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February 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 5

Research Matters / Technology to Help Struggling Students

Many technology features that were originally developed to help people with specific sensory impairments are now widely in use. We have begun to take for granted the ability to zoom in on small print or to have written text speak to us. Closed captioning of video programs, originally developed to support viewers who are hard of hearing, also has mainstream uses, allowing us to “tune in” to a program across a noisy room by reading the captions.
Such accessibility features, particularly text-to-speech and speech recognition, are increasingly available in educational technologies as well. Although schools commonly use them to support students with sensory impairments and learning disabilities, these features can help a broad range of students. Research is beginning to show the benefits of giving all students access to these capabilities.

What We Know

Research in psychology has shown the power of simultaneous, multiple modes of input to gain and hold a person's attention and to improve memory. Lewandowski and Montali (1996) conducted a study that compared the learning of poor readers and skilled readers who were both taught through a text-to-speech application with simultaneous on-screen highlighting of the spoken word. This study showed that experiencing the text bimodally (visually and aurally) enabled poor readers to perform as well as skilled readers in word recognition and retention. Research by Allinder, Dunse, Brunken, and Obermiller-Krolikowski (2001) and Meyer and Felton (1999) confirms that highlighting text as it is spoken can help learners pay attention and remember more.
Text-to-speech also relieves the burden of decoding for struggling readers, allowing them to focus on comprehension (Wise, Ring, & Olson, 2000) and improving their endurance in completing reading assignments (Hecker, Burns, Elkind, Elkind, & Katz, 2002). Research has also shown that students with learning disabilities identify and correct more errors in their compositions when they use text-to-speech for proofreading (Higgins & Raskind, 1995).
The inverse of text-to-speech is speech recognition, in which the technology takes spoken words and translates them into type. Speech recognition provides access to computers not only for users who have physical disabilities, but also for those who have constraints related to fatigue, poor handwriting, spatial organization, or spelling. Speech recognition also provides immediate constructive feedback, as users see their own words transformed into written text with correct formatting and grammar (Silver-Pacuilla, in press).
Early research conducted with previous versions of the technology, which had considerable problems with accuracy, indicated that the strategic use of speech recognition improved users' literacy skills (Higgins & Raskind, 2000). The researchers attributed these benefits to the heightened, strategic engagement with print and language that users experience while dictating and correcting errors.
A third technology application that has received research attention is computer-based graphic organizers. These tools facilitate brainstorming, concept mapping, and outlining in much the same way that teacher-led instruction does, but with the advantages of providing word processing and text-to-speech support and the ability to rearrange elements or switch between outline and map view. In one study (Sturm & Rankin-Erickson, 2002), middle school students with and without disabilities were taught concept-mapping strategies and then were asked to write descriptive essays using either no map, a hand-drawn map, or a computer-drawn map. Students who constructed concept maps during the prewriting stage—either by hand or with the computer—produced significantly more sophisticated and complete essays. Students who used computer-based mapping also reported a more positive attitude toward the writing process.

What You Can Do

  • Text-to-speech. You can use text-to-speech to increase the amount of reading that struggling readers do. For early readers and young English language learners, use digital storybooks as a fun and interactive way to engage with books. Encourage older readers to use text-to-speech to access motivating, content-specific texts on the Internet. For students who struggle to read classic literature, consider downloading the texts as e-books that students can read with text-to-speech. Much e-book software includes annotation, highlighting, and linked dictionary tools to facilitate studying. To help with writing, have students proofread their compositions as the software reads them aloud. You can install free, downloadable text-to-speech programs or find this feature bundled in many operating systems and stand-alone applications.
  • Speech recognition. Use speech recognition technology to help struggling writers and spellers get their ideas on paper. The immediacy of the dictation process reinforces the vocabulary and use of writing conventions and punctuation. Special programs can help struggling math students dictate and organize mathematical expressions. If you haven't tried speech recognition software lately, you'll find vastly improved capabilities, reduced training requirements, and better microphones available at very reasonable costs.
  • Graphic organizers. Many teachers now use graphic organizers to tap into students' visual and spatial abilities, strengthening the connection between these ways of knowing and academic tasks. You can use computer-based graphic organizers with whole-class instruction to show the connections among big ideas in the content areas, as well as to demonstrate writing and reading comprehension strategies. Encourage your students to try using graphic organizer programs for annotations during reading or prewriting brainstorming. The ability of most of the software packages to switch between map and outline views supports students' progress through the writing stages.
  • E-Resources. Today's Internet contains a plethora of reference and resource material. Encourage all your students to use these resources, which provide “just in time” and “just in case” support to help address vocabulary and background knowledge gaps. For English language learners or students struggling with reading and writing, provide extra training in using e-resources with text-to-speech software. Such support will give these students access to the same powerful knowledge base that their peers enjoy.

Educators Take Note

Accessibility features in common technology applications can help struggling students make important connections—to the content, among ideas, among their own sensory modes of learning, and between their digital competencies and the curriculum. These technologies, however, will not automatically create success straight out of the box. Educators need to strategically integrate these features into sound pedagogy to help struggling learners achieve both academic and technological success.

Allinder, R. M., Dunse, L., Brunken, C. D., & Obermiller-Krolikowski, H. J. (2001). Improving fluency in at-risk readers and students with learning disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 22, 48–54.

Hecker, L., Burns, L., Elkind, J., Elkind, K., & Katz, L. (2002). Benefits of assistive reading software for students with attention disorders. Annals of Dyslexia, 52, 243–272.

Higgins, E. L., & Raskind, M. H. (1995). Compensatory effectiveness of speech recognition on the written composition performance of postsecondary students with learning disabilities.Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 18, 159–174.

Higgins, E. L., & Raskind, M. H. (2000). Speaking to read: The effects of continuous vs. discrete speech recognition systems on the reading and spelling of children with learning disabilities. Journal of Special Education Technology, 15, 19–30.

Lewandowski, J., & Montali, L. (1996). Bimodal reading: Benefits of a talking computer for average and less skilled readers. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(3), 271–279.

Meyer, M. S., & Felton, R. H. (1999). Repeated readings to enhance fluency: Old approaches and new directions. Annals of Dyslexia, 49, 283–306.

Silver-Pacuilla, H. (in press). Assistive technology and adult literacy: Access and benefits. Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, Vol. 7. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

Sturm, J. M., & Rankin-Erickson, J. L. (2002). Effects of hand-drawn and computer-generated concept mapping on the expository writing of middle school students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 17(2), 124–139.

Wise, B. W., Ring, J., & Olson, R. K. (2000). Individual differences in gains from computer-assisted remedial reading. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 77(3), 197–235.

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