Recognizing Each Student's Potential

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At Lake Alfred Elementary School in Lake Alfred, Fla., speech technologies last school year significantly improved the reading skills of special education students enrolled in its Exceptional Students Education (ESE) program. One student in particular saw his reading jump a full grade level in just four months.

“This is a very significant improvement for an ESE student,” says Eileen Castle, the school’s principal. “Special education students typically advance one grade level every two or three years.”

“Reading is essential to any child’s learning, but our ESE students need the most help when it comes to improving their reading skills,” Castle says.

More than 250 third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders at Lake Alfred are benefiting from the speech-enabled Soliloquy Reading Assistant from Soliloquy Learning, based in Waltham, Mass. The program contains a virtual library of e-books; students read from those books into a microphone and headset connected to a computer. The software program, which features proprietary speech-recognition technology, can recognize when readers stumble or make mistakes on specific words and coach them through those words. An integrated database of word definitions, pronunciations, and pictures lets students click on a word within the text for additional reference information. Throughout the passage, interactive reading comprehension questions are presented to ensure understanding. As students advance through each e-book, the software displays a progress page, listing the words with which they had difficulty, summarizing their fluency and comprehension scores, and noting where they left off. The software suggests that students reread those parts of the text that they did not read well enough or with adequate comprehension. The program also creates a recording of each individual session for access later by teachers. Those recordings can also be sent home to parents as MP3 files. Predictive reporting capabilities also allow teachers and administrators to evaluate progress and predict end-of-year performance against national norms.

A new feature in the latest release of Soliloquy Reading Assistant—Version 4.0—is Web delivery, with all the software stored and maintained on Soliloquy Learning servers. This Web capability allows students, teachers, and administrators to access the program over the Internet from school, district office, or home.

Since its launch in 2002, Soliloquy Reading Assistant has been used by more than 400,000 students in 5,000 U.S. schools. All 20 elementary schools and four middle schools in the Laredo, Texas, Independent School District incorporated Soliloquy Reading Assistant into their special education curricula. Among students in the district, sixth-grade special education students at Cigarroa Middle School had some of the lowest reading scores at the beginning of the school year. “They lacked the confidence and motivation to read books,” says their teacher, Rogelio Saucedo. “After being introduced to Soliloquy and acquiring the necessary reading skills, students became aware of their potential. It’s been very rewarding for me to watch their growth.”

At another school in the district, Martin High School, Soliloquy Reading Assistant is being used by students with behavioral problems. “Often times, kids with learning difficulties are out of control,” says Norma Garza, their teacher. “If you want to change their behavior, you have to make sure that their learning challenges are being addressed. Soliloquy Reading Assistant is helping these students’ behavior improve by bringing them toward their grade level in reading. Also, they truly enjoy the different reading materials.”

For elementary students (grades 1-5), reading content is drawn from children’s stories, poems, and expository passages. For older students, Soliloquy Reading Assistant offers more than 150 texts of science and social studies content intended to coincide with what they’re learning in those classes. Special content is also available for adult students.

Schools in Laredo, Texas, and elsewhere are also using the Soliloquy Reading Assistant to help students for whom English is not the primary language improve their English and reading skills simultaneously. The program lets these students spend extra time listening to, pronouncing, and reading vocabulary words in context, and teachers can enable a Spanish dictionary for these students to view and hear vocabulary descriptions and coaching in Spanish.

“We began districtwide usage of Soliloquy Reading Assistant in September,” explains Alma Rodriguez, assistive technology coordinator for the Laredo school district. “We needed this program because over 90 percent of the students in the district speak Spanish at home, so it is challenging for many to practice their English reading skills with their parents. This program is giving them the feedback they need to develop fluency in English. In less than a year of using the program, the students in all grade levels are experiencing significant improvements. They are learning to love reading.”

Though the program has shown some of its greatest success among students with special needs, many schools are deploying it to a much broader student population. The entire fourth-grade class of Brodhead Elementary School in Brodhead, Ky., began using the Reading Assistant in 2005, and within a few months, 100 percent of the students were reading at or above grade level. Feeding on that success, the program was implemented across the entire school.

“Soliloquy Reading Assistant has proven to be a wonderful supplemental reading resource that clearly helped our students achieve this feat,” says Caroline Graves, the school’s principal. “We believe that all students can become active, life-long readers in a caring and cooperative environment, and Reading Assistant helps that belief come to life.”

The program is also being used at about 100 public and private schools in New York. In the Brooklyn Catholic Diocese, 12 schools are now using the Soliloquy Reading Assistant with much success. “Any time you can improve a student’s reading ability, you are greatly enhancing his chances of a successful educational career,” says Michael Pizzingrillo, associate superintendent for instruction, government programs, and public policy for the Brooklyn Diocese. “With the changing needs of today’s learners, the one-on-one reading instruction needed to foster fluency and comprehension is getting harder and harder to facilitate. The Soliloquy Reading Assistant provides that supportive, patient listener for each student, greatly supplementing the excellent reading instruction our teachers already provide.”

“Soliloquy Reading Assistant merges technology and research-based practices to deliver the future of reading instruction,” says Jon Bower, president and CEO of Soliloquy Learning. “It’s been proven that fluency is best achieved through the provision of a supportive listener for each student reader. It’s interesting to see how public, private, and parochial schools allfind the same benefits.

“The majority of students across the country struggle with reading fluency. Our goal is to provide teachers with a tool that offers each student one-on-one reading practice, while providing essential progress data to help teachers target theirinstruction,” he says.

“Soliloquy Reading Assistant is based on the fact that reading one-on-one with an active and supportive listener—also known as guided oral reading—is shown by research to be a singularly powerful method for enhancing fluency and overall reading growth in students,” adds Marilyn Jager Adams, chief research scientist for Soliloquy Learning. “The program reproduces a dedicated, patient, and helpful listener for each student, offering a compelling supplemental resource for teachers to multiply each student’s oral reading practice in class or at home.”

Typically, schools that deploy the Soliloquy Reading Assistant can expect reading fluency gains of 43 percent, and that’s under the technology’s current limitations, Bower says. Among those, “it’s not general speech recognition; it’s highly grammar-restrained,” he explains. “At any moment, it knows which word the student is supposed to say next.”

As Soliloquy Learning improves on the technology, one of the goals is to expand the recognition capabilities. “I see the technology improving in support of phonemic elements,” Bower says, “Now it’s specific to the word, not the sound.”

Another planned improvement is the addition of more natural language understanding “to improve the question-and-answer interpretation in the comprehension part of the program,” he notes.

Soliloquy Reading Assistant is available through three different licensing models: an annual license for the Web product based on the number of students who will use it, a perpetual license for the product to be housed on a school’s servers, or a stand-alone license purchased yearly for each computer where the software will be housed. The cost to most schools averages out to about $50 per student. Parents can buy a home version for a one-time fee of $229.

“Seventy percent of students with reading problems do not have a parent at home to help with their reading for whatever reason. To pay to have a tutor come in and help is very expensive,” Bower says. “With what it costs for a tutor, this is extremely reasonable.”  

IBM Offers a Reading Companion
A Web-based reading tool is available to schools through a grant program

In 2006, more than 100 schools and non-profit groups in the United States and Canada received free Reading Companion software from IBM as part of a grant program. Many more sites are expected to be added this year.

The Reading Companion software is customized to the needs of the individual learner. Through speech recognition technology, it “listens” to and provides feedback, enabling budding readers to practice reading and acquire fundamental reading skills.

Basically, a user is presented with reading material; an on-screen panda (for younger students) or stick figure (for older students and adults) guides the user through the material, inviting him to read phrases or sentences out loud into a microphone. Depending on the accuracy of what was read, the companion will provide positive reinforcement, give the user an opportunity to try again, or offer the correct reading of the words on the screen.

For students in kindergarten through the second grade (ages 5-7), the software provides them with a solid foundation for reading. For adults, the software allows them to gain literacy skills while reading content that is relevant to them—such as searching for a job, visiting their children’s schools, understanding their health, and obtaining driver’s licenses.

And because the solution is available through the Web, children and adults have anytime/anywhere access—whether from school, a library, a community center, or at home—to improve their reading abilities. Readers also are able to continue exactly where they left off in a previous reading session.

The software also features evaluation reports for instructors and teachers on individual students and their areas of mastery and difficulty.

Independent evaluations of the technology have been positive. For example, young students using the software tested significantly higher on word recognition and comprehension tasks. For adults, the software improved English pronunciation and reading skills; contributed to learning gains; enabled greater comfort with technology; and provided students with opportunities to practice at their own pace in an interactive format.

“Not only is it a great example of software that makes a difference, but it is also innovation that makes a difference,” says Jennifer Lai, IBM’s research manager for adaptive learning. “Since this is the first-ever combination of these technologies—that is, voice recognition technology over the Web—we expect there will be other opportunities for using this model of fast and accurate speech recognition on demand and on the Web.”

Reading Companion is designed to complement existing literacy curriculum in both school settings and within adult literacy programs. “This interactive tool is a tremendous asset to have available in our classroom. We have large numbers of adults in search of English and literacy competencies,” says Kitty Bateman, adult literacy coordinator at Queensborough Community College in New York. “It will work great with this audience and within the program we already have.”

“Millions of Americans, many of them immigrants, do not have the necessary literacy skills to function effectively at work or in their day-to-day lives,” says Robin Willner, vice president of global community initiatives at IBM. “IBM’s Web-based solution, Reading Companion, is a powerful tool for improving reading and speaking skills in English, giving individuals the qualifications they need to seek good jobs that may have been beyond their grasp.” ---LK

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