Guest post by Phoebe Sullivan
As a brand new SLP dropped into a world where digital media and technology are a more prevalent part of our field than ever, I have had a lot of learning to do. One of the many virtual tools that I have been using to help my pediatric and adult clients recently is digital books.
The controversy of digital books versus print books has been around since eBooks were first invented. While I’m a staunch supporter of independent bookstores and agree that there isn’t anything exactly like holding a paper book in your hands, I do think that digital books offer a lot of functional advantages, especially for use with the populations served by SLPs such as children, parents, teachers, students and seniors.
Digital Books and Literacy for the Pediatric Population
It’s my opinion that one of the most important life skills that we can help develop in our pediatric clients is literacy. Literacy is a skill that many of us take for granted, but it is the basis of most of our functional operation and communication in the world. If we can help to develop a good foundation for literacy skills, we open up so many doors for our kids.
One early literacy skill that we can target with our preschool population is print awareness. Print awareness means understanding that words carry meaning and are different from pictures. Book knowledge, including knowing what is the front of a book versus the back of a book, and understanding how to turn pages, are also included in print awareness. This is an area where digital books can pose somewhat of a disadvantage: how can we develop book knowledge with an eBook? While we might not be able to physically turn pages or turn to the front and back cover of a book, we can still teach many of the same concepts. eBooks still have covers distinguished by elements like the title and the author, and we can still teach students how to differentiate between words and pictures in an eBook.
The advantages of using digital books far outweigh the disadvantages, in my opinion. One of the greatest advantages for me has been being able to read books with my teletherapy students. Using websites like GetEpic.com, I can find appropriately leveled books for my kids online and simply share my screen with them to read together. Books are one of the most versatile tools in pediatric language therapy, and it’s nice to know that they still exist as an option for teletherapy.
It isn’t possible to discuss literacy without discussing the socioeconomic disparities that play a part. Many of our students are trapped in a cycle beginning with the lack of a good home literacy environment, leading to poorly developed literacy skills, resulting in poor job prospects and the potential to be pushed along the school-to-prison pipeline. Much of this is due to a lack of access to literacy materials in low-income communities. In some ways, digital books have the potential to provide easier, more affordable access to books – many apps and websites are available that allow parents to rent or download books for free, without having to go anywhere. However, this requires access to a device of some kind and internet access, which isn’t an option for every family; but hopefully it can be an option for some.
Finally, digital books can be a game-changer for us when it comes to helping our students with specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, and visual impairments. Many eBook systems have a text-to-speech or read aloud feature, which can help students with dyslexia develop their decoding and reading comprehension skills. It can also help students both students with dyslexia and students with visual impairments with features like enlarging the text size and changing the screen brightness and colors. Audiobooks are another form of digital book that can benefit these populations; listening to books is a good way to reduce the stress of reading but still provide students with the vocabulary and background knowledge they need.
Digital Books for Adults with Reading Impairments or Challenges
Our adult clients can benefit from digital books, too. Many clients with aphasia struggle with acquired reading impairments due to a stroke or a traumatic brain injury, also known as alexia. This might come in the form of acquired difficulty decoding, or sounding out individual words, or trouble with reading comprehension. Losing the ability to read not only creates functional challenges, but can be emotionally difficult for clients, especially those who used to be avid readers.
Reading skills can be improved over time with practice and support from an SLP, and using digital books is just one way that we can provide that support. The text-to-speech feature that I mentioned earlier can be a great option for the aphasic population, as it provides auditory input simultaneously while they are reading the words. Audiobooks can also provide similar benefits for adults as students–they take the pressure off of reading words and allow a person to enjoy stories or learn from books. However, with audiobooks it is important to consider the type of aphasia and whether there are auditory comprehension deficits present. Digital books can also be a part of community integration and participation for our aphasic clients, which is often an important goal for them. For example, a client who used to participate in a community book club may be able to do so again using digital books.
We can help non-aphasic adult clients with digital books, too. Some studies have suggested that reading can help reduce the risk for dementia and help to keep memory and thinking skills sharp. Getting access to any kind of books for our clients experiencing cognitive decline is just one way that we can help them. We also have to consider adult dyslexia, because children with learning disabilities grow into adults with learning disabilities. We can help them learn to use text-to-speech and audiobooks as accommodations in the workplace or to enjoy reading for pleasure. Finally, we may see adults with visual impairments. The same features available for students with dyslexia and visual impairments–adjusting screen brightness, colors, and text size–may be helpful tools for these adults.
One possible barrier to consider for older adults is technology. Many older adults just haven’t had much exposure to technology and don’t feel comfortable navigating devices like an iPad or a Kindle. It certainly is a learning curve, but if they are willing to learn there are resources available. Aside from the help that we can provide as SLPs, there are also online and in-person courses designed to help seniors become more familiar with different types of technology. Apple offers product skills sessions to help people get started with iPad, Mac, and iPhone here. There are YouTube videos available to teach people how to use most other kinds of devices, like Kindles. You can even find courses right here on this website–Joan Green offers free webinars about technology-related topics at TheyMayNotKnow.com, and you can get access to all past webinars for a small fee here.
My Favorite Resources for Digital Books
Finally, I would like to share a few of my favorite and most-used resources for eBooks and audiobooks.
Epic is an amazing source for digital children’s books. As an SLP, you can sign up for a free educator account and get unlimited access to 40,000 books for kids ages 0-12. Parents may have to pay for a monthly subscription, but educators can assign books for children to read during school hours for free. The books are organized into different level systems, by age, and by grade. Many of the books also have “Read to Me” options, too. They are great to use during teletherapy sessions or in person.
Libby is an app that allows users to take out eBooks and audiobooks from their local library. All they need is a library card, and they can access any book that their library has available for free. The books are also available for download to listen to or read offline, or they can be sent to a Kindle app or device.
Audible is an audiobook service owned by Amazon. Unfortunately, it is not free and will require a monthly subscription, although they offer a 30-day free trial. If your clients can afford it, it is a great way to listen to books on a phone or other device!
I use the Kindle app often for reading for pleasure and for textbooks. Any eBook purchased from Amazon will be available to read on the Kindle app on a phone, tablet, or computer. They offer a text-to-speech feature to have the book read out loud, as well as the option to change the brightness, colors, font and font size while reading.
To learn more about digital books, where to find them, and how to read them check out Joan’s free webinar, Digital Books: How to Find and Read eBooks!