One of the first conversations I have with my parents of dyslexic kids is “And your child should be listening to audio books.”  Almost like clockwork, they respond, “But I want to make sure she still learns to read.”

Maybe this is a concern you are struggling with right now.  Let me help allay your fears.

Access to books he can understand, but not easily decode

Access to books he can understand, but not easily decode

First of all, one of the hallmarks of dyslexia is a discrepancy between reading level and oral language level.  Often, in fact, these kiddos are really verbal and have been forever.  I can’t tell you how many parents tell me, “He has a great vocabulary and has always impressed people when they talk with him.  That’s why we were so shocked when he started having trouble reading.”

This discrepancy means that children with dyslexia can comprehend books that they hear at a much higher level than they can read.  So, to keep developing their oral language, including their vocabulary and their understanding of literary syntax, they need to be exposed to books at their oral comprehension level, rather than being limited to books they can read independently.

In reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer: the Matthew Effect.

In reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer: the Matthew Effect.

Since one of the greatest long-term disadvantages children with dyslexia face is the growing gap in vocabulary, literate language and content compared to their fluent reading peers, it is especially important to supplement what they can read with literature they can listen to.

Secondly, kids become better, more fluent readers by reading books that are easy for them, not books that are so challenging they are frustrating.  In fact, research says that the sweet spot is when a child can easily decode 95% or more of the words in a book.   If a child struggles to read more than 5% of the words, the book is too hard.  So, even though the goal is for your child to pick up Harry Potter or Divergent on their own, the way to get them there is to let them choose easy books now, so that they build the fluency (speed and accuracy) to be able to read those challenging books later.

And, I hate to tell you this, but they need to reread those easy books…over and over and over.  When parents tell me, “Just get my kid to read something, anything, other than Magic Treehouse!  He has those memorized!”  I tell them, “Actually, that’s great.  Let him read them to his heart’s content.”  Yes, I know that may mean you now have all the books memorized as well, but such is what it takes for your child to get really automatic.

Finally, in this day and age, it is important to realize that listening to an audio book should be considered real reading.  Ben Foss, author of The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan, creator of Headstrong Nation, inventor of the Intel Reader, and dyslexic advocate extraordinaire, argues that we need to get over the feeling that listening to books is somehow cheating or not real reading.  Dyslexic himself, Foss points out that we understand that blind people read with their fingers.  We also need to understand that many people with dyslexia read with their ears.  He encourages the use of the terms “eye reading,” “ear reading” and “finger reading” to encompass the variety of ways to read.

Foss advocates kids with dyslexia learning how to listen to super-fast text, so that they can ear read a book as fast as the average eye reader can read.  He points out that many dyslexic brains actually process speeded-up text better than do non-dyslexic brains.

All my friends ask me if I've read Divergent yet, and I say, "yeah. Have you?"

All my friends ask me if I’ve read Divergent yet, and I say, “yeah. Have you?”

Supporting this dyslexia-friendly understanding of reading is a burgeoning understanding of dyslexia itself as being not so much a “learning” disorder, as a “print” disorder.  As I have mentioned in previous posts,  Dr. David Rose points out that all learning disabilities are in truth a function of normal human neurodiversity in a specific context that fits badly.  In the case of dyslexia, the disability resides in part in the print.  Seen through this lens, audio books are a logical and easy piece of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an approach focused on giving diverse learners access to content.

Without minimizing the challenges of dyslexia, I have to say, this is a pretty good time in history to be dyslexic.  Your average computer and smart device can read to you, Siri is ready to translate your words into action and programs like Kurzweil  and Dragon Naturally Speaking do an even better job of translating text to speech and speech to text.  Textbook publishers now routinely include an audio cd or dvd in with all their books across the grade levels and the curriculum.  And web sites like Learning Ally and  offer almost any book you would need on audio. kids_listening

So, let me repeat my standard recommendation.  Your child should be listening to books on audio.  There is no reason that having dyslexia should mean that a kid can only be exposed to Mac and Tab or Magic Treehouse when her friends are all reading and discussing Divergent or The Hunger Games.  Listening to audio books allows them access to the vocabulary, literary language and content that they need to keep growing and developing while they get the explicit phonics instruction and the fluency practice that will help their eye reading catch up with their ear reading.



copyright Diana Kennedy 2014