These days there are a lot of assistive technologies out there that claim to make reading easier for students with dyslexia. After all, what parent doesn’t want to increase reading independence and instill a love of reading in their children?
Reading pens have been marketed to parents as a cool bit of assistive technology for dyslexia. Essentially a pen that reads text out loud to you, over the last few years these scanning pens have become fairly popular with parents of students with reading difficulties. About the size of a highlighter, they’re portable, relatively accurate and, to be honest, can be quite handy for both students and adults with dyslexia.
But these little devices don’t exactly come cheap. Typically priced between $100-300, they can represent a fair amount of money for any family, especially if you’re going to give it to your child to carry with them.
So before you go ahead and order a reading pen, we created this guide to help you figure out ahead of time if it’s the right solution for you.
What is a reading pen and how do they work?
A reading pen is essentially a type of scanning pen that has the extra feature of being able to read text back to you.
Based on Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology, essentially these scanning pens take a picture of text on a page and convert it into digital text. Once converted into digital form, software can recognize the text, transfer it to a computer, edit it, translate it and more.
Those that are designed for students with dyslexia take all this a step further, and have the extra ability to read scanned text out loud for the student. The idea is that it can lessen the difficulties that accompany everyday reading, especially those with severe dyslexia and reading difficulties, encouraging users to read more independently.
How does a reading pen for dyslexia help a student?
Essentially, reading pens and other text to speech technologies are based on the idea that one of the main causes of reading disabilities comes from the difficulty in decoding written words, particularly in children with dyslexia.
By reading the text out loud, the traditional written presentation of text is combined with hearing it spoken aloud, which reduces the need for a student to decode the words in front of them. In other words, being able to listen to text while they read it can help students with their reading.
Should a dyslexic student use assistive technology?
A concern that parents of students with dyslexia have often have is that a reading pen (or other assistive technology) is kind of “cheating,” that their child will become dependent on it and that their reading will suffer in the long run.
Not only are those concerns unfounded, they’re actually kind of strange if you think about it.
After all, we wouldn’t ask a child in a wheelchair to walk around, or ask a child with vision problems to just try and see more. Students with dyslexia have inbuilt, neurological language-based difficulties. That’s simply the way their brains are wired up and they need tools to help them.
As dyslexia advocate and co-founder of the non-profit Dyslexia Advantage, Ferette Eide, eloquently states: “Assistive technology is not a crutch. Assistive technology provides access to higher level information as well as having beneficial effects on remediation itself.”
Will a reading pen be right for my child or student?
Now, on to the tricky bit.
We know that assistive technology can help students, but is a reading pen for dyslexia the right choice for you?
After reviewing a number of pen options, we found some pros and cons common to most reading pens that you should keep in mind before buying.
Text-to-Speech devices do seem to have a positive effect with dyslexia and reading difficulties
Various studies have found some evidence that text to speech and other read aloud tools can positively improve reading comprehension for students with dyslexia and reading difficulties.
So the concept behind these devices has some scientific merit.
Portable and lightweight
In general, reading pens are small (about the size of a highlighter) and very portable. Students can carry them around in their pocket if they really feel like it (although we’d recommend putting it in a case in their backpack), which means they can take them to class, to bed, to the library, a coffee shop…anywhere, really.
This not only means that reading pens can help them with their actual reading, but it can also give your child a sense of freedom that can improve the overall reading experience.
Many reading pens, such as the C-Pen or the Scanmarker Air, are designed to look modern and sleek and actually do look a lot like a highlighter. They also tend to have headphone jacks, so users can listen to read aloud text privately.
People, particularly children and young adults, can have difficult emotions associated with reading difficulties and dyslexia. It’s not at all uncommon for students to be embarrassed or feel that people are judging them for their disability. That these pens tend to look like highlighters and can have headphone attachments means that if your child is sensitive about their reading difficulties, particularly in public, they can use these devices without drawing too much attention to themselves.
Continued development of scanning technology and OCR software means that these devices have gotten pretty accurate. If used right, even low cost devices can recognize and pick up words correctly, meaning when scanning the text they usually won’t accidentally replace “turnpike” with “turnip.”
Skill Dependent Accuracy
Probably one of the most important things parents need to be aware of when considering a reading pen device is that their accuracy is what we call skill-dependent. That means in order for the device to be as accurate as it can be, and for you to get your money’s worth, it has to be reliably held in a certain way and pulled across text smoothly and quickly, and this can require some practice.
In fact, most of the complaints these devices garner is from people who have a hard time getting used to them, which results in the devices not being very accurate (sending back gibberish).
How sensitive each device is to things like being held improperly, jittering or shaking or hesitating really varies, with some devices being pretty tolerant and others less so.
That said, as a general rule they do take some practice to get right. We suggest considering a reading pen for dyslexia if your child or student:
- Can hold a pen independently and reliably
- Is willing to practice to get familiar with how to scan on the go
- Can reliably place the pen on the little space before a word begins and then scan a text from side to side without jittering too much
- Can reliably hold it at an angle (usually 60-90 degrees) while scanning across text for an extended period of time
Because these things weigh around a couple ounces (between 50 and 70 g metric), you can test it at home by taping an AA battery to a good sized highlighter and seeing how your child does with it.
Issues with Contrast, Non-Latin Alphabets and Non-Block Fonts
A lot of these pens claim to support and translate dozens of languages. However, they are built from OCR technologies that can often make more mistakes with non-Latin characters (Japanese kanji, for example, is often an issue).
Similarly, they tend to do best with simple, block fonts. If you feel that your reading list contains a good deal of handwriting or unusual fonts, these devices might not work as well as they should.
Finally, reader pens do best with high-contrast reading material. That is to say, black text on white paper or even white text on black paper. If you plan on using it for different colored papers or even to read translucent jars and such, they may not be as accurate as you’d like.
In a similar vein, while there are some reading pens that claim to be able to scan kindles and others digital e-readers, user complaints tend to indicate that it doesn’t work that great yet.
Things to consider before buying a reading pen
Price is always an important factor, after all there’s no point in considering any technology if it doesn’t fit your budget.
Reading pens generally range from around $100 to well into the thousands of dollars. Be aware, however, that generally speaking you get what you pay for. Well made devices that are accurate and have some tolerance for scanning mistakes can cost a bit more.
Weight and size
Reading pens for dyslexia can vary in size from sleek, modern looks to larger, more old school brick-like devices. Some, like the C-Pen, don’t weigh that much more than a couple AA batteries.
Before buying, make sure you read up on the weight and size of the device. Remember that reader pens should be held steadily and at a certain angle so as to be as accurate as possible and so size and weight can have a significant effect on how comfortable and easy to use they are to use.
As we noted earlier, reader pens can vary in their accuracy, partially due to the quality and tolerance to error of their OCR software. Reader pens and OCR scanners tend to do best with high contrast text, so they’re probably best if the majority of what your student will be working with are the usual, printed black texts on white paper.
If, for example, your child will be mainly reading off an e-reader, a tablet, a screen or (badly) photocopied or handwritten notes, a reader pen may not be the best option for you.
Stand Alone Devices vs Dependent Devices
If you’ve decided that you’re interested in buying a reader pen, one final thing you may want to consider is whether you want a stand alone or device dependent pen.
Stand Alone Reader Pens
Some reader pens, like the popular and well-deigned C-Pen Reader, are what we like to call stand alone devices. In other words they don’t necessarily require a computer or mobile device to work properly. They often have built-in screens and other hardware so they can scan, display, process and read text out loud all by themselves. That means it’s super portable and can be taken and used anywhere, all you need is the device in your pocket and something to read.
However, because of the extra hardware, stand alone reader pens can be a little more expensive and may not get as many new features with each update as less complex devices.
Device Dependent Reader Pens
As an alternative to a stand alone reader pen some devices, like the popular and affordable ScanMarker Air, are designed to work with a computer or mobile device for full usability.
These devices don’t usually have their own built-in screens, instead connect to and use a computer or mobile device through a company app to display text and make use of all their features.
Because they don’t need to squeeze in as much hardware, these devices can be less expensive to purchase and the apps can be more easily modified, changed and updated to provide new features.
The major downside to all that is that you’re tethered to some kind of device (even if it’s just your phone) and the apps developed by the companies can sometimes be hit or miss when it comes to ease of use.
Reader pens for dyslexia can be excellent assistive devices for students. Modern versions are sleeker, smaller and work better than ever, but for $100+ users should be aware of some of their limitations and should be ready and willing to get some practice with them to make sure they’re as useful as possible.
About the Author
David Belenky is a freelance writer, former science and math tutor and a tech enthusiast. When he’s not writing about educational tech, he likes to chill out with his family and dog at home.