By Simon Kitchen; MSc, BSc (Hons)
Dolphin Computer Access Ltd
A computer reading back to a learner... does that really help? Or is this the latest fad in supporting learners with dyslexia? Dolphin's Product Manager Simon Kitchen takes a look at the growing bank of research which supports the use of text-to-speech to engage learners with dyslexia and low literacy.
The 2010 Department for Education Accessible Resources Pilot Project found that 71% of dyslexic learners showed an improvement in their reading and writing through the use of simple technology to read back text and offer spell checking options.
I for one would argue that all schools should have the opportunity to embrace this technology. But is the DfE Accessible Resources Pilot Project a lone voice? I want to see some hard evidence that this technology can really make a difference, else we're all just wasting our time!
Text-to-speech (TTS) is the artificial production of human speech. So a TTS system converts text on the computer screen into speech output.
TTS is used in a number of technological products; In satnavs, TTS is used to communicate directions; in iPhones TTS is used for voice activated commands through Siri; in lifts, TTS is used to tell you which floor you're on.
TTS is also used in computer software to assist people with disabilities. For example, TTS is used in screen readers such as Dolphin SuperNova which provide computer access for people with visual impairments. TTS is also used in reading and writing toolbars to assist learners with dyslexia and low literacy, such as Dolphin SaySo, which reads back documents, web pages and emails, highlighting each word as it is spoken:
It turns out the Department for Education Accessible Resources Pilot Project is just the peak on a whole mountain of research which has found positive effects for the use of TTS by students with reading difficulties.
Way back in the 90's, Wise and Olson (1994) and Leong (1995) both found that TTS programs improved the comprehension of students with low literacy levels. Further, Montali and Lewandowski (1996) found that struggling readers performed as well as average readers when text was displayed on the computer screen and was read out by the computer.
More recently, this side of the millennium, when comparing the use of audio books against standard print books, Boyle and Rosenberg (2003) found that students with learning disabilities showed a 38%increase in 'content acquisition' from accessing information in an audio format.
Other recent studies include Moorman et al (2010) who found that TTS software increased the reading rate and improved reading comprehension for two high school students with specific learning disabilities, while Goldfus and Gotesman (2010) found that text-to-speech software enhanced students' immediate and long-term academic reading performances.
Other research has showed that the use of TTS can also benefit other learners as well as those with dyslexia. Hecker et al (2002) found that the use of text-to-speech had a positive impact on learners with attention defecit disorder as well. Hecker et al showed that the use of text-to-speech improved the attention (as measured by the number of distractions) of college students with attention deficit disorder by 54%, and decreased the time spent reading passages of text by 29%.
All pretty impressive, but the use of TTS has raised a few questions. If TTS is so brilliant, why isn't everyone using it? Why are we only talking about people with low literacy? Doesn't allowing poor readers to use TTS put better readers at a disadvantage?
Research has shown that the use of TTS is more suited to learners with low literacy levels. Disseldorp and Chambers (2002) studied readers of all abilities, and found an overall 7% improvement in comprehension levels from the use of TTS. However, the results showed a far greater improvement by learners who had lower reading abilities than those who were more confident with reading.
The suggestion that TTS is better suited to learners with low literacy levels is echoed by Eklind (1998), who showed that text to speech can actually have an inverse effect on people with higher reading abilities. As part of his study examining the impact of TTS on learning disabled community college students, Eklind found that lower ability students (those reading below the tenth-grade level) experienced comprehension benefits from TTS, while higher ability students actually suffered comprehension losses.
So TTS is ideal for some, but not for all!
From my personal experience, a lot of teachers are nervous about taking the leap toward TTS systems. Using computers in the classroom might disrupt some students? Or students might mess about on the computer? Or students might not be listening to instructions from the teacher?
However, the messages taken from the DfE Pilot Project indicate that after taking the leap, both teachers and students found the move extremely positive, both in terms of reading and writing abilities, and in helping students becoming independent learners:
...his reading age has gone up 2 years in the course of the project, the technology has allowed him to access text he would not normally access. All he really needed was the ability to change the background colours and text and he is now an independent worker". (Teacher)
It makes me feel more confident about doing my work. I'm more confident I'm actually going to get something done. Instead of just sitting there only about reading my own writing and saying listen I just cannot write it, I can just type it up - it's a lot easier - I feel I believe in myself more now than what I did - I just couldn't do it - it's just much better." (student)
We are not talking about a magic wand here. You can't 'cure' dyslexia, and why would you? But what you can do is provide the tools for learners who are dyslexic or have low literacy to be able to read and write independently. What we're talking about is a level playing field, and the research clearly shows that for many learners who struggle to access the curriculum because of difficulties with reading and writing, simple technology to enable the computer to read what's on the screen can go a long way in achieving that. I would encourage every school to take a fresh look at their support for learners with dyslexia and low literacy; TTS could provide the support they need.
TTS software to support learners with dyslexia and low literacy is readily available to trial. Why not try TTS with your learners and see the difference it makes? For a free 30 day trial, go to www.YourDolphin.com/SaySo.
Meet Simon Kitchen
Balajthy, E. (2005) has provided a useful overview of the research conducted to date regarding TTS software for readers with low literacy:
Balajthy (2005, January/February); Text-to-speech software for helping struggling readers. Reading Online, 8(4). Available: http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=balajthy2/index.html
Boyle and Rosenberg (2003); Effects of Audio Text on the Acquisition of Secondary-Level Content by Students with Mild Disabilities; Department of Special Education, Johns Hopkins University; Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, 2003. Available:
Disseldorp and Chambers ( 2002); Selecting the right environment for students in a changing teaching environment: A case study. Paper presented at the meeting of the Australian Society for Educational Technology International, Melbourne, Australia.
Elkind (1998); Computer reading machines for poor readers. Portola Valley, CA: Lexia Institute.
Goldfus and Gotesman (2010); The Impact of Assistive Technologies on the Reading Outcomes of College Students with Dyslexia Educational Technology, v50 n3 p21-25 May-Jun 2010
Hecker, Burns, Elkind J, Elkind K, Katz (2002); Benefits of assistive reading software for students with attention disorders. Annals of Dyslexia, 52, 244-272.
Leong (1995); Effects of on-line reading and simultaneous DECtalk auding in helping below-average and poor readers comprehend and summarize text. Learning Disability Quarterly, 18, 101-116.
Moorman, Boon, Keller-Bell, Stagliano, Jeffs (2010); Effects of Text-to-Speech Software on the Reading Rate and Comprehension Skills of High School Students with Specific Learning DisabilitiesLearning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, v16 n1 p41-49 2010
Montali and Lewandowski (1996); Bimodal reading: Benefits of a talking computer for average and less skilled readers. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29, 271-279.
Wise and Olson (1994); Computer speech and the remediation of reading and spelling problems. Journal of Special Education Technology, 12, 207-220.