Dyslexic students find an ally for reading

By Kim Hilsenbeck

Barton Middle School dyslexic students placed seventh in a national reading competition hosted by Learning Ally, a software program that aids students in reading. The score was calculated based on the number of pages read and how many readers at the school were using the software. Barton Middle School was the only campus in Hays CISD to be in the top 10 winners list.

As part of the award, the school also earned $3,000 in staff professional development from Learning Ally.

Barton dyslexia teachers Laura Younts and Alexis Juusola said the money for professional development was a complete surprise.

Learning Ally, a nonprofit based in Princeton, New Jersey, started in 1948 in the New York Public Library as Recording for the Blind. It utilized volunteers to record books for blinded veterans returning from WW II.

Today, the district pays for the audiobook program, and all Hays CISD students with dyslexia can use the software. This program allows students to “ear read” or follow along while listening to a book being read to them. 

“They can download the books on their phone or pad and it’s compatible with Mac and PC,” according to Jenny Falke from Learning Ally who presented the students and teachers with their awards.

Students in Younts’ class seemed to appreciate that they could choose from among the most recent, popular book titles. The Learning Ally program supports more than 80,000 audiobooks including a mix of current and classic books.

Juusola said many students are reading books like Percy Jackson and the Maze Runner series. Both teachers said they have seen a difference in the students since using the software. 

Real person recordings are one thing that Younts said makes the program so effective. She also likes the program’s features, one of which allows readers to change the pitch and speed of a recording.

“For example, in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, it’s a grandma style person who is reading the book,” she said.

But the software allows readers to make the voice sound like a young person or even a child while maintaining good quality in the recording.

The best part about having access to Learning Ally, Younts said, is how it has changed the outlook on reading for many of her students with dyslexia. She highlighted Zachary Dahlan, who was the top reader in her class in the Learning Ally contest.

“Zachary wasn’t too crazy about reading  – like a lot of kids that struggle to read,” Younts said. “He really didn’t read a whole lot until he started reading on audiobooks. And now, as you can tell, he was our number one reader.”

She said his mom told her that Zach reads all the time.

“It’s helped a lot,” he said. “It’s like whenever I used to read a book I wouldn’t really understand it very much and I would tend to lose my place and stuff like that. And with Learning Ally I understand it a lot more and it highlights [the words]so I can not lose my place and stuff like that.” 

Before Learning Alley, Dahlan said, “Reading was a constant struggle.”

Several other students echoed Dahlan’s comments, saying the program helps them become more confident readers and that it makes them want to read more books. Students also said it helps them retain the information better, which is important in other subjects as well.

Fellow classmate Estevan Gastilleja said, “I think it’s really helpful. I wasn’t really a reader but whenever I download Learning Ally I can read like books and I wouldn’t understand it at first but it reads it to me so now I can understand it.”

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