What is Reading?

dyslexia readingThis post initially started as the result of the requirements and expectations for my son’s reading log for school. The reading log assignment is meant to see what the student understands on their own (with assistance with words or concepts) and the concern that he reads independently and not with help from me. It got me thinking about reading, the different types of reading, and the purpose of reading.

In The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan, Ben Foss talks about 3 different types of reading: eye reading, finger reading, and ear reading. Eye reading is the mainstream form of reading: reading with your eyes, whether it is via the standard form of print on paper or via a screen, such as a computer or e-reader. The early years of schooling focus on teaching this method of reading, which works great for the majority of the population. But what about people with print disabilities? People that are blind learn to read Braille, although I suspect with where technology is today, that it is becoming more commonplace to use technology to have something read aloud than to read Braille. People that read using Braille, or finger reading as Ben calls it, are not any less intelligent than those that read with their eyes. If people that are blind happen to substitute technology, such as services like Learning Ally and Bookshare, to read aloud to them instead of reading Braille, is it no longer considered reading? Technology has come a long way, but as far as I know there are no computers or e-readers that have the ability to do Braille on a screen (it was brought to my attention that this might do just that). To get around this obstacle, technology reads aloud what would not be accessible to do by Braille. Do blind people become any less intelligent because they are read aloud to rather than reading Braille? No, it is a matter of making print accessible.

Why then is there a double standard when it comes to dyslexics? Why are people with dyslexia viewed as less intelligent, lazy, or trying to get an advantage when they use technology to read aloud to them, or ear read as Ben Foss calls it? I wonder if any of the people that think this have tried using technology to read aloud to them rather than actually reading with their eyes. I don’t think ear reading is the easy way out, in fact I think it is a lot harder. My son uses Bookshare and I tried reading with it to see what it is like. I’m guessing anyone that is a fluent reader will not like it. I found it really hard to read along at the same pace as the words are being highlighted. I tried speeding up the audio to try to match my reading speed, but I had a very hard time trying to read the words while listening to the words as they were read. It was like my eyes and ears were competing for my attention at the same time, and my brain just couldn’t handle it and it negatively affected my comprehension. So then I tried to just listen instead of trying to read along, and that didn’t fare any better. I found that my mind kept wandering, and even when I tried to consciously pay attention, ear reading for me is not the same as eye reading. And it is a lot slower. I found that I had to increase the audio to about 200% to keep up with my eyes, but I found it very annoying listening to something at that speed. And then there is the problem with sustaining my attention to listen, does that mean I am ADHD? Maybe taking notes would have helped, but not at a speed of 200%, so now I am back to the problem of taking significantly more time for me to ear read than to eye read, and I don’t retain nearly as much ear reading as I do eye reading.

I am making the assumption that reading for a person with dyslexia is very much like reading a foreign language that one is not fluent in. I have a minor in Spanish, so I think this is a good analogy. I was very close to getting my translator’s certificate in Spanish, but one thing stood in the way: I could not process the spoken language fast enough to be a good translator. Not to mention that I had a horrible American accent and had no ability to roll my r’s, no matter how much I practiced. But I could read Spanish, just not as fluently as I could English. And reading Spanish took a lot more effort than reading English because my brain was doing mental gymnastics translating Spanish into English as I read. A person that is fluent in a foreign language will do this almost automatically. But to read in a foreign language that a person is not fluent in requires a lot of effort and is not automatic, just like what reading is for a person with dyslexia. In both cases, it is not a matter of comprehension, it is a matter of fluency. And not being fluent requires extra processing time and is more mentally draining.

When I had to do assignments in Spanish, it just required more time than doing something similar in English. Hypothetically, if I needed an “accommodation” for Spanish, I definitely would not have chosen to have a native speaker read aloud to me because I could not process the language nearly as quickly as the person speaking. I would try to watch shows on Univision and I would understand enough to get the gist of what was being said, but I could not translate word for word. My accommodation of choice would have been to read because I could read to my processing ability and would be able to comprehend every word instead of getting the gist of what I heard. People with dyslexia have the opposite problem: they completely comprehend when it is read aloud to them because it is to their processing ability, but they only get the gist when they themselves read.

My son came home upset one day last week because for his reading log he has to read books that are at his “reading level”, which is several grades below him. He complained that those books are boring and for “little kids.” This past summer he has been reading the Percy Jackson series on Bookshare, and is on the 5th out of 5 books in the series. He actually wants to read these books. I want to foster a love for reading rather than making reading a chore by having him read books that he finds “boring” and that he views as “little kid” books.

I also understand wanting him to read books that are at his decoding ability in an instructional setting where he reads aloud, practices concepts just learned, and can be corrected when words are misread or helped decode a word that is above his decoding ability. If the assignment is to read independently without anyone monitoring if he is actually decoding the words properly, I would prefer that he reads using assistive technology like Bookshare that highlights the words as they are read aloud which allows my son to follow along. Bookshare is multisensory in the sense that he hears the word and sees the word, and this will help to build his fluency over time. If he were to read aloud with Bookshare, it would be even more helpful with building fluency, but he doesn’t want to and I’m just happy that he is reading with it.

Dyslexics require more exposure to a printed word over a much longer period of time before they are able to read that word with automaticity. If he is misreading the words, this is not helping to build a correct word bank memory, which not only affects comprehension, it actually hinders building fluency. Another reason I prefer he uses assistive technology outside of an instructional setting is that his comprehension ability far exceeds his decoding ability. Outside of an instructional setting, he should be reading books that are either at or slightly above his comprehension ability because this exposes him to more complex text as well as builds his vocabulary, both of which will become more demanding as he progresses through school. Using assistive technology will actually help to close the gap while it supports his disability in decoding. His lack of decoding ability should not hold him back from reading age appropriate books that his non-dyslexic peers are reading, especially since he has to read grade level text books which are not to his decoding ability.

So why is there this misconception that dyslexics are not really reading if they are ear reading? Is the purpose of reading to see how quickly one can read or to see how much one comprehends? Why should dyslexics be penalized for their lack of automaticity in decoding? Extra time or being read aloud to does not give a person with dyslexia an advantage or a heads up on the competition: it is in line with their processing ability.