Market Spotlight: Education

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A new pilot project in four Illinois schools will provide text-to-speech (TTS) technologies to sophomore students with reading disabilities. The schools will then track them through their high school years to see what impact the technology had on their overall academic success and aspirations after graduation.

At the center of the project, undertaken by the Illinois Assistive Technology Program (IATP), is Read & Write Gold software from Texthelp Systems, a provider of TTS and reading support software. With it, the students can hear, through an integrated headset, an automated reading of digital textbooks, worksheets, tests, and class notes. Multicolored highlighting of the text, word prediction, built-in dictionaries and a thesaurus, and accessibility tools are also part of the software.

The pilot project technically began in January, but at the time, it was hampered by a shortage of textbooks available in digital format. Those issues have been resolved, and when participating students return to class this month, the TTS will be able to read aloud to them every textbook that will be required reading during the school year.

“I was very surprised at how difficult it is to get digital textbooks,” says Cilla Sluga, the project coordinator. “But we worked with [the publishers, the National Instructional Materials Access Center, and Bookshare] to get digital copies, or to get formal permission to scan them.”

The pilot is being conducted at Porta High School in Petersburg, Riverton High School in Riverton, SASED Central in Springfield, and Virden High School in Virden. Each school has six or seven students in the program. Each student and a site coordinator at each school received an IBM ThinkPad laptop computer (with Read & Write Gold already installed), headphones, a portable USB drive, printer/scanner, and a backpack from IATP.

The students selected for the program were perceived as having post-secondary or employment potential, but were found to be at risk for not completing high school, graduating late from high school, or underachieving in school due to significant reading disabilities. “Our goal is that they all will be able to graduate and go on to further their education if they so choose, so they can lead normal lives and make respectable livings,” Sluga says. “We hope that in the end they will have the confidence and ability to do that.”

Some would argue that by allowing the TTS system to do the reading for them, schools are doing a disservice to the students by not teaching them to read on their own. Sluga concedes that possibility, but notes that most students selected for the project might never be able to read because of their disabilities. “But they still need access to the material. For classes like biology, social studies, and history, the students’ responsibility is to know the facts. How they got those facts is not the issue,” she says. “Having the information in digital format is helpful, and it can really aid a student in mastering the required materials.”

For Sluga, improving reading is a goal of the project as well, though. So is reducing the amount of time that a teacher has to spend with each student individually.

“TTS can reduce teacher one-on-one time in the classroom,” Sluga says. “The student may not need to ask the teacher if he did it right after each sentence because he can listen to it on his own with the headset. If he comes across a word he does not know, he can click on the integrated dictionary or thesaurus and get a definition without having to stop the class to ask the teacher what a word means. And finally, it reads back to them what they wrote, and when they hear it for themselves, it’s easier for them to pick out the errors on their own.”

A similar project was in place at several schools in Missouri, and Sluga says she has heard nothing but positive reports about it. “I hope other schools will see the benefits of TTS for students who can’t read and start using it as well,” she says. —Leonard Klie

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