Assistive technology teachers working at schools in the Fairfax County, VA school district–one of the largest in the United States–are finding that the use of audiobooks is improving access to grade-level content while also developing the love of reading that motivates many students to continue improving.
Two assistive technology teachers shared their experiences and recommendations during a recent edWebinar led by Terrie Noland, vice president of educator initiatives at Learning Ally. The teachers explained how Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) provides assistive technology support to struggling readers and their teachers, and how the audiobooks in particular are having a very positive impact.
With over 180,000 students, FCPS is the currently the 10th largest school district in the U.S., and it encompasses tremendous diversity in regard to income levels and the number of languages spoken there. About 15 percent of the students are classified as having special needs, and other students in the district have similar characteristics and have also been found to benefit from the use of assistive technologies. As of one of the edWebinar participants recommended, “Don’t wait—accommodate.”
A district-wide approach to assistive technology
FCPS has 30 assistive technology resource teachers, each of whom works with 7 to 10 schools. Jenn Regardie and Jennifer Carr, the assistive technology teachers presenting in the edWebinar, explained that they try to spend time about once every two weeks at each of the schools they work with.
While at the schools, they coordinate with the special education teachers, speech/language pathologists, and other members of their teams there, and also spend time with individual students and student groups. In addition to their work at school sites, they also spend time at district offices where they participate in meetings and trainings.
As “itinerant teachers” working at multiple schools, Regardie and Carr have found that a key initial step is identifying teacher leaders at each school who share their interest in using assistive technologies to help students. As the teacher leaders begin to achieve success with individual students, those success stories can be documented and shared in other classes and grades, leading to more widespread assistive technology use and recognition of its impact.
FCPS is organized into “pyramids” in which elementary schools graduate students into middle schools, and then the middle schools feed students into high schools. Through this process, successes in the lower grades can continue and spread in the upper grades as students demonstrate how the use of technologies such as audiobooks enables them to continue accessing grade-level content.
Using assistive technologies effectively
To find the right resources for struggling readers in their district, the assistive technology teachers rely on the Universal Protocol for Accommodation in Reading (uPAR), an informal screener that takes about 20 minutes to administer. The results enable teachers to identify audiobooks at a level that students can comprehend, and for many struggling readers the level at which they can understand spoken content is higher than the level at which they can read printed text.
Audiobooks can therefore provide more equitable access to grade-level content and enable struggling readers to share more of the engagement, pride, and enjoyment of reading that their classmates experience. For some students, an audiobook is the first book they’ve ever been able to complete, and continued access can significantly impact their achievement and attitudes. One audiobook user said, “I never realized I liked books.”
Another advantage of audiobooks is that they can be made accessible at home and on smartphones, not just in the classroom. However, the assistive technology teachers noted that students also need to be taught the fundamentals of reading by their classroom teachers, and that may involve the use of printed texts at the students’ instructional level, which may be lower than the level of their audiobooks.
Other assistive technologies, such as text readers that can be used with other types of documents, and virtual assistants such as Siri or Alexa, should also be part of the mixture of resources that are available for struggling readers to use in order to succeed in school.
For assistive technologies to have maximum impact in their district, the assistive technology teachers have found that building relationships is extremely important, and social media can be an assistive technology in that regard, as it helps staff members communicate with teachers in different schools, and with the parents who also have a crucial role in helping their children become lifelong learners.
About the presenters
Jenn Regardie has worked in special education in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) for 18 years. She started her teaching career in elementary school but has spent the majority of her time in FCPS as an assistive technology resource teacher with a focus on supporting use of assistive technology in middle and high schools. She helps teachers, staff, and students with the implementation of audiobooks through Learning Ally and other tools to support reading. She is also the parent of a young reader who discovered a love of reading through the use of audiobooks. Jenn has an M.Ed. in special education from Lehigh University and a B.S. from Ithaca College.
Jennifer Carr has a passion for assistive technology (AT). She regularly works with schools and students in grades preschool to twelfth grade to find the right AT tools for those who require it. Jennifer supports students, teachers and staff in the use and implementation for all levels of diverse learners. She has taken on many leadership opportunities within Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), one of them has been working with Learning Ally to support students within FCPS. Jennifer has presented at local, state, national and international conferences in the area of AT. She is co-author of Developing Your Assistive Technology Leadership: Best Practices for Success.
Terrie Noland’s greatest strengths lie in the ability to motivate, inspire, and create enthusiasm in others to be passionate educators that support the diverse needs of students. Terrie serves as the vice president of educator initiatives for Learning Ally, where she works to develop engagement programs, professional learning services and communities for educators. Her passion is working with educators to create dynamic classrooms, and recognizing educators in their tremendous efforts. Terrie has more than 25 years of experience as both a motivational leader and developer of content for educators and administrators. Her focus for the past six years has been on the pedagogical practices needed to create effective environments for struggling readers and students with dyslexia. She has the opportunity to lead and facilitate groups numbering in the thousands, helping to build better understanding of working with struggling readers and students with dyslexia. Terrie is certified as an academic language practitioner and is currently working towards a Ph.D. in literacy, with an emphasis in educational leadership from St. John’s University.
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