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.

Audiobooks are Cheating? Not at all.
Male student with headphones enjoying an audiobook.

October 17, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

With the rise of audiobooks and technology supporting spoken text to accommodate students who struggle with reading, or even those who just enjoy listening to a story in that format, there is great speculation as to whether the impact to learning and comprehension holds any weight. And some regard listening to audiobooks as cheating. Psychologist, Daniel Willingham writes that some, “think you’re getting the rewarding part of it … and it’s the “difficult” part that you’ve somehow gotten out of..{..}..and your brain is doing less work than reading” (Science of US, 2016)

While some researchers have hypothesized that reading and listening would process semantic information differently, findings from a study by the University of California, Berkeley, revealed just the opposite (Deniz, Nunez-Elizalde, Huth, & Gallant, 2019). 

Lead researcher, Fatma Deniz, used 3D semantic maps that represented MRI recordings of their volunteers’ brain activity while listening and reading a story. They paired this technique with semantic word categorization and “voxelwise encoding” (or in other words, how the brain decodes things we have previously remembered) to indicate which parts of the brain would be activated when words were listened to or read. It was expected that different areas of the brain’s cerebral cortex would be activated, but the semantic maps revealed that listening and reading yielded identical brain activation. 

What does this mean? Whether we are reading or listening to an audiobook, our brains process the words in the same way—they have the same semantic processing reaction. We create the same meaning with text whether read or listened to, which implies that we derive a comparable level of critical thinking in both formats—there is no slacking in how our brain sorts, remixes, and creates inferences. 

The findings of this study have significant implications for the estimated 1 out of 5 people who have Dyslexia (International Dyslexia Foundation, 2019), and warrants further exploration regarding how people with the disorder make meaning of text through audiobooks. 

"If, in the future," Deniz suggests, "we find that the dyslexic brain has rich semantic language representation when listening to an audiobook or other recording, that could bring more audio materials into the classroom."

So, go ahead, pick out that audiobook, it’s not cheating. Over 375,000 students in over 17,500 schools have boosted their reading skills by using the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution. Our multisensory reading accommodation allows students to not only read in a way that best suits their needs, but also to take an active role in reading. They can listen, take notes and highlight text, and still be able to process what they are reading, aiding in retention, comprehension and the ability to apply their critical thinking skills..In fact, our audiobook solution empowers students to work to their true potential by leveling the playing field and allowing students to access grade level content that they couldn’t previously.

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Learning Ally Partners with Square Panda to Deliver Reading Solutions Across Entire Pre-K to Grade 12 Range
Square Panda logo ...bear image

October 9, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

For Immediate Release: 

SUNNYVALE, Calif., and PRINCETON, N.J., Oct. 9, 2019—Square Panda, creator of an award-winning multisensory edtech literacy platform aimed at pre-readers and early readers, and Learning Ally, a leading nonprofit education solutions organization focusing on struggling learners, announced today that they have signed a strategic partnership. The partnership will enable the two companies to collaborate on sales, marketing and implementation opportunities, and serve the entire pre-K to grade 12 education market.

As the sole distributor of Square Panda products in the U.S. education market, Learning Ally will now complement its award-winning Audiobook Solution targeting students with reading deficits in grades 3-12, and Professional Learning catalogue reaching nearly 100,000 educators, with the ability to provide an early literacy learning system designed for students in pre-k to 3rd grade.

The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is a proven multisensory reading accommodation featuring human-read audiobooks, student-centric features and a suite of educator tools for real-time progress monitoring and data reporting that helps struggling readers with a reading deficit become confident, engaged learners, capable of reaching their academic potential.

Square Panda’s learning games are grounded in the latest neurological research around brain development and reading. Its multisensory playset interacts with tablets to help children learn reading skills with confidence. Its proven approach helps build essential reading skills in children ages 2-8 years old—engaging multiple senses, including sight, touch and sound, as research has shown this is how young children learn best.

“For more than 70 years Learning Ally has been providing innovative support for students from across the United States with reading deficits, blindness and visual impairments, and physical disabilities that don’t allow them to read standard print,” said Andy Butler, CEO of Square Panda. “We are proud that Learning Ally has chosen Square Panda as its phonics and reading readiness partner to extend its offering to reach early learners. Their current reach to 17,500 schools and their educator success infrastructure will allow us to move the needle on ensuring all children in our schools meet the ‘Read by [grade] 3’ goal, which all educators aspire to achieve.”

“We are thrilled to expand our footprint into early literacy and partner with Square Panda,” said Andrew Friedman, CEO and president of Learning Ally. “Square Panda’s literacy platform will enable early childhood educators with an adaptive literacy system, allowing them to better meet the needs of all types of students with different social-economic backgrounds and/or learning differences to develop core fundamental reading skills.”

About Square Panda

The award-winning Square Panda™ playset is a complete phonics learning system with multisensory play. Designed for kids two and older, the playset blends physical and digital learning as it keeps kids entertained through age-appropriate learning games grounded in research-based curriculum. Early readers play their way to reading fluency as they engage with physical smart letters that connect them to a library of learning games. Every play session guides children as they explore the alphabet, practice letter sounds, discover rhymes, build vocabulary and more. For more information, visit www.squarepanda.com.

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 catalogue 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 www.LearningAlly.org.

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Dyslexia…Is it Overlooked in Spanish-Speaking Struggling Readers?
Teacher working with students on computers.

August 27, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

Teacher working with students in a classroom on the computer. Reading difficulties, such as dyslexia, cross all ethnic and linguistic lines. For teachers of English Language learners, it may be doubly difficult to identify the signs of dyslexia when searching for the underlying causes of why a student struggles to read. 

In the United States, 10.9 million school-age children speak a different language, and 80% speak Spanish. Sadly, only 21% of Spanish-speaking English Learners in eighth grade have achieved “proficient” or “above proficient” levels in reading.

For these students, educators may misdiagnose dyslexia as simply the struggle to learn a new language. Additionally, some teachers lack the training to look for signs of a learning disability, particularly when it is cloaked by a language barrier. Even fewer teaching professionals are trained to use effective strategies and resources to teach and remediate such students. 

How do we recognize the signs of dyslexia in Spanish-Speaking English Learners?  What explicit strategies and resources can we use to empower these learners to be more socially and emotionally connected to literacy and learning? How do we build fundamental skills in decoding and comprehension while giving ample opportunities for the student to read grade-level text?

Strategies and Supports for Spanish-Speaking Struggling Readers

On August 7, 2019, Learning Ally hosted an edWebinar led by educators *Nelda Reyes, a Dyslexia Interventionist at San Marcos CISD, and Alexis Juusola, Education Specialist on the Academic Services Team of the Texas Region 13 ESC. These experts discussed actionable teaching strategies aimed at Spanish-Speaking English Learners who struggle to read. 

Earn CE certificates by listening to this edWebinar, and to learn how to:

  • Understand the relationship between the Spanish language and phonological processing

  • Learn assistive technologies that improve reading comprehension

  • Identify instructional strategies to try with Spanish-speaking struggling students

  • Build background knowledge, increase fluency skills and strengthen vocabulary 

  • Empower Spanish-speaking struggling students to become engaged learners

Characteristics of Dyslexia

If we notice a Spanish-speaking student struggling with fluency or rapid naming of digits, letters, and shapes, consider investigating a diagnosis of dyslexia. Some other characteristics to look for include: 

  • Inability to blend syllables and words together 

  • Difficulty accessing oral vocabulary words 

  • Finding the right word and looking for synonyms

  • Slow reading speed and comprehension

  • Following multiple-step instructions

  • Remembering a series of numbers

  • Intensive lack of prosody

  • Struggling to copy notes

Another important characteristic to watch for is when a student exhibits being an excellent “out of the box thinker,” but their writing skills do not match their oral language and vocabulary skills.

Number One Criteria in Diagnosing Dyslexia in Spanish-Speaking English Learners – Fluency and Rapid Naming Skills 

The Spanish language is syllabic and highly rhythmic; rhyming is important to the development of reading. A critical relationship exists between the Spanish language and a student’s ability to “phonologically process words,” i.e. develop patterns children often use to simplify adult language. 

Phonological awareness is important, however, it is not necessarily the key factor in recognizing dyslexia in a Spanish-speaking student. A common misconception is to use the same criteria to diagnose a Spanish-speaking student with dyslexia as we do an English-speaking student with dyslexia. 

Connecting Neural Pathways – Finding Common Ties Between English and Spanish  

English and Spanish are languages based on alphabetical symbols and common sounds. Research on brain activity shows cognitive advantages to biliteracy, such as a rapid transfer of skills when learning a second language. These changes in neurological processing can be achieved when the educator uses explicit instruction and resources, like audiobooks to provide a multisensory reading experience

To improve skills in comprehension, prosody and for independent reading, Mrs. Reyes and Ms. Juusola recommend human-read audiobooks to scaffold their instruction with digital content that is on grade-level and age-appropriate. 

Leveled Readers Are Only Part of the Answer 

Many teachers try to find “leveled” content that meets the students’ decoding level, rather than their intellectual level, but this isn’t always the best option. Without access to grade-level content, students lose the opportunity to develop vocabulary and background knowledge. Audiobooks give students the exact same content they would find in a book, but in an easy-to-absorb format. 

High-quality human-read audiobooks from Learning Ally enrich the reading experience because students can follow the highlighted text with their eyes while listening to the text spoken accurately and authentically. This allows their brains to process the information with automaticity so they can enjoy a deep reading experience. Deep reading, in contrast to “skimming” or “superficial reading,” is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading to enhance comprehension and personal enjoyment of a text. Being able to experience this with the assistance of audiobooks creates a positive reading experience that can lead to empowering a student’s social and emotional confidence. 

Join Learning Ally’s Empowering Struggling Readers Professional Learning Community 

Join a dynamic network of educators across the nation who believe in a common goal – “literacy for all students.” 

For more teaching strategies to enhance the learning potential of Spanish-Speaking English Language Learners with reading deficits, listen to the Learning Ally archived edWebinar in its entirety to receive professional learning CE certificates. 


*Nelda Reyes is a 2019 National Award Winner of the Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Award for outstanding performance and exemplary teaching in U.S. schools.

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A District Approach to Using Assistive Technology to Support Struggling Readers
Educator working with older students on devices.

August 12, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

Professional Learning EdWebinar
CE Certificates - 
Wednesday, August 14, 2019 - 2 pm Est.

Are you ready to empower students with reading deficits to achieve higher outcomes? 

Learning Ally’s edWebinar series offers continuing CE certificates in support of educators in K12 who serve students with reading deficits and print disabilities. 

In this edWebinar panel discussion, educators Jenn Regardie and Jennifer Carr, two assistive technology “powerhouse teachers” from Fairfax County Public School System, Virginia, share their large district’s proactive approach to “equitable access for all.” 

  • Discover how to get your district to embrace technology to support reading.

  • Learn innovative assistive technology tools.

  • Explore academic outcomes of students who have prospered.

  • Gain proven teaching and learning best practices to replicate in any classroom, school or district reading initiative. 


Our PresentersJennifer Regardie, Fairfax AT Teacher

Jenn Regardie has worked in special education for 18 years. She is the parent of a child who discovered a love of reading through audiobooks. Her teaching career began in elementary school and she is now an assistive technology resource teacher in middle and high school. Jenn supports teachers to implement supplemental, assistive technology tools with fidelity, including The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution. She holds a M.Ed. in special education from Lehigh University and a B.S. from Ithaca College.


Jennifer Carr, Fairfax Assitive Technology TeacherJennifer Carr has had a long-standing passion for assistive technology. She works closely with students in pre-school through twelfth grades to find the right AT tools for those who require an accommodation. She is a leading expert in the implementation of AT for all levels of diverse learners and has presented at many local, state, national and international conferences on the topic. Ms. Carr is co-author of “Developing Your Assistive Technology Leadership: Best Practices for Success.”


Join Learning Ally’s Professional Learning Community

Take part in this dynamic network of educators working toward a common goal and national movement to ensure equitable access for all students.  


Did you miss the first back to school edWebinar, “Strategies and Supports for Spanish-Speaking Struggling Readers?” 

You can still review the archived presentation and receive a CE certificate. 

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Virginia Teacher Empowers “Take Charge” Attitude in ESOL and Special Education Students

July 30, 2019 by Valerie Chernek

Katherine Hover with two students in comfy class chairs reading. Katherine (Kate) Hover is a military mom and middle school teacher with keen insight into how students learn. Over her teaching career, she has worked with children of all ages, backgrounds, customs, and cultures. She says there is one thing in common with all students. "They have a 'deep desire' to have someone believe in them. Empowerment and individualized learning can unlock so much potential."

Passing the Virginia SOLs

Many of Kate’s seventy-plus students at Irving Middle School, a Fairfax County Public School System, had never passed the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) standardized reading test before Kate’s tutelage.

In just two years, her middle school students’ Lexile levels and proficiency rates improved significantly. "Students are decoding English more rapidly and passing the SOL reading tests," she says. "Many have gone from 7th to 8th grade as a skilled reader with a clear understanding of their learning style and the strategies and resources that most effectively match how they learn."

Her colleagues say that Kate is a “take-charge” teacher, not in the sense of micromanaging the dually-identified ESOL-Special Education students she teaches, but by encouraging them to own their learning process. This is one reason why Kate is a 2019 recipient of the Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award  

Students participate in their Individual Education Planning process

Kate has implemented a system whereby students discuss their learning challenges and participate in building their own Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Although many students in self-contained learning environments are not typically involved in the development of their IEP, Kate’s students are integral in the process. In planning meetings, they review their Lexile levels and their proficiency ranges. They discuss learning styles and the tools and resources available. 

One way Kate empowers students is to provide login access to The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution. This digital accessible library contains textbooks, literature and popular titles, narrated by real voices. Kate says, “English language learners need to hear English spoken to increase their ability to read words and build vocabulary. Learning Ally provides a perfect resource to meet that goal for students who are eligible with a reading deficit."

Progress Monitoring & Early Language Development

She and her students view tracked reading data to get a better picture of reading growth and to see patterns of genres that students prefer reading. “Giving students the ability to look at their own reading data and choose some of their own books boosts their motivation to read.”

Scarborough Reading Rope displaying each strand of skills necessary for reading in a weaved pattern. Kate shares Scarborough’s Reading Rope with students to determine their strengths and needs. The Rope was developed by Hollis Scarborough, a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories, and a leader in research of early language development and its connection to later literacy. 

“Students must practice reading aloud,” says Kate, “but many struggling readers do not like to read aloud. It creates a lot of unnecessary pressure.” As an alternative, Kate pairs her students with elementary students. They use the video application FLIP Grid to film themselves reading aloud with their virtual reading buddies, and to assess their own reading fluency. Each quarter, Kate’s students get to 'act as the teacher' and conduct their own fluency check and do a self-assessment. 

“Students are not stymied by the fear of reading aloud in the typical classroom scenario,” she says. “They practice the essential Reading Rope skill strands without pressure. This activity boosts their confidence along with their ability to read with automaticity. For years, these students have had teachers tell them that they are not reading fluently, but most do not have a clear understanding of what that means.” 

District Challenge 

In addition to her students' reading improvements in the VA SOL, Kate's students in 4th period won the Great Reading Games in their category. They read over 16,000 pages. A top performer in the challenge had gone through elementary school not passing any SOL reading tests. He went from a score of 394 on the SOL (passing score is 400) in the 6th grade to a passing score of 492 in one year. He increased his Lexile level from a beginning Lexile of 810 to an end of the year 1080. 

Other top readers demonstrated gains in reading with a combined total of 61,463 pages. These students increased their Lexile level anywhere from 11 points to 238 points. Many are now “proficient” readers on grade level. One student read 23 books and 6,126 pages. He increased his Lexile level 177 points and passed the SOL reading test.

Cindy Conley, Kate’s Principal says, “She is a teacher who takes advantage of learning experiences. She thoughtfully considers how to utilize her skills with her students and she has a collaborative nature that has helped other teachers and administrators grow in innovative ways.”

At an EdCampNova conference in Washington, DC, Kate demonstrated Learning Ally for educators who wanted to learn how to help struggling readers. She told them, “This audiobook solution can be beneficial at every level - elementary, middle and high. If your school doesn’t have a Learning Ally membership, get one!" 

Her district is planning to implement the supplemental reading resource into the high school to provide equitable access to audiobooks, including textbooks. literature and popular titles. Kate says, "This solution is a game changer for me and has helped to make a tremendous difference in our students' school learning years and their future."   

Learn more about Learning Ally  

Schedule a demo to see how Learning Ally delivers an immediate impact for students with dyslexia and other reading deficits.

For more information about a school subscription, call 800-221-1098 or email programs@LearningAlly.org.

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