Are read alouds cheating?

Over on his Science and Education blog, Dan Willinghom, a friend of LD Blog, posted an intriguing examination of this question: “Is Listening to an audio book ‘Cheating?’” Consistent with Professor Willingham’s perspective, he takes a cognitive psychology look at this question. It’s worth reading.

He says he’s heard this question often, and I wonder whether there’s been a hint of objection to the idea of having students listen to audio books. Now maybe it is just about whether one is slighting her- or himself by listening to books on tape.

But, I wonder whether at least some of the objection to listening to audio books being a form of cheating reflects concern about children who receive special treatment in school testing situations. I can imagine a conversation in which a parent might say, “I heard that the Smith’s boy gets to have a teacher read the test to him. And it’s not just the story, but the teacher also reads the answers, too!”

Parents of students with disabilities will recognize this situation as a “read-aloud accommodation.” (People who conduct a lot of research on accommodations such as Rogers, Lazarus, and Thurlow, 2016, refer to read-alouds as “oral delivery,” by the way.) Whether they are called “read alouds” or “oral presentations,” these accommodations are pretty common. They were provided to approximately 33% of secondary students with disabilities who took standardized tests in the early 2000s, according to a report by the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (2004).

Does having someone read test content and items convey an unfair advantage? Ahh, herein lies a rub. Two meta-analyses (Buzick & Stone, 2014; Li, 2014) both reached similar conclusions. Studies that compared the effects of oral presentation for individuals with disabilities and those without disabilities found that “read alouds” helped the students with disabilities and those without disabilities, but they helped those with disabilities significantly more. The benefits were more substantial in reading or language arts areas than in arithmetic or mathematics areas.

So, is it cheating for those students who do not have fluent decoding skills? Apparently, it allows them to show what they know and can do when the handicap is removed.

For my money, the evidence is also a strong argument for doing a very good job of teaching decoding skills very well right from the beginning, thereby eliminating or reducing that handicap.


Buzick, H., & Stone, E. (2014). A meta‐analysis of research on the read aloud accommodation. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 33(3), 17-30.

Li, H. (2014). The effects of read‐aloud accommodations for students with and without disabilities: A meta‐analysis. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 33(3), 3-16.

National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (2004, April). Standardized testing among secondary school students with disabilities. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Rogers, C. M., Lazarus, S. S., & Thurlow, M. L. (2016). A summary of the research on the effects of test accommodations: 2013-2014 (NCEO Report 402). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

S. A. Kirk, 1904-1996

Sam Kirk

Twenty years ago I posted a message to a mailing list named “SpedTalk” that Samuel A. Kirk had died. Along with William Cruickshank (and a few others), Professor Kirk was instrumental in helping a group of parents establish what we now call “the field” of learning disabilities. I preserved a copy of the content of that message on a Web site I was managing at the time, so you can read it in its entirety if you wish.

Samuel Alexander Kirk, one of the most influential figures in the history of special education, died 21 July 1996. He is survived by his wife and long-time collaborator Winifred D. Kirk, his son Jerry, daughter Lorraine, and sister Hannah.

Kirk, who was born in Rugby, ND, in 1904, obtained bachelors and masters degrees in psychology from the University of Chicago and a PhD in physiological and clinical pscyhology from the University of Michigan. He began his career in 1929 with children with disabilities through employment at the Oaks School in Chicago, working with boys who were delinquent and had mental retardation. During this time, he recalled, “I arranged to tutor [a] boy at nine o’clock in the evening, after the boys were supposed to be asleep. This boy, who was eager to learn, sneaked quietly out of bed at the appointed time each night and met me in a small space between the two dromintory rooms and, actually, in the doorway of the boy’s toilet….I often state that my first experience in tutoring a case of reading disability was not in a school, was not in a clinic, was not in an experimental laboratory, but in a boy’s lavatory” (1976, pp. 242-243).

Link for the copy of that message.

Yet another “learning disability” as the generic

In an otherwise very important and impressive story, reporter Perry Stein of the Washington (DC, US) Post mis-uses “learning disability” as a generic term. Ms. Stein’s article is about a judge holding that the Washington DC public schools have failed to conduct appropriate child find efforts for preschool children with disabilities. Near the end of the article Ms. Stein added this paragraph about an expert’s commentary:

Judith Sandalow, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center, celebrated the decision and said she constantly sees children who are several grades behind in school whom the city has not yet identified as having a learning disability.

There’s that too-familiar confusion of the category of learning disability with the superordinate group of individuals with disabilities who need special education, a group that includes autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, mental retardation (i.e., intellectual disabilities), multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairments, specific learning disability, speech or language impairments, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment including blindness (Code of Federal Regulations 34 B III 300 A §300.8.)

Was it Ms. Sandalow who used “learning disability” as a generic or did Ms. Stein attribute it to her? Either way, it’s a mistake.

Nevertheless, if one is concerned about special education, I recommend this article. It appears to me to show another example of how schools are failing to provide appropriate and needed services. There is an irony that the case about which Ms. Stein wrote continues to be heard that in the same city where Mills v. Board of Education was contested. In 1972, Mills was one of the cases that led to the founding of the very laws that this judge is seeking to enforce almost 45 years later.

Study seeks people with LD

In January of 2014, I posted a note (got-ld-tell-what-its-like) about a study by Elizabeth Geiger, a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University; she was seeking participants in her study about what it’s like to have LD. She’s looking for participants for another study now. Here’s her pitch:

Hello my name is Elizabeth Geiger and I am a doctoral student in the Counseling Psychology program at Teachers College, Columbia University. I am looking for individuals who would like to participate in my research study exploring the life experiences of students diagnosed with a learning disability/disabilities. This survey should only take about 20 minutes of your time. This survey is a continuation of an earlier study. If you previously participated in our other study, you can still participate in this study.

If you are willing and eligible to participate, please click on the link provided below. Thank you in advance for your time and input. Also, I would really appreciate it if you could pass this message along to anyone else that you think may be eligible and willing to participate.

Eligibility Criteria:
* Must be at least 18 years old.
* Must reside in the U.S.
* Must be diagnosed with a learning disability/disabilities.
* Must be currently enrolled in college or graduate school.

If you meet the above eligibility criteria and are interested in participating, please click on the link below to take you to the survey:

***This study has been approved by the Teachers College, Columbia University Institutional Review Board: (Protocol #14-020).

It is possible that participants may recall experiences and events involving stigmatization and discrimination that may be unpleasant or uncomfortable. In order to help minimize any discomfort, participants may skip questions or leave the survey at any time without penalty.

If you have any complaints, questions, concerns, or would like to know the results, please feel free to contact me via e-mail at or my faculty sponsor Dr. Melanie Brewster at

Thompson Road by Scott Wyatt

Because he thought I would be interested in reviewing it, Scott Wyatt, an author of contemporary fiction, sent me a copy of a new title called “Thompson Road.” The reasons he thought it was fitting for LD Blog will become clear as I describe the story.

Thompson Road follows adolescents who grow into adulthood in the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s-40s-50s. Mr.’s Wyatt’s choice of this time allows him to highlight many important ideas that touch on how people personally view learning disabilities (LD) and on issues about public policy in disabilities. But that’s not what Thompson Road is really about.
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Mistaking dyslexia

Daniel Britton’s Alphabet

In “Powerful images show what it’s like to read when you have dyslexia,” Ana Swanson reported about the typeface developed by Daniel Britton in 2013. As an individual with dyslexia, Mr. Britton, who works in graphic design, created a typeface that omits parts of capital letters, as illustrated here, putatively to simulate the experience of reading with dyslexia.

I am saddened by the possibility that people may get the mistaken impression that dyslexia is caused by misperception of the shapes or forms of letters. Fortunately, Ms. Swanson discounts this mistake at two points in her article. First, she notes that the font is not designed to mimic what a person with dyslexia sees when she or he reads, but to force skilled readers to lose fluency. Second, although I might quibble with the phrasing she uses, Ms. Swanson puts the focus in the right place when she reports
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Janet W. Lerner

Janet Weiss Lerner, author of one of the first and most enduring texts about Learning Disabilities, died 25 May 2015. She was 88 years old. She began her career studying under Sam Kirk, Alfred Strauss, and Laura Lehtinen; having learned from the pioneers in the history of special education, Professor Lerner went on to exert giant influence, herself, especially in the area of Learning Disabilities.

Professor Lerner completed a Bachelors of Arts at Milwaukee State Teachers College (now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) when Professor Kirk chaired the special education department there; later she took a Masters of Education from National Louis University and a Doctor of Philosophy from New York University. She taught at multiple grade levels in both general and special education in New York and Chicago, often focusing on helping children with reading problems.
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Function-based interventions for LD?

Most readers are likely familiar with the idea that one can, by carefully assessing the antecedents and consequences of a problem behavior, essentially determine what is causing that problem behavior to occur. Given that at least some—many?—students with Learning Disabilities (LD) have some problem-some behaviors, wouldn’t it be cool if there was an evidence base about using functional analysis techniques to document development of procedures for addressing the problem behaviors of students with LD?

In “A Systematic Review of Function-Based Interventions for Students with Learning Disabilities,” Professor John McKenna and his colleagues examined the research literature in search of that very evidence base. They were able to locate only a few studies that met the most rigorous standards, but those studies allowed them to conclude that this idea is a promising one. Here’s the source and the abstract with a hot DOI. I think the publisher (Wiley) may be allowing public access to the entire article, so try clicking on the PDF to download it. (I can’t tell, ’cause I’m working from my office, which has free access anyway; drop a comment to let me know.)

McKenna, J. W., Flower, A., Kim, M. K., Ciullo, S., & Haring, C. (2015). A systematic review of function-based interventions for students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 30, 15-28. DOI:10.1111/ldrp.12049

Students with learning disabilities (LD) experience pervasive academic deficits requiring extensive academic intervention; however, they may also engage in problem behaviors that adversely affect teaching and learning, thus lessening the potential impact of specialized instruction and supports. The learning deficits of students with LD are prevalent in the extant research, but behavioral needs appear to receive less attention. The authors report the results of a systematic review investigating the evidence-base for function-based interventions for students with LD using the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) criteria for evaluating single-case studies. Fourteen studies with 17 participants met inclusion criteria, with the majority occurring in elementary settings. Although interventions tended to be effective, few included maintenance and generalization measures. Because of the small number of studies (n = 4) that met WWC design and effectiveness standards, the authors conclude that function-based interventions, although promising, cannot currently be considered an evidence-based practice for students with LD. Implications for practice, areas for future research, and study limitations are reported.

What supports do parents of students with LD consider important?

Linsey Silverstein, who is a doctoral student at Alliant International University in San Diego (CA, US), is hoping parents of children with learning disabilities can help her to ascertain what type support parents need from professionals, whether they’re interested in support groups, and what difficulties they encounter. Ms. Silverstein is inviting parents to participate in an anonymous, on-line survey that she estimates will require 15-30 minutes and has been approved by her institutions research review board.

People interested in learning more may download an accompanying flyer or go directly to the survey Web site.

Could digital devices make attention worse?

Ever wondered if using digital devices is harmful to kids?

For those who just popped into this century, it is obvious that the education press is ripe with discussion of digital devices in classrooms. For the rest of us, the number of stories about the promise of tablets, games, and all their brothers, sisters, and cousins has just grown greater every year.

All this growth of technology has led people to voice reservations about technology in education, including education for students with learning disabilities. Some people probably needlessly fret that digital devices might deter children from learning to read and write (as noted at # 10 in “10 Big Concerns about Tablets in the Classroom”), and common complaints are that the devices are inherently distracting, that multi-tasking will reduce productivity, and that students will use them to do things other than assigned tasks (e.g., messaging each other). Probably most of these are overstated.

In fact, psychologist (and friend of LD Blog) Dan Willingham published an opinion piece in the New York (NY, US) Times entitled “Smartphones Don’t Make Us Dumb” that debunked the idea that devices disrupt attention, if not promoting inattention.

AS much as we love our digital devices, many of us have an uneasy sense that they are destroying our attention spans. We skitter from app to app, seldom alighting for long. Our ability to concentrate is shot, right?

Research shows that our intuition is wrong.

You should read Dan’s entire column (see link at the title), however, to get his full take on these ideas. You’ll have to concentrate, of course. (Also, watch for his forthcoming book, Raising Kids Who Read. I bet it’s going to be a good one.)