Learning to read with ears, eyes

Tapes: About 4,000 students in Maryland are using audio recordings to help them develop and strengthen their reading skills.

November 11, 2001|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The children in Deborah Hyland's second-grade classroom at Walter P. Carter Elementary School in Baltimore listen attentively as an expressive voice on tape shares with them "The Empty Pot," an Asian tale of honesty and honor.

As they listen, their fingers follow the words in their textbooks, Collections for Young Scholars. When the story is over, the children move to work stations, and a few put on headsets and listen to the story again.

These children are among the nearly 4,000 students in Maryland - including 3,000 elementary, middle and high school students in Baltimore - who use recorded reading, language arts and English textbooks provided by Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, a nonprofit group based in Princeton, N.J.

Started more than 50 years ago to serve veterans who had lost their sight in World War II, the organization provides audio books for people with various learning problems that interfere with reading.

"We started our service for the blind ... but in the last 20 years, we've had an avalanche of requests for textbooks for kids with learning disabilities," said Peter Smith, vice president of marketing for the organization, which serves more than 100,000 students nationwide.

Of those students, more than 70 percent have learning disabilities related to reading. "We've heard tens of thousands of success stories from students about how our books helped them to overcome dyslexia," Smith said. Other students might have physical disabilities that prevent them from turning the pages of a book.

Baltimore introduced the program at nine schools three years ago, and has expanded it to about 300 classrooms in 20 schools, said Fay McLean, curriculum specialist for the Baltimore school system's Office of Special Education Instructional Support.

"We're getting lots of positive responses from the teachers who are working with the program," McLean said. "The teachers have seen academic and behavioral progress. Once you can remove the frustration, you're better able to teach them."

The service was started as Recording for the Blind in 1948 by volunteers at a New York public library branch and was organized by Anne T. Macdonald, a New York philanthropist. Its philosophy: An inability to read should not stand in the way of learning.

Today, more than 5,700 volunteers nationwide continue the work, producing thousands of audio textbooks in 32 recording studios and giving the organization what it says is the nation's largest academic library of audio books for students with disabilities.

The tapes help make the curriculum accessible to students with disabilities that stand in the way of reading, said Linda Brown, supervisor of special education instructional support for the Baltimore school system.

"These students are no longer prisoners of words," Brown said. "They are learning. They are being empowered. Why should words stop us from learning?"

At Walter P. Carter Elementary School, teacher Deborah Hyland says the tapes let children learn in the way that is best for each.

"Children learn with different styles," Hyland said. "Some of them need to hold the book and hear the words at the same time."

Lily McElveen, the school's principal, said the children who use the tapes have scored higher on tests, and have demonstrated improved independent and oral reading skills and increased general comprehension.

"I think the tapes have made a real difference," McElveen said. "I have children who have not been comfortable reading who come up to me now and ask, `Can I come down and read to you?'"

Russell Canty, 8, a student at Walter P. Carter, has been using the tapes for about a year.

"The tapes help me to read, write and spell better," he said. "Now I can read, and it makes me feel good. When I get out of college, I want to read to children and help them put on their headphones and listen to tapes."

Another student, Devante Bennett, 8, said: "I like the tapes because they help me to understand the stories better."

The organization has awarded a contract to the Johns Hopkins University to conduct a classroom study in the Baltimore County school system to evaluate the effectiveness of audio texts in helping high school students with learning disabilities. The results are expected early next year.

"I, like everybody else, have an intuitive belief that the alternative format could benefit a lot of kids who aren't able to fully access the text," said Michael Rosenberg, a professor of special education at Hopkins and principal member of the research team.

That's what the organization hopes the study will conclude.

"Our mission is to provide an assist for children who are having difficulty but appear to be able to learn," Smith said. "We give them the learning tools and educational strategies they need for learning through listening. More and more, audio books are being accepted as extremely useful, and the prevailing view is why not use more of our senses in the learning process?"

Information about Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic: 800-803- 7201 or the organization's Web site, www.rfbd.org. Information about volunteering at the Washington recording studio: 202-244-8990.

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