Speech recognition, mobile apps help build reading skills




DORA is an online tool being used to help improve reading that offers individualized and differentiated assessments.
DORA is an online tool that offers individualized and differentiated assessments to help improve reading.


Students’ scores on a national reading assessment have remained relatively flat for nearly 40 years, with students ages 9-17 scoring an average of 255 points on a scale of 0 to 500. As educators work hard to bring that average up, many are excited about the potential for new technologies to help.

Some schools, for example, are using tools such as speech recognition technology to give students a personal reading coach inside the classroom. Others are taking advantage of mobile technology to help students build the skills they need for reading fluency in their spare time, wherever they might be, by downloading audio books or applications to their mobile phones or mp3 players.

“Technology changes the whole game,” said Matt Walker, vice president of sales and marketing for Recorded Books, a company that provides audio books and other products for schools.

Meanwhile, there is new research to suggest that this approach can be successful: A PBS study found that mobile applications can help increase students’ vocabulary. That could be welcome news for educators who have seen students’ reading scores remain largely flat in national exams.

Long-term trend results in reading from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are available on the National Center for Educational Statistics web site for 12 assessment years, going back to the first in 1971.

The average reading score for 9-year-olds was 220 points in 2008, increasing 4 points since 2004 and 12 points in comparison to 1971. While the average score for 13-year-olds in 2008 was higher than in both 2004 and 1971, it was not significantly different from the scores in some assessment years in between, at 260 points. The average reading score for 17-year-olds was higher in 2008 (286 points) than in 2004 (283 points) but was not significantly different from the score of 285 points in 1971.

Scientific Learning Corp.’s Reading Assistant software aims to change that. The program is a guided oral reading tool that is used to build fluency. The software uses speech verification technology to monitor for signs of difficulty in reading—which include hesitations, silence, mispronunciations, and other cues—and provides assistance when students stumble or get stuck.

“Reading Assistant was developed with the idea of bringing additional reading tutors to students through computers,” said Maura Deptula, projects manager for Scientific Learning. “The computer can listen to students the way a teacher can and prompt the student when he or she gets stuck.”

The software automatically calculates a student’s fluency rate, and there is a direct correlation between fluency and comprehension, said Liz Kline, product manager for Reading Assistant. The software not only helps teachers identify problem areas but also allows them to make sure each student’s reading has been assessed.

“Normally, a teacher has to sit with a stopwatch while the student is reading—so it’s a big time saver,” she said.

Jacky Egli, executive director of Bridges Academy in Florida, said she’s used Reading Assistant for about two years and is constantly amazed by the confidence that students build using the program. Bridges, a private school for students with disabilities, focuses on helping students close the academic gap.

“You see changes by January or February. Reluctant readers are becoming more confident readers,” she said.

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