• October 13, 2021
  • By Leonard Klie Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com
  • FYI

Speech Can Help Students Read, Experts Conclude

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Voice-driven tools will have a growing role in supporting educators working with young readers, experts conclude in a new white paper.

“Recent advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning have enabled the development of speech recognition that’s purpose-built for the realities of the classroom. The technology has advanced to the point where it can not only recognize and process children’s speech, it can account for differences in accents or dialects in ways that mitigate implicit and unintentional biases,” Margery Mayer, who served 25 years as president of education for Scholastic, writes in the white paper’s foreword.

The white paper includes insights from executives at McGraw Hill, Newsela, Amplify Education, PBS Kids Digital, Parent Nation, Age of Learning, Noni Educational Solutions, Noggin, and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

Among its findings, the white paper concludes that speech has had a direct impact on fluency and literacy, unlocking far more natural and nuanced ways of gauging reading fluency and comprehension than traditional quizzes and tests.

The technology, it also says, is increasingly being used for observational assessments and to help diagnose reading challenges, including dyslexia, at an earlier stage.

Voice-enabled reading and language tools can offer students and teachers immediate feedback loops that provide intervention insights, support personalized learning paths, and improve learning outcomes, the experts write.

The voice data generated from these systems can also help inform decisions for parents, teachers, schools, districts, education publishers, and companies offering curriculum and assessment solutions, they say.

And speech technology is helping students, especially those with reading or speech disabilities, who might otherwise be hesitant to read in front of other students.

“There’s real interpersonal stress for a student who has difficulty reading and is reading to another person. In some cases, it’s really much better that you’re reading to a machine than a human, because the machine passes no judgment. It just says, ‘This is what I heard you say,’” writes Dan Cogan-Drew, cofounder and chief academic officer at Newsela, a provider of education-related content and technologies.

And systems, especially those with expanded artificial intelligence capabilities, show promise for eliminating bias, according to the report’s authors.

Mainstream voice assistants have been shown to misidentify words from white speakers about 19 percent of the time and from black speakers about 35 percent of the time, but AI-driven speech recognition can be programmed for diversity and modeled on a broad range of accents and dialects, they write.

And though not discussed in great detail in this white paper, experts also concluded recently that text-to-speech technologies are just as valuable to educators in helping students improve their reading skills.

Hearing text read aloud ensures that words or lines aren’t skipped, and students can highlight new words to hear pronunciations or learn definitions, strengthening vocabularies.

For students who process information better when listening or who have attention deficits, read-along features can be pivotal. These technologies allow students to pause the audio stream to process or take notes, and then press play to resume reading without losing their place.

The white paper warns, though, that the speech technologies used should be specifically designed for children, noting that adult voices do not work as well. Children’s voices are physically different from adults, their language changes rapidly as they develop, and their behaviors are much more unpredictable.

To become an accepted and commonplace tool in early childhood and K-12 education, speech technology needs to evolve to work for children of all ages and accents and on all devices in everyday classroom and home settings, the experts contend.

And the impetus is certainly there for speech to become a mainstay in the classroom. “The primary determinant of mass adoption [of speech recognition] is trust, built one experience at a time, over time. I see this accelerating as teachers witness the time savings and, more importantly, gain deeper insight and drive positive student outcomes,” writes Sean Ryan, president of the McGraw Hill School Group.

“The global shift to remote learning has created a profound sense of urgency to rethink how children interact with technology and what they can expect from those interactions,” concludes Martyn Farrows, CEO of SoapBox Labs. “Speech recognition is helping kids to learn more independently, to read, hone their math skills, and speak more confidently in new languages.”

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