A boy in a beanbag chair reading along to an audiobook.

Can audiobooks be the great equalizer for students with learning differences?


It's time to find new approaches to personalize learning for students who learn differently

Giving students access to books that interest them

At Stephen F. Austin High School in Sugar Land, Texas, 10th-graders read rigorously in their global studies English II courses, even though many are not skilled readers. In this high school, an estimated one in four students has been identified with a learning difference like ADHD or dyslexia, and 25 percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged.

Stacy Allen Webster, the instructor, says, “No student should ever be denied access to a rich library of world literature, even if they aren’t strong readers or don’t have Internet access at home.”

Webster is aware of the limitations many students face who cannot easily connect online. She strives to build a class library of books of varying levels that students can take home. In addition, her school provides eligible students with access to audiobooks.

Students are also encouraged to take ownership of their learning process and have plenty of choices to select books that are of personal interest to build background knowledge. “Providing access to technology and text in multiple formats is a strategy that works well for older students,” says Webster. Each semester, she designs her curriculum around her students’ cultural interests and heritage. Her one hard-and-fast rule is that students must read for 20 minutes in a structured, independent reading environment and write for 20 minutes—a proven formula for increasing the probability that more students will maintain good reading and writing habits.

Related: How to create a dyslexia-friendly environment in your school

One of Webster’s key messages to her students is that reading is the key to learning. She regularly reminds them, “If you want to become a better reader, READ more. If you want to become a better writer, same thing—READ more.”

Rethinking the power to learn

The ways in which we learn are rapidly changing. Today, struggling readers with learning differences who once would have fallen through the cracks, are being afforded new opportunities to overcome their learning challenges. With assistive technologies such as audiobooks, which offer equitable access to grade-level content, more students can develop their reading skills, stamina, and learning confidence and reach their full intellectual potential.

Innovative educators like Joelle Nappi and Stacy Allen Webster are ahead of the curve. They are already using this technology to level the playing field for struggling readers. They encourage students to take ownership of their learning process and to read independently. Like many teachers, their hope for the future is that barriers to reading will no longer be an insurmountable issue, and that every learner will have the resources and support they need to reach their academic potential and lead rewarding, productive lives.

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