From left: Heather Johnston-Robinson, August Robinson and fellow student. Photo by Kristina Krug.

From left: Heather Johnston-Robinson, August Robinson and fellow student. Photo by Kristina Krug.

‘Leveling the playing field:’ How Microsoft is helping students with learning differences

New Microsoft Immersive Reader helps dyslexic students read.

As of 2017, about 10-15 percent of the U.S. population struggles with dyslexia.

Dyslexia, and other related disabilities, in children can be especially frustrating when they are first learning to read and write.

Dyslexia is a learning disorder and results in difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words. Dysgraphia, similar to dyslexia, is a learning disability that affects handwriting and fine motor skills. It interferes with spelling, word spacing and the general ability to put thoughts on paper.

Microsoft Corp. wanted to do something to help.

Microsoft Learning Tools, a set of free tools that are a part of OneNote, Word, Outlook, OfficeLens, Edge and beyond, implements proven techniques to improve reading and writing for people of all abilities. Through the most recent OneNote tool, Immersive Reader, users are able to read, write and comprehend better.

Microsoft’s Redmond campus recently invited students, parents and educators to a Dyslexia Learning Tools Workshop during which they learned about and experienced what the Immersive Reader curriculum could provide them.

The Immersive Reader tool reduces visual clutter and highlights individual words to help readers — especially those with dyslexia — focus on content instead of constantly decoding. Immersive Reader works with any Microsoft device through OneNote and is completely free.

One of Shy Averett’s roles in being the community program and events manager is to create all of the curriculum for the community programs. She said Microsoft wanted to be “extremely intentional” about making sure they were meeting the needs of all people and answering the questions of “Who is every person?” and “Are we missing people?”

“As we started talking to parents and kids and even the kids that were struggling with something that’s simple as code, we learned that some of these kids can’t read,” Averett said. “Whether or not they can’t read at all, they’re just reading below the level or they have some kind of disability like dysgraphia or dyslexia, you can’t empower them to do coding if something as simple as reading is not there.”

Throughout the event, several small workshops catered to specific age groups. Seven-year-old August Robinson, a student at the Bush School in Seattle, attended the workshop designated for children ages 6-8.

He was excited to be visiting the Microsoft campus for the first time and practicing with the new curriculum.

“I’m here because I want to learn what computers are and what computers can do to help your brain and to have fun,” he said.

August has dysgraphia. He said that it makes it difficult for him to write clearly and that it frustrates him.

“I know that I have a lot of trouble writing. It’s hard. It’s crazy and hard. I just have to write and write until I’m finished and it feels like it’s crazy to me — I mess up a lot,” he said.

His mother, Heather Johnston-Robinson, was with him. As a mother and an educator, she said she’s excited to see what’s out there to help kids who are struggling with the basics of reading and writing.

“We’re just really interested in seeing what tools are out there and specifically because dysgraphia has to do with handwriting, they suggested learning to type and using digital tools. It’s just really cool to see what’s out there,” she said.

More than just helping kids read and write better, Averett and other parents said the real beauty about the program is that it doesn’t stigmatize kids.

“You would never know that someone has the program activated on the computer and I think that’s one of the things that I love about this,” Averett said. “There are so many times where if somebody has some type of disability, usually it’s very obvious and especially with kids, it makes them so uncomfortable because they’re standing out…It’s not just about making sure everyone’s at the same level but it’s also about making them feel comfortable and I think we often miss that part. It really levels the playing field for these kids.”

The curriculum will be released to 82 Microsoft stores in October in time with Dyslexia Awareness Month.

For more information about Microsoft Learning Tools, visit www.onenote.com/learningtools.

Students explore new Microsoft Learning Tools at Redmond Microsoft campus. Madison Miller/staff photo.

Students explore new Microsoft Learning Tools at Redmond Microsoft campus. Madison Miller/staff photo.

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