E-Readers: Supporting Students with Reading Difficulties

How can one read to learn if one cannot learn to read? – Barrie Carter

The Artist’s Statement (The Critical Issue)

As a special education teacher, I know that students with reading difficulties (not to be replaced or confused with reading disabilities or reading disorders) also require accommodations that work to support their reading skills in fluency, pace, and comprehension. Although there are various levels of reading difficulties, they all have one thing in common: they affect the way in which a student works to read print or text. Indeed, these students routinely express their frustrations around their inability to read at grade level. In turn, this affects their degree of confidence, level of esteem, and sense of self-concept. As a result, these students begin to lose hope and even resign from working to improve their ability to read well. Many forms of adaptations, modifications, and accommodations have been used to support students with reading difficulties, but they do not always produce the results that these students anticipate or expect. After all, most of the traditional forms of adaptations, modifications, and accommodations around reading improvement are antiquated, thus producing slight successes unworthy of applause or recognition. Certainly, some colleagues and experts would argue that the traditional forms of support are applicable, and worthy of mention and use. However, unlike digital technologies, these traditional forms may not be as significantly effective, efficient, and productive, for they do not have a dynamic digital interface that allows students with reading difficulties to hear the text spoken, to change the font size and type, and to click on a word to seek its definition.

Digital technologies, like sophisticated and advanced e-readers (hereafter ‘e-readers’), allow students with reading difficulties to strengthen their reading skills with a greater sense of autonomy, pacing, and fulfillment, for there would be less adult interference, intrusiveness, corrections, and interruptions. Otherwise, these students could develop further unspoken feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, disappointment, and even failure. Altogether, the use of e-readers places these students in a position of exercising greater ownership over of their overall learning. After all, these students can work to build a sense of pride for their successes by way of routinely self-monitoring their progress and advancement. In truth, throughout the years, numerous traditional reading programs and strategies have come and gone, while very few remain. However, even the programs and the strategies that have continued to survive are beginning to wane because they do not offer an interface that allows students to manipulate print in the same manner that digital text can be manipulated. Certainly, there are similarities: students can highlight, underline, and add margin notes to both print and text as well as have both print and text read back to them. However, it is the interface itself and the tools offered in e-readers that attract and delight students, which is, in essence, significant when it comes to supporting students with reading difficulties. Overall, I am of the mindset that e-readers should be readily available and accessible to students with reading difficulties throughout their academic journey.


First, according to the BC Ministry of Education, special education programs and services enable students with special needs to have equitable access to learning and to opportunities to pursue and to achieve the goals of their educational programs (Special Education Services: A Manual of Policies, Procedures, and Guidelines, 2010, p.1). However, one way of advancing this rationale is to support and to invest in educational technologies that could be available to students with reading difficulties, rather than to students with ministry designations only.

Second, according to the BC Ministry of Education’s policy on inclusion, the province “promotes an inclusive education system in which students with special needs are fully participating members of a community of learners. Inclusion describes the principle that all students are entitled to equitable access to learning, achievement, and the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of their educational programs. The practice of inclusion is not necessarily synonymous with full integration in regular classrooms, and goes beyond placement to include meaningful participation and the promotion of interaction with others” (Special Education Services: A Manual of Policies, Procedures, and Guidelines, 2010, p. 2). However, one way of advancing this rationale is to ensure that all students with reading difficulties have the same entitlements that would allow them to have the necessary and applicable assistive technologies that students with ministry designations would have. Certainly, this would help complement early literacy intervention and help support reading abilities.

Third, according to a United States Government Accountability Office Report, students with disabilities represent 11 percent of all post-secondary students, and the population is growing. Every K-12 school district and nearly every post-secondary institution in the U.S. is subject to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability. In a joint letter written to college and to university presidents, the Departments of Justice and Education address this concern to provide accessible electronic book readers for post-secondary students with disabilities. The 2010 letter states that, “ensuring equal access to emerging technology in university and college classrooms is a means to the goal of full integration and equal educational opportunity for students with disabilities. With technological advances, procuring electronic book readers that are accessible should be neither costly nor difficult” (Don Johnston Inc., 2010). However, the United States should include technology integration and inclusion policy to support all students with learning difficulties at all grade levels. After all, most of the learning difficulties centre on reading and writing, the two domains that are most often assessed and evaluated, and occur at an early age in all students with learning difficulties.

Overall, based on the above rationales, the United States seems to have a greater level of support for students with disabilities because the United States intentionally uses language around the utilization and the inclusion of emerging technologies like e-readers at the post-secondary level. However, both governments should support technology integration and inclusion at all grade levels as a means of strengthening reading skills, whether students are designated with a reading disability or not. In other words, even students with reading difficulties should be given the same access to educational and assistive technologies like e-readers, for these students are just as worthy. In fact, the return on investment would be profitable for reasons too numerous to list. Nevertheless, the use of e-readers by students with reading difficulties pays dividends, as per current research.


I would like to propose that the public education system in BC make e-readers available and accessible to students with reading difficulties at all grade levels. Indeed, this type of accommodation, deemed as an assistive technology, would help support these students, for e-readers offer more than paper-based books (via printed codex). After all, e-readers allow for text-to-speech (TTS), font manipulation, hyperlinks, and repeated text speech, all of which work to enhance the reading experience and support students with reading difficulties.


In Learning Disabilities: Theories, Diagnosis, and Teaching Strategies, it states that about 80% of individuals with learning disabilities have difficulties with reading (Lerner, 2003, p. 15). As such, in a time of emerging educational and assistive technologies, students with reading difficulties should have access to e-readers that work to support their reading abilities. Fortunately, the paper-based book with its print and codex appears to be competing with the e-book with its text and image-based format. That is, the traditional book is being refashioned by the e-book (Bolter, 2009, p. 79). Here, by way of digital technology, e-books, for example, can be placed on hardware devices like e-readers, personal computers (desktops, netbooks, laptops), and mobile devices (smartphones, PDAs, PPCs, iPads, iPhones, iPods [Nano, Classic, Touch]). According to Bolter, the e-book is aiming to supercede the printed codex and other paper-based materials. That is, by way of digital technology, the e-book is the new and improved book, the one that is positioned to replace the paper book (ibid). After all, e-books (i.e. e-readers) have features that paper-based books do not have. All e-books (i.e. e-readers) are multi-functional, digital, and developed to contain other reading materials like newspapers, magazines, journals, and articles. In addition, unlike paper-based books, e-books (i.e. e-readers) can be reloaded (ibid, pp. 80-81).

Going Beyond the Summary

Synthesizing the Views

E-readers might help students to read better. After all, e-readers provide text-to-speech functionality, whereby the text can be read to the user, type change functionality, whereby the font can be sized or altered, and dictionary functionality, whereby the words can be looked up for meaning and pronunciation. Here, students may feel comfortable using e-readers in front of their peers because (a) e-readers were not specifically designed for students with disabilities; (b) students may need less assistance from teachers and parents; and (c) the e-readers could help reduce the time it takes for students to receive the content they need in the format that they require. Indeed, as e-readers evolve and more experiments are implemented, users can expect that additional research and development will be conducted (The Cite, 2010).

Further to the three functionalities, TTS allows readers to hear the spoken text and to follow along the screen, thus allowing readers to be audio learners (i.e. auditory comprehension) to compensate for being challenged by print. The font type and size option allows readers to select what size and type of font they want in order to ease eye strain, thus allowing readers to read longer. Lastly, the dictionary feature allows readers to build vocabulary and increase reading comprehension, thus allowing readers to retain and to recall information better, especially if they are challenged by traditional print (Squidoo, 2010).

In addition, for students with severe reading difficulties, for example, text is quite literally another language. The simple option to have books read aloud to them, even by a computer, is a powerful asset to those with a whole spectrum of difficulties, including dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, and linguistic impairments. English as a Second Language students (whose immersion is aural and textual) also receive the benefits of word-sound association. And, college students with textual impairments could access their textbooks in TTS format, providing a level of comprehension that they would otherwise only be able to achieve through a private human reader. We teach young children with technology designed to promote associations between sounds and printed words, but often we overlook the value this same technology provides for adults (Filak, 2009).

Expanding on the Views

It is important to bring together the manufacturers of e-readers, as well as educators, policymakers, and experts in educational technology to determine what features e-readers could and should have (The Cite, 2010) in order to support students with reading difficulties, in this case.

For example, when middle school students in the US were given the chance to use Kindle e-readers through their school library in support of a reading intervention program, they reported that increasing the font size on the device helped them read more easily and quickly. A teacher at the school reported that, “The font that everyone prefers to use with the Kindle 2 is the largest font size,” and students reported directly that, “it’s easier for me to read with the larger font,” and “I read much faster using the Kindle.” Additionally, some readers have commented that the spacing appears to be more generous, thus reducing the chances of getting lost on the ‘page’ (DeLamater, 2010).

Each of the reports above comes from readers who struggle with standard text for some reason (e.g. below proficient reading skills, in the case of the middle school students in the US). These readers encounter obstacles in the process of reading that has interfered with their ability to achieve the reading proficiency of other readers. That is, they are still learning to read and may require text features and other supports designed for younger readers (DeLamater, 2010).

Studies also show that readers develop the ability to decode smaller and smaller text as they become older and more facile with the process of reading. Larger text in books for early readers reflects this developmental reality. One study notes that, “Our data showed that critical print size decreases with age, suggesting younger children need larger print to optimise reading performance,” with critical print size (CPS) referring to that print size that supports optimal reading rates. This developmental dimension to the relationship between print size and reading speed tells us that “strugglers” will achieve their optimal reading rate when the text is larger than would be expected for their grade level or chronological age (DeLamater, 2010).

Then, there is crowding. Crowding specifically refers to “the difficulty in identifying a letter embedded in other letters.” Studies have shown that the crowding effect impacts reading rates in both the horizontal and vertical proximity of text, so that larger font size creates more space between adjacent letters in the text and may increase line spacing as well, thus reducing crowding (DeLamater, 2010).

Indeed, “Digital text is giving students…more opportunities to learn and excel in K-12 and postsecondary education,” said Ben Johnston, Director of Marketing for Don Johnston. “As more publishers create digital textbooks and college professors assign online content, students…can use Read:OutLoud to keep pace with class projects and show their true potential at school and at work.” The Read:OutLoud University Edition eBook reader, for example, will read the widest range of eBook formats, including RTF, TXT, XML and HTML files, open source content and Bookshare files. The software will open DAISY 3.0 and PDF files without conversion. Students will enjoy the quality text-to-speech and study tools, such as highlighters, smart bookmarks, direct links to Google’s online dictionary and a bibliographer to cite sources in both APA and MLA styles. Members of Bookshare will have one-click access to 72,000 accessible books, journals and periodicals (Don Johnston Inc., 2010).

Contesting the Views

First, there is not much research to substantiate that e-readers can improve reading skills (The Cite, 2010). That is, the jury is still out on just how effective these digital devices are in helping struggling readers (Ash, 2010).

Second, Lotta Larson, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Kansas State University, emphasized that professional development would also be required: “I don’t think the e-reader in itself is going to make a difference, but if it’s used with effective instruction, then it can make a huge difference” (The Cite, 2010).

Third, Kurzweil argues that existing e-readers have (a) limitations in the text formats they support and (b) the way they handle the original images and layouts in printed texts. However, to resolve these issues, Blio apparently preserves the original formatting, making it particularly attractive to publishers of schoolbooks and children’s books. According to Kurweil, “The publishers will not give things with complex formats to these e-reader makers. They destroy the format” (Vance, 2010). Kurweil further states that, “The iPad launched with just 30,000 books, which are all in the ePub format. Apple showed one jerry-rigged Winnie-the-Pooh book on TV, which they had to craft by hand” (Vance, 2010).

However, the devices are still evolving, educators have only just begun testing these devices with students, and many educators believe that there is potential (The Cite, 2010). That is, educators, seeking new ways to personalize instruction for students, are turning to e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and the Intel Reader. Indeed, “It’s beginning to be looked at very closely,” says Alan E. Farstrup, the past executive director of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association. “But regardless of what the preliminary research says, and much of it is inconclusive, kids are growing up as digital natives, and we’re really thinking about literacy in a different way now” (Ash, 2010).


At school, students should be ‘powered up’, not ‘powered down’. That is, when it comes to enhancing their reading experience and working towards improving their reading skills, students with reading difficulties should utilize e-readers to help support their literacy development. After all, e-readers have various features and functions that can provide accommodations like text-to-speech, variable text type and size, and word definitions that many students with reading difficulties need to be successful with text-based materials. The availability of this text format is increasing, and many consider digital text as the future of print. Indeed, today’s desktops, laptops, and handheld devices with e-book software can assist educators in providing students with access to text information that utilizes features for increased interactivity with the text itself and provide students with the opportunity to select various leveled reading materials in order to build, at least, vocabulary and comprehension. Overall, having students with reading difficulties use e-readers in the classroom is technology integration that works to bring about new and innovative ways of ensuring that these students are interested in reading and engaged in overall learning.

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Intel Reader at CES 2010: Demo and Key Features


Ash, K. (2010). Schools Test E-Reader Devices with Dyslexic Students. Retrieved November 23, 2010, from http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2010/10/20/01dyslexia.h04.html

Bolter, J. D. (2009). Writing Space: computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. (2th ed.) Routledge, NY: Taylor & Francis Group.

DeLamater, W. E. (2010). How larger font size impacts reading and the implications for educational use of digital text readers. Retrieved November 23, 2010, from

Don Johnston Inc. (2010). Postsecondary Students and Veteran with Disabilities Can Read Latest eBooks and Accessible Textbooks with NEW read: OutLoud University Edition eBook Reader. Retrieved November 26, 2010, from http://www.disabled-world.com/assistivedevices/computer/read-outloud.php

Filak, M. (2009). Kindle 2 vs Reading disabled Students. Retrieved November 23, 2010, from http://keionline.org/blogs/2009/05/13/kindle-2-vs-reading-disabled-students

Lerner J. (2003). Learning Disabilities: Theories, Diagnosis, and Teaching Strategies (9th ed.). In Learning Disabilities: A field in transition (pp. 1-31). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Special Education Services: A Manual of Policies, Procedures, and Guidelines. Ministry of Education website. (2010). Retrieved November 23, 2010, from http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/specialed/

Squidoo. (2010). How Ereaders improve Reading and Learning. Retrieved November 23, 2010, from http://www.squidoo.com/kindleandfrustratedreaders

The Cite. Using e-readers to assist students with reading disabilities. (2010). Retrieved November 23, 2010, from http://thecite.blogspot.com/2010/11/using-e-readers-to-assist-students-with.html

Vance, A. (2010). Ray Kurzweil vows to right E-Reader wrongs. Retrieved November 23, 2010, from http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/ray-kurzweil-vows-to-right-e-reader-wrongs/

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