working with a student in the classroom on a device. At Arroyo Vista Charter School, parents are also big fans of Learning Ally, because students can use it to read independently outside the classroom. “Instead of playing video games or watching TV, these students read books,” said Jerry. “Seeing children reading on their devices is a daily occurrence.” 

Jerry plays a pivotal role in making that possible. He not only ensures that each student has the Learning Ally reading app downloaded on their devices; he assists them in setting their personal preferences, including text-to-speech, font color and size, background colors and reading rate.

Special education teacher, Krystle Johnson appreciates the way Jerry is able to meet students where they are and help them get to where they need to be. She cited this example. “Jerry has supported one of my seventh graders since she first qualified for an IEP in first grade. At that point, her fine motor skills were almost nonexistent. She needed extensive reading, writing and math support. Jerry set her up with an iPad and all the necessary apps, including Learning Ally. Today, she’s an honor student with a 3.5 GPA.”

A True Team Player

As a 2019 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award winner, Jerry earned a monetary award for himself and his school. He is quick to give credit to his colleagues, saying, “It’s a team effort. We all work together to ensure that our students succeed academically and get the support they need to be happy, healthy, engaged learners. I feel very fortunate to be in a position to help make that happen.”

If you know an educator, administrator or U.S. school that is making a difference for students with reading deficits, Learning Ally’s nomination process is now open for the 2020 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award. For more information on Learning Ally, or to request a demo, visit www.learningally.org/educators or call 800-221-1098.


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Four Educators Receive 2019 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award for Exemplary Performance in U.S. Schools

June 4, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

For Immediate Release


 Four Educators Receive 2019 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award for Exemplary Performance in U.S. Schools


June 4, 2019 PRINCETON, NJ —Learning Ally has announced the names of four educators who are the recipients of its 2019 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award, a national achievement award named for a longtime advocate for educational equity and friend to the organization.

The award honors educators in U.S. schools who display exemplary performance to ensure more students with reading deficits reach their full academic potential. Winners receive a monetary award for themselves and for their school.  

Terrie Noland, Learning Ally’s VP of Educator Initiatives congratulates this year’s nominees and winners. “Your passion and demonstration of education excellence makes a tremendous impact on so many students’ lives. Because of you, more learners are equipped to study on grade-level, feel more socially and emotionally connected with peers, and confident in their ability to plan for a promising future.” 

A national selection committee chose this year’s award winners from a pool of hundreds of nominees.

The 2019 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award Winners are:

  • Vanessa Bilello, Principal/Vice Principal at Hopkins School, Hopkinton, MA

Ms. Bilello instituted CARES, a school-wide positive behavior recognition system that reinforces the values of cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy and self-control.

  • Kate Hover, Special Education Teacher, Irving Middle School, Springfield, VA

Ms. Hover has introduced individualized learning processes to empower middle school students to track and monitor their reading growth and set personal learning goals.

  • Jenna Ponx, Special Education Teacher, Ira Jones Middle School, Plainfield, IL

Ms. Ponx’s multisensory teaching approach enables grade-level learning by focusing not only on students’ academic success but also on their social and emotional well-being.

  • Jerry Voelker, AT Specialist and Certified School Psychologist, Arroyo Vista Charter School, Chula Vista, CA

Mr. Voelker’s brings a unique perspective to the design of IEPs and 504 plans for young children that includes reading accommodations and accessible education materials.

If you know an educator, administrator or school that is making a difference for students with reading deficits, Learning Ally’s nomination process is now open for the 2020 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award.

For more information on Learning Ally, or to request a demo, visit www.learningally.org/educators or call 800-221-1098.

About Learning Ally                                                    

Learning Ally is a leading education solutions organization committed to transforming the lives of struggling learners. The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is a proven reading accommodation composed of human-read audiobooks, student-centric features and a suite of teacher resources.  Used in more than 17,000 schools, this essential solution empowers students with reading deficits to become engaged learners and reach their academic potential.

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Intervention Specialist Shares Pilot Test of Human-Read Audiobooks
Photo of Rebecca leaning over her students in a classroom.

May 22, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

By: Rebecca Phirman, Intervention Specialist 

There is a growing literacy crisis in America. I know because I am an intervention specialist for St. Mary School, a national blue ribbon school of excellence in Alexandria, KY. I see the challenge on my students’ faces who struggle to read. Many of these students have a learning disability, like dyslexia, but many more go years without a formal diagnosis. These students feel the anxiety and humiliation of faking their way through a reading assignment or struggling to complete a test about a book they could barely read. 

This article is about how I pilot tested Learning Ally and the impact it has made for my students.

Pilot Testing Audiobook Support

At my school, we have elementary and junior high school students who rarely pass Accelerated Reader exams and are unable to discuss a book with their classmates. Their reading ability is well below grade level according to the NWEA assessments they take three times a year. If students are six months or more below grade level, we target reading instruction with effective research-based strategies to address this reading gap. If students do not receive the support they need, they will fall farther behind and this is why educators are constantly looking for a resource that can help them bridge the reading gap.

The Power of Learning Excitement

When I first discovered human-read audiobooks by Learning Ally, I asked a few students to test them for their next class or independent reading assignment. We talked about the benefits of learning with an audiobook and that it wasn’t cheating. They agreed to try. After all, it gave them a chance to use their device at school, and they didn’t have to do the “work” of reading. They were excited to get through an assigned book at the same pace as their peers, and they helped us (their teachers) make decisions about whether audiobooks were a good resource to help others.

Some of those first audiobook assignments included Jeremy Fink and The Meaning of Life, The Outsiders and Walk Two Moons. The students who read these audiobooks began to participate more in class. Clearly, they understood what they read. They also passed Accelerated Reader exams.

For their independent reading, struggling readers chose audiobook titles that their higher-performing peers had read and recommended, rather than titles that were at their reading level. They liked being able to self-select titles of interest and reading the same books as their friends. After the experiment was completed, these students were excited about audiobooks and wanted to read more. They told me proudly, “Look at me, I’m reading!”

Turning Struggling Readers into Academic Achievers

Struggling readers, especially in junior high, are not motivated. Years of hiding their reading challenges have undermined their learning confidence. This first group of courageous students convinced me to move forward. I discussed the audiobook approach with fellow teachers and my principal. I discussed it with parents and began to coordinate the resource into students’ learning plans and reading practice. Interestingly, I found that the word “accommodation” had a negative connotation for some teachers and parents, so we called it a reading support tool. 

This resource helped to restore my students’ confidence in their ability to read and contribute to class discussions. It complemented our schoolwide literacy efforts in a holistic way to enable students to reach their true academic potential and develop their social-emotional skills.

Intrigued by Highlighted Words and Book Report Functions

A seventh grader saw me using Learning Ally. She was intrigued that the words lit up on the screen. She was instantly excited about the mobile app and thrilled that the app could help her read books faster and prepare book reports. She liked the ability to take notes directly in the app and re-listen to a chapter or passage. Her demeanor changed from a reluctant reader to a confident learner. Her vocabulary grew. She felt more inspired. I am proud to say that she was able read a book in print written very close to her grade level with minimal teacher support. Two years ago, she wouldn’t have even tried!

The Power of Human Narration

Our second-graders love audiobooks too. They get their iPads out, put on their headphones and are reading in no time. They maneuver the mobile app masterfully to select the color of the font and rate of speech. It’s magical to see these little learners enthralled by a book and reading with ease and confidence, especially since I know they can enjoy audiobooks for a lifetime.

Teachers and parents ask me, “Do students prefer human narration?” Absolutely! My students particularly like books read by the author. 

A few years ago, Delaney Dannenberg’s mother, Shelley Ball-Dannenberg, came to our school to talk about identifying and helping students with dyslexia. She and Delaney wrote the book, “I Have Dyslexia: What Does That Mean?” Many of our students have read the book in Learning Ally. Delaney narrates the book, so she is the voice that the students hear. What a neat experience to have an author share her story with you.

A Valuable Tool for Teachers

The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution not only works for my students; it works for me. I use the teacher dashboard all the time. It lets me monitor  data of what students are reading in real time. It gives me insight into their reading preferences and reading habits. It lets me add books directly to their bookshelves and then track their reading progress. It gives me the knowledge I need to show the resource’s effectiveness to our teachers, our administrators and our parents.

National Audiobook Challenge Supports My Efforts

We also participate in Learning Ally's national reading event (The Great Reading Games) designed to support teachers’ efforts to get more struggling readers to try audiobooks. This reading challenge is a natural fit for our school culture, and our school library has significantly expanded with access to digital reading materials to support struggling readers.  During the Games, we watch the digital leaderboard on Learning Ally and post these weekly results on our school bulletin boards and in school hallways. My students like the “read for rewards” aspect of the Games and the chance to win Chromebooks and headsets. Our school adds incentives like Ice Cream Day and Out-of-Uniform Day – both fun rewards.

Learning Ally Bridges the Reading Gap

Struggling readers are empowered by audiobooks because they can choose books that interest them, and they aren’t limited by their reading level. They like the human narrators. Used in conjunction with other research-based reading interventions, Learning Ally has enabled us to bridge the reading gap for more struggling readers, bringing them up to, or even above, grade level. When I see my students enjoying reading, I remember why I became a teacher. It makes me feel good knowing that St. Mary School is doing our best to help more students succeed and to address the need for “literacy for all.”

Looking for a Solution? 

Schedule a demo to see how the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution delivers an immediate impact for your struggling readers and how the reading data dashboard works. For more information about a school subscription, call 800-221-1098 or email programs@LearningAlly.org.

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“Keeping it 100” for My Struggling Readers

May 14, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

By Katherine York, Reading Specialist, Walt Whitman Middle School, Fairfax, VA

For students who struggle with reading, everything about school is hard. I’ve lost track of the number of times my seventh and eighth graders have told me they hate to read. By the time these students reach middle school, they’ve been failing for years. Their reading scores are low, and so are their confidence and self-esteem.

Virginia Teacher Katherine York standing at her classroom door with pictures of author Kwame Alexander.Changing minds. Changing lives.

Every day I see students who have lost faith in themselves, but I also let them know that I believe in them. That is where their journey begins.

As soon as students walk through my door, we have tough conversations about their reading barriers. I start by addressing the elephant in the room. That’s how I keep it real with my students. Rebuilding their confidence isn’t easy, but it is possible—by creating a safe, supportive environment and by building positive, trusting relationships.

Keeping it 100 with Students

One of the first things I tell my students is that, “It’s okay if you don’t always understand everything you read. You’re going to become better readers, but it’s going to take time, and you’re going to have to work at it.” These aren’t easy conversations, but I’ve found that students appreciate my openness, and they are glad to know that I’m on their side. They call this “Keeping it 100,” which is slang for keeping it real or being completely honest.

It makes me sad when I think about all the students who would rather do just about anything other than reading. Many of these students have never shared their feelings about their reading differences with a friend, a teacher or a family member. It’s a terrible cycle. They can’t read. They don’t want to read. They can’t succeed without reading. Why are so many students failing to read well? Here are just a few reasons:

  1. They come from lower socioeconomic status families and typically have less access to books and reading role models.
  2. Students don’t think it’s cool to carry books and are often bullied for doing so.
  3. Teachers don’t teach reading fundamentals, or students don’t absorb them.   
  4. A learning difference, such as dyslexia, impedes a student’s ability to process information in print.
  5. English isn’t their first language.
  6. Students don’t understand how to navigate the maze of books in the school library.
  7. Students aren’t given many opportunities to select books that interest them.
  8. Academic conversations about books aren’t part of the curriculum.
  9. Students don’t know what kind of books they like to read.
  10. Teachers don’t give access to resources that could help more students be successful.
  11. Students don’t have class time to delve into a book for independent reading practice.

Creating an Atmosphere for Struggling Readers to Thrive

Class time for independent reading is a frequent challenge for schools that do not have block scheduling. Fairfax County School District, Virginia, allots 90 minutes of reading time three times a week. I believe this in-class reading is beneficial for the more than eighty struggling readers who attend my classes. Knowing that they have time to read, students rarely show up late. Their commitment to read is strong. Thanks to the many devices donated by generous parents and our school, students don’t have to sit at their desks to read.

A Different Kind of Classroom

If students are relaxed and comfortable, it is much easier for them to focus on reading. They also like choices. In my classroom, students have choices when it comes to seating. We have comfy beanbag chairs, swivel chairs and rockers. We have exercise bikes. One student was so caught up in a story, he rode three miles!

For the first half hour of my class, students put on their headsets and dive into an audiobook from Learning Ally. They pair with a classmate to discuss the story and decide how to demonstrate their comprehension. This could be a book report, an oral report, acting out a scene, designing a poster, a fun guessing game of “who am I,” or a Q&A with me. Multiple ways of learning resonate with struggling readers. This strategy is UDL or universal design for learning.

Motivation and Assessment

Part of keeping it 100 is making sure that each student understands their Lexile level at the beginning of class. They take quarterly assessments to measure their reading progress. They read independently – a critical part of becoming a good reader. They commit to read for 30 minutes a day in school and at home.

Through probing discussions, my students explore topics that interest them. They learn about various genres and authors. They read diverse literature and books about celebrities like LeBron James and Henry Winkler who struggled to read. Small rewards keep them motivated—from a simple hug or a sympathetic ear, to reading certificates and class recognition. My students light up when I say, “Hey, you’re doing it!”

Pages Fly by with Learning Ally

Learning Ally’s Great Reading Games are a homerun reading activity for my students. Last year, we came in fifth in the nation. My students were thrilled! One student said he didn’t like to read anything. I gave him Kwame Alexander’s book Swing. He couldn’t put the book down. He hugged me and told me how much he enjoyed it. He related to the story and the characters. He felt enormous pride that he read the book cover to cover. I saw a change in his demeanor – a tangible result of giving him the right book at the right time. There’s no better feeling than the joy that comes from seeing your students succeed, especially those with reading barriers.

Reading, Learning and Growing

From time to time, my students, who are in high school now, come back and visit. They say, “Ms. York, I’m keeping it 100.” I smile when I think about how far they have come. They still have reading barriers, but they also have the strategies, the resources and the motivation to break through them and thrive in school and life.   

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