Tech for Reading: New literacy tools are coming to classrooms

In a vision of classrooms of the near future, young children will don headsets and read sentences aloud while navigating through computer programs powered by voice recognition technology.

Behind the scenes, this technology will listen to each student and spit out dozens of lines of code, assessing the pronunciation of each individual sound and word in the sentence and tracking the timing of each utterance.

By the time each student reads an entire passage aloud, the software will have mapped out where they stand on a few hundred finite skills needed to be a fluent reader.

A dashboard will then tell a teacher if the student needs help breaking words down into their component parts or if they consistently mispronounce certain sounds, and provide games and exercises to help. The teacher will receive different feedback for each of the students, whose skill levels may range from being able to read independently to not recognizing their own name.

The education technology industry wants this scenario – a hypothesis of technologies created by several companies – to be the future of how literacy is taught in American classrooms. Speech recognition software would become a natural part of reading education, incorporated alongside physical books. Students would be constantly assessed by technology without knowing it, helping teachers to provide individualized learning paths and empowering students rather than advancing everyone, regardless of how many have mastered prior skills.

“Technology is and can be a vital aid, if we can determine what’s good, what’s bad and what’s nonsense,” said Ralph Smith, executive director of the Campaign for Reading in Schools, a network of community groups that focus on increasing reading. skills among children from low-income families.

The ultimate goal is to help pull the United States out of a decades-long reading crisis. Just over a third of fourth graders nationwide could read at or above proficiency level in 2019, according to a benchmark test widely used by the federal government called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Many fear the pandemic has worsened the rate, which peaked at 37% in 2017, when new NAEP results will be released in the fall.

Learning to read before the end of third grade is essential, educators say, so children can start using reading to learn the rest of their subjects.

At the base of the new technological tools is the “science of reading”, which divides reading into five components: phonetics, or linking a sound to a written letter; phonemic awareness, or learning the sounds that make up words; vocabulary; ease; and reading comprehension. Proponents of the science-based approach have been locked in opposition since the middle of the last century with those pushing methods that minimize phonetics and focus on holistic understanding. Several states are in the process of retraining teachers in the most heavy methods in phonetics.

When K-12 students return to school this fall and beyond, more could have access to tools powered by kid-specific speech recognition technology, like the one created by SoapBox Labs. based in Dublin. The company has been working on the technology since 2013, training it to pick up the nuances, dialects and choppy nature of children’s speech in ways that traditional voice command systems might misinterpret. In June, it launched a new version to help assess whether young children can identify and pronounce names and letter sounds, which companies can now license to create reading products sold to schools.

Microsoft has developed its own voice recognition-based reading program. A new feature records students reading passages aloud and coaches them on problem words. Publisher McGraw Hill is developing a system to track hundreds of literacy-related skills and display them in a teacher dashboard. Other apps and computer programs aim to teach children to read through games, play sound effects to make story time more engaging, and give students access to hundreds of digital books.

Some educators and literacy specialists are skeptical, saying technology can help on the fringes, but there is no substitute for good quality teaching and children practicing reading consistently.

“At the heart of where we’re seeing improvements in schools, it’s almost nothing to do with technology,” said Karen Vaites, a literacy advocate in New York City.

Traditionally, teachers have measured a student’s reading fluency by sitting next to them as they read aloud, timing with a stopwatch, and marking the spots in the passage where a student stumbles, inserts the wrong word or says one that is not written.

Many new and developing tools seek to automate this process, letting computers do the assessment work for teachers so they have more time to focus on teaching and grouping students by grade.

“We’re always trying to find something that will quickly tell us where each of our students are,” said Shannon Griffin, a fourth-grade teacher in a Columbus, Ohio suburb.

A screenshot of a game-based reading program developed by Los Angeles-based company Age of Learning.


learning age

Age of Learning Inc., based in Los Angeles, has spent years identifying and mapping more than 400 skills and concepts that students in kindergarten through second grade must master in order to read, which underpins its new curriculum. game-based reading. Before students can read simple, single-syllable words like “cat”, for example, they must understand which letters represent which sounds, know that words are made up of individual sounds mixed together, and orally mix these sounds to form a single spoken word.


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Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley piloted the company’s software, called My Reading Academy, last year with preschoolers ages 3 to 5. Most of its students are economically disadvantaged, said Carmen Alvarez, director of early childhood learning for the district, and the first time they see a book is often at school. “Many parents are faced with a choice between providing food for their child and providing a book for their child,” she said.

Ms. Alvarez said the ability for teachers to see the exact sounds a student is grappling with and know what concepts students are mastering has been helpful. Earlier programs simply said if a student is progressing.

Any missing skills “could come back to haunt you later, and usually do,” Ms Alvarez said.

A team of McGraw Hill engineers, data scientists and content developers is creating its own map of hundreds of reading skills, tied to 50 state standards, that teachers can view in a dashboard to track student progress. A test version is expected next spring.

“Each teacher can become their own data scientist and find out in their own classroom what works and what doesn’t,” said Shawn Smith, McGraw Hill’s Chief Innovation Officer for K-12.

McGraw Hill is in talks with testing companies about his long-term vision: a real-time assessment system that would replace statewide end-of-year exams that consume classroom time and stress students, Smith said. McGraw Hill also pilots a playback program using SoapBox’s speech recognition system.

Patricia Scanlon, the founder of Dublin-based SoapBox Labs, which has developed tools powered by child-specific voice recognition technology.


Laoise Tay

SoapBox founder Patricia Scanlon set out to create a better way for technology to capture children’s voices after watching her own daughter struggle to interact with educational programs. Children have finer vocal tracts, grating voices and often don’t follow the rules of language, which can confuse speech recognition software. A parent knows that when their child says “geen” they mean “green”, but a computer probably won’t.

SoapBox has processed thousands of hours of voice data from around the world to develop its platform.

“The benefit to students of hearing themselves read is incredible,” said Shannon Lazarus, a kindergarten teacher in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. In the past, she says, teachers made “reading phones” using PVC pipes that allowed students to hear their own amplified voices.

Classroom teachers say they’re ready to give the technology a chance, though some expect problems and additional upfront work early on. Widespread adoption will also require parental buy-in and assurances that student privacy is taken seriously.

“Technology is a tool, it’s a means to an end, not the end itself,” said Joel Kupperstein, curriculum development manager at Age of Learning.

Write to Sara Randazzo at [email protected]

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