A revolutionary radio-frequency technology is changing the way some schools are teaching language-acquisition skills. Executives from the Emeryville, Calif.-based company that now owns the technology, LeapFrog, said it soon could be used to teach an entire range of subjects—from English as a Second Language and special education to science, math, and social studies.

LeapFrog has created a tool called the LeapPad, which uses interactive audio and phonemic awareness to teach younger children a variety of skills. Introduced into the consumer market in 1999, the LeapPad is a rugged, 2.5-pound device shaped something like a notebook binder, into which specially designed paper books are inserted.

The LeapPad comes equipped with an electronic “stylus pen” that students can wield to discover more information about the text of the LeapPad book they are reading. For instance, when a child touches the stylus pen to certain words on the book’s page, he or she can hear the words pronounced or hear an individual letter, a sound effect, a phonemic sound, a word definition, or other information.

This function is the result of cutting-edge radio frequency technology created by two researchers from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. The researchers created “conductive ink” that works in synthesis with the stylus pen, which essentially functions as a radio frequency antenna.

When the stylus pen/antenna is placed near a point on the book’s page, the exact location on the page is triangulated instantly. The stylus then sends that location back to the audio component of the LeapPad. Each book comes with a book-specific audio cartridge that interprets the signals sent from the stylus pen.

Each point on the page is correlated to a specific sound, so when students touch the pen to the word “cow,” they can hear the entire word pronounced, and when they touch only the letter “c,” they hear just that particular phoneme pronounced.

“It’s called ‘NearTouch’ technology,” said Kathryn Allen, vice president of sales and marketing for LeapFrog’s education division, LeapFrog SchoolHouse. “What that means is that what you touch is what you get. Older technology that relies on switches would not allow you to move quickly. Once you flip a switch, that action cannot be interrupted—but this can be interrupted.

“Basically, this technology replicates finger-pointing,” she added. “It’s so simple, intuitive, and cognitive that people wonder why we haven’t had this until now.”

Allen believes the NearTouch technology used by the LeapPad can one day be used for teaching non-English speaking children—or adults—to speak English. And that is just one example of the many conceivable uses for the technology, which LeapFrog purchased from the MIT researchers.

“A book on tape may have an audio-learning element, but it does not create the power of kinesthetic touch that this technology does,” she said.

‘Leap into Literacy’

Originally marketed exclusively to the consumer audience, LeapPad now is sold to schools as part of the company’s Leap into Literacy package.

“It’s been very well accepted by education. Right now, we have LeapPads in 1,500 classrooms, and it has only been shipping to schools for a little over six months,” said Bob Lally, president of LeapFrog SchoolHouse.

The company has added several educational changes to the consumer version, such as an alternating current adapter (the consumer product runs on batteries), specific content directed at learning, and sturdy headphones.

“The headphones are … so that the audio portion of the LeapPad will not be intrusive in the classroom,” said Caryl Hughan, director of marketing for LeapFrog SchoolHouse.

The Leap into Literacy package is focused on teaching phonics to schoolchildren in kindergarten through second grade. It contains a teacher’s manual, a tape or CD of corresponding music, and the LeapPad device, complete with three LeapPad books.

The Leap into Literacy package also comes with a LeapMat, a 3-foot by 2-foot interactive play-mat printed with the letters of the alphabet, and a LeapDesk, a tool that looks something like a keyboard with large numbers and letters in place of keys. According to the company, LeapDesk offers an adaptive teaching mode that creates a reading lesson for the student based on his or her individual skill level.

“The program is aligned for all K-2 state standards for phonemic awareness,” Lally said. The entire Leap into Literacy package, without a printer, currently sells to school districts for $695.

Reaction among educators has been favorable so far. “We’re just enchanted with it. The phonemic awareness is a great benefit for this group,” said Linda Hodges, a kindergarten teacher at Kostoryz Elementary School in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her school district received the Leap into Literacy program through a state grant.

“Each day, we allow kids free time in which they can go and sit at the Leap into Literacy Center until they have finished the story. It usually takes about 10 or 15 minutes, and each child uses it about twice a week,” she added.

The product currently offers a library of 12 decodable texts with titles such as “Casey Has a Hat” for teaching the short “a” sound and “The Fix-It Kid” for short “i.”

Thirteen more books for education will be released by the end of the year, Lally said. He estimates that each additional LeapPad book a school purchases will cost between $10 and $16, roughly comparable to the cost of a regular book.

Other applications

At this stage, LeapFrog SchoolHouse is focusing primarily on reading fluency, but Hughan said the company hopes to expand into English as a Second Language and special education applications soon, as well as across the curriculum to science, math, and social studies and to older students, too.

The NearTouch technology could be good for special education, she said, because special education students tend to learn differently, and the headphones could allow them to concentrate on the material without any outside stimulus. Hughan also said LeapFrog SchoolHouse eventually plans to use the technology to teach Spanish or other foreign languages, but not within any set time frame.

“We would consider partnering with other organizations to provide different content, and we have been approached about that,” she said. “When we find the right partner, we will move ahead.”

LeapFrog SchoolHouse