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'Listening' computer revs up reading skills

The interactive Soliloquy Reading Assistant boosts confidence and test scores.

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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.

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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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