Dyslexia: can we read with our ears?

By Sarah Asome

Technology can provide support for students with dyslexia, through readily available audiobook platforms, decodable texts and reading apps, Sarah Asome writes.

‘Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities,’ according to the International Dyslexia Association.

It is estimated that one in five children in Australia have dyslexia. We often take it for granted that libraries are inclusive for all our citizens, but they can be places that students with dyslexia will avoid. Often, dyslexic students get lost in the sea of words, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Five from Five website explains why the following five keys to reading are needed every day for all children from the age of five, and offers activities for parents and teachers, and resources for principals and policymakers.

These five keys to reading, all of which are supported by oral language, are:

  1. phonemic awareness
  2. phonics
  3. fluency
  4. vocabulary
  5. comprehension.

Of these, people with dyslexia tend to have difficulty predominantly with phonemic awareness and phonics, but can struggle to some degree with all of them. However, with early identification and intervention, and the use of suitable assistive technology, students with dyslexia can succeed and thrive.

Look out for the signs

Signs may become apparent in prep or even before students start school that dyslexia may be present. These include:

  • family history of literacy difficulties
  • difficulty with rhyming
  • difficulty picking up letter sounds and the reading process
  • leaving off or inverting sounds in words (‘pisghetti’ for ‘spaghetti’ or ‘aminal’ for ‘animal’)
  • word retrieval difficulties, for example, ‘volcano’ for ‘tornado’.

Reading assessments

We need to get students with dyslexia to grade level for reading by the end of Year 3, in order to give them the biggest opportunity for success. However, sadly, dyslexia is often picked up later than this. A number of resources that are available to help assess reading levels, from prep through to upper primary school, are discussed below.

Phonemic and phonological awareness screening

On entry to school, or prior to starting, we should be suggesting a phonological and phonemic awareness screener. This assists in the early identification of dyslexia and offers vital early intervention. Some good choices for this are Ros Neilson’s SEAPART or SPAT-R.

Common myths about dyslexia

  • Students with dyslexia can’t learn to read. This is not the case and, with the right instruction, they can.
  • Dyslexia is a visual difficulty, therefore using a special font is the answer. There is no proof that students need a special font.
  • Dyslexia can be ‘cured’ by using coloured lenses, overlays or tinted paper. This myth is common and there is no scientific evidence that these can improve literacy difficulties.
  • Students with dyslexia have a low IQ. Dyslexia is not linked to IQ.

Checking for phoneme–grapheme correspondences

Phoneme–grapheme correspondence is simply the process of matching letters to sounds in the reading process. Many schools are using a UK screening check, which is suitable for students in Year 1.

The US resource DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) is a wonderful tool to benchmark and monitor students’ progress in literacy. It is suitable for students from prep to Year 6. The Macquarie Online Test Interface (MOTIf) is a free online platform for the administration and scoring of cognitive tests, created by Macquarie University. There are 13 tests available for single-word reading, letter–sound identification, spelling, and comprehension, to name a few.

Spelling inventories are also a vital tool that schools should consider adopting, as decoding and encoding are intrinsically linked, and it is recommended that they be taught in unison. Spelling inventories provide information on a ‘student’s ability to apply the alphabetic principle, remember and use conventional spelling patterns, and apply word meaning’ (Weakland 2015). These are all aspects of orthography, or the accepted spelling scheme of a language.

As noted above, MOTIf provides a spelling inventory. These are also available in the forms of the South Australian Spelling Test (SAST) and the Words Their Way’s ‘Word Study in Action’ resource.

Ear reading with audiobooks

Often — not always — students with dyslexia have high oral language and vocabulary abilities, but struggle to lift the words off the page. Ear reading, defined by the International Dyslexia Association as ‘reading using audiobooks or similar text-to-speech software’, allows students with dyslexia to access the high-level vocabulary they need. They are able to read the same texts as their peers and participate in tasks such as novel studies and discussions.

Audiobook platforms

Audiobooks are available free through Vision Australia to students who have been identified as having dyslexia, just as they are to those who are vision-impaired.

Simply join their library with a referral from any one of the following experts: special education teacher, occupational therapist, psychologist, or speech pathologist.

The BorrowBox app, available through iTunes or Google Play, allows students to borrow both audiobooks and ebooks. It is free of charge, whether the subscription is through your school or your local public library.

Audible is a paid service that can be used to buy popular audiobooks, and Understood suggests audiobook and ear-reading tools for those who learn differently.

Decoding books — why is it so important?

Learning to read is not a natural process like learning to talk; it is cognitive and must be taught. We know from the scientific research that we must teach students to ‘crack’ the reading code, which in this case means learning how speech sounds map to printed letters.

Decodable texts

Decodable texts, sometimes referred to as phonic books, allow students the success of reading. We know from the ‘simple view’ of reading (Hoover & Gough 1990) that two components are required in order for students to have reading comprehension: word recognition (decoding) x language comprehension = reading comprehension.

Decodable texts are carefully written with only grapheme–phoneme correspondences (GPCs) that have been previously taught occurring in the words that the children are expected to read. This encourages decoding and discourages guessing from context.

For example, a young beginning reader who has learnt some consonants and short vowels may read a book with words such as ‘Pip’, ‘cat’, ‘tin’, ‘dog’. A reader who has been systematically taught synthetic phonics may be able to read words such as ‘train’, ‘float’, ‘spoon’ and ‘flower’. The Five from Five website defines synthetic phonics as ‘build(ing) up phonic skills from their smallest unit (graphemes)’. It says that it also involves teaching ‘the processes of blending (‘What word do these sounds make when we put them together mmm-aaa-nnn?’), and segmenting (‘Sound out this word for me’) are also taught’.

Where to find decodable texts

There is a variety of decodable series available from publishers, and speech therapist Alison Clarke has written an excellent blog about them.

Children just starting out learning to read might like decodable books from Little Learners Love Literacy, Pocket Rockets, Dandelion, Fitzroy, Oxford Floppy Phonics, Decodable Readers Australia, or the Big Cat series. Both the Little Learners Love Literacy and Fitzroy books are available as apps.

Child drawing on a piece of paper with colouring in pencils

Many readers then move on to the Moon Dog or Rescue series.

If students are struggling with reading in the upper primary classes, then the Totem, Talisman, Magic Belt, Alba and Rip Rap series are a great choice for low-complexity, high-interest books.

SPELD SA has created 201 free books that can be accessed via their website. The Teen and Adult Phonics (TAP) library app has just been released, and is well worth a look too.

Where to find out more about dyslexia

The following links are suggested to learn more about dyslexia:


Sarah Asome

Sarah Asome

Learning Support Leader

Bentleigh West Primary School, Victoria