Getting kids to read when reading hurts


Erik Ketcherside

Only 36 percent of America’s eighth grade public school students read at a proficient level. That troubling statistic comes from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress. But when the assessment focused on eighth graders with disabilities, the number went from troubling to heartbreaking: 91 percent of them read at or below the basic level; fully 60 percent are below basic. That reading deficiency can affect not only those students’ literacy skills, but their performance in other subjects, college potential, job prospects and quality of life.

Steven Graham, Mary Emily Warner Professor at ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College

Steve Graham

“These youngsters’ reading and writing skills begin to plateau as early as fourth grade,” explains Steve Graham. He’s a Mary Emily Warner Professor in the Division of Leadership and Innovation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “As they move into middle school their preference is to sit along the sidelines and not engage as actively in reading and writing as their non-struggling peers are engaged.” Graham says, for disabled students, simply trying to read and write the way their classmates do is taxing both cognitively and emotionally. And catching up is increasingly unlikely because the subject-based middle school classroom doesn’t allow teachers to remediate for reading deficits.

Helping struggling readers help themselves

If their teachers can’t help them as much as they need, perhaps they can help themselves. That’s the idea behind Udio, an online literacy improvement environment created by the Center on the Use of Emerging Technologies. Graham is principal investigator for the three-state Udio research project, sponsored by the Center for Applied Special Technology, which began in 2012 and ended in December. His co-PI is Karen Harris, the other Warner Professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. They are currently evaluating the trial.Graham says there are several factors that make Udio unique. First, the partners. In addition to schools in Massachusetts, New York and California — and 700 students within them, they include major publishers.

“I don’t know of anything quite like Udio in terms of bringing together different partners with the likes of such as Scholastic, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic to make interesting, content-appropriate reading material available to middle school students,” Graham says.

Udio dashboard

Students using Udio are greeted with a personalized dashboard that allows them to choose reading material from 14 content areas. The read-aloud controls at top right let users select any text on screen and have it spoken at a pace they control.

Simply providing engaging stories isn’t enough, as many of these students are habitually reading-averse, no matter the content. That’s the reason for Udio’s second design parameter, offering “Valuable experiences that increase feelings of competence, relatedness and autonomy so as to reframe the experience of reading in positive ways.”

Interactive experiences 

Graham says Udio creates these experiences on every inch of text on every page. “The universal design supports built into the program mean that students who have difficulty reading can bypass this with a text-to-voice option, where all of the text they interact with can be read to them.” Users select any text on screen they want read, and then can vary the speed of the reading. They can also request a definition of any word visible on the screen, and, for English language learners, translations.

Udio reading menu

Age-appropriate reading material for Udio is provided by major publishers including Scholastic, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic.



“Relatedness” is accomplished through built-in community features, Graham says. “Udio makes it possible for students to discuss with peers what they are reading.” There’s even an on-screen studio where they can create their own writing and art projects; and publish, share and discuss them within the community. Grahams says, “Interesting text, help with reading when needed, and a social component — this was designed to make reading more engaging for students who do not necessarily like to read.”And does it? This is still the evaluation phase, but Graham says anecdotal reports from teachers who implemented Udio indicate it does. “Kids loved this,” he says, “especially the opportunity to choose what they read and talk with other kids about it.”

Udio project page

Udio's project space encourages students to create and share creative pieces of their own with their Udio community.

Next step

Graham says after his evaluation is complete, if this approach to literacy improvement proves effective, the next step is another generation of Udio. “Hopefully we’ll be able to seek additional funding to study and develop further,” Graham says.

Learn more about graduate programs in Leadership and Innovation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.