Can technology-based interventions help children with reading difficulties?

Can technology-based interventions help children with reading difficulties?


In several studies, technology-based reading programs have showed a positive effect for a variety of students with different needs and skills, and some technology-based reading interventions have had positive effects for some struggling readers (e.g. Cheung and Slavin, 2013). 

But there are hundreds of reading apps, computer programs, and other technology-based supports on the market. Many feature slick websites and other marketing materials. Some make all sorts of outlandish claims about outcomes without even a hint of supporting evidence. Some are completely incompatible with the science of reading. 

So how should we evaluate reading apps? 

The same way we look at any other reading intervention or program. We should choose apps and other technologies that are: 

We should also look for apps and other technologies that: 

What is the goal of the technology: compensation for reading difficulties or improving reading skills? 

Technology interventions for reading difficulties come in all shapes and sizes. Many teachers and others focus on simple measures that help students compensate for their reading difficulties with text-to-speech tools, audiobooks, and video resources like YouTube. 

The focus of this article is on apps and other technologies that help students to improve their reading skills. Of course, no app works for everyone and a given app’s suitability for a particular student depends on the factors that are contributing to the student’s reading difficulties

Apps that are worth a look 

All of the apps and other technologies cited below are supported by at least some peer-reviewed, published research. Most are cited in a review of the scientific literature from 2010 to 2020 carried out by Saaed S.Alqahtani, and published in 2020 (see citation below). The quality of the study designs and the reported outcomes vary significantly from study to study, and it’s best to approach any app review with scepticism and caution. 

As you would expect (or at least hope), many evidence-based apps contain similar activities and elements to those contained in evidence-based face-to-face interventions. Apps and face-to-face interventions are not mutually exclusive. Many of the apps, for example, might be useful to add to face-to-face reading interventions, for example, as a way of adding variety to reading sessions, or as a way to provide additional practice between face-to-face reading sessions.

Technologies evolve quickly. It’s our intention to update this article at least annually. If you know of an evidence-based reading app or other technology that is not referred to below, please get in touch!  

(A) Phonemic Awareness 

  • Reading Doctor has been shown to improve pre-schoolers’ phoneme blending, phoneme segmentation, and letter-sound recognition, as well as phoneme-grapheme conversion (Carson, 2020). Developed by an Australian speech pathologist, Dr Bartek Rajkowski, this collection of apps is very popular with many of my clients, especially for home practice of letter-sounds links, and early blending and segmenting tasks related to reading outcomes. 
  • Word Driver-1 has been shown to significantly improve nonword reading (e.g. Seiler et al., 2019). 
  • Lexia Reading Core5 has been shown to improve students’ phonological awareness and nonword reading (O’Callaghan et al., 2016).
  • Sound it Out has been shown to significantly increase early decoding accuracy (Donnelly et al., 2019). 

(B) Phonics 

  • GraphoGame has been shown to increase letter knowledge, reading accuracy, reading fluency, and spelling (e.g. Saine et al., 2011; Rosas et al., 2017). 
  • Tutoring Buddy has been shown to improve letter sound knowledge and fluency (e.g. Volpe et al., 2011). 

(C) Reading fluency 

  • Several Reading RACES studies have showed “a functional relation between computerised intervention and participants’ gains in fluency and comprehension” (e.g. Council et al., 2016, 2019; Bennett et al., 2017; Barber et al., 2019). 
  • Read Naturally Software has been shown to lead to “positive results for reading fluency and comprehension” (Gibson, 2011, 2014; and Keyes et al., 2016, 2017). 
  • K12 Timed Reading Practice has been shown to lead to improved oral reading fluency when combined with peer assisted instruction (Mize et al., 2019). 
  • Reading Plus has been shown to increase reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension on one test, but not another (Ruetzel et al., 2012). 

(D) Comprehension 

  • Kidspiration, an electronic graphic organising program, has been shown to improve reading comprehension (e.g. Wade et al., 2010). This app is very simple, and digitises well-known “pen and paper” strategies for helping children to learn sequencing, story grammar and other text structures, and note-taking through mind mapping and graphic organisers. 
  • Quick Reads – the software version of an intervention targeting fluency, vocabulary and comprehension, was as effective as the pen and paper version (Fenty et al., 2015). 

Watch this space! 

We know that many of our clients, including many people with developmental language disorder, dyslexia and Autism Spectrum Disorder are naturally more attracted to screens than to books. We also know that apps and other technologies have the potential to scale so that more people – including people who cannot for economic, geographical, or other reasons access quality reading interventions – can get help. 

When done well, technologies like apps and software can make reading instruction more fun, accessible and motivating for many people with reading difficulties. But we must ensure that the technologies we use with students with reading disorders are supported by evidence and consistent with what we know works. 

Universal literacy is a global education, health, and human rights priority. For people with reading difficulties, we can’t waste time on things that don’t work – even if they come in fancy packaging and were created with the best of intentions. 

Principal source: Alqahtani, S.S. (2020). Technology-based interventions for children with reading difficulties: a literature review from 2010 to 2020. Education Tech Research Dev (2020) 68:3495-3525.  

Key source for review of the Reading Doctor apps (not covered in the Alqahtani review): Carson, K.L. (2020) Can an app a day keep illiteracy away? Piloting the efficacy of Reading Doctor apps for preschoolers with developmental language disorder, International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 22​:4, 454-465, DOI: 10.1080/17549507.2019.1667438. 

Special note: We wrote this article in response to several requests from clients and their families about reading apps with an evidence-base. It is for informational purposes only and is likely to get out of date pretty quickly. We don’t recommend or endorse any particular app. We make no claims that this article is up to date or comprehensive. For the avoidance of doubt, we have no relationships – financial or otherwise – with any maker of an app or other technology cited above.

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Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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