Could you please tell us a little bit about CAST and what the organization does?
CAST stands for Center for Applied Special Technology, and we're a research and development organization that was founded in 1984. We have approximately 50 people on staff, and our mission is to extend opportunities for all, especially individuals with disabilities, through the application of electronic media. Our research centers around education and, while in CAST's early days we did a lot of research regarding assistive technologies, now we're focusing on accessibility looking at core curriculum materials to find ways to build accessibility and learning support directly into them.
We focus first on the learning process, on what has to be learned and what this means to the individuals who have to do the learning, a group that may have very diverse educational styles. They may also have different types of disadvantages, such as learning disabilities or physical disabilities, that can impinge on their ability to learn. We then design curricula, learning environments and learning experiences that contain built-in supports for those individuals who may need them in order to successfully complete their studies. The idea is that, instead of an assistive technology that is applied to make accessible a curriculum that already exists, we try to turn that on its head and create curricula and teaching materials that can be used by all students, regardless of whether or not they may need special accommodations. Different types of assistive technologies may be a part of that, but only part.
Most learning disabilities are in the area of literacy, which makes reading education a particularly important area to address. What are some of the biggest problems students with learning disabilities have in learning to read and how is CAST working to address that problem?
I think there are two great challenges facing dyslexic students as they attempt to learn to read. The first challenge is decoding the words themselves understanding the relationships between sounds and symbols, learning phonics, understanding the basic relationship overall between the words and the print on the page. And that "nuts and bolts" aspect of reading is a huge challenge all by itself.
The second great challenge is comprehension, becoming a skilled reader and being able to make the connection between words and the concepts they express. Typically, individuals who are not skilled readers will approach all texts in the same way. If you ask them the purpose of reading a book you'll probably get a reply like "to get to the end of it." They're fundamentally astrategic; they're not making a connection between the words that create a story and the story's logic. If, for example, you insert a paragraph that makes no sense into a page of text, they'll read through that paragraph without noticing. They're not asking if the passage makes sense because they're not forming mental models. This is what's referred to as "passive reading."
We know from research that there are specific strategies that are effective in addressing passive reading unfortunately, comprehension instruction is promoted far less than is instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency.
What we've been working on to address this problem is what we call the Thinking Reader approach, a research-based means of teaching effective reading strategies. One outgrowth of our research has been a program currently in use for grades six, seven and eight, simply called Thinking Reader, which is being marketed by Tom Snyder software, part of Scholastic. This particular program includes nine of the most popular core reading curriculum titles currently in use for those grades Tuck Everlasting, A Wrinkle in Time, and Dragonwings, for example. I think it's also important to point out that this particular program is only one instance of how the Thinking Reader approach can be used; here at CAST we currently have five or six other projects underway to apply these techniques across the grade ranges.