How has the pandemic affected US students with reading barriers? – It might surprise you

By Brad Turner, posted on

When schools first shifted to remote learning for what was perceived as a temporary stopgap to hold off the effects of the global pandemic, I don’t think any of us could have anticipated the incredibly challenging year that we have all faced. Now, many US schools are returning to some degree of in-person or hybrid learning. As the academic year comes to a close, and we begin to prepare for the 2021-2022 school year, we reflect on the learning loss and widening equity gaps that adversely affect so many students.

The Benetech team has been particularly worried about the negative impact that the pandemic would have on students with reading barriers like dyslexia, blindness, and cerebral palsy. As has been heavily reported, students with learning differences and disabilities who are learning remotely often are not able to get the same services that they would receive in in-person learning, and they often encounter new barriers driven by the remote format, which can widen existing gaps.

To understand how we could better support these students and their teachers, we surveyed Bookshare teachers about their experience teaching and supporting students with reading barriers this past school year. Over 800 teachers, from all 50 US states, serving students in urban, rural, and suburban environments, shared their perspective. Less than half reported that they felt these students were reading and learning adequately during the pandemic. When we drilled deeper to look at the critical factors that impacted student learning, three stood out:

  • Access to technology and internet: Nearly 80% of teachers said that it was an important factor for empowering their students with learning differences to read and learn this school year, but only 60% felt that their students had sufficient access.
  • Support from parents or caregivers: Nearly 70% of teachers said that parent or caregiver support was important for student learning, but only 26% felt that their students had the support that they needed.
  • Books in Accessible Formats: When students with reading barriers had materials in accessible formats, teachers were more confident in their reading and learning. While Bookshare was their primary source, teachers’ also got books directly from publisher’s websites.

Our team is firing on all cylinders to address each of these factors:

  • We’re hosting events and conducting outreach targeted at helping underserved districts get their students’ access to Bookshare, despite challenges such as limited technology and internet access.
  • Our engineering team is hard at work, improving the Bookshare platform, so that busy teachers, parents and caregivers can easily set their students up to read independently.
  • Our collections team continues to work with as many publishers as possible to get the books students need to continue their education into Bookshare.
  • And, we’re doubling down on our Born Accessible initiative, and Global Certified Accessible program, working with publishers to build in the accessibility features students with reading barriers need to read and learn, so those students receive the same book as their peers the moment that book is publicly available.

While the challenges of this school year have been numerous, we have the opportunity to get the students the technology that they need to read and learn more effectively and independently. As one Bookshare teacher wrote:

“[M]y hope is that one positive outcome of distance learning is that educators and parents will take a fresh look at equipping students with learning disabilities with AT tools that provide academic independence. At a time when children may not be benefiting from in-school support, they can be using assistive technology to get the help they need.” - Jamie M., AT specialist in Connecticut

Together, we can empower students to learn and thrive in ways that work for them.