By Lynn Adamo
What began as a recording service for blind soldiers returning from war and blossomed into the world’s largest library of human-narrated audiobooks is increasingly speaking to a new audience – students.
“Youth services is Learning Ally’s new frontier,” announced Doug Sprei, National Director of Public Relations and Communications for the Princeton-based non-profit founded in 1948 as Recording for the Blind. The organization now serves adults and students with all reading disabilities including dyslexia, blindness and other visual impairments.
Through innovative programs for educators, students and parents, Learning Ally helps youngsters read at grade-level, even if they’ve previously lagged behind.
“Their reading level is, at times, much lower than what their chronological grade level is, but they’re still required to read the same books as the rest of the class,” observed Montgomery Township School District Reading Interventionist Alison Pankowski in a short video about services the organization offers. “Learning Ally provides that opportunity for them.”
Montgomery Township employs Learning Ally in its schools.
Online audio materials – 80,000 titles at last count – are opening new vistas to students previously unable to explore through traditional means.
“Children who were never able to read before are now discovering new ways to learn,” another educator commented in the film.
Students log into individual accounts on their personal electronic devices to add to their bookshelves and access audiobooks – the best learning approach for dyslexic and other print-disabled students. They can do this anytime, anywhere – on the bus, during lunch or reading time in class, after school, after dinner, or waiting in line somewhere.
An initiative called YES!, or Youth Examples of Self-Advocacy, which began in Colorado more than five years ago, is gaining steam in New Jersey and putting another positive twist on learning. It partners children with older student mentors, also with learning challenges, who are trained to guide their younger charges through individualized goals. The approach encourages more than just reading literacy; it fosters greater confidence, independence and freedom in both mentor and child, encouraging all involved to embrace new ways of learning about themselves and the world around them.
“YES! students are learning to practice self-advocacy and they’re confident, poised and wise beyond their years,” Sprei exuded. “There’s a certain electricity you see between kids who share this thing called dyslexia, and participation (in YES!) helps them improve self-esteem, decrease frustration and difficulties in school. They’re helping each other turn that around.”
Sprei has seen students embrace their learning differences and bring a unique passion and perspective to communicating what it’s like to live with them.
“I saw one ambassador in a roomful of superintendents. She had them in the palm of her hand as she conveyed what it’s really like to have dyslexia,” he remarked.
YES! is offered in-person and mentors, called Youth Ambassadors, are charged with monitoring their charges’ progress, acting as resources and providing guidance as students on both sides of the equation build self-esteem, expand communication skills, learn about dyslexia, network and build friendships.
Like proponents of the Decoding Dyslexia movement, Sprei questions dyslexia’s classification as a disability or deficit, instead defining it as alternate twist on absorbing information.
“We’re trying to make the point that it’s just a learning difference – part of the diversity of the human species,” he noted.
Learning Ally and YES! do just that by identifying and reaching students in the unique ways they learn.
“When kids can get content that matches their learning style, suddenly they’re reading at grade level,” Sprei continued. “And they get the thrill of doing the same work their friends are doing.”
This support also reduces the time it takes students to complete schoolwork.
“It can take some of these students two-to-three-times as long to do homework, so this program decreases that stress,” he added.
YES! and Learning Ally’s other strategies are helping students find confidence and recognize inherent strengths so they can learn and thrive. The organization’s leadership concluded too many children with dyslexia and other disabilities remained unidentified or were ineffectively served, leaving them to struggle in school and emerge ill-prepared for higher education and adulthood in general.
In shifting its mission from blindness-specific initiatives, it set about creating opportunities for student success by partnering with parents and educators to raise awareness and understanding of reading disabilities.
“The YES! program has tremendous emotional impact as well,” Sprei noted, adding that “students in it have remarkable wisdom, and empathetic, helpful spirits.”
One such example is 14-year-old Brenna, a New Jersey YES! ambassador.
“I didn’t know that with dyslexia it could be easy to read,” Brenna commented in the video and on Learning Ally’s website. “I am so grateful that dyslexia is a part of me. Because of it, I have learned about dedication and hard work from an early age and I think that will help me a lot in the years to come.”
The need for that kind of nurturing support is enormous given the number of Americans who struggle with reading. Research from the National Institutes of Health and Yale University suggests one in five Americans struggles with reading despite having average to superior intelligence. This means, Learning Ally suggests, that in every U.S. classroom, there are two-to-four children who need help with reading, writing and/or spelling. Many have dyslexia or another language-based learning difference.
No matter the educational challenge, Learning Ally stays trained on the positive in fostering personal achievement.
“It’s important to focus on strengths,” Sprei remarked, especially in peer-to-peer interactions. “The best programs celebrate strengths and talents as well as issues you have in learning style. We want to turn dyslexia into an advantage.”
To learn more about services and programs that focus on helping students read at grade level, visit learningally.org.