Making the Grade: Reading becomes a joy for special-needs students

For many readers, nothing compares with getting lost in a good book. But despite their desire to do so, many special needs students face challenges that make reading a pain instead of a pleasure. Not only are they locked out of the world of Harry Potter; they’re also apt to be behind in their classes.

“Most of school is reading, so many students with comprehension or expression problems - particularly those with dyslexia - are locked out,” said Jennifer Topple, director of assistive technology at the Howard School on Atlanta’s Westside. “The decoding part - sounding words out - is very difficult because their systems are not set up to do that smoothly.”

Students with reading problems often resort to having material read to them, but that solution inhibits their independence, said Topple.

“These are smart kids, and we want them to be able to read on grade level,” she said. “And as I tell them, you don’t want your mom reading to your through high school.”

The independent Howard School specializes in working with elementary and high school students who struggle with language-based learning, but Topple spends most of her time interacting with 117 students who can benefit most from the school’s assistive technology program. She connects them with software that reads printed material word by word. Works of fiction as well as science texts for class are read to the students as they follow along.

“With this program, the students see what the word looks like, and they’re hearing it at the same time,” explained Topple. “We rarely have to stop and sound out a word; soon, they just recognize it. They’re figuring out the decoding of the language.”

The end result is that students’ reading levels increase dramatically.

“Research has shown that even using this software over a short period of time shows an improvement,” said Topple. “We do reading comprehension assessments every year, both with and without the software. When they use the software, their reading is often two or three grade levels higher. But the fun way to measure the success is by how much these kids now love to read.”

Colin Benecki, a 13-year-old seventh grader, credits the software with radically changing his reading ability.

“I’ve improved probably four grade levels,” he said. “When I came to this school five years ago, I wasn’t reading in math or science. Now, I use it all the time. It’s also helped my writing. It reads my writing back to me and has really helped with spelling errors.”

Howard junior Crystal Grady started using the software in fifth grade and admits it took some getting used to.

“I won’t lie; I had to get little pushes to use it,” she said. “At first, it was really strange; the voices were weird and sounded like robots, but I was able to grasp the information a lot easier and quicker. As I got older, I was taught to use it for writing/editing assignments, helping to pronounce big words and taking tests. In a way, it’s like another ‘brain’ for me so I can keep up in the class.”

Topple realizes the software isn’t the solution for everyone.

“There are certainly some kids that even the best remediation won’t help, and they may use this software through college,” she said. “But if I can catch them young enough, they don’t start to hate reading. Once they start hating it, it’s an uphill battle. But if we can set them up with this software and give them access to library sources and unlimited books, they can soon curl up and read like the rest of their class. It’s a magical thing to watch a kid go from ‘I hate to read’ to downloading books every week.”

SEND US YOUR STORIESEach week we look at programs, projects and other successful endeavors at area schools — from pre-K to grad school. To suggest a story, contact H. M. Cauley at or 770-744-3042.