Market Spotlight: Education

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Roughly 30 million adults in the United States lack the reading skills they need to succeed. Additionally, 10 million children have difficulties learning to read. Of those, nearly 15 percent do not finish high school and only 2 percent earn a college degree. Effective training for all students is a challenge because teachers do not have the time or resources to provide each student with one-on-one attention.

Voice solutions that combine speech recognition, speech-to-text, and text-to-speech technologies are solving this problem by acting as personal tutors, listening as students read aloud into integrated microphones and providing immediate feedback when a student is stuck on a word.

Software from IBM, Scientific Learning, LeapFrog Enterprises, Don Johnston (maker of the Write:OutLoud talking word processor), and Knowledge Adventure are among the most common solutions deployed in schools to help students strengthen reading, vocabulary, word recognition, pronunciation, comprehension, and writing skills.

A common element to many of these programs is a voice-enabled reading helper (in IBM’s Reading Companion, it’s an animated panda for young children and a stick figure for older students). These products also allow reading sessions to be recorded so teachers can track the students’ progress and share status reports.

The Soliloquy Reading Assistant, which was acquired by Scientific Learning in December, also provides a dictionary that offers definitions, photos, examples of words in sentences, and comprehension quizzes. Foreign-language support contains a Spanish dictionary that allows foreign language speakers learning English to view and hear English word translations in Spanish.

Conversely, the same technology is being applied to help students learn a foreign language. Robert Brito, a Spanish teacher at McFatter Technical Center in Davie, Fla., is using Cepstral’s Natural Voices program in his foreign language lab. TTS guides students through the proper pronunciation of words and phrases.

While many of these solutions have been available for a while, LeapFrog’s Tag School Reading System is relatively new. Released only in April, it lets students hear characters in such popular titles as The Little Engine That Could, explore new story elements, respond to questions, and receive feedback.

One2OneMate also only added a reading program to its StudentMate laptop computers in March. The program, which uses Acapela Group’s TTS, allows students to have text read aloud from any word processor, email, text messaging, chat, PDF Viewer, or Web application. "There’s a play button on their desktops," explains Mike Spencer, president and CEO of One2OneMate. "Students highlight any piece of text on the screen, hit play, and the TTS plays it for them."

This technology, he says, will help students with pronunciation, comprehension, and writing. "They will be able to compose and understand better what they are reading and writing if it is spoken back to them," he says.

Jean Casey, a teacher education professor at California State University-Long Beach and a leading researcher in the use of technologies in the classroom to help very young and special-needs children learn to read and write, is a staunch advocate of such technologies.

"I have a strong belief in speech technology," she says. "It’s an important learning tool. I think it should be in every classroom."

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