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A Silicon Bullet For Dyslexia: A New Solution For An Old Problem

by Mike Matvy


While assistive technology for accommodating print-disabled persons has been available for years, most dyslexic students are still limited to futile attempts at bringing their visual reading up to grade level with remedial training. With 4th or 5th grade reading and writing skills, bright dyslexic students are graduating from high school passing all subjects, but, they are not achieving excellence. They are not reading assigned work. They are not learning how to communicate their good ideas in writing. While these bright students usually perform well in class discussion and on material that is read aloud or discussed in class, teachers often abbreviate student requirements and usually are satisfied when their students score as well as low average students on tasks that require visual reading or paper and pencil writing. The most they can expect is graduation from high school with a recommendation from teachers to keep "sounding out those words" and working on their reading and writing. Unfortunately, they do not leave high school with the reading and writing skills needed to pass college classes.

The educational community is not aware that it has the opportunity to teach dyslexic students to make full use of print; therefore, it is not using the technology that will enable these students to "read," "write," and succeed in college programs. Educators mistakenly view this assistive technology as futuristic, extravagant, expensive and impractical.

One Tennessee school system, however, is proving them wrong. Since 1993, Knox County Schools has been implementing Alternative Methods for Reading and Writing, a comprehensive program employing high and low tech solutions to accommodate the daily reading and writing needs of severely dyslexic students grades 3 through 12. Despite inadequate visual reading and inadequate handwriting ability, students use print for "reading" and "writing" in regular classes and they excel using print rather than just cope with it. These assistive technology methods and emerging technology will revolutionize the way our schools teach dyslexic students.

The program: Alternative Methods for Reading and Writing

This accommodation approach has three main goals: (1) students make full use of their intellect in "reading" print and "writing" print; (2) students maximize their ability to use print independently; and (3) students gain access to the same mainstream educational experiences and standards as their peers.


Using (1) audio-tape recorded books, (2) text-to-speech voice synthesis with computer, (3) reading assistance, and (4) modified visual reading, students from Knox County are completing all the reading requirements for high school and college classes.

Audio-tape recorded books

Students use their ears rather than their eyes for "reading" prerecorded books. They follow along or look ahead in the print book making use of headings, highlighted words, captions, photos, and other visual information. Using a specially-designed player, they can "read" fast or slowly, quickly skip ahead or back to study the text thoroughly. All textbooks are available from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic.

Text-to-speech voice synthesis with computer

Using voice syntheses and screen reader software, students "read" words, sentences, and passages by having the computer speak text aloud. By controlling the voice with key strokes, they quickly "read" anywhere on the screen "reading" from worksheets, dictionaries, encyclopedias, letters, magazines and newspaper articles, and any other text that can be displayed on a computer screen.

All the text from the Internet can be read aurally using this voice system. This fact and the rapid improvement in text-to-speech technology is making this approach a "gold mine" for students who need to read aurally. Voice synthesis/screen reading is also an important tool for enabling inadequate readers to write by letting them hear each word as it is typed, read completed sentences, reread previous sentences, and review writing for editing.

Reading assistance

Reading assistance is having another person read text out loud and is thought of as translating the language from visual to oral form. It is not an opportunity to have a partner, tutor, or leader; it is a service where the dyslexic student directs the assistant what to read, when to read, to reread, to pause, and to stop. This assistance is often performed by a teacher on tests and other required reading, but can be done by a peer who is informally asked to read a short passage.

Modified visual reading

Modified visual reading requires recognizing the limits of the dyslexic students visual reading, modifying unrealistic expectations, and making better use of visual reading for completing daily tasks. The result is that students: (1) make better decisions about when to attempt visual reading and when to employ other methods of reading; (2) make realistic estimates about what can be accomplished using visual reading skills; and (3) perform visual reading in order to cope with reading situations where alternatives are not practical to use. But, when visual reading is used, students modify their expectations by recognizing that, (1) visual reading will only give part of the needed information contained in the text, and (2) visual reading will require energy and mental processing which distracts from the intellectual task of processing the meaning of the text.


With four "writing" methods, (1) dictate and edit procedure; (2) computer-assisted writing; (3) writing assistance; and (4) modified handwriting, students are completing all the writing requirements for high school and college classes.

Dictate and edit procedure

With the above method, oral language is turned into written language by (1) students dictating into a standard dictation device; (2) teachers or assistants typing the dictation into a computer in lower case with no punctuation; (3) students "reading" the text with the screen reader; and (4) students adding capitalization, punctuation and any other editing changes before printing the work. For now, this procedure is the best way to get students' good oral language into print, but it will be replaced by voice recognition programs on computers, as soon as computers can efficiently take dictation from students and print it directly to the screen.

Computer-assisted writing

This procedure uses a computer equipped with voice synthesizer/screen reader and conventional software tools to enable students to overcome the reading, spelling, and handwriting barriers that keep them from getting their ideas onto paper. Students (1) type and hear their words pronounced; (2) use a trial and error approach after hearing misspelled words; (3) run the spellcheck and "read" the alternative spelling words from the spell check list using the computer voice; (4) "read" the text from thesaurus and dictionary programs when checking questionable words; and (5) print a draft and ask a proof reader to make a final check. Initially, students are not as fluent using this method but they are more independent since they correct most of their errors on their own.

Writing assistance

Students dictate to a person who writes what the students say. As in the use of Reading Assistance, this is best viewed as translating the language from one form to another. Being effective with this method not only requires ability to concentrate and organize language while dictating but it also requires social skills, task commitment, and self confidence. While the level of independence in performing this method of writing is low, it requires simple technology that is widely available.

Modified handwriting

Students use their limited handwriting ability to their fullest advantage by (1) making better decisions about when to attempt handwriting and when to employ other methods of writing, (2) making realistic estimates about what can be accomplished using handwriting skills, and (3) accepting less than perfect handwriting in order to increase functioning in critical writing situations where alternatives are not practical to use.


Using Alternative Methods for Reading and Writing (Appendix A) bright dyslexic students start "reading" on or above grade level in days. Quickly and effortlessly, they can "read" their favorite novels, magazines, and newspapers as well as all their grade level textbooks. Soon, they are using alternative methods for writing letters and papers. The power and information that is available through print is theirs.

After starting the program, one Knox County student returned from spring break with an attitude of empowerment. She had earlier reported that she felt sad because she was unable to go to the beach, lie in the sun, and read a book like her friends do. This time it was different. She said "I used the tapes and I laid on the beach and read a novel. I feel like an intellectual." She went on to become president of her class, take the ACT on audio tape, and achieve a high college placement score. Another student, using these methods, recently completed his first year at The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, making the Dean's List.

Dyslexic students using this program are completing high school classes having "read" all the class assignments and "written" all the required papers. They are achieving excellence in high school and they are going on to college so they can become statisticians, lawyers, biologists, teachers, journalists, and intellectuals.

(This article first appeared in Closing The Gap, October / November, 1998.)

Appendix A

(A Silicon Bullet For Dyslexia: A New Solution For An Old Problem by Mike Matvy)
Additional Information, Software, Audio-taped textbook services, and Equipment used in this program
For Additional Information Contact:
Mike Matvy, N.C.S.P.
School Psychologist/Assistive Technology Specialist
Knox County Schools

  1. Visiting the World Web Site at : http://sacam.oren.ortn.edu
  2. Sending e-mail inquires to: < matvym@ten-nash.ten.k12.tn.us >
  3. Calling (423) 594-1121 (or -1529)
    (use #4 only if #1, #2, and #3 are not available)
  4. Sending mail to: Eastport, 2036 Bethel Avenue
  5. Knoxville, TN 37915-2036
  6. Software used:
  7. Voice syntheses software used:
  8. MacinTalk, MacinTalk 3, MacinTalk Pro
    Cost: free with all Macintosh computers
    From: Apple Computer Inc.
    M.S.: 198-ED; P.O. Box 149116
    Austin, TX 78754
    1(800) 800-2775

  9. Screen reader software used:
  10. outSPOKEN 1.7.5Cost: $495 (discounts to educators)(20% to 35%)
    Alva Access Group Inc.
    5801 Christie Ave. - Suite 475
    Emeryville, CA 94608
    (510) 923-6280 Voice, (510) 923-6270 fax

  11. Word processing software used:
  12. ClarisWorks 4.0v4
    Cost: $130 (discounts to educators)
    Claris Corporation
    5201 Patrick Henry Dr. , P.O. Box 58168
    Santa Clara, CA 95052-8168
    408-727-9054, 1 800 325-2747

  13. Audio taped textbook services used (both needed):

    Taped textbooks
    Cost: $50 Individual enrollment fee plus $25 annual fee
    From:  Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic
    20 Roszel Road
    Princeton, NJ 08540
    1(800) 221-4792

    Novels, Classics, and pleasure reading books on tape
    Cost: No charge to eligible persons
    From: Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped that serves the student's region. To obtain the number for the library serving the student's area, contact a local library or call The Library of Congress at 1 (800) 424-8567.

  14. Equipment used

    Specially adapted cassette players for home use:
    A specially adapted cassette player, Model # C-76, acquired on loan
    Cost: No charge to eligible persons
    From:  Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped that serves the students region. To obtain the number for the library serving the student's area, contact a local library or call The Library of Congress at 1 (800) 424-8567.

    Specially adapted cassette players for school use (either #1 or #2):

    Handi-Cassette II Stereo/Player, Cat. #1-07085-00
    Cost: $161.25
    From:  American Printing House for the Blind
    1839 Frankfort Ave.; P.O. Box 6085
    Louisville, KY 40206; ATT: Ordering Department
    1(800) 223-1839 voice, 1(502) 899-2274 fax

    Talkman IV Cassette Recorder/Player, #Y2417
    Cost: $164.95
    From:  Light House inc.
    3602 Northern Blvd.
    Long Island City, NY 11101-1614
    Att: Pam Morton
    1 800 829-0500, Fax. 718 786-5620

  15. Standard dictation device:

    Sony M-427
    Cost: $21.95
    From: any office supply store, Kmart, Walmart, etc.

  16. Standard Computers:

    Any Macintosh computer will work
    Macintosh LC, LC 580, Power Macintosh 5400/200, etc.
    Cost: $1649.00 for Power Macintosh 5400/200
    From:  Apple Computer Inc.
    M.S.: 198-ED; P.O. Box 149116
    Austin, TX 78754
    1(800) 800-2775

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    Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.