Text-Reading Software by Dr. Pat Campbell, President, Grass Roots Press
How do you teach adults who have severe and multiple barriers to learning? Could text- reading software provide the support that these learners need? This type of software uses a computer synthesized voice to read aloud any on-screen text selected by the learners. Action Read, a community literacy centre in Guelph, Ontario, launched a study to explore whether text-reading software could help literacy learners. The study also evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of six text-reading software packages.
A total of 13 learners who had been enrolled at Action Read for at least a year participated in the study. They had made slow progress since coming to Action Read. These learners had difficulty and became frustrated when reading text independently.
Determining Unassisted Reading Levels
In Ontario, there are five literacy and basic skills (LBS) levels that correspond to Grades K-9. The learners' unassisted reading levels were assessed before they started using the text-reading software. Learners were asked to read symbols, individual letters, wordlists and complete written documents without assistance or accommodations. Their abilities to decode and comprehend the materials were evaluated.
Tutors and Students Working Together
Volunteer tutors were recruited to work with the learners who field-tested the text-reading software. Each learner was asked to select a topic of interest to research. The students chose topics such as photography and biographies. These individualized projects kept the learners motivated and served as the catalyst for using the software. The learners were able to use the text-readers to read out menu items, internet links and so on.
Once a large block of text was identified, it could be read aloud by the software. The text-reading software allowed learners to access a wide range of materials. After a few hours of instruction, the majority of learners were able to use the software with minimal assistance from the tutors. The tutors shifted their focus to helping the learners to sift and collect information.
Improvement in Reading Levels
After completing their individualized projects, the learners were assessed to determine their assisted reading levels. The assisted reading level was the highest level of material that could be read and understood, with the assistance of text-reading software. The findings indicated that all learners improved.their reading by one or two LBS levels, with an average improvement of 1.2 LBS levels. On average, each learner spent approximately 28.5 hours using the software. Interestingly, no correlation was found between the amount of time the learners used the software to their improvement in reading.
The data indicates that text-readers greatly increased the volume of text students could read in a given time and the level of material which they could access. Clearly, text-readers are helpful to literacy learners. Given this finding, text-reading software should be considered as one of the core acquisitions for programs serving learners facing multiple learning barriers.
This study also evaluated six different types of text-reading software using the following criteria: