'Listening' computer revs up reading skills
The interactive Soliloquy Reading Assistant boosts confidence and test scores.
Jorge peers through his glasses at a story about a mouse – a story unfolding not on the pages of a book but on a computer screen. Crowned with a sophisticated headset, he isn't distracted by his surroundings as he reads aloud into a microphone.Skip to next paragraph
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When the computer hears him say "squinted" instead of "squeaked," it highlights the word, waits a few seconds for him to try again, and then gives the right pronunciation. Jorge is taking summer classes in Chelsea, Mass., before starting third grade. Twice a week he comes to the computer lab for half an hour to work on his oral reading. With a few clicks, he can listen to a professional voice tell the tale, listen to his own recording, pull up explanations of words he doesn't know, and answer quiz questions.
The colorful program, Soliloquy Reading Assistant, also shows him his progress on accuracy, understanding, and speed. "I feel happy," Jorge says about achieving a red star when he's mastered a story. "I already got five stars."
Soliloquy's program is helping teachers track and improve reading fluency in more than 5,000 schools. For Marilyn Jager Adams, chief research scientist at Soliloquy Learning Inc. in Waltham, Mass., it's just a matter of using technology to carry on a time-honored tradition. "I decided ... basically, to make an electronic lap," she says in a phone interview. "Children learn incredibly quickly if you can get them to pay attention, but [for many] there's not somebody at home [to help] ... and if you look at the classroom, it's not set up for one-on-one time."
The sooner students get on track in reading, the better their chances at long-term academic success, experts say. The US Department of Education reports that nearly 70 percent of low-income fourth-graders lack basic reading skills such as understanding and summarizing a story. Beyond that basic level, students are increasingly expected to investigate ideas and think creatively about what they read, says Danielle Carnahan, senior literacy associate at Learning Points Associates in Chicago.
Schools with sufficient computer infrastructure have many reading-based software programs to choose from. The key is
planning up front to see what teachers will find useful. "[When] districts and schools ... integrate [such a program] ... into their curriculum so that it supports and supplements the instruction,... things work well," Ms. Carnahan says.
That's what educators have done in Chelsea. In this small coastal city north of Boston, about 8 out of 10 students come from homes where English is not the first language; a similar percentage hail from low-income families. "They start off [school] on average with a two-year language gap," compared with the national norm for their age, says Denise Maresco, literacy program director for Chelsea public schools.
After learning about Soliloquy at a conference, the district decided to invest about $30,000, one chunk of a grant they received through the federal Reading First program, to buy the equipment and software licenses. By the 2006-07 school year, about 200 elementary school children were using the program two to four times a week. Seeing dramatic results, the district is now expanding its use.
Fluency is measured by the number of words a student reads aloud correctly per minute. At the William A. Berkowitz Elementary School in Chelsea, for instance, third-graders gained 35 words per minute between winter and spring testing, compared with a national average gain of 15. Fourth-graders used the program for two semesters, gaining 39 words between the fall and spring, compared with 25 nationally. Several other elementary schools here saw similar results.