How Tablets and Apps Can Support Struggling Readers

A new year, but we’re still looking for answers to an old problem: how can we help and enthuse young people struggling with their reading? I firmly believe there is the ‘right’ book out there for every reader but I’m also very enthusiastic about tapping in to youngsters' addiction for shiny, responsive screens to help them access great books.

A recent National Literacy Trust ebook research project bears out my feelings about how effective and popular using e-resources can be. After the project the percentage of boys who felt that reading was difficult almost halved, from 28% to 15.9%, and twice as many boys thought that reading was cool.

A recent research project bears out my feelings about how effective and popular using e-resources can be

There are many functions already built in to iPads, Android devices and Kindles that can make them very helpful for children with learning difficulties. They can be located within Settings, but this can be a maze that people are not confident about entering - well, not without a map at any rate! So let's take a look at the iPad operating system, iOS, first of all. The VoiceOver function that can be toggled on via Accessibility will read aloud any text on the device and you can adjust the rate of speech and choose to have the device read hints, etc. You can choose a different dialect and gender for the voice and there is a Braille section to use with an attached Braille display.

When VoiceOver is activated it can be modified by using a rotor function accessed by a two-fingered gesture akin to turning a dial. This allows you to change the way you are navigating through a website or document by, for example, skipping from heading to heading amongst other functions. VoiceOver, although useful, can become irritating if you have it enabled all the time, and it might be better to use the Speak Selection option under Speech that would allow you to choose when you want text to be read aloud.

On Android tablets you can operate text to speech in a very similar way. If you download and read books via the preinstalled Google Play app, you can have those books read aloud to you. Just tap on the page you're reading and go to the top right menu; there, you select Read Aloud. The voices are a bit synthetic though, so you might want to download an app with some better voices. One of these is Ivona - it offers a far better audio experience, and once it's installed, it'll be available for you to turn on. Just go into Settings, then Accessibility and Text to Speech Options - you'll find it in there. Another handy app is Chrome Reader: this app will read aloud any text you select on a web page in the Google Chrome Browser.

For reading e-books, the Kindle Fire is a great option. Text-to-speech is already set up, and tapping a page of your e-book will give you the option to have it read aloud at the bottom. The device comes with Ivona voices preinstalled too! On the downside, not every Kindle book has text-to-speech support, so you need to check that before you download the book. Another thing to be aware of is that text-to-speech is only available on the Kindle Fire, not other models; however, the Fire is actually the cheapest Kindle, so at least text-to-speech doesn't cost you more.

On the iPad, the preinstalled web browser is Safari. Within Safari, there is a very helpful clear text function available on most websites: if a block of four lines appears in the left corner of the address bar, tap them to bring up a text-only version of the webpage. This cuts out all of the digital noise that appears on most pages and focusses the attention on the article in question. Tapping it again reverts the page to normal. You can search for a word within any website by typing it into the address bar, then scrolling down to the bottom where it says ‘On this page’ and touching the words. This will then bring up all of the incidences of the word on the page and you can press the arrows to scroll through them.

It seems that not a day goes by that I don’t hear the words ‘there’s an app for that’! in some form or another. It has become a bit of a cliche, but that doesn’t stop it being true in many cases. Certainly for Dyslexic readers there are some great apps that will make their lives easier. The Nessy suite of apps are all good quality and a lot of thought has obviously gone into their design. The What is Dyslexia? app is bright and colourful and packed with information, with a quiz to see if you have dyslexic tendencies and tips for both teachers and parents. It has a wonderful comic strip sale video explaining what it’s like being dyslexic that would hopefully promote empathy in children who do not have this learning difficulty. Dyslexia Quest is an app that helps dyslexics learn using a fun game with levels and an amusing yeti audio accompaniment. The levels keep your interest and there is a real sense of achievement from moving on up through the map.

Using a coloured overlay to make words clearer has been a popular option for Dyslexics for many years and there are two apps that use this on the iPad. iOverlay is an incredibly simple app that allows you to choose a colour of overlay, then uses the camera so that you can hold the iPad over a page of text to make it more distinct. Tints, from experienced and all-round brilliant publisher Barrington Stoke, uses a similar idea but the books are provided within the app and you buy them individually. When reading you can change your overlay colour and use a very handy coloured ruler to focus your eyes on your place. The app’s beauty is in its clean simplicity and I am looking forward to seeing more books become available on it from Barrington Stoke’s stunning catalogue.

Publishers are now bringing out some fantastic titles that have a lower reading age but a higher interest level

For older struggling readers it is embarrassing to be handed a Biff, Chip & Kipper book (however well loved they are) and publishers are now bringing out some fantastic titles that have a lower reading age but a higher interest level. One such series is Dockside from Rising Stars. So far one Dockside app has been produced containing ten titles for £10.49. At just over a £1 a book that’s cheap as chips! You can either choose to read the books yourself or have them read to you, and each book has tricky words and phonics tips as well as quiz questions to complete after having read the book. The combination of photographic backgrounds and almost manga-esque drawings for the characters is eye-catching and unusual.

The myriad accessibility functions make devices a useful and engaging choice for struggling readers, and the updates coming in iOS 9.3 will be helpful too. The change to automatic control of blue light is an excellent idea (blue light affects levels of melatonin and can disrupt your sleep if you use a tablet in the late evening).

Screen reading can be helpful for young people with reading difficulties, but it's important to remember that in the end it’s all about the story, whether it be read digitally or on paper. So make sure that you're downloading great stories first and foremost!

Loved this post? Read the rest of Bev's series about apps for literacy and reading for pleasure!

Bev Humphrey

If you're interested in literacy, Bev is a fantastic person to keep up with on Twitter or through her blog. She is a literacy, school libraries and technology consultant with 10 years' experience of working in school libraries, where she championed her passions for books and technology to inspire young readers. She is also the creator of The Write Path, an ongoing international collaborative writing project which was shortlisted for a TES New Literacy Initiative Award in 2009.