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Reading to Learn: Compensating with Technology

by Amy G. Dell

Reading is both a subject area that students must master and a means by which students learn other subject areas. In the early grades (K-3) the primary focus of schools is on reading instruction, on children “learning to read,” while from grade 4 and up, the focus shifts to children “reading to learn.” Being able to read and understand textbooks and other assigned readings is absolutely critical for academic success, especially as students move on to middle school, high school and college. Middle, high school and college students are required to complete extensive amounts of reading on a daily basis – textbooks, works of literature, journal articles, reference materials – most of which have readability levels well beyond the skills of most students with learning disabilities (Boyle, Washburn, Rosenberg, Connelly, Brinckerhoff & Banerjee, 2002). Slow readers and students with reading comprehension problems struggle to complete their reading assignments and fall behind in their work because they cannot “keep up with all the reading.” This is not only frustrating and stressful, but it interferes with their learning of the subject matter.

Some students get through high school by having their parents or instructional aides read their textbooks to them. (Some simply do not complete the reading and “get by” by paying attention to class lectures.) These may be short-term solutions, but in the end, they are a disservice to students; when teenagers attempt to attend college or hold a job they find they are unable to complete their reading assignments on their own. Therefore, students with reading difficulties stand to benefit significantly from computer technology that can increase their independence in reading. One such application is called scan/read systems.

Scan/Read Systems

Scan/read systems combine the use of a computer, a scanner, optical character recognition software, and speech output to read aloud any printed text while providing a visually-enhanced display on a computer monitor. Users of scan/read systems place the pages to be read on a flatbed scanner and click the “scan” button. (Using a document scanner instead of a flatbed scanner is a faster alternative.) The print is then converted into an electronic file, similar to a word processing file. Scan/read programs then speak the words on the screen while highlighting the corresponding text. This provides a “synchronized auditory and visual presentation of the text” (Hecker, Burns, Katz, Elkind & Elkind, 2002). Optional highlighting in color helps readers keep their eyes on a line of text, while the speech output provides ongoing auditory feedback.

Two of the most popular, full-featured scan/read systems, Kurzweil 3000 (Kurzweil Educational Systems) and WYNN (Freedom Scientific), offer features that are designed to meet the needs of people who struggle with reading comprehension. Both programs offer options to change the appearance of the visual display and to set the reading speed to match the user’s preference. They also offer “embedding tools,” (Anderson-Inman and Horney, 1999), for example, a talking dictionary and thesaurus, electronic highlighters to assist students in taking notes and preparing study guides, voice notes, and yellow “sticky notes” for inserting hidden prompts and reminders.

The talking dictionary is a good example of how embedding tools can help students who have reading comprehension problems. When a student with reading problems encounters an unfamiliar word, the suggestion to “look it up in the dictionary” is not terribly helpful. Dictionaries, even electronic dictionaries, tend to cram a lot of text onto a single page; the font is quite small and spacing is tight. The student with reading problems often cannot find the word in the dictionary to begin with, and if s/he manages to locate it, reading the small print and understanding it present additional difficulties. Contrast that with the talking dictionaries that are embedded in scan/read systems. The student simply clicks on the unfamiliar word, then clicks on the dictionary icon, and the program immediately displays the dictionary entry for that word and will read it aloud when the student clicks the “read button.” In addition, another simple click of the mouse will copy the definition to the computer clipboard so the student can create a customized vocabulary list that can be studied later.

The impact of scan/read software on the reading performance of post-secondary students with attention disorders was demonstrated in a research study by Hecker, Burns, Katz, Elkind and Elkind (2002). Twenty students were trained to use the Kurzweil 3000 and over the course of a semester used it to read assignments in English class and take tests. The results revealed that scan/read software “allowed the students to attend better to their reading, to reduce their distractibility, to read with less stress and fatigue, and to read for longer periods of time. It helped them to read faster and thereby to complete reading assignments in less time.”

Scan/read programs are powerful tools that can help students with learning disabilities compensate for their reading and study skills problems. However, simply providing students with software is not enough. Students need to be taught how to use the features in these programs, and schools need to develop implementation plans that identify a specific person who will be responsible for scanning the texts and preparing it for student use.

Alternative to Scanning Text: e-Text

One of the obstacles standing in the way of wide-scale implementation of scan/read technology is that scanning documents takes quite a bit of time. Unless a school has access to a high speed scanner and it is acceptable to tear the bindings off books, scanning requires a person to stand at a flat-bed scanner and scan one page at a time. This is easily done for a few pages of reading material, but when it comes to entire books, it can take hours. Therefore, it is important for teachers to become knowledgeable about internet sites that provide files of text that are already in electronic format. Called e-text, these are files of books or other printed material that someone else has already converted into a computer file. Most literature that is in the public domain, such as all of Shakespeare’s plays, is available for free download from internet sites such as Project Gutenberg ( Instead of scanning in Hamlet for a high school student, for example, the file can be downloaded from the internet and read aloud using a scan/read system such as WYNN or Kurzweil 3000. The student benefits from all of the features and embedding tools in the software, but the need for time-consuming scanning is eliminated.


In the most recent reauthorization of IDEA (2004) a provision was added to ease the problem of procuring textbooks in alternate formats. Called the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS), this provision was clarified in 2006 when the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), published specific regulations in the Federal Register. The NIMAS standards guide publishers in producing digital versions of textbooks that can be easily converted to accessible formats such as braille, audio, e-text, and/or large print (CAST, 2006). Publishers are now required to use these standards when preparing source files for K-12 textbooks and need to provide these files when requested by state and local education agencies. The regulations also reaffirm the responsibilities of state and local education agencies to provide students who have print disabilities with alternate-format versions of textbooks in a timely manner (CAST, 2006).

K-12 textbook publishers are now required to prepare NIMAS files sets for deposit in a national repository of digital materials (CAST, 2006). Known as the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC), the repository is hosted by the American Printing House for the Blind. NIMAC will provide states and local education agencies with textbook files that follow the NIMAS standard and therefore, will be easily converted to alternate formats. No such requirement exists for publishers of textbooks in higher education. Advocates for college students who are blind are pushing for comparable legislation.

Scan/Read for Students who are Blind/Visually Impaired

Students who are blind/visually impaired also benefit from scan/read technology. Their needs are different from students with learning disabilities. They do not have reading comprehension problems -- in fact, many are fluent Braille readers -- but they face significant barriers in gaining access to printed materials in a timely manner. They often use scan/read systems when they need quick access to print, for example, to read the morning newspaper, their mail, professional reports, and legal documents. Kurzweil 1000 (Kurzweil Educational Systems) and OpenBook (Freedom Scientific) are two popular scan/read systems designed to meet the needs of people who cannot see printed text. These scan read systems offer many of the same features as WYNN and Kurzweil 3000, but their interface is easier to use for people who cannot see the screen. Tasks that users with learning disabilities do with a mouse, such as navigating through documents, managing documents, or selecting a tool, can be accomplished through the use of “hot keys” and function keys. Although these commands require some memorization, they are far more efficient than using the mouse for users who are blind.

Other Compensatory Reading Tools: Recorded Books

In addition to scan/read programs, there are other forms of technology that can help older students who struggle with reading comprehension. Books-on-Tape is a service that has been available for many years. The books were read aloud by readers and recorded on four-track tapes that had to be played back on special four-track tape recorders.
Today organizations like Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFBD) have moved from four-track tapes to digital books on CD, which use the DAISY format (see table below). The advantage to digital recordings is that, unlike tapes, they do not have to be navigated in sequential order from beginning to end. Users can start the book at any place, can insert bookmarks at any point, and can easily navigate from one page or chapter to another, or from one bookmark or heading to the next. This ease of navigation affords students the opportunity to use pre-reading strategies that can increase their comprehension and learning. One such strategy is the SLiCK (see table at bottom of page), short for Set up, Look ahead, Comprehend, Keep it together (Boyle, Washburn, Rosenberg, Connelly, Brinckerhoff & Banerjee, 2002). To listen to RFB&D’s digital books, students need either a special portable CD player or a standard computer equipped with specialized software. (Visit for details on these playback options). It is important to note that for copyright reasons, organizations like RFB&D require their members to provide documented evidence of a print disability before they can borrow digital books.

DAISY Format (Digital Accessible Information SYstem)

DAISY is an international consortium of libraries and organizations for people with print disabilities. Its mission is to ensure that all people have access to published material through the development of an international standard and implementation strategies for the production, exchange, and use of digital talking books. This standard features an accessible, feature-rich, easily navigable format. RFB&D’s Audio-Plus recordings use the DAISY format. Many books available from are in the DAISY format.

Commercially-Available Audio Books

Other sources of recorded books are commercial bookstores and web-based businesses that are targeted at the general public. With the popularity of portable CD players, car audio systems, and MP3 players such as the iPod, listening to recorded books has become a popular activity in our society. People listen to books as they commute, work out in gyms, jog, or just walk around. They borrow recorded books from public libraries, buy them in bookstores, and download them from web-based services such as or iTunes.

Commercially available recorded books typically focus on bestsellers and popular fiction and nonfiction titles, not on textbooks. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that if given a choice, teenagers would prefer to listen to a recorded book on an iPod, rather than a “special” device. For students who do not need to see modified or enhanced text on a computer monitor, it is likely that in the next few years schools will see the format of compensatory reading tools shift from “special playback devices” to MP3 players and other popular electronics.


Anderson-Inman, L. & Horney, M. (1997). Electronic books for secondary students. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Vol. 40, No. 6.

Boyle, E. A.; Washburn, S. G.; Rosenberg, M. S.; Connelly, V. J.; Brinckerhoff, L. C. & Banerjee, M. (2002). Reading’s SLiCK with new audio texts and strategies. Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 50-55.

CAST (2006). What is the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS)? Retrieved from

Hecker, L.; Burns, L.; Katz, L.; Elkind, J. & Elkind, K. (2002). Benefits of assistive reading software for students with attention disorders. Annals of Dyslexia, Vol. 52, 243-273.

Amy G. Dell is a professor in the Department of Special Education, Language and Literacy at The College of New Jersey and editor-in-chief of TECH-NJ.

For additional resources:

Assistive Technology in the Classroom: Enhancing the School Experiences of Students with Disabilities (2008) by Amy G. Dell, Jerry G, Petroff and Deborah A. Newton, Pearson/Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Scan/Read Systems Product Information

For students who are blind/visually impaired:

OpenBook 8.0 (Freedom Scientific) $995 (Single user - Windows only)

Kurzweil 1000 (Kurzweil Educational Systems) $995 (Single user - Windows only)

For students who have learning disabilities:

WYNN (Freedom Scientific Learning Systems Group) www.freedomscientific/
WYNN Wizard (with OCR for scaning capabilities) - $995 WYNN Reader (read only) - $375
(WYNN is available for Windows only)

Kurzweil 3000 (Kurzweil Educational Systems) $1,495 Single User Professional Color (with OCR for scanning capabilities) $1,095 Single User Professional
Black/White (with OCR for scanning capabilities) $395 Single Learn Station (read only)

(Kurzweil 3000 is available for Mac and Windows)

Network and multiple license options are available for all products.

SLiCK STRATEGY for Use with Audio Books


1. The student gets all materials Set up: S/he opens the textbook to the correct page, places a SLiCK worksheet on the desk, and loads the CD into the playback device.

2. The student Looks ahead through the chapter (both the printed textbook and the audio book), noting the headings, subheadings, keywords, and vocabulary, in order to think about what is coming up and access prior knowledge about the subject.

3. The student Comprehends the text by listening to the audio book and following along in the text. This step includes pausing the CD to write important points on the SLiCK worksheet and writing a summary of what was learned.

4. The student now must Keep it together – must combine the summaries to comprehend the entire reading, “to get the bigger picture.”

(Boyle, Washburn, Rosenberg, Connelly, Brinckerhoff & Banerjee, 2002)


Forcina Hall, Room 101

The College of New Jersey

P.O. Box 7718

Ewing, NJ 08628-0718

P) 609.771.2795




Professor Amy G. Dell

Managing Editor

Anne M. Disdier