“Playaways” cater to students with dyslexia

Jamie Crenshaw, left, and her son, Sean, are pictured at their home on Monday. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Before the Milton Elementary and Middle School library was stocked with Playaway audiobooks, Sean Crenshaw, now 14, wasn’t motivated to read. Now, he takes pride in the activity and anticipates what’s next in a story.

Last year, though, he stopped bringing the Playaways home, and his mom was curious why. Sean told her he’d listened to all that caught his interest, and there were hardly any others on the shelf due to high demand.

So, Jamie Crenshaw set out to fundraise for a larger selection. This month, the Colchester-Milton Rotary donated $1,200 for the Milton Town School District to purchase more.

“They help children not only learn to read but foster a love for reading, which they would not have if they had to read the book themselves,” Crenshaw said.

Sean and his brother are diagnosed with dyslexia, making it difficult for them read, process information and decode words. People, including teachers, often think dyslexia means someone mixes up letters, but Crenshaw said this is only one aspect.

The library first shelved Playaways when Sean was in sixth grade. Suddenly, he was addicted to the “Maze Runner” series, and the stress that usually clouded him while reading quickly faded.

With that came increased confidence. In class, Sean started answering content-related questions about book assignments. He said he learned his inability to understand the material prior wasn’t an intellectual deficit, but a symptom of his diagnosis. Audiobooks were the solution.

“I was shy in class when I didn’t read much, because I had no idea what was going on and was always scared of getting something wrong,” Sean said. “But when we got Playaways, I knew what was happening so I figured, ‘Why not try answering?’ And sure enough, one after another, I started getting answers correctly. And it really helped me emotionally.”

His teachers, he said, were both happy and shocked by his sudden participation.

“It was opening his eyes to something completely new,” his mom said, explaining why she started advocating for a more boisterous selection.

According to MEMS librarian Frances Binder, kids with disabilities — including visual impairment — benefit from the audiobooks. Plus, they’ll often read the print version while they listen, allowing them to better recognize words.

All students use the books, Binder said.

“I’m surprised there’s even three in here right now,” she said in the library last Thursday, pointing to an almost empty bookcase. “They just fly off the shelves. I cannot keep them in here.”

Binder said hearing a story is a different way to experience it: “Often, we get different things out of that book when we hear someone else read it,” she said.

Sean said Playaways are read more like an animated story than the monotone audiobooks he was used to in elementary school. The accompanying small mp3 player also slides easily into one’s pocket, making a simple transport. No wifi or CD is needed, which takes stories from classrooms and homes to buses and parks. 

Rotary president Kevin Endres of Milton said he’s thrilled the club could help with Crenshaw’s request, almost a year in the making.

“I just love giving stuff back to the town of Milton, and specifically the school district,” he said. “I taught here way back, and so my heart is here.”

Currently, the library has around 70 Playaways, Binder confirmed. With the new funds, around 20 more will be purchased in the coming month. Unsurprisingly, Sean has already put in a few recommendations.

Plus, Crenshaw isn’t stopping at 90. She wants to grow the collection even more, plus spread awareness about what it’s like to have dyslexia.

Since he discovered Playaways, Sean’s test scores on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium have increased, Crenshaw said. Milton’s below-average results on the exam are reason for her to advocate for all students, she added.

“I get excited that they’ll be able to fall in love with a story,” she said.