'Listening' computer revs up reading skills

The interactive Soliloquy Reading Assistant boosts confidence and test scores.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

Dramatic results

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.

On top of the eye-popping gains, Ms. Maresco says, "we moved kids we couldn't move prior to [using Soliloquy].... We had tried a lot of interventions with these kids and it just didn't work." Many are boys who "don't want to look babyish" reading a book for younger children, she says. When they read aloud on the computer, their peers aren't listening as they practice trouble spots.

Making and meeting goals

"I did not have one problem with any of my students not being on task because they're excited – they get excited when they see that red star," says Debbie Krinsky, a fourth-grade teacher overseeing her summer school students in the lab. As if on cue, Francisco lets out a yelp of joy after earning his star on a story that took him several sessions to master. "Children need to see themselves have success," she says.

Teachers choose students who can benefit from the program because they already know phonics. "We're very explicit about why they are here: 'You're a good reader, you're progressing beautifully, but we'd like to see you read a little bit faster,' " says Heidi Moran, a reading specialist at the Sokolowski elementary school.

Students can choose which poems or stories to read and how much time to spend with each one. They have goals to aim for, and teachers help them make choices that will challenge them but not cause frustration. The program requires very little training for students or their teachers.

Ms. Adams developed the idea when working with computer speech-recognition experts. Combining her expertise in cognitive psychology and literacy with the skills of a group of engineers, Soliloquy created the first version of its Reading Assistant in 2002. Early challenges included programming the software so it could distinguish between sniffly noses and genuine problems with pronunciation.

Now the program is up to version 4.0, which includes Spanish versions of vocabulary definitions to support English language learners. Many other software products aim to boost reading skills. But Adams says that despite others' efforts along these lines, Soliloquy's is the only one using speech-recognition technology to improve fluency.

Not all the students are thrilled to have such an attentive reading companion. Arleen shakes her head when asked if she likes it. "Sometimes if I make a mistake, it'll keep on making me correct it," she says. She agrees, though, that it's helping her to read faster.

Keeping students on task

Technical glitches observed on a recent visit were minimal and only slowed students down for a minute or two. That small distraction is nothing compared with how kids can fritter away reading time in classrooms, Adams says. "If you walk around the back of the classroom [during group reading], it's remarkable how many aren't even looking at the right page."

The program gives constant updates on a child's oral fluency. ("It's cruel and unusual to make teachers work stopwatches," Adams says.) Because they can review what the problem areas are through Soliloquy's reports and recordings, teachers can tailor their instruction time better for each child. They can also e-mail parents a recording showing a child's progress.

When teachers have time to be in the lab with their students, they listen and observe. Adams says teachers tell her, " 'I never realized how little I get to listen to my children read.' "

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