When Dr. Maria Cleary couldn’t find appropriate reading materials for her learning disabled daughter, Dr. Cleary did what any mother would do: She created an app for that!
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a former school superintendent and parent of a developmentally disabled daughter who’s now 26. When Desi was in middle school, she basically stopped reading. She was too old for picture books, but age-appropriate books were not illustrated. Their vocabulary and sentence structure were also beyond her capacity. When we encouraged her to try a book, she’d say, “Reading makes my brain hurt.”
Not willing to abandon the cause of reading, I looked for new material and found that there was literally nothing on the market that suited her needs. Hi-lo books (high interest, low-reading level) were a good idea, but had few illustrations, if any. Graphic novels with multiple panels to follow were very confusing for her.
And so I created Tiplitt.
Tiplitt is a digital reading resource for teen and young adult challenged readers; however, it can also serve adults who struggle with literacy, including ESL learners. It is illustrated, animated, interactive, and age-appropriate. It includes gaming questions to check for understanding and to encourage critical thinking about the story. Tiplitt is intuitive and requires only basic computer skills, with no teacher training required to utilize it with students. It can also be used independently at home.
Why did you decide to start Tiplitt?
I wasn’t the only one worried about reading for this age group. All around me, parents and teachers of disabled learners echoed the same concerns and frustrations about the lack of resources on the market.
Tiplitt’s intended outcomes are to increase motivation to read and reading frequency. If this happens, neural connections in the brain can be strengthened, comprehension can improve and reading can be much more satisfying.
This is critical because right now, 35% of learning disabled students drop out of high school and 54% go on to be unemployed. Reading has everything to do with those statistics.
So I knew this was important.
How are the reading needs of older students with disabilities unique?
Older, learning disabled readers need some extras for their reading material to be engaging and understandable: pictures, multi-sensory elements, interactivity, and digital content. Many learning disabled students have difficulty creating “mind pictures” and thinking in the abstract. Illustrations help significantly in that area. Sound and animation add layers of meaning to text. Interactivity increases reading motivation and engagement. And digital products have become increasingly popular with disabled students over the past number of years.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered with developing a new product for young people with disabilities?
To create a good product, you need a team with many talents. As an educator, I am fortunate to know a number of reading and special education experts who have provided invaluable input. However, a digital product requires technical expertise. This comes at a high price but is absolutely essential because, above all things, your product has to work well and consistently. Faulty technology can be the death knell of any product. So funding is the biggest challenge.
A number of my Ed Tech colleagues have expressed frustration about getting their products into school districts. As a former school administrator, I understand that difficulty, as well as the reasons for it. That is why I feel Tiplitt will be best marketed directly to consumers, including parents like me. If their children like it, the word will get to schools quickly.
What has been the response so far to Tiplitt?
When I first developed the beta product, I brought it informally into my daughter’s special education school. Student feedback was exceptionally positive, including comments like, “Are there any more books? Where can we get them?” “I remember someone treated me the same way as the boy in the story,” and “I thought it was fun to do the questions.” In addition, all students responded with vocal enthusiasm when they viewed their total number of points at the end of the story and felt pride at their ability to accumulate them. For these students, it was a reward for a job well done.
The Tiplitt beta version has also been on the website www.tiplitt.com and has invited user feedback, all of which has also been encouraging and helpful. The best formal feedback I have received is through the results of a study conducted this past year.
What does the research say about Tiplitt?
Although all the components of Tiplitt were research based, we now have our own study to support it. It was conducted in three school districts in NJ, all varied socio-economically. Eighty-eight special education students, ages 11-21, read the Tiplitt chapter and answered a twelve-question survey.
The results were amazingly positive. Since the main goals of Tiplitt were in the areas of comprehension and engagement, those questions were most critical in determining its success. An overwhelming 86% of respondents understood the story, 85% remembered the story and 76% found it interesting. The remainder of the answers pointed with equal emphasis to the effectiveness of Tiplitt in achieving its goals.
What does your daughter think of Tiplitt?
The first person with whom I shared Tiplitt was my daughter – and she loved it – even though I am her mother!!!
How do you define success for a product like Tiplitt?
My goal for Tiplitt has always been simply stated: I would like learning disabled teens and young adults to have a chance to enjoy a good book.
If I can create a few books (even a small library!) and make them available to challenged readers, I will feel I’ve reached a goal. If they enjoy the books and want to read more, then that is real success!
What future plans do you have for Tiplitt?
Right now, I am hoping that the study results will impress potential investors to help bring Tiplitt to fruition. I am also looking for a partner in this endeavor whose talents can complement what I am currently bringing to the table.
I’d also like to share the results of the study and what I’ve learned about learning disabled young people. The implications for teaching as well as parenting are important and I believe they’d be helpful to anyone interacting with this target group.
Mostly, my future plans are to continue working to address the needs of people like my daughter. Instead of books that “make her brain hurt,” I’d like to create books that bring her joy. The world of the disabled adult can be an isolated one. Reading has limitless potential to open it up to new and exciting possibilities!