Frequently Asked Questions


Key Elements of a screen reader for use in reading fluency instruction
Classes in reading fluency with a screen reader
Who can be helped by using a screen reader
Working with students with little or no computer skills
Testing and Evaluating Progress

Setting up a classroom/lab area
Eligibility and Copyright Laws
Scanning Books

Key Elements:

What are some of the key elements of a screen reader that can be used to help someone learn to read fluently?

There are two general types of screen readers; those for people with visual impairments and those for people with vision.

Key Elements for a Screen Reader for Visual Impairments:

  • Use application without a mouse
  • Ability to control voice and speech rate
  • Ability to change voices; gender and pitch
  • Use of improved natural voices
  • Ability to convert an image to text in order to read it with a screen reader (OCR)

Key Elements for a Screen Reader for someone with vision:

  • Ability to convert an image to text in order to read it with a screen reader (OCR)
  • Ability to control voice and speech rate
  • Ability to change voices; gender and pitch
  • Use of improved natural voices
  • Ability to select word and sentence tracking, or no tracking
  • Control of font size and colors, background colors, and tracking colors
  • Easy stop and start of speech and placement of curser

Can you suggest some affordable screen readers that you think would have the key elements that you are talking about?

Screen Readers for a user with visual impairments:

We have not completed a thorough product evaluation of these screen readers. The products that we have used and know will work are Jaws, WindowEyes, Kurzweil 1000, and Open Book. There are more affordable screen readers available that more than likely will work well to learn to read; we just haven't used them yet. Some of these are Thunder and System Access. Following is a web page describing these and more screen readers:

Screen Readers for someone with vision:

There are many screen readers that will work very well. Some are quite expensive, providing many additional features that sometimes will confuse a new reader and new users of computers. We recommend starting with as basic an application as possible to learn to read. These products are very affordable. The user can upgrade to another application after they gain confidence and reading skills. The entry level applications are ReadPlease Plus, Premiere E-text Reader, and Text Aloud. There are others that will work fine. The applications mentioned are only the ones we have used. More advanced applications that we have used are Kurzweil 3000 and Premiere Talking Word Processor. The added features can be very beneficial in helping with learning skills after the basic reading skills are developed.

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Classes in reading fluency with a screen reader

Is the reading fluency program part of a class or is it an open lab?

The screen reading fluency program was offered at Delta College through Spring 2009. There were both classes and open lab time available. Most students enrolled in the classes; one beginning course and one advanced course. Orientation and evaluations were a separate class.

Currently, the screen reading fluency program is being offered at one Sacramento City School System location in an 8th grade class. Additional offerings of the program will become available in the future. If you are interested in sponsoring the program at your school or as a part of your child's IEP plan, please contact us for information how this might be accomplished.

Contact Janice and Ted for information

How does the Reading Fluency with a Screen Reader Model compliment traditional reading classes?

A student is often enrolled in both the screen reading and traditional reading courses at the same time. This does not have to pose a problem. The student will most likely be reading faster and with more enjoyment with the screen reader. But, because the student's confidence is increasing and motivation to read increases, there is often a corresponding improvement in their visual reading.

Many students decide not to continue with the traditional reading program while they are learning to read with the screen reader. This is OK, also. It really depends on the person and what they want and can handle. Many students do better by just learning to read with the screen reader, because learning to read with a screen reader takes time and effort. However, students are often forced to take additional courses because of financial aid requirements.

It is also important to develop relationships with reading faculty. If other instructors express a bias against learning to read by listening, the student's self-confidence and acceptance of their reading achievements will be adversely affected.

In your orientation, do you take a certain time block, say an hour for the orientation? Is it a structured thing?

The orientation is structured. The orientation usually takes about one hour and is done individually. I have not had good success doing orientations with more than one person at a time. It is normally the first opportunity for the instructor to learn about the student. The instructor's goal for the orientation is to find empathy with the student's past experiences trying to learn to read. The student's goal is to learn about the reading fluency program and how this reading program is different from others that they have tried previously.

The instructor guides the student through the orientation by asking pertinent questions and explaining current theories about how someone learns to read. The orientation is typically an emotional experience for the student when they discover why they have previously not been able to learn to read and that it is possible for them to achieve their learning goals.

The orientation can be identified as a separate course so that a student can get additional credits. This has positive and negative consequences. A separate course allows for greater flexibility delivering the orientation. Someone can go through the orientation and decide that this is something that they may want or not want to pursue. Additionally, California State law only allows for a maximum number of basic skills credits. It is not wise to waste these credits.

Does this start at the beginning of a semester or is it open-ended?

Enrollment can be handled anyway that your college will permit. At Delta College, the course began at the beginning of the semester, but students were allowed to enroll during the course term up to a cut-off date, also. The course could also be arranged to have varying units to allow for different start and stop dates.

Can everybody be at different stages in this class?

Yes, each student will be reading at their own level. This is especially important in the reading groups, where more advanced students can help newer readers.

What is the name of the class and the subject title? If we looked it up at Delta College, how would we find it?

The course name was Reading Fluency with a Screen Reader, SP87 A and B. These codes might have been changed.

Do you discourage students from taking any content courses that are heavily loaded with reading until they work through this program?

Yes, we do discourage students from taking content courses until they reach a certain level of reading fluency and confidence, but most often students are already enrolled in these courses or are encouraged by others to begin advanced classes as soon as possible. This becomes complicated for the student. They are distracted from our curriculum, wanting to read their textbooks instead of reading for pleasure. They typically still have significant problems keeping up with their textbook reading, understanding what they are reading, and remembering what they have read. The student under-performs in the content course and in our course, leaving them discouraged.

While we discourage students from taking content courses immediately, we understand their predicament and still support them as much as we can by providing alternate format of books and helping them with technical problems. Most students return to the reading fluency class with a greater understanding of the importance of reading for pleasure, but still have pressures to continue with content based classes at the same time. Many times this pressure comes from the need to get student financial aid.

When you help them choose a book, do you have certain things that you ask them, like whatís their hobby or interests? Do you look at what their reading level is?

We do not look at their reading levels to determine what book they should start with. We do consider their developmental level. For instance, if they are 40 years old, but have a teenage developmental level, than we will suggest a teenage level book to read. But, if their developmental age is the same as their biological age than we suggest a book at that level.

Hobbies, cultures, movies, and other interest play a significant part in the selection of a person's first book. We often get it wrong because we are still getting to know the student. Students tend to want to please us and often say they want to read a book only because they think we want them to. This is not good. The book should be something that interests them and one that they will enjoy. Common mistakes by us are assuming that if someone is of a particular culture, they want to read about that culture.

If students want to take the course more than one time, is there a limit to how many times they can take the class?

This is determined by your college's policies. We recommend that the course be taken for at least two years, the amount of time that is usually needed to reach reading fluency levels of stage 2 and become independent readers.

Is the reading group for credit?

The reading group at Delta College was not an assigned course. Some of the students were enrolled in the reading fluency course, while in the reading group. We would suggest developing a separate course for the reading groups.

Do you also incorporate reading with mp3 formats in your class?

Yes, mp3 and audio files can be a significant support to help reading flexibility. A person can take their reading just about anywhere with mp3 or other audio files. Mp3 and audio file formats are converted text files using the computer voice and speed that a person is currently using. We are not talking about audio books that have been recorded by a human reader and cannot be controlled for the reading speed of the reader.


We do not encourage the use of mp3 file reading until the student reaches stage 2 and they have a strong affect towards the technology and greater confidence in their ability to read with a screen reader. Mp3 files are created individually for each student.

So you are not necessarily using their text books?

In the reading class, we have each student choose a novel to read. We do not encourage reading content based materials for the reading class. Fluency is not supported by slower content based reading. The books, at first, should be within the context of the person's prior experience to allow for easier mental representations. As their reading confidence grows, they can begin to expand their reading contexts.

Unfortunately, many students are taking content based courses at the same time that they are learning to read fluently with a screen reader. The student must come in at other times, or read at their homes, to read this material. Research shows that to learn to read fluently a person should read 1/2 hour per day of enjoyable reading and continuous reading, not context based studying.

In terms of time, from the beginning when a student starts this class, how long does it take to see results? Some students get impatient.

In terms of instruction, reading rates are not our primary measurement during stage 1. Focusing primarily on reading rates will mislead both the new reader and the instructor on the real reading achievement. Stage 1 should focus instead on affective measures of how they feel towards the technology, their confidence in reading, their self-efficacy that they can learn to read, and their motivation to read for enjoyment. These are the most reliable and valid measures at this stage.

Most adult students start with about a 6th or 7th grade reading level with speeds of about 30 to 40 words per minute. Almost all of the people that we have worked with have no problem understanding spoken language at conversational rates of language of 80 to 100 words per minute. With this in mind, I begin most students at this higher language rate. Students perceive an immediate improvement of reading enjoyment and comprehension based solely on this improved reading rate. But, this initial perceived improvement is not usually followed by other quick improvements. The student will slowly increase the rate of reading over 6 to 9 months until they reach reading fluency rates over 200 words per minute.

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Who can Be Helped by using a Screen Reader?

Clarify some of the disabilities that would be helped such as cognitive disabilities.

There are many people who are having difficulty with reading fluency. Very few people cannot learn to decode. Reading fluency is performed in different areas of the brain than decoding. It is reported that over 50% of the U.S. population reads at 7th grade or less reading levels. Most of these people are having problems visually processing language and can learn to read using an alternative method. These people make up a very diverse group. They may include people with:

  • Visual impairments;
  • Learning disabilities;
  • Mobility problems;
  • Mental health issues;
  • Neurological disorders;
  • Cognitive injuries;
  • Developmental delays;
  • Social problems or lack of educational opportunities during childhood;
  • And other learning problems, such as ADHD, behavior, etc.

What about those people who donít struggle with fluency, but with comprehension?

Reading fluency is often only tested as reading speed. A lot of people are learning to read fast in school, but are still having difficulty comprehending what they are reading.

Reading fluency is more than just how fast someone decodes or recognizes words. It is the ability to perform complex cognitive brain tasks that include recalling prior experiences, the time that it takes to perform these cognitive tasks, and understanding the content of language. The understanding of read language necessitates the ability to form complex mental images or representations developed from saved representations of prior experiences, emotions, and perceived information. The ability to form these mental representations is a learned task, which necessitates the ability to recognize words at a minimum of automaticity rates of reading, about 200 words per minute. Reading at automaticity rates does not mean that someone has already learned how to understand the language, only that they now have the ability to learn it, now.

In Stage 2 of our reading fluency curriculum, students not only reach automaticity levels of reading speed, but begin to learn how to understand what they are reading, feel confident in their reading achievement, and become independent readers.

Did you work with ESL students? Do they have to have learning disabilities to benefit from your program?

Yes, we have worked with ESL students with and without disabilities and found that it has been beneficial to them. While it is beneficial, we do not fully understand the differences that a second language learner will have with reading fluency compared to someone learning to read in their primary language. One of the differences is in the availability of reading materials, because e-text book sources for screen readers are typically only for people with disabilities and copy-right laws only pertain to a person with a disability. However, many books are in the public domain.

There is some new research in the cognitive differences between how a second language learner learns to read in their second language compared to someone learning in their primary language. We are currently researching this area. We have been told about a unique program in Southern California that is researching and developing instructional strategies based on second language learners. There is also research being done in the U.S. and other countries on the use of screen readers and second language learners. We will share our findings and citations when we complete our study.

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Could you say a little more about working with students with developmental disabilities? I have students like that and Iím thinking that their problems with comprehension are pretty significant.

The quick or short answer to this question is that yes we have had some very significant gains in reading comprehension with students labeled with developmental disabilities. In general, these students progress in a similar fashion to others through the stages of learning to read with a screen reader.

The longer response must be framed in an understanding of the complexity of the learning problems associated with disabilities. There is probably an unlimited combination of learning problems and ways these problems manifest themselves at any one time in an individual. A person may learn differently on a daily or even an hourly basis.

As an example, one student was deaf, blind, and had developmental disabilities. Compounding these learning problems was that one of his learned behaviors was to constantly try and please others in excess. It was very difficult to determine his actual affective levels. Instruction and measurement had to be done individually. He did not respond well to a larger class setting. But, even this student enjoyed reading and the additional contact with others that reading provided, especially the reading group.

In contrast, another student with severe developmental delays with compounding speech and language problems integrated quite easily into a larger class setting and continually improved reading and language skills over a 3 year period. This student's developmental age was about 10 years old at the most. He started reading very simple books, Anne of Green Gables and The Hardy Boys. At the end, he was reading the books of Narnia. Quite an improvement. His oral speech improved so that he could actually share longer and more complex conversations about his family and home activities.

Did you have high school students who were transitioning into college who are taking this class?

Having high school students enrolled in college courses is a policy decision of the college. We did have a few high school students participating in the reading fluency program. These students performed the same as other students because their development levels enabled them to potentially read at fluency levels. If the students had been younger or less developmentally mature, adaptations to expected outcomes and measures would have been appropriate.

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Working with Students with Little or No Computer Skills

So many of our students are hesitant and reluctant to use technology. What kind of strategies or experiences do you have in terms of training the students to learn the technology?

Yes, this is a barrier for many students. It is best to view this problem from two perspectives; a fear of technology and the loss that the technology represents.

Many older students have a fear of technology, especially computers. This is less so now than only a few years ago with many inexperienced computer users freely using Facebook and other communication technologies. Our work supports research that shows that computer skills are best learned when a person has a clear purpose for using the technology. So, our curriculum builds a strong purpose and motivation by developing an enjoyment of reading and a connectivity to others. With this new purpose, we have found learning to use technology becomes less of a problem, even for older students.

Our curriculum does not have a prerequisite of prior computer experience to begin learning to read fluently. At first, many students do not have the skills to open the application, start/stop the speech, change settings, or convert printed materials to text. We do this for them at first. Yes, this does encourage dependency. But, it is impossible for many students to immediately be independent readers. This develops in Stage 2, not Stage 1. In Stage 1 the student must develop the positive affect towards reading with a screen reader and the confidence that they can learn to read fluently.

Another problem for many students is that the technology represents the loss they feel due to an injury or acquired disability. It represents the loss of connectivity to their family and friends, loss of employment, loss of their future and dreams of success. It represents to them "giving up" on their capabilities and a recognition that they may never regain the abilities that they previously had. This is a difficult transition for someone and can take many years. The process does not progress logically, but emotionally and only when the person is ready. We will discuss this further in a future question.

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Setting up the Classroom/Lab Area

In your lab, do you have an array of screen reading programs that a person can come in and explore and try out, or do you sort of assess a person and start them on a certain program?

It is a good idea, if possible, to have many options for a person to explore, though too many at first will probably just confuse people. Our model emphasizes how a person learns rather than any particular product. We refer you back to our discussion on key elements for a screen reader.

For the students to be able to have this at home, what kind of requirements are there in terms of computer technology?

They need to have a computer with audio capabilities. Older PC computers work fine. Most screen reader applications are designed to work with a PC, but a few applications have recently entered the market for use on Macs. We have not tested the applications on Macs, yet. The PC versions may work correctly on newer Macs that run Windows operating systems, but again we have not checked this out yet. Not all Windows functions work on the Mac version.

Operating system: Windows 98 through Windows 7.
Memory: As much as possible, but as little as 500 MB will work.
Older PC's work fine with these minimum requirements met.

We have a lab setting that has 28 computers. If we had this software on our computers, would it be possible to have the instructors scan the material and download it to each computer, or does it have to be done on an individual basis?

Technically, this can be done. The question is really can it be done legally with copyright laws? This will depend on the course, the students enrolled in the course, and the types of materials being scanned and distributed. We refer you to the copyright section of the FAQ.

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Testing and Evaluating Progress

For those of your students without a visual impairment, have you noticed any correlation with when they auditoraly read, do their visual reading scores go up?

Yes, we have seen this correlation between reading fluency with a screen reader and reading fluency with vision. Several studies have confirmed this relationship based on brain development and actual reading scores. The visual reading improvement occurs a few months after reading fluency with a screen reader begins. Of course, the most pronounced improvements always happen with those students who read the most... and read for fun and enjoyment.

This improvement is not based on the person actually following or using their eyes with the screen reader. It is based on brain development and improved reading skills. We have not performed any study on the numbers of people who either decide to read visually or continue with screen reading. But, our informal observation is that most people want to continue with a screen reader and read visually when needed.

Do you find that when they increase their reading speed, their comprehension goes down?

No, we have not seen this happen. What we have seen is the reverse. After a month of reading with a screen reader, we will often notice a student slowing down the rate of speech, saying that they are having difficulty understanding and staying focused on the material. When coached to speed up the rate faster than they had previously been reading, the student finds their enjoyment and understanding has actually improved. The slower language rate had decreased their comprehension.

I understand why you donít do the basal reading rates when they first come in, but after, when they get into stage 2, do you ever test their reading rate without a screen reader? Do you notice that their reading without a screen reader improves?

No, we do not test their visual reading rates. We do not encourage the myth that reading with the eyes is preferable to reading by listening. If the student is making progress learning to read fluently, is enjoying the reading, and becoming confident in their learning abilities, why should we do anything that may discourage this progress? The test at this point would be mainly for the instructor's sake; to support their biases.

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Eligibility and Copyright Laws

How do copyright laws effect the distribution of e-text and alternate formatting?

The distribution of alternate formatted books and materials must be reviewed for its copyright status. Most current books are protected by copyright laws, which protect intellectual property rights of the author and the publisher. The Chafee Amendment to the Copyright Law allows for fair use of text materials to be changed so that people with print disabilities can have access and understand printed materials, such as books and magazines.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has significant information about these laws and how they apply to schools and coleges.

Were you under the umbrella of the DSPS department?

Yes, the courses and services were provided through DSPS. This is necessary for legal purposes to comply with disability accommodations under the ADA and other laws, but is not necessary under copyright laws. The person recieving alternate formatted text needs to be determined to have a reading disability by an authorized professional. The professional does not have to be a DSPS employee.

Did a student have to have a disability to take the class or was it open?

No, any student could take the course. A determination of a print disability was not necessary. Books can be provided to students under fair use of the copyright law, with certain restrictions, in a classroom by the teacher for textbooks and other required texts of the class. But, only those students that have been determined to have a print disability fall under the expanded fair use of copyrighted materials under the Chapee Amendment.

You mentioned that for students who donít have disabilities you have to work differently with the copyright laws. What is it that you do?

These students can use public domain materials that are no longer copyrighted, texts that are required for the class, or scan their own books.

Can you recommend a web site that has e-books for free?

Project Gutenberg:
Public libraries often have e-text books.
Many college libraries also offer e-text books that can be read by a screen reader.
Learn how to scan your own books. It is easy to do.

Do you have to have a disability for Bookshare?

Yes, Bookshare requires all members to have been determined to have a print disability.

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Scanning Books

Do you teach them to scan their own books in the class too?

Yes, this is part of stage 2 of the curriculum in becoming more independent with the technology. Scanning a book to e-text is easy for students not using low-vision technology. Scanning is accessible, but does require some understanding of file structure and scanning technology. Students are able to learn how to scan a book to read as one of their computer skills.

The process to make a e-text has two steps:

  1. Scanning the materials. This entails making a digital image of each page. This image does not have any identification of letter, words, or formatting on that page.
  2. Optical Character Recognition (OCR). OCR applications review the image documents and identify and create formatted text that can be used by a screen reader. Every OCR application is not developed for screen readers. Some are developed for word processing and other document processing purposes. An OCR application designed for screen reading will produce readable text. Examples of an OCR application for screen reading are:
    • Kurzweil 1000 or 3000
    • PDF Magic
    • Adobe Acrobat (has OCR integrated)
    • Open Book
    • many others

Does it take a long time to scan an entire book?

It takes about an hour to scan and OCR a normal size book.

What do you use for your spine cutting?

Many schools and colleges will have a book spine cutter at their copy center. These cutters will make a clean cut on books up to 2 to 3 inches thick. Many commercial copy centers also have these cutters and charge a few dollars per book. For one or two books, it will take 20 minutes up to a few hours to get to these centers and have the spine cut off.

You can cut off the spine of a book in about 10 minutes with a simple utility knife. Use the hard cover as a straight edge and cut about 4 to 5 pages at a time. It still goes very quickly and results in a clean cut so the book can be rebound later.

Binding of the books can be done with a spiral page binder. These binders are often available at schools and colleges. They can be purchased cheaply at most office supply stores.

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