Learning Disabilities and the Emotion of Reading in Middle School

The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported in 2013 that 91% of eighth-grade students with disabilities performed at or below the basic level in reading, with 60% performing below basic (note that these statistics reflect only students who can be assessed without accommodations [NAEP, 2013]). For students with learning disabilities specifically, that’s 3.4 grade levels below their peers; given these statistics it’s not surprising that students with learning disabilities report significant negative emotions about reading and exhibit low motivation for reading including text avoidant behavior. In fact, the research literature is riddled with studies that describe how low skill acquisition in reading over time leads to negative feelings about and low motivation for reading. Likewise, once students have low motivation for reading and poor academic emotions around reading they become less and less likely to become successful readers.

There is no easy fix to break the cycle of reading failure, negative emotion, and low motivation for reading—I understand this on both a personal and professional level. As a student I struggled significantly with a reading and processing related learning disability (dyslexia) and, as a result, stress was a big part of my elementary and secondary school experiences. Reading was always a significant struggle in school and those experiences led me to a professional life where I spend most of my time trying to understand the relationship between emotion and learning within the context of education. Importantly, the emotion research literature offers some guidance on which innovative solutions can be grounded.

Students who are failing to read at middle school may not be oriented toward the pursuit of learning to read per se, but they can become motivated to engage with reading when allowed to connect to learning about content of deep personal interest. Curiosity and motivation for learning are relatively inextinguishable. They are, “positive and persistent features of human nature” (Ryan & Deci, 2000) even when the spirit of motivation seems crushed in one domain as a result of recurrent failure. This precept is supported by the research literature but also rings true with significant face validity. Successful adults with learning disabilities often describe having a passionate personal interest that propelled them emotionally through the challenges and stresses of formal education. Udio is built squarely on this premise, providing middle school students who are struggling to read with:

  1. Access to and choice around texts that are personally interesting and age appropriate;
  2. Valuable experiences that increase feelings of competence, relatedness and autonomy so as to reframe the experience of reading in positive ways; and
  3. Embedded supports that reinforce reading instruction around key comprehension skills, keeping challenge level “just right” for each student.

Students who struggle with reading in middle school need access to adequate reading instruction around basic skills, but they also need to actively and frequently practice with text. Udio strives to create conditions that enable such practice. By providing texts and supports to students and a robust toolkit for teachers, Udio can reignite and sustain students’ motivation for reading so that they will actively engage with reading. Emotion plays a profound role in learning to read—Udio provides a platform where students find motivation, autonomy, and emotional resilience to learn to read.