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Dyslexia Doesn’t Slow Ryan Down

2018 August 14
by Laura Deck, Bookshare Communications

Ryan is starting eighth grade at Swift Creek Middle School in Tallahassee, Florida. In first grade, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Two years ago he became a Bookshare member and has read close to fifty books since then. In a recent interview, Ryan and his mother, Tippi, share their advice for students with reading barriers and the parents who support them.

Reading at Grade Level with Text-to-Speech Audiobooks

Ryan listens to a book on his iPod and portable speakers

Ryan listens to a book on his iPod and portable speakers

What was reading like before you started using Bookshare and audio narration?

RYAN: I couldn’t enjoy the level of books I wanted to read. While my reading level was only at 2nd–3rd grade, I wanted to read Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and more advanced books that all my friends were reading. Listening to audiobooks was the only way for me to enjoy those books.

Which reading tools and assistive technology devices do you use?

RYAN: I wear prescription glasses with a special yellow tint. I also use an iPad to have it read to me and help with handwriting issues.

Which features are especially helpful to make reading easier?

RYAN: I am an auditory learner, so listening to text-to-speech narration is always the most effective way for me to learn.

What kinds of books do you like to read? Any favorites?

RYAN: I enjoy science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and Greek mythology. In addition to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, some of my favorite series are the Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson and The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini.

What advice do you have for other students who have difficulty reading?Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini

RYAN: Find a genre that you enjoy. Keep looking and try all types of books until you find what you like. Try audiobooks so you can read books above your reading level. Above all, “Never give up, never surrender!” (quote from the movie Galaxy Quest).

Mother Shares Tips on Advocating for Child with Dyslexia 

What advice do you have for parents of students with dyslexia?

TIPPI: Keep saying dyslexia; don’t let teachers or specialists try to discount dyslexia as just “a reading or learning disorder.” Dyslexia has specific characteristics, learning styles, organization styles, and social issues. Continue to support and encourage your child. Don’t refer to your child in terms of his learning issue. His identity is not dyslexic. Instead, say, “he has dyslexia.”

Can you share any examples of “I wish I knew then what I know now”?

TIPPI: I wish someone had told us about Bookshare earlier and that using audiobooks is not a cop out.  By listening to books Ryan enjoys, it has given him the confidence to try reading those books. He recognizes words in print because he has heard them being used through audiobooks. While reading print is important, don’t let educators discount the importance of listening.

You know your child and what he or she needs. We tried extra reading programs, summer programs, and tutoring. While children with dyslexia do need extra help, don’t forget that they are working twice as hard as everyone else. They need down time, a chance to be a kid, and plenty of fun. It is important to find the balance between pushing and relaxing.

“Keep saying dyslexia; don’t let teachers or specialists try to discount dyslexia as just a reading or learning disorder.”


What are some ways you work with teachers and administrators to advocate on Ryan’s behalf?  

TIPPI: Once Ryan transitioned to middle school, we found it much easier to work with the teachers and administrators. Elementary school was difficult due to the emphasis on grade promotion and standardized testing, so we homeschooled him for third through fifth grade. Since Ryan had an existing IEP he was able to continue to receive reading help. We were concerned about going back to public school, but within the first nine weeks of sixth grade, we realized that Ryan was going to be able to handle it. The middle school staff is wonderful, and teachers continually suggest ways to make school easier for Ryan.

At the beginning of seventh grade Ryan got an iPad so he could type assignments. During IEP meetings Ryan and I discuss what may help, and his teachers and Exceptional Student Education (ESE) supervisor identify different things to try. Some suggestions work and some don’t, but the staff never gives up.

For example, Ryan is an auditory learner, so taking notes is difficult. While trying to write or type what is being said, Ryan will miss the entire lecture. We tried fill-in-the-blank notes, and while this helped, Ryan was still missing parts due to spelling and grammar issues. Now we get the worksheets ahead of time or have the PowerPoint notes printed for him. This way he can follow along in the notes but continue to listen which is how he learns best.

The Bookshare team thanks Ryan and Tippi for sharing their story.

Bookshare is FREE for qualified U.S. students with reading barriers.

Day One Ready: Bookshare Back-to-School Basics for Teachers

2018 August 6
by Laura Deck, Bookshare Communications

The beginning of a new school year can be stressful as well as exciting for teachers and students alike. For students who experience reading barriers, they especially need to hit the ground running on day one.

Myth: Students with disabilities can’t master the same content as their peers.

Reality: More than 80% of students with disabilities can meet the same academic standards as other students, when they have the right support.1

Goal: Give students with reading barriers the right support with ebooks in formats they can access along with helpful reading tools.

Checklist for TeachersClipboard with a checklist for teachers that says: add new students; get students books; select reading tool

Make sure your students with dyslexia, specific learning disabilities, visual impairments, physical disabilities, and other reading barriers are ready on the first day of school. Get all their schoolbooks from Bookshare in easy-to-read formats like audio, audio with highlighted text, braille, large print, and other customizable formats. Bookshare ebooks let students read in ways that work for them on almost any device they use. And don’t forget that Bookshare is FREE for qualified U.S. students with reading barriers. Get ready for back to school with this handy checklist:

Step 1: Add New Students

Do you have new students with reading barriers? Have students moved on to new grades or schools? The beginning of the year is the best time to update your Bookshare member roster:

  • Add new students
  • Increment grade levels
  • Update information for existing students
  • Remove students from roster

Follow this step-by-step guide to add or manage student members.

Step 2: Get Students Books

Reading Lists let you save and assign books to students so they can read independently. Simply create a list by class, student, topic, or interest and assign it to a student so they can begin reading on their own:

  • Create a new Reading List (or copy an existing list and customize)
  • Add books to your list
  • Assign lists to students
  • NEW – You can now add a new member directly from the Reading List page and save time

Follow this step-by-step guide to assign books on reading lists.

Step 3: Select Reading Toolscreen for reading tool wizard that asks: What kind of device do you want to use? Three choices: (1) computer or laptop; (2) tablet or smartphone; (3) assistive technology device

Now that your students are on a roster and have been assigned Reading Lists, the last step is to select a reading tool. Do your students want to read on a Chromebook, tablet, or braille device? Do they want audio, synchronized highlighting, or large font? This handy Reading Tool Wizard will help you find the right reading tool with the features your students need.

Training Resources Library Provides Even More Help

Take advantage of even more resources like videos and how-to guides to help you sign up students, get started with Bookshare, search for books, and read books.

New to Bookshare?

Book cover for Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (#13 in the list of most popular downloads)

Bookshare is FREE for U.S. schools and qualified students with reading barriers. Learn how Bookshare can help your students and sign up for free today!

All students benefit from content that challenges them. It is important to meet students where they are and help them read in ways that work for them. For students with reading barriers, accessible ebooks and assistive technology is a powerful combination that lets them read books at their comprehension level, not just their decoding level. And that’s a powerful way for students to get a head start on the new school year.

1. Thurlow, Martha L., R. F. Quenemoen, and S. S. Lazarus. “Meeting the needs of special education students: Recommendations for the Race to the Top consortia and states.” National Center on Education Outcomes, Minneapolis, MN 5 (2011). 

Up Close and Personal at the American Council of the Blind Conference

2018 July 20
by Rob Turner, Bookshare Quality Assurance Engineer

St. Louis, Missouri, was the location of the 57th Annual American Council of the Blind (ACB) Conference and Convention in early July. Benetech, the parent American Council of the Blind logononprofit of Bookshare, the world’s largest library of ebooks for people with reading barriers, is a strong supporter of the ACB and sent me and Jake Brownell, another engineer, to the event. The conference provided moments of inspiration, exciting new assistive technology devices, and a chance to network with other participants.

One of the keynote speakers, professional low vision actor Marilee Talkington, who played a blind character on the television show NCIS, offered these words of encouragement that resonated strongly with the audience:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. Create your own reality, own your magnificence, uniqueness, brilliance and fabulousness.*

Google, Microsoft, and Amazon Make Accessibility a Priority

Daisy Audio and MP3 formats offer Bookshare members more choices to read on the go.

Rob listens to a Bookshare book using DAISY audio on an MP3 player

Austin Hertell, a member of the Google Accessibility Engineering team, talked about Lookout, a new Android app that provides assistance to the blind in object and text recognition. I told Austin that several years ago I participated in a study hosted by Google where a group of international students built one of the first iOS apps to feature object recognition based on machine learning. We’ve come so far since then.

An example of this progress is the Microsoft Seeing AI app that was highlighted at one of the general sessions. It offers text and object recognition, identification of currency, color, and products, light detection and more. In another presentation, Google stated that accessibility improvements to their search results page are coming soon.

Further proof of how far and fast the technology has advanced was provided by Peter Korn, Director of Amazon Accessibility, who mentioned that over 1,500 shows with audio descriptions were added this past year. Fire tablets now feature braille output. Third party sellers must provide alt-text for images. Kindle PC offers table navigation and Math ML support using NVDA. Amazon lockers now speak.

National Library Service Updates its Offerings

Even the NLS is getting in on the act. Karen Keninger, director of the NLS, said they plan to start a pilot project to begin distributing braille eReaders next spring and expect to offer access to their books through Amazon Alexa. BARD Express is a PC-based desktop app that makes it easy for patrons to find and download books.

New Products for Blind and Visually Impaired

A stroll through the exhibit hall gave me the opportunity to explore the various devices and apps designed to assist users and increase independence. Some of the exciting new developments are:

  • QBraille-XL – new braille display from HIMS that features a combination of a Perkins style keyboard, plus all the function and modifier keys associated with a QWERTY keyboard.
  • Brailliant BI14 – improved braille display from Humanware
  • Cyber Eyez – new product that uses machine learning and “smart glasses” to provide optical character recognition, object recognition, color identification, Mood Ring mode, Amazon Alexa, Skype and real time magnification.
  • AIRA – a product that connects users with individuals who are trained to provide help.
  • Blind Insites LLC – offers a system called WayAround to label clothing, food, and other items. Buttons of varying size are tagged with text labels through an iOS app that reads them back using Voiceover.
  • Votec promotes accessible voting using touch screen technology modeled on iOs and Android devices to complete and submit a ballot.

Bookshare Office Hours Answers Members’ Questions

Jake and I co-hosted an informal session with Bookshare members to answer questions and share features under development. The attendees provided valuable feedback on some of the reading tools, variety of books in the collection, and features they would like to see.

All in all, it was a real pleasure to attend the conference. I was reminded of the importance of advocacy, learned about new products, heard interesting presentations, and enjoyed meeting old and new friends.

*Paraphrased from a quote by Marianne Williamson

Exploring Inclusive Math with Benetech’s Clayton Lewis

2018 July 10
by Laura Deck, Bookshare Communications

Bookshare is just one of several inclusive education initiatives at Bookshare’s parent organization, a hand holding a pencil works on some math problemsBenetech, a nonprofit that empowers communities with software for social good. We believe that access to information is a universal human right, yet more than ninety percent of books and published materials cannot be read by people with reading barriers such as dyslexia. Our work in education is focused on one big thing: making information accessible to everyone around the world through software.

One of the biggest challenges is making STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) content accessible so that students with learning barriers can see and read equations, tables, and images. Benetech has been fortunate to have Clayton Lewis, Professor of Computer Science and Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, as advisor to Benetech’s DIAGRAM Center to research ways of creating inclusive digital math.

It’s estimated that between 25-35% of students in general education classrooms struggle with mathClayton Lewis application skills. Think, for a moment, how difficult it is to work through math problems if you can’t see well, have trouble holding a pencil, or struggle to keep your work organized and legible. In a Benetech blog post, Clayton defines inclusive digital math, explains why it is important, and shares how it can benefit all students, not just those with disabilities. He also discusses some technical challenges as well as recent advances in the field.

Read the full blog post to learn more about inclusive digital math and other Benetech education initiatives.

Bookshare Salutes Graduates and Encourages Lifelong Learning

2018 June 7
by Laura Deck, Bookshare Communications

Congratulations to all graduates! Whether you are graduating from kindergarten, college, or somewhere in between, we commend your accomplishments and hope you take Bookshare with you on the next phase of your journey because the learning never stops.

Sylvia Stinson-Perez, CEO/Executive Director, Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind

Sylvia Stinson-Perez, CEO/Executive Director, Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind

Bookshare is free for all U.S. students with qualified reading barriers. But, did you know that includes individuals enrolled in vocational training, continuing education, computer classes, or professional development courses? Learn more about the types of programs that qualify. Adults can use Bookshare to achieve career goals, change jobs, or build new skills.

Bookshare Member Earns MBA to Advance Career

Sylvia Stinson-Perez used Bookshare to help her earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. Sylvia is the CEO/Executive Director of the Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind in Port Richey, Florida, a nonprofit that provides vision rehabilitation services to help blind and visually impaired individuals achieve maximum independence.

Sylvia was born with a visual impairment that caused extreme nearsightedness that couldn’t be corrected with glasses or medical procedures. In spite of many challenges in school, she earned a B.A. in Psychology and two master’s degrees (one in Social Work and one in Visual Disabilities Education). In her twenties, she lost all of her functional reading vision as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that involves a gradual deterioration of the retina that can lead to total blindness.Fundamentals of Financial Management by Eugene Brigham and Joel Houston

An avid reader, she originally started using Bookshare eight years ago to access bestsellers more quickly. In 2013, she was accepted into an MBA program and knew Bookshare would be a tremendous resource as she progressed through the rigorous academic coursework. Without any functional vision, she relied on Bookshare’s ebooks in audio formats to help her research and write the many papers required in her MBA program. Her diligence paid off and she earned her MBA in 2015.

“I am still an avid fiction and nonfiction reader, and Bookshare is my library of choice. Once a month, I go strolling through the lists on Bookshare’s digital bookshelves and it reminds me of being a young person in the library. I download mostly text versions and don’t mind the digital voices at all—probably since I am used to using it all day at work,” she explains.

In addition to fiction, she enjoys reading about leadership, inspirational stories, business, public speaking, cooking and much more. Reading has always been her favorite hobby. “I started as a print reader when my vision was better, and today, thanks to Bookshare, I can still enjoy all kinds of books through audiobooks,” she says.

Bookshare Can Help Unlock PotentialThe Authentic Career by Maggie Craddock

Sylvia strives to dispel the stereotypes and misconceptions about individuals with disabilities. “Everyone has the potential to be competent, intelligent, successful, beautiful, and productive. Disability is only a small part of who I am, and how I respond determines if my experience will be positive or negative. I choose every day to be my best,” she says.

Let Bookshare be your passport to lifelong learning and new opportunities. Get started by checking out Bookshare’s special collection of career resources.

Buckle Up for Summer Reading

2018 May 17

Bookshare offers special summer reading lists for hours of enjoyment

The lazy days of summer are just around the corner, but before students trade backpacks and lunch boxes for swim suits and flip flops, make sure they have plenty of books to keep them reading throughout the summer.

Summer Road Trip Reading Lists are Here

The Bookshare team has hand-picked books for three special collections so members can take a virtualThe Danger Box by Blue Balliett voyage across the United States with Road Trip Reading Lists. Each collection has 102 titles containing two books for each state, plus Washington D.C., so you can read your way across the U.S. of A.

You can use the category filter to browse the collections by state. You can also subscribe to an entire list and access all of the books from your own Reading List.

And for young readers ages 5-10, Summer Fun for Young Readers features 20 books with gems like Steam Train, Dream Train and The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes.

Summer Reading Checklist for TeachersSkink-No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen

Follow these steps to make sure your students can continue to use Bookshare on their own and build reading skills over the summer.

  1. Give students access at home (2 options)
  1. Set them up with a reading tool that works for them
  2. Assign books – choose books from the Summer Reading Lists or dozens of other lists

Tips to Encourage Summer Reading

Students who have reading barriers often need extra encouragement to read. Here are someSteam Train Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld suggestions on ways to incorporate reading into everyday schedules:

  • Listen to audiobooks in a hammock, blanket fort, or on a road trip
  • Choose books from the summer reading lists about your state or a state you plan to visit this summer
  • Encourage kids to read what their friends are reading with help from TTS and word highlighting
  • Download all the books in a series by a favorite author to solve the problem of what to read next
  • Try “popcorn” or apprentice reading with a friend or family member – take turns reading passages aloud
  • Try side-by-side silent reading (adults: turn off the TV and model independent reading) – you might be surprised at the quality and depth of YA fiction
  • Host an informal book club (with snacks!)
  • Encourage “free-range” reading – kids have the freedom to choose what, where and when to read
  • Read purely for enjoyment – no quizzes, book reports, or vocabulary tests
  • Share favorite books on social media like @teenreads or #shelfies

Share Your Favorite Books

Tell us about your favorite books on Twitter or Facebook. Which states did you visit on your virtual road trip? Which books do you recommend and why?

Bookshare Tiene Libros en Español

2018 May 4
by Emily Nostro, Collection Development Specialist

¿Sabías que Bookshare tiene más de 15.000 títulos en español? Hay cuatro nuevas colecciones especiales que destacan nuestros libros en español en la página Revelacion by Patricia Murdochde navegar. No importa si es un hispanohablante o está aprendiendo el idioma, explorar nuestras colecciones para libros divertidos y engancharen. Estos libros son para lectores adolescentes y adultos.

Did you know that Bookshare has over 15,000 titles in Spanish? The browse page features four special collections that highlight some of our Spanish books. Whether Spanish is your native tongue or if you are learning the language, explore our new collections for fun and engaging reads. These books are for young adult and adult readers.

High-Low Books for Young Adults in Spanish

Libros Para Lectores Adolescentes Reacios (high-low readers en Español)

This collection features twenty high-low titles for young adult readers (ages 13+/grades 8+) available in Spanish. High-low titles have high interest subject matter that is easy to read. These books feature simple vocabulary that helps readers gain confidence and build fluency and proficiency.

For students who are native Spanish speakers and have reading barriers such as dyslexia, learning to read in their native language can help build phonological awareness and comprehension skills that can transfer to reading in English.

Or, for students who are learning Spanish, these books are an effective way to build reading skills in a foreign language. And guess what? Every title in this collection isEl Caballo y El Muchacho by CS Lewis also available in English, including:

Popular Series Books for Young Adults in Spanish

If you are a teacher, this scenario may be familiar to you: You just got a new student, but she has a documented learning disability and is an English language learner. How will you find books that are accessible, in her native language, so she can read what the rest of the class is reading until her English improves? Check out these lists of popular books and series:

Sagas Literarias Para Adolescentes y Jóvenes Adultos – 71 books for ages 8+/grades 3+ including:

Libros Populares Para Adolescentes y Jóvenes Adultos – 75 books for ages 13+/grades 8+ including:

Books for Adults in Spanish

Penguin Clásicos – This robust collection of 125 literary classics from Shakespeare to Benito Pérez Galdós is perfect for fluent readers of Spanish, including:

Use Advanced Search to Find Foreign Language Books

In addition to Spanish, Bookshare has books in 34 other languages, with more added every month. You can use Advanced Search to specify the language, genre, category, author, and other criteria to help you find what you are looking for. The Bookshare team is working hard to bring more accessible ebooks to readers around the world.

The Secret to Getting Reluctant Readers Hooked on Books

2018 April 18

In Part I, “The Crazy Reading Ladies” explained how they turned Horace Mann Middle School into the school that reads, and in Part 2, they discussed how assistive A male student reads a book on a tablet in the librarytechnology enhances the reading experience and delivers social and academic benefits. In Part 3, “The Crazy Reading Ladies” share tips to get kids reading, favorite books and authors, and more student success stories. 

Teachers are incredibly resourceful and creative when it comes to helping students thrive in school. Erin and Mary, affectionately known as “The Crazy Reading Ladies” by their students, have honed their tried-and-true techniques for converting reluctant readers to bookworms.

Top 10 Tips to Engage Reluctant Readers

  1. Have good books available. Advertise them on bulletin boards, in the cafeteria, and in the bathroom stalls.
  2. Read what the kids are reading. Allows you to recommend books and engage them in conversation.
  3. Bless their choices. When a child talks to you about a book, say “I read that too and can’t wait to talk to you about it” or “I haven’t read that one yet. Let me know how you like it!”
  4. Create a culture of literacy where the expectation is that everybody is reading.
  5. Always have the next book suggestion in mind. If a student comes to you looking for a book, make sure they don’t leave empty-handed. “If you liked X, then try Y.”
  6. Give them permission to abandon a book. Life’s too short for bad books.
  7. Use books to build relationships with kids. Find common ground through books.
  8. Read aloud. People often assume that middle school students are too old to be read to, or they don’t enjoy it. Our kids love it.
  9. Celebrate successes. Take a picture of that kid who just finished a book. Tweet it out and tag the author!
  10. Give students time and space to read. If you’re worried about people seeing kids “just reading,” hang a poster in your classroom proclaiming what’s really happening: kids are practicing empathy, visualizing, learning about history, taking a different perspective, improving their fluency, and developing their vocabulary.

Favorite Titles Guaranteed to Entice Reluctant Middle School ReadersTwerp by Mark Goldblatt

Bookshare has all of these books available for download in a variety of formats:

“Go To” Authors that Teachers Can Recommend with Confidence

More Student Success Stories

Erin: Dylan, a 7th grader, only read two books last year, one of which was Henry and Ribsy, a book for elementary students. So far this year he has read eight books. His oral fluency has increased from 78 words per minute (below 2nd grade level) to 161 wpm (above 7th grade level). This breakthrough isn’t the result of extraordinary teaching; it’s what happens when kids read (special thank you to author M.P. Haddix, whose books hooked him big time!)

Mary: Can we talk about my son, Vinnie? He’s an intelligent kid who just didn’t like to be bothered with reading; however, he loves a good story. With the help of the audio narration, he read Holes, and he never had a book hook him like Holes did. He talked about it daily. A year later, he will still tell you it’s his favorite book. He loved the characters, the fight for justice at Camp Green Lake, the serpentine storyline, and how it all came together at the end.

Erin: Sometimes students use Bookshare as the gateway to reading. They let it build their confidence and then find that they don’t need it all the time. Alex, a 7th grader, started a book using the audio only and then continued reading on his own about halfway through. He stated simply, “I know how it sounds now.”

Erin and Mary: Every student’s needs are different, and Bookshare allows them to customize their reading experience in whatever way works best, whether that’s audio only, text with audio, or text only using whatever reading tool or app they prefer. These successes do more than increase comprehension. They heal the relationship these kids have had with books, and once they have a positive experience, they’re willing to do it again. We hope that these tips and examples will help your students go “all in” with reading.

Bookshare would like to thank Erin and Mary for generously sharing their stories and expertise. Learn more about “The Crazy Reading Ladies.”

Ebooks and Assistive Technology Are Gateways to Reading

2018 April 11
by Laura Deck, Bookshare Communications

In Part 1, “The Crazy Reading Ladies,” Erin O’Leary and Mary Cotillo, explain how they turned Horace Mann Middle School into the school that reads.

In Part 2, “The Crazy Reading Ladies” discuss how assistive technology (AT) enhances the reading experience and delivers social and academic benefits. This blog is part two of a three-part series.

Which reading tools and devices do your students prefer?

Three Horace Mann Middle School students are reading in their classroom.

Horace Mann Middle School students are reading in their classroom.

Erin: We are incredibly fortunate that our school has implemented a 1:1 Chromebook program. This has allowed our kids to remain logged in to their Bookshare and Capti accounts throughout the day without having to remember those pesky passwords! About 75% of my students who use audiobooks prefer the Capti add-on to their Bookshare experience. They tell me the voices are better. We’re also big believers in training students to be their own advocates so they can adjust the background color, font size, or reading speed. I love that they are taking ownership of the experience and doing whatever works for them.

I have one student who prefers listening to readers with an accent. She has her Capti/Bookshare set to the British voice. And there’s evidence to back that up – some students find it easier to attend to a listening task when the voice is different. One 7th grader told me about the “sweet set-up” he has in his room – he has Bookshare coming through a Bluetooth sound system!

What are the benefits of audiobooks?

Mary: We know that audiobooks are a wonderful thing, so we make them available for all students. WeThe Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan talk about audiobooks we’ve enjoyed, we model their use in class, and we continually add to our collection. We’ve worked really hard to normalize them. It’s not unusual for ten or twelve kids to stop by and borrow headphones during silent reading because they enjoy the experience of listening to a story. Audiobooks are also discreet, which is critical because no middle schooler wants to look different. When you’re plugged into headphones, no one knows whether you’re listening to Bruno Mars or Harper Lee.

How does Bookshare and AT help your students socially?

Erin: We believe reading is even better when you can share the experience with others, and adolescents are inherently social. When my students can read the same books as their friends, they will find that books are a terrific conduit for social interactions. For example, one boy confided in me that he really wanted to read The Red Pyramid because so many of his friends had recommended it. Now, this was a double-deficit student who has slow automaticity combined with significant decoding deficits. I knew I would be setting him up for failure by handing him the paperback, so I gave him the book on Bookshare. He read it, and an entire social experience opened up for him.Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz

I also had a group of 6th grade girls who were practically allergic to reading. They weren’t reading at home and had every excuse in the book. They talked about “not understanding” or having “a terrible memory for books.” Then we got the audio version of Unbroken. Those girls changed almost overnight. They would come into class and say, “Can we please just read today?” That same book proved to be the very first book one of our 8th graders read on his own, thanks to the audio.

I have two 6th grade boys who are reading Stormbreaker on Bookshare right now. I love listening to them talk to each other: “It’s good, right?” “Do you think the uncle is really dead?” “I’m not sure.”

Next Up in Part 3

  • Erin and Mary’s top ten tips to get kids reading
  • Favorite books and go-to authors to engage “dormant” readers
  • Even more student success stories

Learn more about “The Crazy Reading Ladies”

When It Comes to Reading, This School is All In

2018 April 4

Part 1: How “The Crazy Reading Ladies” turned Horace Mann Middle School into the school that reads. This blog is part one of a three-part series.

Erin O'Leary & Mary Cotillo are the Crazy Reading Ladies at Horace Mann Middle School in Massachussets

Erin O’Leary & Mary Cotillo

The expectations of middle school are daunting enough without the added challenges for students with learning disabilities. Students who have difficulty with reading find themselves at a disadvantage that has repercussions academically and socially.

Fortunately, Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, Massachusetts, has Erin O’Leary and Mary Cotillo, affectionately known by their students as “The Crazy Reading Ladies.” Erin is a reading specialist who provides intensive reading instruction in both pull-out and inclusion classes. Her students’ abilities range from below grade-level performance in reading fluency and comprehension to significantly impaired decoding or processing deficits.

Mary is the assistant principal and a former 8th grade ELA teacher who teamed up with Erin several years ago. They found themselves in each other’s classrooms daily, brainstorming ideas, crafting lessons, and talking about kids and books. Their friendship has since developed into a highly successful partnership, focused on putting good books in the hands of students and building a community of readers and literacy.

In this blog, and the two that follow, Erin and Mary share their wildly successful tips, techniques, and philosophy on removing barriers to reading and getting reluctant students to succeed. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What advice can you offer to teachers who serve students with learning disabilities?

Erin: Many of our students have a negative association with reading because someone, somewhere, made them believe they weren’t good at it. These kids are Out of My Mind by Sharon M Drapernothing short of traumatized. We’ve coined the term Post-Traumatic Reading Disorder, and it is a very real thing. Teachers who serve students with learning disabilities see this every day in the kid who says he “hates reading” or that he’s “bad at it.” They see it in the child who hops out of her seat to use the bathroom when silent reading time comes around.

How do you heal the traumatic relationship with books? Bring good books into their lives. Read aloud. Use audiobooks. Reading simply has to be the expectation. We won’t tell students what to read, but we tell them reading isn’t optional. Students have a lot of excuses, and we have to be patient. We have to create positive experiences and believe for them until they believe in themselves.

How do you incorporate assistive technology (AT) into your reading program?

Mary: Over the years, we’ve tried a lot: tablets, laptops, apps, extensions, you name it. AT is thrown around as an effective means of supporting students, but it’s often messy and complicated. Although various options exist, educators will tell you they aren’t always as easy as they appear. It has to work, and it has to be close to effortless. We joke, “If it’s not as easy as Netflix, our kids won’t use it.” This is where the simple features of Bookshare and Capti Voice have won our kids over and been our biggest successes.

Some people say that audiobooks hinder a child’s ability to improve reading skills. What are your thoughts on this?

Mary: How do you become a better swimmer? You swim. How do you get better at free throws? Shoot lots of free throws. Same goes for reading. It’s easy to getTweet that says: In recent days I've been sitting back watching my 6th graders log on to CaptiVoice and Bookshare independently. They are reading at home and in school. They are talking about books. And they can do it on their own. I can't believe we got here. caught up in the next-best reading program, but the best way to improve students’ reading (and writing) abilities is to let them read. This is where Bookshare comes in. By providing audio support, Bookshare alleviates the decoding task so students can focus on visualizing, connecting, and keeping track of what’s going on in the story. Then their confidence increases because they’ve understood and been able to talk about it in class. Once they’ve got a few books under their belt, some of those kids are right up at grade level.

Can you share a success story of a student who regained confidence in reading?

Erin: Aidan, an 8th grade boy, was very frustrated with reading. He was afraid he wasn’t good at it, so he chose to hate it. He had not developed an attention span for reading and would spend his time staring at a single page or looking around the classroom. I suggested he try Bookshare. Although initially wary, he agreed to give it a shot. He recently finished April Henry’s Girl, Stolen. Finishing and understanding a book was such an accomplishment for him. That one win is the start to rebuilding his confidence.

Next up in Part 2:

  • How students use AT to personalize their reading experienceGirl, Stolen by April Henry
  • The social benefits of cultivating a community of readers
  • More student success stories

About The Crazy Reading Ladies

In a stroke of serendipity only fans of fine literature can imagine, Erin O’Leary and Mary Cotillo met while teaching together at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, Massachusetts. It was there they earned both a reputation and title: “The Crazy Reading Ladies.” This reading specialist and ELA teacher-turned-administrator stop at nothing to motivate adolescents to read and leave them wanting more. Their school-wide reading initiative, All In!™ is currently in its seventh iteration and has been implemented in schools in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Florida. In 2017 they authored the YA version of Battle of the Books for Random House Publishing, Co. Previously, they’ve “put to work” books by Una LaMarche, Ellen Hopkins, Jack Gantos, and Ruta Sepetys. Their energetic and engaging style makes them sought-after presenters at local and international conferences. They provide professional development at the school and district levels. Contact them at for options and availability. Follow their trials and triumphs at and on Twitter and Instagram.