Access to Grade Level Text: Screening students for read aloud accommodations at scale

By Denise DeCoste and Mary Jo Barry

Teacher points to something in a notebook helping student at desk

“Even with 35 Years of Experience, We Could Not Reliably Estimate Which Students Could Benefit from a Reading Accommodation” ~Denise DeCoste

In 2012, the Protocol for Accommodations in Reading (PAR) was developed as a printed manual.  But the process was developed years prior to this, through the efforts of two assistive technology (AT) specialists with more than 35 combined years of experience.  We developed PAR for one reason:  Despite our many years of working with students with reading disabilities, we could not reliably estimate which students would truly benefit from reading accommodations.


uPAR is a game changer. It allows us to shift to a more capacity-building model of AT consideration. It helps to build the capacity of classroom educators by giving them an easy-to-use process to screen the potential of more students in one sitting and to evaluate the effectiveness of TTS (text-to-speech) as well as PHA (pre-recorded human audio).  It lessens the need to economize and prioritize those students for whom PAR was administered one-on-one.  As AT specialists, we value AT equity. uPAR allows educators to screen the full range of students who are delayed in reading to determine the benefit of reading tools. It targets students with dyslexia, but does not limit its use for the broad range of students reading below grade level.


The most important difference between the two is one of scale. With PAR you can examine reading accommodations for one student at a time. PAR will be useful then to make instructional decisions about a particular student. With uPAR, the information gathered may be less nuanced, since PAR gives you an opportunity to observe a single student.  However, this is balanced by uPAR’s ability to make instructional decisions for a classroom or a large group of students.   Moreover, group data has more of an impact on implementation decisions for reading tools across a school or district.  There is power in group data to help principals and stakeholders see the broad-range benefit of reading tools.


While uPAR will suggest some student-specific action items, its most powerful function is increasing access to complex text for all students. Consider how your school can use the uPAR discussion as a starting point for removing the barriers that decoding and fluency impose on the volume and quality of reading accessible to struggling readers. When teachers provide students with digital text and TTS, they have the freedom to move students from their leveled reading groups and teach to their interests. This allows them to engage students on grade-level standards. In one elementary school that replaced leveled reading groups with literature circles in which all students read the same motivating grade-level text (i.e., some students accessing the grade-level text using TTS), independent reading scores that had remained flat for years increased by ten percentage points (Wilson & Ellis, 2019).


Using a UDL framework instead of an individualized approach has several benefits. Providing access to digital text for all students instead of an accommodation-only approach for some will save time in the classrooms, as you won’t need to make specific provisions student by student. It reduces stigma for students who require accommodations, while at the same time benefiting some students who were not identified as needing them, but who might find them useful in certain situations.


A UDL approach will necessitate:

  • Revising classroom routines to allow students to choose when and whether they read digitally or on paper.
  • Teacher modeling of common reading strategies such as highlighting vocabulary, extracting evidence from text, and making notations using the same digital tools that students have available.
  • Making sure students have access to needed trade books in audio and eBook formats.

If you would like to try the free paper version of PAR for one-on-one implementation now, Download the PAR PDF Here.


If you’d like more in depth research from the creators of PAR and uPAR read the expanded article.

As previously mentioned, Protocol for Accommodations in Reading (PAR) was developed as a printed manual because we felt we could not reliably estimate which students would truly benefit from reading accommodations. Our experience was supported by who surveyed teachers, asking them to predict which students would benefit most from reading accommodations. They found that accommodations coincided with actual student performance only half the time. Our experience was similar. As AT specialists, we would spend many hours in SETT meetings and setting up a four-to six-week trial period, only to find out that TTS often was not the best fit.  Assessing the effectiveness of most AT devices, we could see a direct correlation between the device and performance (e.g., switch assessment, picture symbol understanding, basic augmentative communication assessment), but with TTS, we were guesstimating.

“We could kind of guesstimate that, I think Gavin could read at grade level or a little bit above, but uPAR was able to show us that. Yes, your guesstimation was right, but guess what? Gavin could also read up to sophomore level in high school and comprehend that text too.


~Kristin Smith, AT Facilitator

After many iterations in the development of PAR, we arrived at a 3-step process using leveled text and comprehension questions: 1) Establish a comparison by having the student read aloud at his or her documented independent reading level, 2) use TTS with leveled reading passages at the student’s grade level, 3) use an adult read-aloud with reading passages at the student’s grade level.  Based on the comprehension scores in steps 2 and 3, the administrator could then adjust the leveled passages up or down by grade level to determine which accommodation resulted in the best comprehension scores at a given grade level of readability. And it worked.  PAR increased the likelihood that trial periods would result in improved reading comprehension.  Using PAR, we essentially previewed the student’s current potential for reading accommodations and then set up a trial period to confirm the results.

Teacher in front of class

In the spirit of collaboration, we wanted to share this screening tool with other AT practitioners, so we presented the process at national conferences.  To make PAR more widely available, we contacted Don Johnston and they created leveled reading passages and formatted the process to make it available and free. While PAR solved a critical process (data-driven decision making) there were additional challenges:

  • No time to train staff
  • Length of time for individual student evaluation
  • Inability to reach all students with reading difficulties
  • Lack of capacity at a building level
  • Dependency on district AT staff


Don Johnston saw the potential for an improved tool—an online screening tool that could be used by classroom educators in a group setting.  They worked to test those ideas with their many school district clients, and ultimately invested in the design and development of the updated version, the Universal Protocol for Accommodations in Reading, now called uPAR.


PAR and uPAR are not equivalent.  PAR is administered one student at a time. It compares TTS to an adult reading passages aloud, whereas uPAR compares TTS to prerecorded human audio (PHA). As an AT team, our experience informed us that adult-read-to accommodations did not lead to independent reading solutions.  By using TTS and PHA administered in a group setting, uPAR provided an efficient way to look at and compare two read-aloud tools that have the ability to increase reading independence. That is not to say that PAR has no role in assessing reading accommodations.  Rather, PAR can be used to explore additional reading conditions (e.g., re-readings for students with processing issues or memory issues, silent reading at targeted grade levels, progress monitoring, etc.).  A comparison of the two screening tools will be discussed further in the next section.

uPAR Advances AT Equity

uPAR is a game-changer. It allows us to shift from an antiquated expert model, to a capacity-building model of AT consideration.


Here’s an easy formula to use to see if you are able to scale AT in your setting:

Enter # Students with IEPs not achieving proficiency goals _____________________

Enter # of AT Evaluations Your Team Can Complete in 1 Year ___________________

Your Capacity-building Score:______________


Imagine what would be possible if you could consider all of the students who might benefit at once, even the ones who may never get identified—you’re not only building capacity, you’re eliminating the failure first model.

uPAR Enables You to Shift Your Model

It helps to build the capacity of classroom educators by giving them an easy-to-use process to screen the potential of more students in one sitting and to evaluate the effectiveness of TTS as well as PHA.  It lessens the need to economize and prioritize those students for whom PAR was administered one-on-one.  As AT specialists, we value AT equity. uPAR allows educators to screen the full range of students who are delayed in reading to determine the benefit of reading tools. It targets students with dyslexia, but does not limit its use for the broad range of students reading below grade level.

PAR or uPAR are first steps in the process of identifying which read-aloud tool works for struggling reader(s).  Once the PAR/uPAR data has been examined and discussed with the student(s), plans to incorporate TTS or PHA into the classroom is paramount. Implementation strategies will be discussed later in this article.

Read-Aloud Research and School Reporting

Research on read-aloud strategies (e.g., adults reading books aloud , books-on-tape, TTS) can be found as far back as the 1970s. There is a body of research that examines “reading-while-listening” (RWL).  LaBerge & Samuels (1974) and Laitusis (2010) found that students spend fewer cognitive resources on decoding and more resources on understanding the content when listening to text. Human audio-taped books increased access to print and resulted in reading gains for elementary students reading below grade level (Schneeberg & Mattelman, 1973; Carbo, 1978). Rasinski (1990) determined that repeated readings combined with RWL increased 3rd grade students’ reading speed and accuracy.  Shany and Biemiller (1995) found improved reading rates and comprehension in 3rd and 4th grade students who were poor readers, resulting in doubling the amount of material read. O’Day (2002) also documented increases in word recognition, comprehension and vocabulary in 5th grade students through the use of audio books.  And studies as far back as the 1990s have shown that TTS led to improvement in word identification in students with reading disabilities (Olsen and Wise, 1992; Van Daal and Reitsma, 1993).


There is also more recent research dispelling the myth that reading tools such as TTS are a crutch. Stodden, Roberts, Takahashi, Park and Stodden (2012, 2013) conducted two pilot studies with secondary students with reading difficulties.  Using text-to-speech for around 30 minutes per week resulted in significant improvements, likely due to exposure to text and vocabulary learning. Woods, Moxley, Tighe, and Wagner (2017) conducted a meta-analysis of read-aloud software.  Their analysis suggests that TTS tools may “assist” reading comprehension.  Generally, the research presented elevates the role of read-aloud tools for struggling readers as more than just an accommodation tool.  It suggests that these tools appear to have remedial potential as well.


Many schools using uPAR have shared remarkable stories of unexpected potential and changing mindsets. Teachers reported that they had significantly underestimated the level of reading comprehension that poor readers could achieve with the help of reading tools.  They also related that uPAR led to changed practices, allowing struggling readers to go beyond reading only independent leveled text to engage in grade level reading discussions.  More importantly, teachers reported that students were realized that they were capable of comprehending much more, which in turn motivated them to read more.  The bottom line is, when students read more, it improves their ability to process printed text, it increases their reading vocabulary, and they recognize words with more speed, thereby increasing reading fluency.

You Can Cast a Wider Net

These outcomes, together with the research cited, have resulted in a paradigm shift. We no longer view reading accommodations as tools of last resort for students with significant reading delays.  We no longer view reading tools such as TTS and PHA as only accommodations. They are part of a suite of read-aloud tools for learners struggling to decode and comprehend text in the context of the classroom.  And there is no longer a reason to limit this type of screening to a one-student-at-a time approach when there are many students “waiting in the wings” who need access to text.

Comparing PAR and uPAR—There’s a Place for Both

PAR and uPAR Share Some Features:

  • Both use the same leveled passages.
  • Both are designed to directly compare a student’s comprehension under two (or more) reading accommodations with reading independently.
  • Both take about 45 minutes to administer.

Direct Comparison Chart

paper online
1:1 administration group administration
human reader condition human recorded audio condition
TTS using your available text to speech tool TTS simulated in the online protocol (but you can also use your own tool)
open-ended questions orally administered multiple choice questions scored online
teacher decides which levels and conditions to provide online protocol automatically increases and decreases reading level for two conditions: TTS and PHA
few passages at the 1st grade level robust number of passages to assess as early as possible

PAR was developed to build the capacity of teachers to make individualized decisions about reading accommodations. It remains a useful tool for examining the range of student reading needs because there is a wealth of observational data that can be collected during administration. In addition, the teacher is free to try different reading conditions such as chunking of text, extra prompts for attention, different presentations of the text or font, and so forth. PAR can be used as a supplemental screening tool when more information is needed. uPAR is a more efficient tool for schools because it requires far less time to identify those students who may benefit from reading tools.


uPAR was developed to build the capacity of schools and districts to collect actionable data to support decision-making regarding reading accommodations and the tools needed to implement them. By administering uPAR to struggling readers in a classroom, grade, school, or district, you can quickly obtain data to justify the need for a common tool school-wide, gain buy-in from students who are resisting the use of needed accommodations, and communicate with parents about strategies.

Infographic of teachers and students smile around data that says 78% 7 of 9 Benefit from Accomodation


Early Implementation Efforts

We developed PAR in response to the observation that reading accommodations were inconsistently provided for students who need them. Often, accommodations were provided for testing, but not in the classroom. Our first conclusion was that TTS was underused in the classroom because teachers did not have ready access to digital text or the devices needed to use TTS. Our training focused on provisioning tools for TTS use in the classroom. Several years later when the district provided the curriculum in a digital format and rolled out a 1:1 Chromebook program, use of TTS did not increase significantly in classrooms.


Teachers were resisting its use for other reasons. An examination of underlying beliefs revealed concerns about cheating or that using accommodations would hinder a student’s progress in reading. This may be because they do not have the technology or digital materials readily available. However, even with the tools and resources, some teachers worry that using TTS is a “crutch.” Some districts have strict eligibility criteria for using TTS during high-stakes testing. Teachers and administrators may extend these criteria to the classroom. Even schools that have adopted a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) perspective in other areas of instruction may remain cautious about giving students the option of using TTS.


PAR proved to be effective for examining a student’s individual profile. Using PAR led to a more individualized approach in determining effective strategies for both teaching and testing. PAR provided actionable data for teachers, parents, and, most importantly, students. We saw improvement in student outcomes through the use of PAR. However, these achievements benefited only the student in question.  It did not bring about a significant change in overall classroom practices.

Implementation with a UDL Perspective using uPAR

It wasn’t until we began using uPAR that we were able to see an impact on the underlying beliefs that would change practices across a classroom, grade, or school. uPAR captures data across a group of students that can be analyzed in conjunction with other data. We encourage general and special educators to discuss classroom data together. We use data from uPAR in combination with research showing that regular use of TTS within the context of classroom reading materials can have a positive impact on reading comprehension tests even when the reading accommodation is removed. The uPAR data identifies students who would benefit from a reading accommodation who were not considered for one. It can also show that TTS alone is not sufficient for some students who are struggling with access to grade level reading materials. Viewing this group data alongside other achievement data highlights the need to implement multiple strategies in the classroom at the same time. This is less overwhelming with a UDL perspective that encourages flexible classroom design and student choice.

Implementation Steps That Will Benefit a Broader Array of Learners

Step 1—Prepare to Administer uPAR

Using existing data sources, identify students who are reading below benchmark. Use the school’s existing priorities to determine the data sources and discrepancies in performance that will constitute below-benchmark achievement.


Prepare the uPAR session in You might want to prepare a different session for each grade level to make it easier to review the data with the teachers later. You can set up your sessions this way even if you plan to have the students work in mixed groups. There is no need for all the students in a particular session to start and end at the same time.

Step 2—Conduct uPAR

Prepare the students by telling them they will be spending about 45 minutes comparing which reading method works best for them. Be sure to emphasize that this is not a reading test, but more like a science experiment. They will read three different ways and compare how well they answer comprehension questions. While they are working, they should think about which reading modality feels most comfortable for them. They will have the opportunity to see if their predictions matched the results.


Students will need an Internet browser and headphones. Monitor them as they get started to ensure that they have completed the headphone check and are scrolling when necessary to find the next button. During the protocol, watch for undue frustration, or students clicking through the answers without reading or listening to the questions. Take notes about their engagement and changes in demeanor when the protocol switches from one condition to another.


Monitor their progress on Educator Dashboard. This will allow you to decide whether you want to show the student the results immediately upon finishing or wait until a more appropriate time. This depends on the student and someone who knows them will be in the best position to judge. We see many students’ faces light up with pride when they see their results, so don’t miss this opportunity to provide them with this positive feedback right away when you can.

Step 3—Discuss Your Results and Create a Universally Designed Plan

We find that it is best to allow staff the opportunity to discuss the results in a group so that they can compare perspectives and consider changes to classroom practice how to implement them at school. Where the PAR or uPAR results indicate a need for changes on an IEP, 504, or EL plan, these changes should be discussed individually with the individualized team and implemented accordingly.

Step 4—Enlist Other Stakeholders to Promote Change in Practice and Policy

If changes are needed in district policies to make all of this possible, remember that these changes will not likely be initiated by those in charge of technology, assessment policies, school libraries or professional learning. They will be generated by a needs assessment of teachers and school administrators responsible for student achievement. They will more likely be tied to changes in reading achievement at the school level.  uPAR provides the evidence needed to promote changes in practice and policy regarding the use of reading accommodations.

Step 5—Onboard Teachers and Students

Your plan should include next-level actions that focus on teacher and student buy-in and rollout:

  • Do a data walk with teachers, review the process used and student data results.
  • Work with the team to identify digital materials and how to disseminate them in a timely manner.
  • Identify reading accommodations needs and plan for TTS tools.
  • Set expectations of implementation of TTS for students who can benefit.
  • Train teachers on TTS tools and how to build routines using digital text and tools.
  • Review data with specific students to build student identity.
  • Train the students who benefit from reading accommodations on TTS tools.


  • Carbo, M. (1978). Teaching reading with talking books. The Reading Teacher, 32, 267-273.
  • Helwig, R., & Tindal, G. (2003).  An experimental analysis of accommodation decisions on large-scale mathematics tests.  Exceptional Children, 69(2), 211-225.
  • LaBerge, D., & Samuels, S.J. (1974). Toward a theory of automatic information processing in reading. Cognitive Psychology, 6, 293-323.
  • Laitusis, C. C. (2010).  Examining the impact of audio presentation on tests of reading comprehension.  Applied Measurement in Education23(2), 153-167.
  • O’Day, P. S. (2002). Reading While Listening: Increasing Access to Print Through the Use of Audio Books. Dissertation, UMI # 3077353.
  • Olson, R. K., & Wise, B. W. (1992). Reading on the computer with orthographic and speech feedback: An overview of the Colorado remediation project. Reading and Writing, 4(2), 107-144.
  • Park, H. J., Roberts, K. D., Takahashi, K., Stodden, R. (2013). Using Kurzweil 3000 as a reading Intervention for high school struggling readers: Results of a research study. Journal of Technology and Persons with Disabilities, 1(23), p.105.
  • Rasinski, T. V. (1990). Effects of repeated reading and listening while reading on reading fluency. Journal of Educational Research, 3, 147-150.
  • Schneeburg, H. E., & Mattleman, M. S., (1973). The listen-read project: Motivating students through dual modalities. Elementary English, 50, 900-904.
  • Shany, M. T., & Biemiller, A. (1995). Assisted reading practice: Effects on performance for poor readers in grades 3 and 4. Reading Research Quarterly, 30(3). 382-395.
  • *Stodden, R. A., Roberts, K. D., Takahashi, K., Park, H. J., & Stodden, N. J. (2017).  Use of text-to-speech software to improve reading skills of high school struggling readers. Procedia Computer Science, 14, 359-362.
  • van Daal, V. H. P., & Reitsma, P. (1993). The use of speech feedback by normal and disabled readers in computer-based reading practice. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 5(3), 243-259.
  • *Wood, S. G., Moxley, J. H., Tighe, E. L., & Wagner, R. K. (2012). Does use of text-to-speech and related read-aloud tools improve reading comprehension for students with reading disabilities? A meta-analysis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1-12.
  • *Wilson, L. B., & Ellis, E. (2019, January). How Access to Complex Text Improved Elementary Reading Scores. Presentation conducted at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA), Orlando, FL.