New Device Aids Student Reading

MINNEAPOLIS -- When his son’s grade-school teacher told Steve Swain about a homemade contraption her husband made to enhance her students’ reading skills, Swain was curious. The teacher’s husband altered a standard plumbing pipe to outfit students with an acoustic device that would play a student’s spoken words back to them, directly into their ear. Swain’s son, however, complained about some the device’s cumbersome problems: the piece’s weight didn’t allow students the freedom to turn pages in a book, forcing them to take it off and put it back on while reading.

Swain, along with colleague Jeff Waffnsnith, worked out some of the device’s kinks and developed the product they produce and sell today: WhisperPhone. Using simple acoustic technology, the plastic headset wraps around a student’s ear and allows him to hear audio playback of his spoken words. Designed for grade-school students and adult learners, the product has been implemented in traditional classroom situations as students begin reading, but has also been used for special needs students, adult English language learners, and even music, theater, or speech students.

“When we first came to market, it was just for children learning to read or spell,” Swain says. “Now our customers are ahead of us, and they may see a need for the product before we do.”

Part of Harebrain Inc., WhisperPhone is, according to Swain, also able to supplement more technology-based learning applications.

“Many of the products on the market that help learners—both children and adults—learn a new language involve some sort of speech recognition,” Swain states. “A product like Rosetta Stone is a lot of interaction between the computer and learner, but [WhisperPhone] has an amazing ability to pair up with those products This might be an off-line, low-tech version that enable those students to learn even more quickly, or more consistently, over time.”

The company, whose current customer base is composed largely of teachers, would like to expand its market to parents of children enrolled in school. To do so, the company is looking for a corporate partner to handle the marketing. In addition, the company says it recognizes its product’s ability to branch out and act as an aide to technology-assisted learning.

As Waffnsnith says, “What we notice is that there are many opportunities for WhisperPhone to play a complimentary role for software programs that teach new languages or skills.”

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