Ensuring Equitable Access to Digital Literacy Tools for All Students with Reading Barriers

By Carrie Motamedi, posted on

Benetech recently hosted the first roundtable discussion in its Inclusive Education Series that focuses on equitable education. Over one hundred engaged attendees tuned in to “The Future of Literacy is Digital” moderated by Benetech Advisory Council member, Ky Vu. He led a lively discussion about the current state of literacy education in the US and the role that technology and digital tools might play in advancing outcomes in the future. 

Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, the panel of experts shared personal experiences and engaged in conversation around the promise and the limitations that come with new technology and digital tools, and probed whether the implications of these solutions actually lead to equitable outcomes. 


  • Millicent Smith – Supervisor of Instructional Services in Lenoir City schools in Tennessee 
  • Brad Turner – Vice President and General Manager, Global Education and Literacy, Benetech 
  • Dr. Tracy Weeden – President and CEO of Neuhaus Education Center, a nonprofit education organization that supports excellence in reading   

Moderator: Ky Vu – Advises for Outschool.org in, executing their strategy to serve more low-income students of color. 

Literacy as a Catalyst for Life 

Vu set the context for the conversation with the current state of literacy and its role from education to employment and challenges around the overall  system: “We know that literacy helps people escape the bonds of poverty and live longer. People who are literate are more inclined to vote, take part in their community and seek medical help for themselves and their families.” 

He asked panelists to share their perspectives and raised the question: Can technology in and of itself solve what in reality is a systems problem? 

Dr. Tracy Weeden shared, “I’m the oldest of seven, and the reason I am so passionate about this work is that my parents overcame the dynamics of poverty, and literacy transformed our family tree. I’m not defined by any social construct that society has placed upon me as a black woman. Literacy has created a place at the table for me, and I’m determined to pay that forward.”  

Millicent Smith outlined key challenges of the current educational system by spotlighting the experience of her nephew, who, despite being incredibly bright, did not receive the explicit and systematic instruction and intervention for dyslexia that he needed early on in his educational career. She noted the importance for teachers to be given the tools – information, data and high-quality materials – to support how to teach the fundamentals of reading and understand the science of reading so that all students have the opportunity to reach their full potential.  

A Global View 

Based on insights from Benetech’s work around the world, Brad Turner shared that that 35-75 percent of students with disabilities in countries like Africa and India never even attend an educational institution in their life.  He believes that technology is an equalizer for students — especially students with disabilities. “When you put technology in the hands of students with disabilities, you give them a way to read. They see the page differently. Some read with their eyes. Some read with their ears, and some read with their fingers. Technology enables that for every student.” 

Rounding Out the Conversation 

The group went on to discuss early literacy skills including assessing kids early on to ensure that they get the help they need and the dangers of warehousing kids with disabilities in special education classrooms.  

Another critical factor in developing solutions to support digital literacy is helping teachers personalize the learning environment for students using tools like artificial intelligence to transform content – including STEM– so that it is in a format that works for different types of learners. This innovation was just one of the post-Covid dynamic changes shared in the discussion. The need for technology training for teachers, students, and family members is another factor to help personalize learning across a range of devices whether a phone, PC, tablet, or MP3 player. 

Simplifying the process of incorporating technology into the classroom for teachers who are already overwhelmed and still implementing strategies from 20 years ago remains an obstacle for districts who need to optimize funding for the greatest impact.  

Looking to the Future 

Moving into how to map resources and investment going forward, the group discussed ways to help overloaded districts in what Dr. Weeden referred to as “readiness to benefit.” Ideas included literacy coaches grounded in the science of reading and the importance of getting all the players at the table to outline a plan that includes literacy instruction and the needs of students with disabilities. 

What’s Next? 

The next conversation in this series will take place in February 2022, and will take a deeper look at inclusive and equitable education. It will examine ways to harness technology, community and best practices to provide inclusive access for personalized learning and eradicate inequities — especially for children with reading barriers who face additional challenges due to racial injustice and socioeconomic inequity.  

Watch the full event recording and RSVP for the next events in our series.

Key Stats from the Event

  • 35% percent of fourth graders in the U.S. read at or above grade level  (Source: U.S. Department of Education, “The Nation’s Report Card”) 
  • Youth who aren’t ready to read at grade level are four times less likely to finish high school. (Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Early Warning! Why Reading By the End of Third Grade Matters”
  • Approximately 85% of youth who come into contact with the juvenile court system are considered to be functionally illiterate. (Source: US Department of Education, US Department of Health and Human Services, United Way, ”National Adult Literacy Survey NECS“). 
  • 32 million US adults cannot read (Source: U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy
  • As of September, 2021, 128 million learners remain out of school, the most vulnerable are at risk of never returning (Source: UNESCO, Global Education Coalition).