20 March 2009

CSUN 2009: Text-To-Speech from the Start

(As the CSUN 2009 - Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference goes on I will post my three presentations and add short posts about what I see and hear. You may want to also follow the CSUN Twitter feed at #csun09)

Text-to-speech software is not just an accommodation for struggling readers, it can support primary literacy instruction in ways that prepare all readers for lifelong learning. And it can build literacy skills from the very beginning of school, if only schools would bring these systems in.

There is often a bizarre fear of this. I constantly hear that using text-to-speech systems will, "make students lazy," or "mean they will not learn to read." These arguments make absolutely no sense - if they were true, parents or teachers reading to children would be a bad thing - and yet, we know this is not true.

Exposure to text, through text made accessible - via parent bed-time story, teacher story time, or computer text-to-speech, builds vocabulary, builds comprehension and understanding of literary form, builds an understanding of grammar, and perhaps most importantly, builds an understanding of the value of reading. Computer text-to-speech can do even more, increasing sightword recognition, improving the understanding of the idea of sentence and paragraph, and offering support for the idea of independent reading.

The pressure for literacy success in schools is a worldwide policy event that has as much potential for harm as it has potential to improve human progress. Literacy initiatives, be they national or multinational, the work of governments or NGOs, based in theories of democracy or theories of capitalism, certainly have the ability to transform the lives of millions. But they can do something else: these initiatives can place unrealistic expectations on a wide range of young people – those with cognitive issues, those with dyslexia, those with vision issues, those with attentional issues, and those who, simply are developing, physically, emotionally, or cognitively, in a way different than medically-determined norms suggest.

In addition, there are unrealistic expectations placed on the families least likely to be able to provide in-home support for literacy instruction – families where the parents are English-language-learners themselves, families with all parents working multiple jobs, and families where the parents lack their own literacy competencies.

If you are teaching in a primary classroom, you are be faced with students with literacy issues. You are faced with students who are failing to master literacy as expected. And you have students who will be blocked from many forms of educational and social success because they are struggling with this single skill.

In some US states a student who might be on top of his class in every other measure of academic achievement may be retained in third grade simply because of reading test scores. In EU nations students with high potential fail to achieve sufficient scores on secondary school entrance exams because of literacy issues. In classrooms everywhere students who fail to master effective literacy are isolated, fail to progress in other subjects, suffer with significant self-esteem issues, and within a few years, are far more likely to find themselves as drop-outs, and even as convicted criminals.

Sophisticated text-to-speech systems are often thought of as accommodations for readers who have already fallen behind their classmates, and these systems are rarely employed with students in the primary grades, yet these are the very supports which might make massive differences in school success, right from the start.

Software such as Freedom Scientific’s WYNN (chosen for its ease of use with even very young readers) can dramatically increase "read-to" time, can enhance the connection between word shape and word sound, can offer content, information access, and sophisticated story access, can support student writing, and can assist in effective student evaluation.

Bringing these text-to-speech systems into primary schools, from the start of the literacy learning process, is an idea whose time has come. Combining the sophisticated tools in premium software such as WYNN with free web-based and computer-based home supports, will create best early literacy practices which can support most students.

Time-stretched teachers may build “read-to” time for students by converting any type of book into a WYNN document, and creating custom toolbars and settings which provide the best starting points for young students.

Teachers needing effective tools for evaluating reading comprehension and content knowledge may use the interactive structures within WYNN to bypass decoding problems.

Teachers with students struggling with sight words may use the bi-modal (see/hear) text-to-speech system to build these essential skills. They may also use WYNN’s dual-highlighting system to emphasize sentence and/or paragraph structure.

Teachers with students whose decoding capabilities lag behind their cognitive and academic capabilities may use WYNN to make content (book or on-line) accessible, and through WYNN’s voice notes can allow interaction even if writing and keyboarding skills are minimal.

And teachers concerned about preparing any students for lifelong learning may use WYNN’s tools, and it’s web browser, to help young students learn to interact effectively with digital text.

WYNN is not the only software capable of these supports. Text Help’s Read-and-Write-Gold and Kurzweil 3000 both offer similar support structures, but WYNN was chosen for the case studies which underlie this research for its simplicity of interface. This interface seems the easiest to learn at a young age, although the software remains a lifespan learning tool.

There is not enough current research on utilizing these newest reading and writing support technologies with very young students, a failure of both academic imagination and proof of the limitations of traditional research "rules" as applied to a rapidly developing field, but research into literacy issues raises the likelihood that high-tech accommodations can provide significant and effective support.

[Warning! A few paragraphs of insufferable academic-type writing follow...]

Florida State University's Joseph K. Torgesen, in Individual Differences in Response to Early Interventions in Reading: The Lingering Problem of Treatment Resisters (2000), stated, "What is the best method, or combination of methods, of instruction for these children, and how much special instruction will they require? At this point in the development of our field, we have the beginnings of a consensus about the first question but are still far from a consensual answer to the second. For example, we know that approaches featuring systematic, explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonetic decoding skills produce stronger reading growth in children with phonological weaknesses than do those that do not teach these skills explicitly (Brown & Felton, 1990; Felton, 1993; Foorman et al., 1998; Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994; Lovett, Borden, Lacerenza, Benson, & Brackstone, 1994; Torgesen et al., 1997; Torgesen, Wagner, Rashotte, Rose, et al., 1999; Tunmer & Nesdale, 1985). It also seems clear that these phonemically explicit approaches should include careful instruction to help children apply their phonetic decoding skills to real words and that they should provide many opportunities to read connected text for fluency and meaning (Foormanetal., 1998; Gaskins, Ehri, Cress, O’Hara, & Donnelly, 1997; Lovett et al., 1994; Vellutino, Scanlon, & Tanzman, 1994)."

Russell Gersten, Ph.D., and Scott Baker, Ph.D., in Reading Comprehension Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities: A Research Synthesis suggest that, "Finding ways to help students generalize their newly acquired reading comprehension skills is essential. It's important to learn how these skills can be transferred to other academic areas and what needs to be done to make sure that students either continue using the specific strategies they've learned after the instructional intervention ends or internalize the essential parts of the strategy so that improvements in reading comprehension continue." They also say the following, "Students with LD often show signs of giving up too quickly when faced with a difficult passage. This so-called task persistence, a skill that must be acquired by all readers, is especially important for successful reading of expository text, such as history and science textbooks, newspapers, and voter pamphlets." They continue, "Children with LD, who have a history of academic difficulties, have documented gaps in grade-appropriate knowledge of history, geography, and other subjects. These knowledge gaps interfere with their understanding of material they encounter in new texts and compound their reading comprehension problems."

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's James Gee speaks of research indicating that a kindergartener's spoken specialized (non-vernacular) vocabulary correlates with 3rd/4th grade reading comprehension levels, and that "The only realistic chance students with poor vocabularies have to catch up to their peers with rich vocabularies requires that they engage in extraordinary amounts of independent reading."

Faced with these facts, and a classroom of between twenty and thirty primary students, how can a teacher start to compensate for hours of missed parent-child reading sessions, or at-home exposure to specialized learning? How can a teacher make sure that struggling readers stay engaged with content learning so that students do not fall behind in every subject area? How can teachers provide extra phonological support, writing skill support, and reading support without cloning themselves and providing one-on-one work with a dozen students at a time?

It is the need to meet these needs for these students which drives the need to bring Text-To-Speech into early primary classrooms, and to integrate these systems into the very start of literacy learning. Put WYNN in your primary classrooms, and if you can not afford to send WYNN home, develop a dual-system with WordTalk and CLiCk-Speak, DSpeech or NaturalReader, or just PowerPoint Books linked to PowerTalk providing out-of-school support.

Microsoft PowerPoint:How To Create A Talking Book In Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003

If your students begin to read, they will have reason to continue reading, to work on reading, and they will learn the value of written human communication. If not, they may become that typical 'book hating' fourth grader.

- Ira Socol in Los Angeles

1 comment:

Karen Janowski said...

Another of your excellent posts. It is an irrational fear that is associated with using text-to-speech with students.
Recently I attended a team meeting for an elementary age student who struggles with reading and who really wants to become a proficient reader. I recommended a variety of TTS tools but was told their approach is remediation only. "We don't want students to become dependent upon computers." In the meantime, they are making students completely dependent upon adults. This student's spelling, comprehension and vocabulary skills are all declining as evidenced by the school's annual testing. He attends a private school which specializes in providing remediation (only) for students with LDs.
Isn't this educational malpractice?