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How Can Computers Help Children Learn to Read?

June 30, 2022 by Amy Foxwell

Computers play an essential role in boosting equity in many areas of modern society. As our world grows more digitized, the information we have direct access to grows more limitless. Using computers, software, and the internet, anyone can develop expertise on a subject and practice new skills.

The same goes for computer usage in classrooms. When you implement the right computer software in your school, children — including those who would otherwise be outpaced by their peers — gain the necessary tools to develop the skills they need to excel in grade-level content and avoid falling behind. Computers can be especially powerful in helping children hone their reading skills.

How can computers help children learn to read exactly? And are computers effective long-term solutions for reading comprehension?

We’ll explore these questions alongside insights from Dr. Michelann Parr, a language and literacy teacher at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario. Dr. Parr’s research includes family literacy, as well as text-to-speech technology and its impact on reading, writing, and understanding.

How can computers help children learn to read?

When equipped with the right software — particularly assistive technology that simplifies the reading process — computers allow students to practice the many skills required for reading comprehension separately. These skills include:

  • Decoding—sounding out written words
  • Fluency—understanding the words they read
  • Reasoning—analyzing text and build knowledge using context clues

While traditional education challenged students to dive right into books — which often meant practicing all these skills at once — computer software empowers students to practice reading skills individually. For example, text-to-speech (TTS) technology has been found to support decoding, which frees the listener to focus on the meaning of the content rather than the act of reading.

According to Dr. Parr, using computers equipped with assistive technology increases students’ self-confidence, giving them the freedom to choose what and when to read. That, in turn, motivates them to learn. As a result, computer software has the potential to play a major role in encouraging a love of reading.

For those students who are frustrated because of a lack of decoding skills and fluency, text to speech is a confident internal voice, a support for comprehension, and a valuable lifelong tool,” Dr. Parr observed.

3 Computer Software Examples

So what are some specific computer software programs schools can implement to help students read? Here are three examples of software that will improve student reading performance.

1. Graphic Organizers

How can computers help children learn - Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are visual tools that allow children to map out what they’re learning as they’re reading it. By creating mind maps and other organizers on software like GitMind and MURAL, students can easily see the relationships between different concepts, which aids their comprehension of reading materials across subjects.

2. Optical Character Recognition

How can computers help children learn - Optical Character Recognition

Optical character recognition (OCR) software is a rising category of assistive technology that extracts text from image or PDF files. When children need help identifying words, they submit a file into OCR computer software — such as Adobe Acrobat Pro DC and Impira — which then generates text that’s searchable and can be enlarged; these programs can even generate audio files in some cases.

OCR software allows children to adapt a piece of text into a more legible format. Instead of trying to comprehend words on stylized images or documents, students can work on decoding and understanding more uniform letters and words.

3. Text to Speech

Text to speech technology is a more efficient version of OCR that allows children to see and listen to text at the same time. This computer software reads content aloud while simultaneously highlighting the text. Students who struggle with reading (that’s 25% of schoolchildren) may not be able to decode text on their own. This empowers struggling readers to work autonomously at any grade-level, giving them the chance to put aside decoding difficulties, practice other reading skills, and move on to high-level thinking.

Struggling readers should not be limited to low-level activities focused on decoding and literal comprehension,” said Dr. Parr.

Should we use computers to help children learn to read?

When discussing educational technology and assistive literacy tools, especially text to speech, two questions often arise:

  • How can computers help you learn to read if they’re reading to you?
  • What happens when the computer software is taken away?

A number of professionals view assistive technology as a crutch for children — one that causes dependence on tools and prevents the development of higher-level skills. Some debate whether using TTS is “real” reading at all.

The objective of implementing assistive computer software is to have each student reading on his or her own. However, it’s also important to be realistic; not all students will read with a high level of fluency during their time in school.

Most of the students with whom I worked could decode with between 90 and 95% accuracy, but their fluency rates were incredibly low,” said Dr. Parr. “Some of them were reading at 32 words a minute in order to decode with 95% accuracy. When they got to the task of meaning-making and comprehension, they had no energy left. They could not remember what they had read.

Therefore, the need for assistive technology extends well beyond helping children gain reading skills. Computer software ensures children can learn and apply information, instead of expending all their time and energy on the act of reading.

When it comes to in-depth learning, people who struggle with reading — including those who are learning a new language or have reading disabilities like dyslexia or ADHD — have far greater potential if offered the support of text-to-speech technology. A struggling reader who uses text-to-speech technology will go to school enthusiastically and look forward to reading.

It is true that students who rely on assistive technology may continue to have difficulties with letter sounds, sight words, and decoding. However, they’ll learn to draw meaning from text by using oral and visual connections — for instance, by reading along with highlighted text as it’s read aloud using TTS. This will give students the self-confidence to look at more books and grade-level content, then discuss them with teachers and peers. As assistive technology users digest the same texts as their peers, they become readers in their own right.

While not every student needs computers to learn how to read, students can benefit from the autonomy to determine their own strengths and needs. If they need text-to-speech technology to learn at the same rate as other students, so be it; it’s the responsibility of educators to provide the tools needed for student success.

We circle back to this question of, ‘Would you ever take a guide dog from an individual with a visual impairment?’” said Dr. Parr. “I offer that it is not our role to take something away, especially if it is enabling student engagement and self-efficacy. As readers, it is tough for us to fully understand, but if you introduce it, if you encourage it, and if you see the promise, you’ll be amazed at just how far your students can go.

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