Assistive technology basics

How Does Optical Character Recognition Help Kids With Reading Issues?

By Joy Smiley Zabala

My daughter has dyslexia, and we’re looking for any and all tools that can help! What is optical character recognition, and how can it be used to help kids with reading issues?

Joy Smiley Zabala

Director of Technical Assistance at CAST and the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials for Learning

Optical character recognition (OCR) plays an important role in transforming printed materials into digital text files. These digital files can be very helpful to kids and adults who have trouble reading. That’s because digital text can be used with software programs that support reading in a variety of ways.

OCR was first introduced in the 1990s. Fast-forward to today, and you’ll find OCR built into the software of many programs and devices, including some computers, tablets, phones and printers. Many of these devices can automatically convert a scanned or photographed document into digital text.

But before we dig deeper into OCR, let’s talk a bit more about digital text.

Digital text is one of several formats that make printed information accessible to more people. (Other formats include audio, large print and Braille.) Digital text is especially helpful for struggling readers, including those who have learning issues such as dyslexia. The digital format makes it possible for readers to see words on a screen and hear them read aloud at the same time. This provides more ways to engage with the information. It can also help kids develop independent reading skills.

What’s the connection between something printed on paper, digital text and OCR? One way to convert printed material to digital material is by using a scanner. The scanner creates a photo of the printed material. This photo, often called an image, can be displayed on a device that has a screen.

But scanning is only the first step. The photo on its own won’t enable software programs to highlight words or add other options that can assist your daughter with reading. This is where OCR comes in.

OCR “looks” at the photo (this is why its name begins with “optical”) and recognizes the shapes of the different letters, numbers and other characters. It uses character recognition to convert the photo of the document into a text file. In many cases, the digital version will maintain the “look and feel” of the original.

OCR makes it possible to make changes to the digital text. What can be done with the digital text depends on which reading software you’re using. Common options include:

  • Highlighting words, sentences or paragraphs
  • Speaking words aloud using text-to-speech
  • Changing the colors and the size of text
  • Placing digital “bookmarks” that enable users to move around within the text (such as moving directly from the Table of Contents to Chapter Four)

In essence, OCR lets you make changes to the scanned document and maneuver from place to place within it—just as you can with any text document on your computer.

Let’s say your daughter has a homework sheet that she’s struggling to read. You could scan and transform the homework sheet into digital text. You can learn how to do this by watching tutorials on YouTube. (Enter the term “optical character recognition” in the search box.) Once you convert the sheet into a digital file, she can use the tools on her computer to assist her with reading it.

But before she dives in, there’s one more thing you need to do. Closely review the entire document and correct any errors that the OCR software might have made. This can take a lot of time and effort if you’re scanning a long document. But it’s an important step in the process. Without such a review, the digital file may not be all that useful to your child.

It’s also a good idea to see if someone else has already created a digital version. For example, Bookshare and Learning Ally have large libraries of books and other materials that have been transformed into digital text and/or audio formats. These texts are “cleaned up” and ready to use.

Ask your child’s school or local library about accessible formats, too. By checking with these organizations first, the time you save on scanning and reviewing documents could free you up to spend more time helping your daughter in other important ways.

Onward and upward toward stress-free, independent reading for your daughter!

About the Author

Portrait of Joy Zabala

Joy Smiley Zabala

Joy Smiley Zabala, Ed.D., is the director of technical assistance at CAST and the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials for Learning.

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