I Can't Read: Providing Access to the Curriculum Without Reading

by Louise LeBron, M.S.

Mark [a sixth grader]: I can't read that book.
Me [Teacher]: Why not?
Mark: It's way too hard.
Me: How do you know it's too hard?
Mark: Well, it's so thick. And the words, you know the print, it's little. And there're no pictures [running through the book]; hey, there are no pictures. Yeah, this book is hard.
Me: You want to try reading a few pages to see if it really is a hard book?
Mark: No need. It's too hard. I can't read it [handing the book back to me].

(Beers, 2003, pp. 16-17)

How often have you had this kind of conversation with a student when he is choosing a book to read? The student seems to lack confidence in his ability to read and views reading with a negative attitude. Beers (2003) describes these students as "dependent readers." Characterized by a variety of learning styles and cognitive abilities, they often find it challenging to predict outcomes, clarify vocabulary, create questions while reading, identify main ideas and themes, and summarize the story. Yet these strategies-employed before, during, and after reading-contribute to the ability to derive meaning from reading (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000). Proficient readers employ these strategies independently while reading. Students who are dependent readers do not. Learning how to comprehend what is read is an individual process. No one particular reading method works for all students at all times. Therefore, reading instruction must employ individualized and creative methods to successfully enhance comprehension for all learners (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000).

For students who are not fluent readers, including students who have disabilities, explicit instruction of comprehension strategies must be an integral part of reading instruction at all grade levels (Forness, 2001). This is especially true at the secondary level, where understanding of critical content is required, and students are expected to have moved from learning to read to reading to learn (Richardson, Morgan, & Fleener, 2006). Mastering critical content in social studies or science, for example, poses reading demands that are problematic for secondary students who struggle with the mechanics of reading (Dieker & Little, 2005). That is, secondary students who have not mastered basic reading skills labor with text-dependent reading activities, expending most of their energy on decoding without gaining meaning (Virginia Department of Education, 2001).

Secondary reading instruction should be designed to be more experiential; more authentic, less about reading skill, and more about experiences that expose students to the essential knowledge of the curriculum. Researched-based instructional strategies that provide movement and collaboration, supply prior knowledge, provide for connections, are flexible, and engage a variety of modalities create these experiences in learning for both special and general education students without requiring them to read text print (Abell, Bauder, & Simmons, 2005). See Researched-Based Instructional Strategy [pdf].

Other supports for literacy experiences created for a variety of learners include the expanding world of digital formats, software programs, online resources, video resources, and assistive technology. Digital formats allow students with a variety of abilities to access, interact with, and learn from the curriculum. Both general and special education students benefit from technology resources that are tailored to their unique learning styles (Abell et al., 2005). Several types of technology are available to support secondary students before, during, and after literacy instruction within content areas. An example of assistive technology used to enhance pre-reading skills such as vocabulary study is the Reading Pen (WixCom Technologies, Inc.) which features text-to-speech technology, thesaurus, and dictionary capabilities. Franklin (Franklin, Inc.) talking dictionaries and spell checkers offer a variety of products that provide syllabication, spelling, definitions, synonyms, and homonyms, and translate words into other languages. Inspiration and Kidspiration (Inspiration, Inc.) are software programs that provide graphic organizer templates to preview the text or access prior knowledge before required reading. READ 180 (Scholastic, Inc.) supports students in grades 4-12 with limited prior knowledge in the core content areas. For example, READ 180 offers short anchor videos supplying background information to increase comprehension of related text passages.

To engage students while they read, Inspiration 7.6 and Kidspiration 2.1 may be employed. These software programs create advance organizers to improve understanding of comparisons, cause-and-effect relationships, and connections between main ideas and details. Digital books (eText, eBooks, or electronic books) featuring downloadable webtext and text-to-speech technology may be used with a personal computer, PDA (personal digital assistant), or Dana (Alphasmart, Inc.). These tools allow students to hear curricular textbook material or novels read aloud, resulting in the ability to keep pace with the curricular demands and greater mastery of content. Increasingly, PDA use is valued by secondary students for the read-aloud capabilities, as well as for notetaking, beaming of class notes and assignments, automatic reminders, communicating, and recording of grades to self-monitor progress (Abell et al., 2005). Free eBook downloads are available through Microsoft Reader (Microsoft, Inc.), textbook publishers, and university libraries. Readplease (Readplease, Inc.), a free eBook website, is compatible with mp3 and iPod players.

Further, deciphering main events and details, drawing inferences, and determining literary themes are accelerated by technology that features scanning print-into-word document formats, voice-to-print, and read-aloud capabilities. Programs such as SOLO (Don Johnson, Inc.) offers Draftbuilder, Write Outloud, and Read Outloud in one program. This package builds skills in content area reading, research projects, and essay writing. Pre-writing templates help students organize information, and the voice-to-print technology assists students in accurately revising and editing their work. Read & Write Gold (TextHELP Ltd.) features text-to-speech options for reading and word prediction software for use with the writing process. Microsoft Word (Microsoft, Inc.) also includes the voice-to-print feature to aid students with the reading and writing process. New to the product line of assistive technology for writing is the Fly Pentop (LeapFrog, Inc.). This device uses scanning technology to allow students to write or draw on paper and interact with what they have written or drawn. For example, a student could draw a calculator and then tap the buttons on the drawn calculator to prompt the Fly Pentop to speak the answer; or a student might write a word in English and hear it translated into Spanish. The Fly Pentop also plays music.

Available to all classroom teachers via the internet is educational technology that provides Web-based digital video resources across the content areas accompanied by lesson plans and activities. An example of this type of educational technology is unitedstreaming from Discovery Education. This video library showcases high-quality video clips designed to be used within classroom instruction. Teachers may choose from full-length videos to concept clips across K-12 core curriculum subjects that are easily aligned with state standards. This medium brings to life content area studies for all students. See Technology Resources for more information.

Two resources are available to assist educators in researching and choosing appropriate technology resources for classroom instruction. The first is the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). Based on the principles of Universal Design for Learners, CAST's website includes professional development opportunities, consultation, publications, and online resources for curricular materials (www.CAST.org, 2005). Another resource for teachers is the Virginia Society for Technology in Education (VSTE). A free online membership to VSTE offers opportunities to access their electronic journal, annual conference information, and online resource information (www.vste.org, 2005). Both of these sites are excellent guides for teachers seeking information on technology-based resources for classroom instruction.

In summary, content area instruction that has traditionally been dependent on reading should integrate a variety of modalities, and be flexible, strategic, creative and entertaining, and adapted to individual needs (NICHD, 2000). Using research-based instructional strategies integrated with assistive and educational technology resources, general and special educators collaboratively can help all students meet the challenge of accessing the general education curriculum (Abell et al., 2005; Hasselbring & Bausch, 2005).


Abell, M.M., Bauder, D.K., & Simmons, T.J. (2005). Access to the general curriculum: A curriculum and instruction perspective for educators. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41(2), 82-86.

Beers, K. (2003). When kids can't read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Dieker, L.A., & Little, M. (2005). Secondary reading: Not just for reading teachers anymore. Intervention in School and Clinic, 40(5), 276-283.

Forness, S.R. (2001). Special education and related services: What have we learned from meta-analysis? Exceptionality, 9, 185-197.

Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A. (2000). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension to enhance understanding. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Hasselbring, T.S., & Bausch, M.E. (2005). Assistive technology for reading. Educational Leadership, 63(4), 72-75.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the national reading panel: Teaching children to read: Findings and determinations of the national reading panel by topic areas. Retrieved July 11, 2003, from http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/pages/findings.aspx

Richardson, J.S., Morgan, R.F., & Fleener, C. (2006). Reading to learn in the content areas (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.

Virginia Department of Education (Producer/Director), & Gickling E. (Writer) (2001). Some thoughts about assessment [Video]. Available from Virginia Department of Education, PO Box 2021, Richmond, VA 23218-2120.

Date: February/March 2006