Learning Disabilities (LD) manifest in multiple ways. Categories include mathematics, written expression, and reading. Within reading you have a few more categories, namely: word recognition, fluency, and comprehension. Today, I will focus solely on the reading disabilities–which category is most important and how assistive technology (AT) plays a key role in interventions.
Word Recognition, Fluency, or Comprehension–Which is More Important?
A child may only have one of these reading-related disabilities. If that is true, than that disability category is the most important. A doctor does not treat pneumonia when the child just has a common cold. Some children–and adults–will have a disability in more than one category, with comprehension likely being one of them. In this instance, it is my opinion that comprehension is the most important disability category that requires focus, with the others being supporting details that can be worked on at a later date.
Imagine breaking a leg. Does the doctor worry about the mobility of the leg, or the healing of the leg itself? The doctor will set the leg and protect it from further injury. Mobility is an after thought that can be remedied through AT. The main goal is to get the leg healed. Once it is set and protected then the doctor can look at available AT options based on the leg is protected. A wheelchair may be needed, or crutches or a scooter of some kind. As the leg heals, the doctor may change the protection and healing instruments, which may lead to a change in the AT. Rehabilitation, or focus on mobility, can begin once the leg is fully healed–which may also require some different forms of AT.
This analogy shows why reading comprehension should be the main focus for anyone with multiple learning disabilities. You may have noticed that reading fluency is not tested in state-wide standardized tests, ACT/SAT, or GRE/LSAT/MCAT. The reason being that comprehension, or understanding what you read and the ability to apply the knowledge, is far more important than the pace or accuracy of reading. Word recognition is a key part of comprehension; however, word recognition is the not the end goal; comprehension is. Therefore, focusing on comprehension–with fluency and word recognition as supporting yet non-critical details–is the key to intervention success.
Assistive Technology and Reading Disabilities
Comprehension is the leg in our little analogy. We need to address it before we can address other issues. We can use assistive technology tools such as dictionaries, thesauruses, and/or UDL (Universal Design for Learning) principles and programs as a crutch in the word recognition and fluency areas to help strengthen comprehension. One great tool could be Udio. Udio is a UDL reading program that gives students multiple means of engagement through stories that are applicable to the age group (something low level reading books fail to do for other students with low grade level reading skills). Representation is in the form of differing reading levels for articles and built in AT tools. Multiple means of expression is built in with different ways to discuss passages and demonstrate mastery, such as with pictures, mind maps, and discussion boards. Other such programs and AT tools may be available.
Other AT tools, such as color transparencies and text-to-speech, can be used to increase comprehension. While tools such as these appear to focus on word recognition and/or fluency (which they do), the target goal is for these tools to build comprehension skills, thus allowing you tackle more than one skill area at a time. Once comprehension is built up and we are in the “rehabilitation” phase, we can focus on withdrawing certain AT devices and strategies to strengthen the supporting details of comprehension. However, research needs to be done first. We cannot assume a student will succeed independently until we have tested that hypothesis. It may be that the student, or adult, can succeed without the AT tools. However, it may also be that the only reason the student is finding success is due to the AT tools and strategies now being used. Use caution before testing a student out of accommodations, or removing accommodations and funding for an adult.
Let’s clarify one thing that may be confusing to some professionals and parents. I am not advocating the focus of comprehension when comprehension is not a disability, nor am I advocating the dismissal of fluency and word recognition skills. What I am saying is that when reading comprehension is a disability–either in isolation or in conjunction with another reading or mathematics disability–it should be the primary focus and concern. Some teachers shy away from using certain AT tools because it supplements word recognition or fluency skills. It is perfectly acceptable to do such a thing. Comprehension is more important in the big picture. You can certainly work on word recognition and fluency at the same time as comprehension; however, comprehension should always be the main focus, and if you have to use AT that takes the work out of word recognition and fluency skills, than so be it.