For our last post based on Dr Parr’s work we look into the question of whether we should be using information technology and computers to teach children to read.
When discussing educational technology and assistive literacy tools the question often arises whether using text to speech (TTS) is real reading? How will children learn to read if a computer reads to them? And, what happens when we take it away?
Of course the objective is to have each student reading on his own, but it is important to be realistic that not all students will read with a high level of fluency.
“Most of the students with whom I worked could decode with between 90 and 95% accuracy, but their fluency rates were incredibly low—some of them were reading at 32 words a minute in order to decode with 95% accuracy’” indicates Doctor Parr. “When they got to the task of meaning-making and comprehension, they had no energy left. They could not remember what they had read.” So the issue is not just reading, but the amount of time and energy it takes to read and whether the reader is able to do anything with the information.
In the future, struggling readers will be able to read what they need on a daily basis (e.g., prescription, directions, menus, etc.), but for more in-depth learning, the learning disabled 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 looking forward to reading. It is likely she will continue to have difficulties with letter sounds, sight words and decoding.
However, as she reads along with the highlighted text, enhancing oral and visual connections, she will take meaning from the text. This will encourage her to look at books and listen to stories, the frustration of decoding having been set aside. Her comprehension will allow her to talk about the text with her teacher and peers and give her self-confidence, which will in turn encourage her to take risks.
She will be, in her own words, “a reader”! Text to speech is a way for students to become familiar with all types of content and to access grade level content. Students with reading difficulties tell us that one or two chapters read with text-to-speech technology gives them the confidence and autonomy they need for success.
Without the enabling tool of assistive technology these students would be denied access to content that allows them to learn at the same rate as the other students. The reader must identify for themselves their own strengths and needs, and claim ownership over their own reading. If this means that they need text-to-speech technology to keep up with the demands of their schooling, so be it, it is our responsibility as educators to provide the tools needed to be successful.
“We circle back to this question of “Would you ever take a guide dog from an individual with a visual impairment?” questions Doctor 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…”
Dr Michelann Parr teaches language and literacy at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario. Her research includes family literacy, text-to-speech technology and its impact on reading and writing as a way of understanding. Dr. Parr is also interested in the development of language and literacy teachers.